Redefining Horror (or: Grow Up, Ghastly)

Let's talk about this dingus:

OK. Who flipped his switch from 'kill' to 'wade'?

OK. Who flipped his switch from 'kill' to 'wade'?

As a child with a wild affection for horror, I kept both feet planted firmly in the Freddy camp. While Freddy's death count is significantly lower than Jason's (43:158), we see more creativity per slaughter than The Crystal Lake Lunkhead. For me, it was never a numbers game. Quality trumped quantity and the Nightmare series brought slow-creeping abstractions of death that played out on ever-shifting dream stages. Jason was just a machete being liberally applied on horny teens. The greater likelihood of nudity in a Friday the 13th film was a fair bit of incentive to me back then, but it wasn't enough to compete with the heady, arthouse deaths that Freddy brought into this world.

Clearly, I'm an intellectual at heart.

Clearly, I'm an intellectual at heart.

Of course, Aliens, Chucky, Halloween, Hellraiser, Evil Dead and the rest all saw heavy rotation from Mark's Video Rental (R.I.P.) down on Main Street. The beats of these films are all the same; first, audience empathy is established by introducing a cast of likeable-to-semi-likeable characters. Then, they get killed. The most likeable character usually makes it out alive. If it's not the most likeable character who survives, the last almost-always-a-man standing inherits that title by virtue of the fact that he's the only one left.

Death in horror, be it Jason or Freddy or the general evil of Evil Dead, rarely changes. Death is omnipotent, merciless, unburdened by human weaknesses and always, obviously, around the corner. These corners are turned not always by action or inaction on the hero's part (though that usually serves to kick off the mayhem) but by the inevitable passage of time.

Eventually, you'll fall asleep. Eventually, the Lament Configuration is going to open. Eventually, someone will choose the wrong latin passage to read aloud from Necronomicon Ex Mortis.

The tropes of horror, codified over at tvtropes.org, are a deeply cut groove in the cinematic psyche. That list is dang long and, while some are hyper specific (Occult Law Firm, Word Salad Horror and Zombie Puke Attack don't feel that familiar), the vast majority of items on that list will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has even seen a small handful of horror films.

Lather/rinse/repeat until the genre is stupid enough to have a cenobyte with CDs in his head who ejects CDs from his stomach and throws CDs.

Lather/rinse/repeat until the genre is stupid enough to have a cenobyte with CDs in his head who ejects CDs from his stomach and throws CDs.

Horror fell into a bit of a slump in the 90's as the tropes were re-re-re-recycled, then a deeper slump as practical effects were increasingly replaced with second-rate CGI. The genre seems to have reached a nadir as we are seeing more remakes and reboots (with the same stinky CGI that never fails to disappoint) that don't even bother trying to expand mythology—they just regurgitate what happened first. (By the way, does anyone out there know why Spiderman does whatever a spider can? If we could get some kind of origin story on that punchy neller, I'd be greatly appreciative.)

The found footage renaissance does nothing to alleviate these woes. The quickest way to round the deluge of found footage horror up to 'good' is to promote 'profitable' to your dominant metric for evaluating quality.

Rest assured, 'quality' is not going to be the dominant metric for defining 'quality' when it comes to found footage horror.

Rest assured, 'quality' is not going to be the dominant metric for defining 'quality' when it comes to found footage horror.

So, the genre is in a slump, if not financially, creatively.

I humbly disagree. All the complaints that horror is stuck in a rut are failing to see the bigger picture. Horror isn't stagnant. It just grew up. And, it was so busy growing up, we didn't even notice. What does horror look like after college and a decade in the working world, you ask? It looks like this:

Boo!

Boo!

And, it looks like this:

Boo x2!

Boo x2!

If you're looking at those photos and seeing a drama and a sci-fi film, then I invite you to join me as we strip the films down. The drama of Foxcatcher and the edge-of-your-seat suspense of Gravity are both spectacular. Both are films with attention to the finest details, details that become more than the sum of their parts by the strength of good writing and acting. They are clockwork masterpieces, austere Rolex to Wes Anderson's color-blast Swatch Watches.

But, the effect is the same as horror. And, in the world of art, effect supersedes intent; message supersedes medium. The effect of both of these films is gut-level dread of ambiguous and impending misery.

In Gravity, our group of ill-fated teens comes in the form of the crew of the Explorer. George Clooney plays The Cavalier, and he's killed off early (and often) and Sandra Bullock is the evolved form of The Virgin. She's kind and smart and has a good heart, traits that all but guarantee survival in horror. Her Crystal Lake is the endless nothingness of space and her Jason is the satellite debris.

The debris is different from Señor Voorhees only in form but the two are identical in function. The debris is thoughtless, emotionless and powerless to do anything but destroy. It comes with the ferocity and grandiosity of any classic movie monster, able to shred puny humans to ribbons quicker than they can even be aware of its presence. The debris is God. And, to paraphrase Bill Watterson, it is no kind and loving god. It's one of the old gods. It demands sacrifice.

We have our teens, but they're grown up. We have our death-bringer, but it's grown up. These characters and situations are more complicated, more scientific and more ephemeral, but the result is the same: sheer, throat-dropping terror while watching and a stomach-churning aftertaste of death when the credits roll.

Foxcatcher is just as much in the horror vein. Omnipotent death comes in the shape of John du Pont, the kind of man who can only exist generations into a family-owned, billion-dollar weapons industry. He is detached, aloof, and friendless, the kind of person who slaps around American soldiers when he discovers that the machine gun is missing from the tank he just bought. His power and influence is infinite and his family history means that death isn't just a trifle to him, it's his primary stock in trade. Guns and tanks are toys and he is very, VERY clear to his mother that he doesn't care about his old train set. He dominates the world in which he lives, towering over a gold medalist while still shrinking in his own chairs.

Take a drink every time Carell is photographed from behind Tatum with a grimace of pure condescension and you will die.

Take a drink every time Carell is photographed from behind Tatum with a grimace of pure condescension and you will die.

Exhibit B: Slouching ones way into the audience's nightmares.

Exhibit B: Slouching ones way into the audience's nightmares.

Death comes late and swiftly in Foxcatcher, which might sound like a contradiction, but is really a testament a superb build of tension. Two hours elapse before our death-bringer finally fulfils his purpose (with only five minutes to go before the credits roll). But, those two hours are pure horror. The effect is the same as any George Romero or Clive Barker or Wes Craven story; death will come and destroy everything. That gnawing anxiety permeates every moment of the film once du Pont is introduced and the tension doesn't let up until the final fade to black.

So, let's stop lamenting the sputtering non-momentum of the horror genre. Perhaps the emotions of dread are coming in different forms, forms less tethered to machete-wielding maniacs and more tethered to what would actually scare people who grew up in the 80's and are adults now: loss of family and powerlessness in the face of technology or those with (infinite) money and (limitless) power. There was a time when we dreaded the inky black woods that were part and parcel to a camping trip, as were the weed and beer and nagging feeling that everyone else was getting laid and you weren't. Those were simple fears.

The new breed of horror films cuts deeper than anything you could find on any nature trail to hell.