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The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

What scares you? What scares anyone anymore?

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    Dominick Mayer (DM): This week sees the release of Kevin Smith’s Tusk, his first true foray into horror filmmaking after getting his toes wet with Red State. Smith’s walrus-based horror show comes at a time when found footage is starting to wane in prominence and popularity alike, and horror at the mainstream level is still looking for its next boon. So, to kick off our discussion of horror at the moment, let me pose the first question: What’s been the most important horror trend in recent years?

    Adriane Neuenschwander (AN): As far as I’m concerned, horror hit its lowest point ever in the 2000s, with Red State being one of its biggest disappointments. Most of the decade was just a grotesque orgy of Saw knockoffs, remakes of mediocre Asian films, and direct-to-video sequels. However, there’s one new trend in the genre that makes me hopeful: the rise of the mumblegore movement. Young directors like Ti West (The House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (You’re Next), and E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills) are coming onto the scene and making really smart, darkly comic horror films on shoestring budgets.

    But unlike a lot of other cheap-as-hell horror movies, mumblegore is still stylish. I’m pretty sure Ti West shot The House of the Devil with whatever change he found in his couch cushions, but it still looks fantastic. And you can tell that these guys have all done their homework—they know the genre conventions, so they can subvert them to great effect. My only hope is that some of these films start making traction at the box office, because I’d love to see what any of these directors could do with a modest budget and some studio support.

    house ofthe devil The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

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    Michael Roffman (MR): Mumblegore! I love it. I’m with you, Adriane. The House of the Devil was exactly the breath of fresh air the genre needed at the time, and you’re right, the limited budget recalls the rogue ’70s work of John Carpenter or Don Coscarelli or Tobe Hooper. If it wasn’t for the stratospheric rise of Greta Gerwig, it’s very likely the film could fool a number of critics and viewers into thinking it was a lost splatter film from the ’80s. Looking back throughout the genre, the film seems to have set fire to the independent horror scene; though, admittedly, I’ve yet to see any of West’s peers match Devil‘s magic. His own follow-up, The Innkeepers, came close, while Katz’s Cheap Thrills was a Polanski-esque dream, but the two borrowed a little too much from today’s modern conventions, slightly diminishing the low-budget indie aesthetic.

    But believe me, there’s hope. This past March, I attended South by Southwest and caught a number of horror films from young directors. The mumblecore auteur himself Mark Duplass put together an intense thriller titled Creep that should stir up a number of Netflix queues, and Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes was as if David Cronenberg and Dario Argento teamed up together circa 1986. While the two drew inspiration from the more commercially successful found footage and possession subgenres as of late, respectively, there were certainly whispers of Devil in both films. But what is it about the style of mumblegore that works? It can’t just be their subversions of old tricks. Is it that they’re tapping into our own nostalgia?

    Most of these films recall the hazy midnight sleepovers of my youth in which my horror-obsessed friends would munch on popcorn or candy between piles of VHS tapes. I’d hate to think it’s purely nostalgic, though, and would rather argue that they instead hearken back to a time when the horror itself was left to our imagination and that the haunted house down the street didn’t have to provide an exhaustive narrative with all the answers … because the unknown was far scarier. But if I’m going by that logic, I’d go to bat for some more modern mainstream releases like last year’s The Conjuring or 2008’s The Strangers. Okay, I’ve said a lot here. I need to collect my thoughts some. Is any of this making sense?

    starry eyes poster The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

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    Randall Colburn (RC): Look, I dug The Conjuring, but let’s not give it too much credit. Well-acted, sure. Spooky? At times. But Christ, can we quit it with the precious children and old-timey ghosts in harsh makeup? And that ending? Please. Ultimately, a film like The Conjuring, though well-made, is part of the problem. The Strangers, on the other hand? It understands that love will not save you. Same goes for House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Horror movies are not like other movies. They are not about heroes; they are about monsters. And when the badass mumblegore movement isn’t outright slaughtering its “heroes” — see both (mostly) excellent installments in the V/H/S series — it’s turning them into irredeemable monsters; Cheap Thrills and You’re Next come to mind.

    These are the same ideas that made Hostel Part II such an enjoyable watch when I saw it in an (otherwise empty) theater back in 2007. Where the first forced us to follow a trio of insufferable douche-bros, the sequel widened its scope to focus as much on the killers (in this case, rich businessmen who bid on victims via an auction website) as the knife-bait. It marked such a step forward for Eli Roth as a storyteller and gorechitect, and I was genuinely disappointed when he handed the series off to some other jabroni.

    While I’m on the subject of Roth, who else in American horror is pushing gore as far as he is? What other mainstream (or indie) American filmmakers are citing Cannibal Holocaust as an influence, and then backing it up in their work? Remember Pax using scissors to clip off that girl’s eye in Hostel, or the subsequent river of pus? I can’t remember the last onscreen image that made me laugh and retch in such equal measure. Sure, it looked kind of silly, but so does the plumber demon dude in The Beyond.

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    Frankly, the mainstream horror community is far too sanitized these days. Eli Roth’s recently delayed The Green Inferno is clearly going to be his take on the Italian cannibal genre, and I can’t imagine it not being sloppy as well. What do you think, Justin?

    green inferno

    Justin Gerber (JG): I have a complicated, one-sided relationship with Eli Roth, but that boils down to his awful performance in Inglorious Basterds, not his filmmaking technique. I appreciated the style and care he put into the making of Cabin Fever and enjoyed a great deal of the film before it teetered out in the end. Along with Ti West, we’re discovering that the fan boys have become the filmmakers. Roth is clearly influenced by the cabin in the woods cheapies of the ‘80s, with a touch of Last House on the Left (the convenience-store karate kid in Cabin is to who the bumbling cops are in Last House), while West’s affection for old-fashioned ghost stories and haunted-house thrillers are apparent in his last two films.

    Dominick, can you believe it’s been 12 years since Cabin Fever? Horror aficionados were counting on Roth to become the next Carpenter or Raimi, but he hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations. West is our next best bet. The House of the Devil is one of the best horror films of the past decade, and The Innkeepers made for a nice, small ghost story. But where do Roth and West go from here? Both directors seem interested in removing their stories from the suburbs and taking them to other locations. Roth is headed down to the Amazon for The Green Inferno, while West is trekking to a commune for The Sacrament. Fellow writers: How well does horror work for you when the action takes place outside the neighborhoods we’re so familiar with? Is it more frightening to discover terror in your backyard, or terror in an unfamiliar setting?

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    john carpenter The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionMR: I couldn’t agree more, Randall. No more spooky kids. That whole trend died off a year or two after The Ring, if not earlier than that. Yet year after year, we get more films peddling children as the culpable ghoul. Maybe producers are just terrified of their own offspring?

    As for our next Raimi or Carpenter or Romero, I don’t think there is one. Instead, I think the scene itself has taken precedence over any singular name. An anthology series such as V/H/S or production companies like Blumhouse (which has an awful track record critically, but nonetheless offers a few gems here and there) prove this much — and I’m pretty happy about that. Horror, and this will slightly address your last question, Justin, is very situational and conditional, so I don’t think any one director has all the answers … or ever have, come to think of it.

    Looking back, Raimi parodied gore, Carpenter localized terror, Wes Craven told teenage morality lessons, and Cronenberg tapped into our sexual subconscious. But really, none of them led any movement or reigned supreme — not even the alleged Master of Horror, John Carpenter. His output surpassed his peers, no doubt, but would his influence be any different if he had just released Halloween? I don’t think so. Yes, he took us to the arctic (The Thing), to a post-apocalyptic Big Apple (Escape from New York), and within the pages of an urban folk legend (The Fog), but were they that different from the inescapable terror of Michael Myers? Not really. At their core, they worked off the claustrophobic fear of having nowhere to run.

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    But the reason we’re still talking about Carpenter or Raimi or Craven or Cronenberg is that they paired their horror with unique stories and believable characters. We can all name their protagonists off the top of our head, which I’ve always considered a strong indication of a story’s success. I’m not going to sit here and bash the past 25 years of horror, but I think the majority of the filmmakers that followed this class confused character for star power and horror for quick scares. They became forgettable roller coasters, working off a blockbuster mentality that insisted upon thrills over atmosphere.

    For a while, it seemed like nobody was willing to give any of their films time to breathe. I always bring up Halloween, but try and look back at how that film unfolds. A good five minutes is spent watching Jamie Lee Curtis stroll over to the Myers house, and in that time, we’re appropriately introduced to the character, the setting, and the forthcoming evil. Those scenes hardly exist today, and if they do, they’re spoon-fed in quick spurts of exposition that just keep the ride moving. That’s why I love someone like West. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers offer the sort of restraint that might drive producers up the wall but work in the long run. I also love how he assigns his lead roles to a bunch of no-names, to paraphrase Tim Heidecker.

    eli roth The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

    With regard to Roth, I wouldn’t really group him in with today’s horror, even if I do think he’s a cut above the rest, no pun intended. Cabin Fever still intrigues me for its bizarre casting (Rider Strong, really?) and unforgiving premise (very early Stephen King), and both Hostel and Hostel II are the only “torture porn” films worth watching, in my opinion. I just don’t think Roth is very influential, and I wouldn’t want anyone to work off his style, namely because I don’t think anyone can. Up to this point, he’s been a traditionalist, capitalizing on all the formulas of ’70s and ’80s horror, only upping the stakes with gore and violence with a rather perverted take. On the whole, however, they’re carefully arranged parodies that offer a unique cultural commentary on the horror genre itself. That’s his own thing, and I don’t think that changes with Inferno, at least based on the trailer, but hey, maybe it does.

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    To really address your question, Justin, I think horror will always depend on the viewer. Personally, I’m more frightened by the unknown, but the tangible unknown, or the uninhibited mind, for instance. Films like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Session 9, The Skeleton Key, or The Strangers are all examples of films that burn my mind upon each viewing. But I’m sure you’re different, and so are Randall and Dominick and Adriane. That’s the beauty of the genre.

    nicolas winding refn The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionRC: The horror film I’ve been creaming my jeans over is The Bringing, a spooker reportedly inspired by this genuinely unsettling viral video. Though the “haunted hotel” premise is intriguing, my anticipation centered itself on the involvement of devil-may-care director Nicolas Winding Refn. Drive and Only God Forgives weren’t horror movies, but the Danish auteur’s cruel vision, artful frames, and use of stillness could elevate the hokiest of horror premises to Kubrickian levels. Unfortunately, because we can’t have nice things, Refn seems to have exited the project.

    There are plenty of exciting names in horror right now. We’ve spent much of this discussing them. What I want to see is one of our current visionaries tackle the genre. A guy like Refn, or why not Steve McQueen or Richard Linklater. Can you even imagine what a horror movie from Paul Thomas Anderson would look like? I’m genuinely surprised more of our prestige directors don’t dabble in the genre, it being one of the most effective means for dissecting society. It’s worked in the past: Spielberg, Kubrick, Polanski. These guys didn’t live and breathe gore, yet they made some of the most enduring horror films of all time, the kind we discuss in classrooms as much as we do over beers.

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    What do you guys think? Are there any horror films from the last decade that will someday grace a college syllabus? Am I expecting too much? Why is Jack Torrance reading an issue of Playgirl in that one scene of The Shining? Jesus, that bothers me.

    AN: First off, Randall, Jack Torrance is reading that issue of Playgirl for the articles. Second, horror has been the bastard stepchild of the film industry for decades. At Thanksgiving, horror is forced to sit at the kids’ table with comedy, women’s melodrama, and porn. In fact, in the history of the Academy Awards, a straight-up horror film has never won Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs comes closest, but that’s more of a suspense thriller). That boggles my mind, but it shows just how deeply rooted Hollywood’s ambivalence toward the genre really is.

    conjuring The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionSure, the studios love to greenlight cheap slasher flicks with first-time directors and no-name actors, because those films always make their money back. Horror geeks and teens will see the films no matter their pedigree, and producers know it. But they’re rarely willing to sink $50 million or more into a horror film—and that’s part of the reason why guys like P.T. Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and others of their ilk will probably never dabble in the genre. The low budget just goes against their aesthetic sensibilities and casting desires. Hell, James Wan, the man we can all blame for the Saw and Insidious franchises, swore off horror films as soon as he had one critical success with The Conjuring.

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    But I think that our horror-geek salvation might just lie across the pond; that’s where some of today’s most inventive, artistically challenging horror films are being produced. In Spain, we have Jaume Balagueró, who, in addition to [Rec], directed Sleep Tight, a beautifully restrained home-invasion movie that prizes tone and ambiguity over gore. And then there’s Under the Skin, a movie about a morally conflicted succubus from British director Jonathan Glazer. It’s intellectually challenging, stunningly gorgeous, and unlike anything I’ve seen before. I can definitely see those two movies showing up on Film 101 syllabi a few decades from now.

    But what do you make of all this, Dominick? Am I being too cynical about Hollywood?

    DM: The only real counterpoint I have to the notions of Hollywood horror being in trouble is the thing that a lot of people think is killing Hollywood right now: the sole greenlighting of projects with franchise potential. Yeah, it sucks in a lot of respects, particularly those related to quality not being the most essential component of the larger brand strategy, but it also means that directors like Wan are getting chances to make horror films with better budgets (by horror standards). And even if some of those movies aren’t very good, there’s probably somebody out there who saw The Conjuring and developed a taste for ’70s horror or got into some older Polanski films or even stumbled onto giallo and other fun stuff of that ilk. Horror is making a lot of money right now, even if there isn’t much of it.

    ouija The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable Discussion

    That’s where my counterpoint ends, though. The fact that one of this October’s most publicized horror offerings to date is the Ouija movie is very telling in what Hollywood thinks audiences want. But my problem isn’t with studios for making the movies so much as it’s with people for seeing them. For instance, Paranormal Activity has become a series of filmed haunted houses, where each scare is carefully telegraphed with a low bass rumble before jumping out to make people scream and laugh and clutch the arms of their company at the theater. Then it resets for the next one, people jump for 90-odd more minutes, and everybody goes home and promptly forgets about it within a week.

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    the purge anarchy 2014 The State of Horror Films in 2014: A Roundtable DiscussionHorror has become this ephemeral thing that ideally will spawn sequels but ultimately is just there to turn a profit through one means or another. And particularly at the point we’re at in culture right now, where fear and paranoia are the methods of conversation du jour, some really great horror could come out of this if it were getting put out at the studio level. Right now, we get the ham-handed messages of The Purge, but again, it did exceedingly well. Maybe I just know nothing.

    To your point, Adriane, I agree that a lot of filmmakers won’t touch the genre, but I’d argue it’s more because most auteurs aren’t interested in making movies that were already perfected decades ago. The films you mentioned suggest that this could be part of horror’s future, particularly the unbearably chilling Under the Skin, but it involves changing the climate to a place where a horror film without jump scares could break out, and I can’t see that happening overnight. I haven’t been as big a fan of Ti West’s stuff as a lot of you guys, but I can at least appreciate that he’s trying to bring the genre back to a more atmospheric place.

    I’d argue that what horror movies aren’t doing right now, if anything, is giving people a channel for their fears. It’s one thing to show people a bunch of scary CGI demon-ish creatures and volley them at the screen. It’s quite another to make a film that taps into the phobias of its society and gives people monsters that they recognize, that exist in the realm of the feasible. To circle back to where we started, I think horror needs to start forcing people to look at the real again, because I think that might end up being scarier than a hundred contorted bodies talking with voices that aren’t theirs.

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