Keep your attention turned towards your local multiplex, because this year may just bring us one of the best horror films of the modern age
If you listen carefully whilst looking down the listings at your local cinema, you’ll hear a faint beeping noise at irregular intervals
That’s the sound of the horror genre’s heartbeat nearly flatlining as more and more awful horror films are released on a frequent basis.
It’s getting to the point now where I am asking when horror got so boring. When did we decide that we would stop making genuinely scary films that are paced perfectly and that have intelligent brains, and would instead switch to the dull formulaic structure of slashers and supernatural nonsense? Who made that decision?
Horror films of the modern age, it would appear, are made for an entirely different audience, an audience that’s been raised to believe films like Paranormal Activity are good. When we think about modern horror the main element that springs to mind is jump scares. Volume increasing from low to high suddenly, often accompanied by an image appearing on screen. That’s scary? Really? We jump sure, but that’s not because it’s scary. It’s because our central nervous system naturally responds to a change in the environment. It’s not scary, it’s jumpy, but that’s what people of this generation prefer. So when a genuinely scary and well made horror film is released people don’t have the patience for it. They don’t want intelligent horror with a beating pulse, they want cheap jump scares and a hollow carcass of a film.
I remember getting quite annoyed just recently because I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I found a tweet from someone roughly my age, simply saying:
“The Babadook is the worst film ever made”
What made me annoyed is that this is the mentality that a lot of people share. I know many people of my age who watched The Babadook and claimed that it was rubbish, that it was boring, that it wasn’t scary. I’m not going to say they’re wrong on that front because they’re entitled their opinion, but it was obvious they said those things because they do not have the patience for it. Jennifer Kent’s writing for The Babadook is superb, and while it may not be a film full of jump scares and graphic violence, it is genuinely scary. It is a film that uses the power of suggestion, that focuses on the things you see in the corner of the screen, that really crawls under your skin and makes every hair stand on end. For me it is one of the most important films of our generation and stands as one of the best modern horror films, it’s just such a shame that more people did not have the patience for it.
When I listen to film critics, journalists and just people who are generally older than me I hear such fantastic stories of how cinema used to be. I hear stories of how every Friday night a group of friends would pile together as much money as they had to go and see and latest horror flick that would scare the living daylights out of them, stories of film critics trying to dress like adults in order to enter a screening of a horror film, and it all sounded fantastic. What we have nowadays is films being dimmed down in order for the BBFC to give them a 15 certificate rating, thus allowing more people to see the film and the film to make more money.
It’s annoying that money should even be valued with horror cinema because originally money wasn’t even thought about. You had people independently financing films and making them on their own terms. If you look back far enough you’ll hear stories of Alfred Hitchcock risking his entire career and his money to make the version of Psycho that he wanted cinema audiences to see and it showed how filmmakers had spines and would strive to make the film they wanted people to see, not what made money. In Business terms it was what you might call “one off production”. Nowadays it has switched to mass production, with film companies pulling the levers, churning out generic film after generic film, which is why we’re faced with cinema listing this year that contain a third Insidious film and yet another Paranormal Activity installment and it is all just so tedious.
Obviously I couldn’t possibly look to discredit all modern horror as this would unforgivably neglect the modern horror films that are very good. Most notably I would draw your attention to films such as The Descent, a very small budget film that showed just how little money is needed to terrify the audience, and also The Borderlands which completely surprised me and managed to transcend my expectations as a found footage film, so clearly not all modern horror films are ruining the genre, it would just be nice to see more keeping it alive.
This brings me to the main point of this post, and quite possibly some of the most exciting news I have heard regarding cinema for some time. Later this year we will be able to see a new horror film entitled Crimson Peak. The reason this is exciting news is because the film is directed and co-written by one of the greatest minds working in cinema today: Guillermo Del Toro.
If you are unfamiliar with his work then I cannot recommend him highly enough. Someone who started out making horror films such as Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone which are hard hitting horror films that really crawl inside your head, and then moved on to make more mainstream work many will be familiar with such as Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and his triumph Pan’s Labyrinth. The man is a genius, and he has proven on numerous occasions that he is the king of dark worlds, he is the absolute master of bringing darkness to the screen and making the audience love every minute of it.
What makes me happiest about Del Toro making a horror film for modern audiences is that his head and his heart are in the right place. This is the man who strives to make films on his own terms. He has had trouble with film studios before and it resulted in him hating the films that he made, most notably Mimic is the one film he claims to be his worst due to the studio interfering. Since then he works on his own terms. He constantly turns down offers from film companies because he knows he would lose the power to make the film he wants to. He has already proven he is the king of horror film through not only his early directing work but his modern work in which we see him as producer, such as The Orphanage and Julia’s Eyes. The fact he is now making another horror film is exactly what horror cinema needs, it needs a filmmaker who will work their hands to the bone in order to get the version of their film they want it.
Interestingly Pan’s Labyrinth is Del Toro’s best film and one of the greatest films ever made, and he proved with that film that having the confidence to protect your work really pays off. Del Toro received multiple offers from Hollywood producers, offering him twice the budget provided that the film was made in English. He said no. Del Toro didn’t trust translator’s to get the English subtitles for his film right, so what did he do? He did the work himself and translated the spanish screenplay into English alone. To get the film recognised what did he do? He gave up his entire salary and put the money towards pushing his film out there. And what was the result of this? It has become one of the greatest films of all time, it received multiple Oscars, and best of all when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it received a standing ovation and applause for over twenty straight minutes. That ladies and gentleman, is how you make a film. Del Toro is a man that knows what he wants and will go above and beyond to protect it because he cares about cinema.
It would be foolish to discuss Del Toro’s work without mentioning visuals. Now if you have ever seen a film made by Del Toro then you will understand how visually impressive his films are. He is one for experimenting with prosthetics and physical effects as opposed to relying solely on computers. All you have to do is look at a project like Pan’s Labyrinth to see how visually stunning his work is. The sequences in which the faun glides across screen, or the scene in which we see the creature known only as ‘pale man’ which is such a surreal but mesmerising piece of cinema. It is clear that Del Toro is very good at creating such fantastic creatures and bringing them to life on screen, which is a part of what can make good horror work so well, when it presents beings that the audience does not understand, that are physically scary and just as a whole make us feel uneasy. I think we can expect a lot of this in Crimson Peak as it is an old school horror with a dickensian feel to it, and I am thoroughly excited to see what creatures are presented to us this time.
The whole idea of working with physical effects is something that seems to have died out, with more filmmakers relying on CG and flashier directing styles. Jennifer Kent did provide us with some impressive visuals for The Babadook but other than that the best examples of visual effects in horror come from films that are a lot older:
The Fly (1986): this is one that won’t surprise many. Cronenberg was famous for using visual effects in films such as Videodrome and the famous head exploding scene at the start of Scanners, but The Fly is undoubtedly his masterpiece. The visuals of the film still manage to terrify modern audiences, with sequences of Jeff Goldblum pulling his fingernails off, or spewing acid onto someone, or seeing his skin splitting to make way for new bodily forms, it is still jaw droppingly brilliant.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): before Michael Bay’s appalling reboot you had Wes Craven’s original masterpiece. Craven was famous for experimenting with plastic moulds and physical effects to present scenes that were shocking and actually looked real. That is why the original NOES has such memorable scenes, such as Freddy Krueger’s mouth appearing at the mouthpiece of a phone, or the figure of Krueger being pressed through the wall above someone’s bed as they sleep, filmed literally by pressing actor Robert Englund into a sheet of leathery plastic.
The Thing (1982): words cannot even begin to describe how much I love this film. I watched it a few years ago and it terrified me, and I watched it again recently and it still has the same impact on me. It is one of the most impressive pieces of horror cinema to have been made, and it is the plastic moulds and the physical effects that make it so.
Alien (1979): The artist H R Giger did fantastic work with Alien, not only for the set but in actually making the creatures we see on screen. The design for the Alien itself has become one of the most iconic, along with the famous ‘chest bursting’ scenes which impressively was shot in just one take. It stands as one of the best films ever to have been made, and the visuals triumph over any modern horror.
It films such as the ones mentioned above that stand as the epitome of good horror films. That is the sort of film that Del Toro will make. He is already well known for being the king of visual effects in modern cinema so it would not be surprising to see his talents transferred appropriately for Crimson Peak.
There isn’t really much else to say, other than I am thoroughly excited to see Crimson Peak and I think it will be one of the best films of this year. I’m trying to avoid learning too much about it, hence I’ve watched the trailer once and avoided doing too much research into it. I want to go in with an open mind and see what Del Toro has for me this time. I have every faith in Del Toro to make the film he wants, which based on his back catalogue, we can assume will be nothing short of terrifyingly beautiful.