A Modern Horror Masterpiece?


After years of tedium spawned from years of uninteresting horror attempts, we have the pleasure of finally seeing a good horror film

I have found over the last two years or so that when deciding what films to watch with friends that I have in fact been born in the wrong time period. I have friends that want to watch horror films on a frequent basis, but there is a small problem with this. See the problem is, I am hard pressed to find a modern horror film that I can actually tolerate let alone enjoy. 28 Days Later was a fantastic horror film for the modern age, what happened after that?

The generation I’m in seems to have this fascination with films like Paranormal Activity and The Woman in Black which for me are films that are trying too hard and just end up being annoying. It just means I am surrounded by people trying to tell me that Sweeney Todd is a good film, much to my distaste, and people who try to tell me that the Saw franchise is the most complex film series of all time. Worse still I used to have a friend that was convinced, to the point of speaking dogmatically, that The Number 23 is one of the best films ever made. Which it isn’t It’s a film that was pitched to us as a psychological horror, but then didn’t amount to anything. In fact you can guess the ending from very early on. The only way in which you could find that film “clever” as it was so often referred to, is if you watched the entirety of the film until you were approaching the end, suffered a brain haemorrhage, and then questioned what was on screen. And even then you’d probably still get it right.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the genre. Au contraire, I have rather a strong passion for the genre, it’s just I prefer older horror films that actually have substance. Films like The Birds, a fantastic piece of cinema that was expertly made and still remains scary to this day, with a brutal look in to the fear caused by the unknown. Nowadays what most horror films consist of is a group of people we don’t care about being picked off one by one in as graphic a manner as possible. Or it’s a family being “haunted” by a supernatural being. The same formulae is being churned out, recrafted, reworked, and it has just become so boring. It’s the reason so many horror films get sequels; people somehow like the same boring structure just adjusted slightly to a setting almost as identical as the last.

The main problem we need to address of course is that the films are not actually scary. What most horror films rely on to scare the modern audience is jump scares. If an image suddenly appears on screen or the volume increases tenfold in an instant then of course the audience is going to jump in their seats, but they haven’t actually been scared. It’s not that the image on screen has scared them or the sound has, it’s just that an element in the surrounding area has changed suddenly and so the central nervous system in the body responds accordingly.

It’s not how horror used to be done. Nowadays it’s somewhat dependent on SFX so it doesn’t have as big an impact because we can tell it is fake. Going back thirty, forty years ago there were what I suppose you could call progressive filmmakers and artists trying to find new ways to terrify the audience. People such as Wes Craven who was experimenting with plastic moulds and god knows what else to give us horrifying images that still look incredible today, such as the figure of Freddy Krueger being pressed through the wall above the bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then of course there were like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the makeup for which still terrifies people today. And of course one of my favourites, the Oscar winning artist H R Giger working in collaboration with Ridley Scott to give us the beautifully twisted beings in Alien. It was just a completely different world, a masterclass in making horror films. It’s a shame to see that descend in to what we have today.

However, and this honestly one of the most exciting counter arguments I have ever had to put across, I can safely say without a shadow of doubt that there is now a modern horror film that I not only thoroughly enjoyed, but was also terrified of. At the moment the name Jennifer Kent will not be recognised by many, but it is a name that will go down in cinematic history. She is the first time writer/ director that brought us one of the best horror films I have seen for some time now and essentially one of the best films of last year: The Babadook. 

Interestingly I’m in the position whereby I have witnessed what various opinions have been formed on the film. Film critics whose work I listen to and read frequently such as Mark Kermode loved it, however people I know and have more direct communication with through social networking didn’t like it at all. The people I know on Facebook usually come back from seeing Paranormal Activity 13 or whichever number that franchise has somehow made it to, and they’ll post an obligatory status along the lines of “best film ever!!” and yet they came back from seeing The Babadook claiming it was rubbish and boring.

What we must consider is that The Babadook wasn’t necessarily made for the mainstream audience. They have completely different expectations of horror based on what films are popularly being shown. They’re used to jump scare flicks or slasher films. The Babadook turns that on its head and takes it back to what horror used to be. See modern horror films are like clunky machines that haven’t been looked after properly. The gears grind together and screech, sounding and looking like an utter catastrophe but still somehow holding together. What you have with The Babadook is well maintained machinery. It is polished and pristine and runs like intricate clockwork.

I’m trying not to say too much in terms of spoilers because it is best to approach this film the way I did, knowing very little about the plot. It is just a completely different experience among current cinema, moving back to a better paced film. I like how the film really takes its time and develops the characters so we can see they are three dimensional and are torn as to whether we like them or not. The pace of the film is based quite heavily around the power of suggestion. The language choices, tiny sounds, little flickers of light, and shots where there’s something in the background you see in the corner of your eye, it all stacks up to make you feel completely on edge, and it works perfectly. It’s not so much the modern approach of the bad guy jumping out and everyone screaming, it’s focused more on the little details that crawl under your skin and fill your body with shivers.

Honestly I am trying not to say too much about the film because I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. I just can’t stop praising it because it is finally a horror film with an intelligent brain and a beating heart. It takes time, it uses physical elements just like older horror films did, it asks questions, it explores important themes like mother and son relationships and the natural fear all humans have of the unknown. And on top of this is annoyed the people who consistently pontificate about the boring and unimaginative horror films that plague cinema screens most of the time.

I’m pleased to see Jennifer Kent receiving the praise she deserves for this film, including quite impressively a comment from William Friedkin, acclaimed director of The Exorcist, saying “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film” and “it will scare the hell out of you as it did me” Praise indeed from one of the masters of horror himself. Kent has shown that she is incredibly talented as a writer and as an artistic director who creates visually fantastic pieces. I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook and I look forward to seeing more work from Jennifer Kent in the future.

Halloween Is Nigh – Time For The Best Horror Films

Seeing as though Halloween is nearly upon us and I am unable to post this on the actual night of Halloween, I felt it appropriate to talk about my favourite horror films. I should mention from the start as well that I mean horror films with substance, not trashy Hollywood slashers with a star studded cast, excessive budget and as much substance as a meringue. It’s interesting because I barely ever talk about horror films , mainly due to the fact people have different ways of splitting films into genres and it all becomes very confusing when opinions clash. So what I have compiled is a list of my favourite films that are widely accepted as being part of the horror genre.

First to kick us off I have to talk about Danny Boyle’s 2002 film ’28 Days Later’, one of the best zombie based films of the modern age. It’s very easy in the climate of modern mainstream cinema to make a loud and trashy zombie film that is in all honesty just plain awful and yet people will still throw money at it. What Boyle did in this case was make a film based around a zombie apocalypse and make it more human. By this I mean it had characters you cared about, ones that you follow on the journey, to the point where you genuinely care about what happens to them. Not only this but it explores the social impacts that are caused by such an event, not just the obvious flesh eating issues but the issues linked to how people respond and what happens to human behaviour. I will never forget one of the opening shots from the film in which you see this vast landscape of the streets of London completely empty. It was a huge achievement of cinema and a shot that shook me right to my bones and made me feel cold. Genius. 

Before starting this post I discussed it with some of my friends and followers on WordPress and they requested that I didn’t mention Ridley Scott’s sci fi horror classic ‘Alien’ because I have talked enough about it before in the past. I’m sorry to say that I have let those people down because I’m going to quickly reference it here. It is very near perfection, to put it bluntly. Intelligent, gritty, and beautifully designed. 

Next on the list, and one that arguably should be on anyone’s list for horrors and that’s Stanley Kubrick’s classic ‘The Shining’ which is a perfect display of how to make a true chiller that will scare the living daylights out of you. Some people would say it’s a cliche to like this film because it’s one that’s famous. My response to this is simple, in the words of David Mitchell “no people shouldn’t believe that, it’s b*****s”. Based on the novel by Stephen King the film is a very good adaption, with Diane Johnson and Kubrick himself doing a terrific job with the screenplay. The cast is famously knock out, with Jack Nicholson at the helm giving the performance of a life time, it was clear to see what everyone involved in the making of the film cared about the project and wanted it to be good. With stunning directing and vivid imagery you’ll never forget, I think we can all agree they succeeded?

With this next one I feel as though I should make myself completely clear; when I say I like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ I am referring to the 1984 masterpiece by Wes Craven. Not Michael Bay’s insult to the film from three years ago. The original is one of the best horror films you will ever watch. Cleverly mastering the use of plastic in cinema, the film moves away from horrors being slashy and gory and turns it more towards being scary and absurd which works perfectly. Wes Craven spoke about the film before and even he himself referred to it as “surrealist cinema” because he wanted it to be an experience that the audience had not had before and one that would stand out. He wanted it to look so realistic that it would be obscure of the audience to witness, for example the scene with the telephone. Those who have seen the film will get the reference.

For me it’s special as a horror because it has a strong story with depths and meanings to it. The idea of Freddy Kreuger is crucial because essentially he is a representation of the sins of the parents coming back to haunt the children, it’s this whole idea of an eye for an eye wrapped in this underlying theme of parents having to accept they can’t protect their children forever. That is why I love the original so much. That is why the original is a piece of artistic genius. That is why the remake by Michael Bay is appalling because he couldn’t manage to see past the glove. He thought the main idea of Freddy was the spiky claw like glove and that he was violent which is so far from the truth, and I know I will sound like a grumpy old man for saying this but I would like a written apology from Michael Bay for making the film and ruining one of the greatest pieces of horror ever to be made.  

The final film I feel I should mention, and for me this the single greatest horror movie of all time is the 1960 masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock himself ‘Psycho’. Now I know already that some would class it more as a horror-thriller, but essentially it is a horror film. If you were to look up the word ‘horror’ in a dictionary, and let’s assume for the sake of the argument you were stupid enough to need a dictionary that has pictures in it, the defining image you would see is a black and white still of a knife going into a shower. The film is as and I dare say it: perfection. The story is incredibly strong, along with the cast who all give amazing performances, but the essential element to the film is the Hitchcock touch. The tension, the attention to detail, the camera angles, the pace, it all works superbly to build one of the single greatest pieces of cinema you will ever see.

Again, some people will say it’s cliched to have this film on my list of favourites, and again these people show that their IQ can be found on the face of a dice. The trouble with people of my age is their impatience. Because we’re all still young and used to mainstream rubbish like ‘Saw’ people under the age of eighteen don’t have the patience to watch a black and white film. And that just makes me feel slightly ashamed of the generation I am from, because they are restricting their own cultural interests and preventing themselves from experiencing a piece of artistic genius from one of the greatest minds ever to have lived. Luckily I can appreciate what a huge achievement of cinema it is, with Hitchcock breaking the mold in the 60s and presenting a film that had nudity and blood in it, along with killing off his leading lady quite early in to the film. It was a huge movement for film and one that Hitchcock was daring enough to make. 

Apologies if you were expecting a list of modern slashers that are repeated every other friday on channel 5, but those are films I try to avoid like the plague. The reasons I don’t talk about horror very often is because I come from an age group that has grown up with such rubbish, and it’s made our understanding of what real horror is become somewhat warped. We see blood and guts splattered across the screen and think “that’s horror!” which isn’t what horror is about. It’s not about loud bangs, blood and gore and screaming american teenagers being decapitated during coitus in a shower. Horror is about having an experience that makes you uncomfortable, one that scares you, one that tests what you really know about the human condition and one that presents a story with substance and strong characters. It’s a diverse art form that can be done really but then can be ruined just as easily. It is about looking in to the abyss, and the abyss looking back at you. A good horror not only makes you feel sick, it makes you feel as though you have crawled through a sewer to reach the end of the film, but in a good way. 

So modern film makers can carry on creating mainstream rubbish that is about as complex as a game of Tetris, but quite frankly I will not be a part of. If Rob Zombie wants to ruin the classic ‘Halloween’ and turn it into a piece of loud nonsense that teenagers think is “awesome” then be my guest. I’ll be sat at the back of the cinema screening making notes and trying not to stab my own eyes out with a biro.