Keeping Horror Cinema Alive

Crimson-Peak

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

Beep…….Beep……….Beep……Beep………………Beep

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 HellboyPacific 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.

Problems with The Purge

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As many of you will know there’s a new film out in cinemas now in the form of the sequel to The Purge. From the looks of it the film is going to be much what you would expect from a horror-thriller sequel; the trailer consists of violence, eerie music, quick editing, “deep” and emotional lines, references to relatives who are presumed deceased, and then an addition to the storyline at the end that wasn’t a surprise in any sense of the word. But then based on the nature of the first film, is there anything else we would expect?

I watched the first film recently in fact. I bought it for about five pounds on a sale section in a supermarket, but I didn’t buy it because I was looking for a good film, I bought it because I was curious. The idea behind it intrigued me. All crimes being legal for twelve hours. Just thinking about it is weird because I genuinely don’t know what I would do in that scenario. Furthermore I don’t even know if I would survive the night, I have annoyed many people in time on this planet so there could very well be a bullet or a blade with my name on it. Nonetheless I sat down with an open mind to watch The Purge, and found myself torn by the end of it. As a film it is a very mixed bag that inevitably does not hold together.

Before I go any further I will just say that I will try to speak spoilerese for anyone who hasn’t seen the film so it’s not ruined. It may just be a case of there being references that will be easier to understand if you have seen the film. So firstly I will say that I didn’t hate the film, but then again I didn’t particularly like it. The main element I like is the still the idea of it, the idea of crime being legal. As someone who studied sociology at A-Level, a proportion of which was on the subject of crime, I find the idea of all crimes being legal for twelve hours fascinating. It had so many questions going through my head, based on whether it would work, what I would do, what would happen in the town I live in and so on. So it’s thought provoking but in a rather unsettling manner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but interpret that as you will.

Secondly I think it has proved itself to be a half decent piece of social commentary, based on the themes and messages. From the start there’s clear class struggle, with the rich and powerful even using pronouns to suggest that the purge night is theirs and exists for the benefit of them, and it develops to show that there is inequality and there is exploitation, which almost mirrors our society. Also what I like is how it comments on the brutality of human nature. It shows how the civilised nature of humans can quickly be stripped down to a violent and animalistic core. It shows how humans need a release, because if stress builds up for an entire year it could very well lead to the violent behaviour we see in The Purge, who knows? All I can say is that the writers at least considered what humans have the potential of doing.

However, despite the interesting set up and half well developed subtext there are still huge holes in the film. As much as I wanted to like the film there are problems with it that I simple cannot looks past.

Clichés – It’s a shame because the trailers made it look as thought it could at least have the potential to put a different spin on the usual boring modern horror flick, but then it just ended up falling in to all the usual clichés. So instead of a slightly different experience that you would want to see, we’re instead presented with a film which has all of the usual annoying features that everyone seems to love but I hate, such as: poorly executed fight sequences, annoying main characters, minimal weight in the screenplay, annoying lighting techniques, jump scares produced by sudden loud noises and no genuine scares. The entertainment never starts.

Unengaging characters – by the end of the film it’s safe to say there was only one character left that I only just liked and that’s because he wasn’t a complete idiot. The rest of them are all annoying. You have the family the story is focused on which consists of rich morons who are way too dysfunctional to warrant a sense of pathos, the group of young people who are purging who are equally morons by giving the family demands and then making them harder to meet, the person the hunters are looking for who I kind of have to feel sorry for but in some cases he really doesn’t help himself. Finally you have the ludicrously rich neighbours of largely white middle class suburbans, who are a disgusting concoction of the wife from American Beauty meets Straw Dogs, and they’re pretty much the ones in the film you want to see distressed. The whole ensemble of characters are cretins who I neither liked nor cared about, so I found myself shouting at the screen frequently for the duration of the film. In a horror styled film there has to be a character you like in order to feel engaged and scared. That character does not exist in The Purge. 

Inadequate usage of short running time – the film is very short I have to say, it doesn’t even reach the ninety minutes mark which for a modern film is very short. Now shorter films are not a problem as long as the time is used appropriately. In the case of The Purge the timing is very distorted. The opening to the film is good enough but then there is a very long sequence in the middle in which the family search through their house in the dark, which takes up too much of the running time and as a result leads to the rest of the film feeling really rushed. What follows is a series of action scenes and additions to the storyline but they all happen so quickly that it just doesn’t hold together. It just meant that ten minutes before the end of the film I couldn’t see how it was going to end properly. They did manage to end it but I won’t say that they did it well.

Structurally the film loses its way – this is tangential to the last point, but it feels as though the first half of the film is from one film and the second half of the film is from a different one altogether. It’s like the writers set out to make a film with a clear message and one thread in the plotline, but then halfway they abandoned this to make a Home Alone or Straw Dogs styled film instead. But then again, I can’t say I was ever happy with the first half of the film because structurally it is shambolic. And what I mean by this is that there is a clear and central plotline, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly strong but I won’t challenge its existence, and then they’ve decided to add extra elements around the edges, just little details to the story. In other films this would serve as an enhancement, instead in the case of The Purge what you have is conflicts and other occurrences that make you think “oh come on, really? this is happening now? why?” It doesn’t add depth or anything interesting to the film, it just makes it more annoying because you’re having to witness and deal with things you don’t care about because they simply do not matter.

Confusing villains – I don’t understand the justification for some of their actions. In a film the antagonist usually has an agenda, to make someone’s life more difficult for a particular reason, but in this film the antagonist doesn’t have a reason, so he just does whatever he wants. I understand the character is meant to be scary and so he improvises to create a sense of rebellion through violence, but there are points in which the film is no longer capable of convincing me the characters could be real people.

The film is very one sided (part I) – as I said at the start I like the idea of The Purge because it’s interesting to think about. The problem I have with how it is delivered is that it is one sided; it only shows one type of crime. The concept is described as “all crime is legal” so why does it only show violence? And furthermore why is this specifically people wanting to hurt the homeless? There are more interesting elements to human nature that could have been explored in the film, like greed. There were no scenes of people sat behind a computer committing fraud or attempting stock manipulation to get money and I just just think it shows a lack of discipline by those who made the film. Although upon seeing Michael Bay’s name in the credits under the production team this is hardly surprising. They had an interesting concept that could have explored a range of crimes and behaviours but instead they focused primarily on violence, and I don’t believe for one minute that violence is the appropriate solution to any problem so the film is very boring in that respect. That’s not to say that the opening sequence of various crime occurring to the backing music of ‘Claire De Lune’ wasn’t strangely artistic, but it’s just disappointing to see such an interesting concept go to waste.

One sided (part II) – it’s not just one sided in the sense of the crimes committed, it’s also the fact that the film focuses on the middle to upper class members of society. This made it harder to connect with because I didn’t care about the wealthy people. I didn’t want them to be safe. I’m hoping it’s an issue resolved in The Purge: Anarchy and from the trailers it already looks as though there’s a focus on people in the streets which would be more interesting to see. It was just annoying to have to sit through a film where the main characters are extortionately rich and never stop talking about it, the point where we have to witness them discuss their plans for their house on many occasions which is irritating and vomit inducing enough as it is, but then the film has the nerve to attempt to make me connect with them. Not something I am willing to do I’m afraid.

I could go on further but I think I’ve addressed the main issues I have with the film. It is a very mixed bad because like with any new film I wanted to like it, so the elements I didn’t like only brought me to bitter disappointment. There were too many factors that were weak so it is without remorse or sympathy that I say I did not like The Purge as a film. It was one that caught my eye but I’m afraid it did no maintain it. To ammend the words of Tarantino’s Calvin Candy “gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but you do not have my attention”. 

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.