Horror is cinema’s most enthralling and frustrating genre. At their best, horror films can provide an adrenaline rush far more potent than any drug, energy drink or roller coaster. At their worst, they’re boring, contemptuously engineered claptrap dedicated to wasting time on the audience’s dime.
The finest examples of the craft — The Exorcist, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby all spring to mind like zombie hands jutting out of freshly dug graves — lay siege to our comfort zones, shatter our nerves and allow us a simulation of mortal peril without consequence. By projecting our individual and communal fears onto a larger-than-life screen, these feelings are simultaneously elevated and externalized as psychological detritus is transformed into a benign state of voyeuristic make-believe. And let’s not forget, whether we’re laughing in a crowded theater with our friends or cowering alone on the couch, it’s fun to be scared!
Stephen King, a universally acknowledged master of the morbid, gave horror the closest thing it will ever receive to a mission statement when he wrote the following in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, a genre survey that traced the history of horror from Victorian England to the present day: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” Terror, of course, is the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes a horrifying experience, and offers a lingering sensation of fear and pulse-pounding euphoria when properly realized. Unfortunately for today’s audiences, the majority of modern horror movies no longer possess the ability to truly terrify.
It’s time to scream and shout and let it all out: today’s horror films are drowning in formulaic storytelling and a fatal over-reliance on cheap jump scares (all cats and bathroom mirrors should be banned forthwith). Recent films such as Annabelle, The Purge: Anarchy and The Quiet Ones may shock and startle us in the moment (your own mileage will vary), but any impact they have tends to evaporate the moment the lights come up. A good scary movie should stick with us, settle into our bones and take up permanent residence in our nightmares. James Wan’s The Conjuring, which benefitted from moody period aesthetics and a top-shelf cast including Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, was probably the last mainstream horror movie to achieve that feat, but that film was the exception that proves the rule.
Early cinema, constrained by the threat of censorship (which was carried out at the state level before the establishment of the Production Code in the 1930s) and limited special effects budgets, often fed on both the terror and horror of the implicit. In Edgar G. Ulmer’s supremely underrated 1934 pre-code chiller The Black Cat, the audience never actually sees the avenging Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi in his best non-Dracula role) flay the flesh from the bones of his former tormenter, the Satanic priest Poelzig (Boris Karloff), merely the sound of the latter’s anguished cries and a few shadowy images thrown on a wall. By leaving the very worst up to our imagination, the film’s notorious skinning scene is infinitely more effective than anything in the so-called “torture porn” subgenre — including the once-interminable Saw and Hostel franchises — which thankfully appears to have fallen out of favor in recent years.
Jack Clayton’s 1961 gothic horror film The Innocents, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and a script co-written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, is rightly considered one of the most effective haunted house movies of all time because it relies almost entirely on atmosphere and implication to tell its creepy tale of a sexually repressed governess (Deborah Kerr) who begins to suspect her two precocious charges are possessed by the restless spirits of the estate’s recently deceased valet and his lover. Compare that to the harmless spook-house jolts of the Insidious films and the tiresome shaky-cam antics of the Paranormal Activity series and its legion of imitators.
So, aside from the obvious (cut down on the remakes, hire better talent) what can be done to make modern movies frightening again? The injection of fresh blood has worked wonders in the past. Talented directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron have used horror films as a means of breaking into the business because they’re relatively inexpensive to produce and don’t require movie stars to earn the attention of viewers.
A little more diversity wouldn’t hurt either. Today’s horror filmmakers, like the rest of their industry counterparts, are predominantly white males. The female perspective isn’t given a voice very often in this genre, but there have been a few notable exceptions. Director Mary Lambert scared audiences out of their wits with her 1989 adaptation of King’s Pet Sematary, while filmmaker Mary Harron reclaimed Bret Easton Ellis’s yuppie satire American Psycho as a biting commentary on misogyny taken to murderous extremes.
It’s also worth noting that the scariest movie of the year so far was written and directed by a woman. The Babadook, the feature-length debut of Australian auteur Jennifer Kent, revolves around Amelia (the sublime Essie Davis), a widowed single mother trying to save her mentally ill son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from an implacable supernatural force that manifests in the pages of a seemingly innocuous children’s book.
What follows is a powerful synthesis of horror and genuinely moving drama that serves as a monstrous testament to the limits of maternal love in the face of overwhelming grief and resentment. Kent’s film, currently available on VOD, both reinvigorates and subverts some of the genre’s oldest tropes, creating something that feels at once original, primal and truly, utterly terrifying.
So if you want proof that real horror isn’t dead, look no further than The Babadook. Just be warned: Like the hitchhiking ghosts in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, this is the kind of movie that follows you home.
Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” runs Fridays.