Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Trends in Modern Horror 1: The Postmodern Turn


The story so far...

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The Horror Film was invented in America in 1931, specialising in supernatural subjects inherited from European literature and folklore.

By the end of the Second World War, familiarity had blunted their horror value, and they had become fitting subjects for parody.

The genre retreated, its place taken by radiation-enlarged insects, alien visitation and the other terrors of the horror-science fiction film.

In the late fifties, Hammer, a British company, remade the old supernatural horrors with a new kind of realism in the acting and - most importantly - with onscreen blood and dismembered body parts. The result was the fluke revival of traditional horror not only in Britain but also America, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.

By the seventies, the public had again tired of monsters but the realism of Hammer's style, coupled with the collapse of American film censorship spawned a new kind of intense and disturbing modern gothic, led by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left.

What these films were not, however, is mainstream successes in the way that the '31-'45 and '57-'73 cycle had been. That was achieved by a low-budget horror called Halloween, which brought the new style into a crowd-pleasing suspense format.

The result was a whole wave of similar slasher movies in which teens are stalked and killed by masked outsiders in either high school or woodsy settings, often on significant festival days, and the third big horror cycle.

This became played out around 1984, shortly after the last freak hit of the cycle, an unusually supernatural variation called A Nightmare On Elm Street.

The next decade or so were perhaps the darkest year for horror, the genre kept alive only by an insular clique of fans, the films rarely rewarded with cinema release. Endless rounds of sequels to Freddy and Jason kept the genre out of mainstream consciousness, and the place of horror on screen was taken by another related genre, just as it had been when science fiction nudged it aside in the fifties. This time it was the serial killer film, inspired by a nasty, silly smash hit called The Silence of the Lambs, in which genius mass-murderers on killing sprees leave elaborate clues and ritualised crime scenes for the police to unravel.

Once again, the traditional horror film had been left looking old-fashioned and no longer viable.

Now read on...

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Scream (1996), ostensibly another film about a masked psychopath stalking American high school girls, is in fact one of the most important films in the history of the genre, as central as Halloween (1978), Psycho (1960) or, indeed, Dracula (1931).

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It is the fate of all true innovators to become commonplace almost overnight, and like many another milestone it is already a period piece. (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?” the police ask one character).

Yet its achievement was vast. It rescued horror from the doldrums of what future chroniclers will call the genre’s ‘straight to video years’, and enabled it to once again to engage with mainstream audiences and get serious critical acclaim.

It rescued Wes Craven from a declining career post-Freddy Krueger, and even gave the genre an era-defining rep company of recurring players, reinforcing the feeling that a renaissance was underway. (But unlike the horror icons of a previous generation, these were all young women: Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

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The twist was Postmodernism. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was a Tarantinoesque film fanatic devoted above all else to Halloween and its progeny, and his screenplay seemed fresh in that it unfolded within an explicitly horror movie context.

The film is as much about films where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac as it is a film where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac. Heroine Neve Campbell bemoans the tendency of horror film heroines to run up stairs rather than out the front door, an error she promptly repeats when confronted with a 'real' killer. The murderers wear a ghoulish ‘Father Death’ costume, but the choice does not ‘mean’ anything, nor does it relate to some earlier circumstance; it’s simply the sort of thing the killers wear in a horror film, and that is how the murderers view themselves.

All the characters relate to each other via the set of movie clich├ęs most befitting their station: the police employ the psychobabble of the serial killer movie (indeed Scream was able to bring horror back to public acclaim via a close alliance with this subgenre), the girls wonder who will play them in the inevitable movie, and the frat house element sit around watching horror movies and attempting to decipher the generic rules that might just give them the survivor’s advantage above others in the victim pool.

The scene in which movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules for surviving a horror film is one of two that most impressed genre-savvy critics, (“Behind you!” he shouts repeatedly to Jamie Lee Curtis as he watches Halloween, unaware that the real killer is lurking behind him); the other of course being the prologue, in which first victim Drew Barrymore is quizzed on her horror film trivia knowledge before being gruesomely dispatched.

The film's strength, however, is that it did not merely coast on these touches (as the sequels would) but grounded them in brilliantly directed suspense sequences and a genuinely effective and surprising whodunnit script.

It also had a hip young cast, a rock soundtrack and a new kind of attitude: basically one of extreme callousness, as censorship campaigners were quick to notice. The film is about characters who apply a film script glibness to real acts of horror and murder themselves inspired by cinema. No wonder it contains moments in which characters remonstrate with others over their heartlessness and detachment from reality (most notably Henry Winkler’s uncredited High School principal).

But the killers are allowed to dictate the overall tone of the film itself, and it is surely beyond dissent that the film glamourises brutality and the cult of murder, with all of the frivolousness and insincerity it purports to wag its finger at. It certainly goes out of its way not to distance itself from the killers’ glib certainty that violence is cool.

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Nonetheless, it was the self-reference and sass that got everyone talking about horror films again, and - crucially - that got them going to see them again; that pulled off the old trick of making a moribund genre cool again.

There were precedents, of course - there always are once you know what you're looking for.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) had the intertextual postmodernism, if not, perhaps, the humour, but An American Werewolf in London certainly had both back in 1981. Meanwhile the genre’s re-engagement with mainstream young filmgoers, intertextual sass and new stars had all been first assembled in The Craft (1996), a fun film about high school witches that helped re-establish the teen credibility of horror, and thus not only pipped Scream to the post, but also paved the way for tv off-shoots like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the latter of which had ironically begun its days as a totally uncool movie about which nobody had cared much at all.

But then - how far back do you want to go? Wasn't Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plainly on a road heading this way? What about Lugosi's The Ape Man, through which wanders a mysterious, unidentified character, revealed at the end to be the screenwriter. ("Screwy idea, wasn't it?")

You can go mad chasing these kinds of rabbits down these kinds of holes. In the end it's the winner that gets the gold cup, and Scream won because it took those ingredients - the ratio of inheritance to invention will be lost to time so we may as well let it rest - and put them all together and did it right, at just the moment that people seemed to want it. That's all there is to it.
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The film spawned two sequels, the most inept and pointless parody ever made (Scary Movie - unquestionably the work of mental defectives), and a legion of imitators.

Just as Halloween was used as a template by a decade of other movies not just in its essentials but its incidentals also, so Scream bequeathed a generation of movies that were structured as whodunnits, with the killers usually revealed to be one of the main cast rather than a masked outsider, monster or freak - an innovation with far more precedent in Italian gialli than the previous generation of American slashers ostensibly being referenced.

..The big surprise with the official follow-ups was how ordinary they were. Scream 2 and 3 (1997 and 2000) both feel much longer than the original to sit through, though their running times differ only slightly. Invention is strictly rationed, even with a whole new box of mirrors to play with. (The first sequel is set around the release of Stab, the movie based on the events of the first - with Heather Graham amusingly reprising Drew Barrymore's iconic opening scene, this time with old-style cliches intact, including a shower scene - and is full of discussion about the merits of horror sequels. The second concerns the making of Stab 3, and features one memorable moment in which Neve Campbell finds herself being chased by the killer through an exact replica of her house on a Hollywood sound stage.)

On the whole both films are considerable disappointments, suffering from a lack of freshness that is perhaps forgivable, and a rampant hubris which surely is not. Both sequels are outrageously in love with themselves, expecting us to remember every minor plot turn from the first film, and love the characters enough to welcome their constant survival of plainly fatal butcherings.

In both the killer turns out to be someone who only came in to the story for that movie, and in neither case is their identity a surprise. Which is not to say you'll necessarily guess who it is, merely that who it is doesn't matter. It could be any one of them, and it turns out it is.

The trouble with horror films is that they've always reproduced not in a Darwinian way, retaining the beneficial features and casting off the unsuccessful, but in a Rank Xerox way, reproducing every single chance innovation of the great defining template movie, be it Dracula or Psycho or Halloween or Scream.

There's no dramatic or stylistic reason why so many of the first-wave slashers should revolve around specific times of the year: it's just that Friday the 13th copied Halloween and so My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night and Happy Birthday To Me became a mathematical inevitability.

So, instantly, the post-Scream variations settle into a rut where the characters watched horror films on the television, icons of the genre appear in cameos and the poster would feature a large scary image beneath which the cast were shown in a line, looking cool, often in fan mag poses rather than their film costumes.

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This way the films very quickly lose their crossover appeal - which is rooted in their novelty - and become again the property of audiences who 'like that sort of thing'. The result is ossification. It was ironic but inevitable that Scream's witty dissections of horror conventions, sharp enough to draw huge crowds of folks who ordinarily wouldn't dream of going to "some Wes Carpenter flick", should almost instantly become generic conventions, so that critics very soon started heaping praise on films that played the horror dead straight for their very absence of those qualities they had recently hailed as a breakthrough.

And when Williamson popped up again to wave his postmodern wand over the sci fi horror (The Faculty) and even the werewolf movie (Cursed), the general feeling was that the joke isn't funny anymore.

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I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, my favourite of the bunch) was a hit, and cleared a space alongside Neve Campbell for Jennifer Love Hewitt to establish her scream queen royalty status, still being put to good use in her tv series Ghost Whisperer, an odd mix of great scares and sappy new age hugging and crying. The film, written again by Williamson but seemingly marking a conscious effort to put some layers of skin back on the genre onion, also featured Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose bubbliness and subsequent Buffy-derived reputation for invincibility makes her murder here, and even more so in Scream 2, a genuine shock.

Successful too, by and large, was Final Destination (2000), which applied the new rules to the supernatural, and revived the moribund trope of naming the characters after significant directors and stars.

But Urban Legend (1997, my other favourite) - which spun a chance remark in Scream into an an entire screenplay, kicked off with a great first scene and welcomed Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart to the pantheon - and Valentine (2001) - which riffed on Carrie, borrowed David Boreanaz from Buffy and had a bikini-clad Denise Richards killed in a swimming pool with a road drill - played to noticeably smaller and more specialised crowds. No longer scoring the crossover success of Scream and Last Summer, the genre was showing worrying signs of slipping back into its teen male ghetto.

Cherry Falls (2000), which cleverly took on the original slashers' tendency to kill the young lovers and leave the wholesome girl alive by having its killer target high school virgins, didn't even get a cinema release. By the time Urban Legends: Final Cut and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer rolled around it was obvious that history was repeating itself.

Final Destination took three episodes to reach itself. I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer went straight to video. The unimaginable Scream 4 is apparently still on course for a 2010 release.

Clearly the genre was going to have to reinvent again, and quickly, if it was to stay a mainstream concern. This, surprisingly enough, it would do, but the formula would mutate at least twice more on the journey.

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(To be continued, in Trends in Modern Horror 2: Revenge of the Remake)

19 comments:

James said...

Great post, Matthew. Look forward to reading more on this subject...
I do believe this was the particular trend of horror cinema that got me hooked on all things horror to begin with. Well, we all have to start somewhere, right? I may have been more affected by Scream than I would ever care to admit... ;)

Matthew Coniam said...

I totally agree!
I was too young to see the original slasher wave at the cinema, though I remember being envious when my dentist told me she was going to see Friday the 13th Part 3 that evening. (Less scary than my teeth, I'm sure.)
Scream and its clones were the first real horror wave that I felt was 'mine'. I loved them all, and still enjoy them. Yes, even Urban Legends Final Cut. Jennifer Love Hewitt is my generation's Fay Wray, as far as I'm concerned...

Michael Mackenzie said...

Really interesting piece, Matthew. It's time for me to "come out" as yet another person for whom the Scream wave was my first "real" experience with horror. I'd seen the likes of The Omen and The Mephisto Waltz before, but Scream's arrival roughly coincided with the point at which I was finally able to pass for 18 when renting movies from Blockbuster. I loved the film at the time, and it certainly opened a lot of doors for me as far as my ongoing love of the horror genre is concerned, but I haven't seen it in a few years and am ever so slightly wary of revisiting it, given my intense dislike for the nudge-nudge wink-wink type of horror it spawned.

Matthew Coniam said...

I know what you mean, though I could never really disown any of them.
But Scream itself, though already a period piece as I said, does stand up as a horror movie in its own right, simply because the plot is clever and the script and direction both energetic and inventive. I could imagine somebody seeing it for the first time now and still getting a real kick out of it, like someone still would coming fresh to Jaws.
And I'd never say that about I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, though it is CLEARLY the greatest film ever made.

Michael Mackenzie said...

Oh, Scream is a well put together film, no question about it. The identity of the killer is * SPOILER * one of the few instances of a double-bluff that truly works in a film of this type. * END SPOILER * My reticence towards watching it again stems purely from a worry that the film's subsequent imitators may have ended up sullying my view of it.

You know, I actually never did see I Know What You Did Last Summer...

Kimberley said...

Hi Matthew! Thanks for visiting and following my blog. I'm a HUGE horror fan and therefore, obviously, think your blog is awesome!

While I typically tend to find current horror films hokey at best, they are fun nonetheless. Scream was definitely a fun, fun film. I also loved The Craft which is not only a great movie but also has a killer soundtrack.

Have you seen Cabin Fever? Gingersnaps? Feast? Razor Blade Smile? These are a few of my favorite flicks. I also LOVED House of 1000 Corpses which I know is more of an acquired taste. Ya either loved it or thought, "What the heck was that?" ;)

Matthew Coniam said...

Hi Kimberley - Great to have you on board!
Thanks for the nice comments - and I agree about The Craft; as I said, really it has priority over Scream as an epoch-maker. And I like the Matthew Sweet song on the soundtrack particularly, when they're walking across the beach with the bugs in jars and stuff. 'Dark Secret' or something, I think it's called.
I thought Ginger Snaps was interesting too, much better than Cursed, certainly.
I feel I also should tell you that I'm just getting over a twenty-year long Morrissey addiction. Years of Refusal was the first album of his I haven't heard - and I still can't believe I'm saying that...
But I know every lyric of every song prior to that by heart!!!

Sam_Loomis said...

Great post. Definitely a interesting analysis on what I consider to be my generation's horror. These are the films ("Scream" in particular) that got me interested in this wonderful genre! Some of them are not very good, but every time I watch 'em I feel a little nostalgic...

Great blog, you've got a new reader!

Matthew Coniam said...

Sam Loomis, eh? The doctor or the hardware store owner?
Thanks for dropping by and the nice comments.

Yes, I agree - some of them I think are really good, some of them I know are not, but all of them take me back...

Hope to see you again. Cheers!

Kimberley said...

Hi again Matthew!

While we are certainly off topic, I had to post back and say--What do you mean you're getting OVER a twenty-year addiction?!? Morrissey is like sunshine! Okay, perhaps dark and broody sunshine, but still, certainly not something to go without.

If I can tempt you into listening to the new album, I think you'll be surprised at how amazing it is. I suppose as a Morrissey addict I am biased but the new album really is all that and a slice of pie. However, I will warn you that once you start listening to it, you'll probably be addicted again as well.

You know, you can sample the album for free on line... Just one little listen couldn't possibly hurt, right? Gosh, I never thought I'd end up a Morrissey pusher ;)

Matthew Coniam said...

Ha ha! None of my friends can believe I'm over Morrissey! I was the biggest obsessive ever - no idle boast as I'm sure you know.
Had every track, saw him live God knows how often between Kill Uncle and Ringleader...
But no,I'm over it now! I still think he has a good voice and I'd rather listen to him than any other modern music, but still...
Do you agree that he's best when he takes a long time time between albums and really does some good writing? I mean, if anything You are the Quarry had too much on it: I would have shaved off the first and last tracks, (and moved Crashing Bores to the grand finale slot). It's a really full album with some lovely writing.
But when he has a big success he rushes out another album that's been slapped together too quickly. As a writer he gets lazy. (Like Southpaw after Vauxhall. And Ringleader was another.)
I've heard Throwing My Arms Around Paris and it seemed to me we were back to My Love Life or You're the One For Me, Fatty: basically one sentence over and over again: usually a sure sign that he has run out of ideas...
But I expect in ten years time I'll be all nostalgic about him again... Actually I'm still at the stage where I can only criticise him to fans - if someone says they hate him I'll still stick up for him...
You probably sense that I'm trying to convince myself of something I'm still unsure of, and you're probably right!

Kimberley said...

While I do agree with you about the rushed out albums backfiring at times, I really do love this new album. While I must confess that Morrissey could send me a mini cassette of him singing the alphabet song and I'd probably think it a masterpiece as well, I really do think this album has some gems on it. My fav at the moment is All You Need Is Me with Something Is Squeezing My Skull coming in second. But enough about Mr. Morrissey--let's talk horror...

I'm off to post a comment under your castle post. See ya there...

Matthew Coniam said...

Okay, you've talked me into it. I should at least hear it I suppose, and even I can't quite believe I haven't. (Bought all the rest on day of release, read the lyrics on the way home, could sing along word for word by the end of the day... I'm probably scaring even you now.)
By the way, would you like to buy a mini-cassette of Morrissey singing the alphabet song? I've just got one left...

Kimberley said...

Sold and sold :)

James said...

Woah. So glad to see so many others had their interested in horror piqued by Scream. But wait! You say as far as you are concerned, Jennifer Love Hewitt is our generation's Fay Wray?? Surely not, Matthew. Isn't Muz Hewitt just a big old boney waste of skin and teeth? I'm more of an Alicia Witt man myself. And i'm pleased to see that you also enjoyed Urban Legend: Final Cut - I thought I was the only one ;)
I'm looking forward to Trends in Modern Horror 2: Revenge of the Remake... Great work as always, Matthew. Keep it up.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, James!
The Tower Farm guys are big Final Cut fans too - there's a very amusing review of it over at theirs...
Yeah, I like Alicia as well - but speaking as someone who recently sat down and watched The Tuxedo from start to finish, then went back and rewatched a half-dozen of the best bits, describing Jennifer as a boney waste of skin and teeth is fighting talk as far as I'm concerned. I may have to ask you to step outside.

James said...

Cheers for the heads up - I will with great haste head over to The Tower Farm and check it out. In other news - unhand me, you cad!

monty said...

Awesome post Matthew. I watched quite a few of these during the Month of October.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, Monty, great to have you on board! Dare I ask where you stand on the great Love Hewitt debate???