For decades now, the stigma surrounding horror has encompassed similar disdain to lower forms of entertainment all together, some media research even comparing the pleasures these films give us to the seedy and singular experience that pornographic films denote. Then, in recent years, we’ve been given regurgitated remakes, gratuitous gore-nography and trite torture porn.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I love the first two Saw films and both Hostel films just as much as the next person, actually. I wouldn’t even necessarily venture to say they’re guilty pleasures because I see them as just one of many coexisting subgenres with merits and flaws alike. But when even those things which start off as brilliant become exercises in merely how many horrific ways of killing people on screen writers can concoct, things do get a little stale.
I likewise have no problem with an aim of bringing classics to current generations in new and revamped forms but those forms have to still care about more than making a buck; they have to revere to how classic those classics are and why they are considered to be such in the first place, rather than just sacrilegiously taking the title, maybe updating the killer’s mask to be a little more grotesque, and including more fake blood and nudity and vulgarity for the crazy kids with their expendable income and short attention spans. Then, The Conjuring happened. I see this film as a kind of horror movie for the traditionalist or purist; no gore, no stupidity, just good old fashioned ghost/haunting/possession creepiness.
It’s interesting to see James Wan’s transition from the aforementioned Saw films to Insidious to this. It seems like with each film, he grew more and more critically respected for his ability to use simple formula conventions and techniques and, though not necessarily do anything new or revolutionary within them, make them terrifying to audiences again. So my hopes for Insidious Chapter 2 are certainly high. While I’m in no way saying The Conjuring isn’t meant for the whippersnappers of today’s modern movie-going public, I think it’s interesting to muse here on another fairly big horror release of the year: You’re Next.
While the Lionsgate release didn’t make nearly as much money yet as The Conjuring did, You’re Next had critical acclaim that was unique for the subgenre it was operating within and further, it didn’t just stick to that subgenre’s formula in a cookie cutter fashion. It humorously toyed with the home invasion gore fest we’re all used to and gave us a pretty empowered and entertaining heroine, too. The humor though is pitch black, not to mention that you can feel the so-called mumblecore vibe pulsing through every interaction that transpires between the true life indie filmmakers who make up half the cast.
So, what I may actually be getting at here is who are these movies meant for? The Conjuring is scary, plain and simple but are today’s younger horror audience of the mainstream now desensitized and unaccustomed to what is suddenly considered plain and simple? Is it as refreshing for them as it might be for someone who became a horror fan in the time when horror could be plain and simple all the time and have that be enough? You’re Next, with its bashful and boisterous approach to blood and brutality seems like the logical choice for a younger crowd perhaps. But it’s also selective in its demographic as a result of its subversion and hip intelligence, like a horror movie meant for cool film geeks, and it’s interesting to wonder if this is why critics loved it but audiences didn’t quite flock to it so far.
Now I’m not claiming that either of these cases is definitively true at all—in fact, I could get in trouble here for generalizing about who sees horror films most today, and by underestimating their patience or their willingness to follow filmmakers like Wan and Wingard on the limbs they’re going out on here. But I’d still argue that The Conjuring can be a perfect remedy at least to the remakes that don’t do justice to the spirit of subtlety present in certain older horror films, while You’re Next can be an equally perfect test of how many home invasion movies we’ve all seen and how much there can be done to still shock, surprise and excite us when it’s approached so twistedly and uniquely as it is here.
So, on the one hand the future of horror seems to rely on actually reverting back to the past and getting to the root of what certain subgenres are all about, while for other subgenres the future lies in taking what is past and teasing it, skewering it, and making something wholly new out of it. Either way, I think horror may finally be exiting the realm of familiarity by making the familiar unexpectedly horrifying again, and whether that means just getting back to basics and somehow doing familiarity expertly well or breaking the basics and resituating them alternatively, horror may be gaining momentum as something that can be modern, mainstream, successful, and worthy. I just wonder if the torture porn and poor remake generation will welcome those changes as I believe that they can and should.
Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.