What inspired this post was The Blair Witch Project, which I watched today in it's entirety for the first time ever. This post was going to be about old movies I've watched for the first time just recently... but I ended up writing a lot about the state of horror movies in general.
A quick word on The Blair Witch...
The movie is a a phenomenon and is unlike any other movie I've seen or heard of. It was a product of gross advertising; basically the first movie to utilize the Internet as a way to create buzz. I wasn't sure if the movie would hold up as being scary because a lot of the mystery behind the movie has since been uncovered (ie. how real it actually is). It remained pretty scary for me. The story of the film's production is really fascinating, but I'll get to that another time.
Anyway, while watching The Blair Watch I started thinking, "what is a horror movie and what is the current state of the genre?" I don't want to squabble over semantics, but I'm always partial to horror movies that rely heavily on suspense. I know that is really the foundation of what are more commonly categorized as thrillers, and not horror, but let's keep it all under the same umbrella.
It seems that movies like Saw and Hostel are what constitute as horror movies nowadays, and they rely almost entirely on torture and hyper-violent images to scare you. I guess there is some merit to that, but at best that's to be a crutch and not the foundation of a horror movie. I don't like it when audiences has grown so desensitized that there's no longer an actual market for the suspense films I love. I truly believe others would love these movies too, if they gave them a chance.
Are there movies out there that rely on suspense? Sort of. Are they of high quality? No longer. But I'll get to what's available for a guy with my tastes soon.
Saw is designed to appease to an impatient audience, and with each film the ante is being raised in the Hollywood-wide gross-out contest; hence the desensitization. It's sort of ingenious. I used to think that if a viewer wants to be scared; truly wishes to enjoy all that the genre has to offer... then they must be patient.
What movies like Saw ask is, "why be patient when our brand of horror movies pay off early? Patience is for suckers." Why wait an hour to hear a gun fired when Saw shows you torture 10 minutes in? Nothing can be worse than being systematically killed in a dank room, right?
We obviously all have our own fears, but the most commonly shared is the fear of death; the ace that horror movies keep up their sleeves. With Saw you get death. That's for sure. What I'm questioning, from a cinematic standpoint, is whether Saw approaches the prospect of death the most effective way; if they use their ace prematurely. It's a question of pacing, really.
To me, the scariest thing is to be killed despite barely being touched. That's what a movie like The Blair Witch Project -- or most recently The Strangers -- does. It sure seems systematic, but the primary major difference is the unraveling of humanity. In Saw, I get to see someone's ribcage explode. I literally see blood, sweat, and tears running from some person in two minutes tops. But just because I see a someone's flesh pierced doesn't make them human to me. The most convincing way of proving the present of humanity on screen -- something I consider essential in a movie if I am to be made truly terrified -- is to approach the story in a slower and more eloquent fashion. If the characters aren't human, they don't prove themselves to be vulnerable.
Saw has it's merits, and I think a lot of it's overwhelming gore; the quick payoffs and all, is intended to be somewhat comedic. I can't rationalize it any other way. Still, it's box office success has (and will) influence horror movies for some years. That's a big part of the problem.
The Ring could be seen as a compromise between the gross-out brand of new Hollywood horror movies (once exclusive to exploitation films, I might add) and the endangered brand of horror movies that are heavily reliant on suspense. However, movies like The Ring (The Hills Have Eyes, The Mirror, etc.) are seriously flawed in that they try to do too much -- likely a result of being heavily manufactured -- and in trying to obtain balance, bite off more than they can chew. These movies attempt to share both a gross-out component and a suspense component, and in doing so fail to find any identity.
So, yes, like I said there are suspense films being made, but so many seem compromised or, in the case of M. Night Shymalan, based on a poor and/or thin premise. (They suck for a number of reasons.)
It sucks that so many of the horror movies made today are either remakes of foreign films for a U.S. audience and remakes of old horror movies, 30-years removed. Where's the originality? One of the few things that's available for a guy who craves suspense in horror films is a pick at any one of the handful of remakes being made. Unfortunately few of these try to reinvent the film they are based upon, and instead do a poor job of making a shot-for-shot remake. Original works seem far and few between.
The closest I've seen anyone come to maintaining that balance between excessive gore and suspense (a balance which may be unachievable) is in the work of Rob Zombie. I appreciate Rob Zombie so much. You can see his influences throughout his films, and he has developed a style that is far reaching, ambitious and unique. Original work in horror is rare, and it'd be rarer without Zombie.
For now, I'll settle for movies like The Strangers and Cloverfield when I need my monthly dose of terror, because they show craftsmanship.