Torture porn showcases like Turistas and Hostel: Part II didn’t cut it with critics or moviegoers; Freddy, Jason and Michael are either showing up infrequently or basking in retirement—and there hasn’t been a breakout horror hit since a puppet named Jigsaw jump-started the grotesque Saw franchise back in 2004.
Though they’re trying, a new crop of young horror directors are having a devil of a time resurrecting the genre. Rising star Eli Roth’s reputation took a hit when his highly anticipated Hostel: Part II tanked. Neil Marshall delivered one of the better frights of the decade with 2005’s The Descent, but took a creative leap backward with the recycled mess that was Doomsday. Rogue, director Greg Mclean’s follow-up to the 2005 cult hit Wolf Creek, snuck into only a few theaters earlier this year before its inevitable date with DVD. Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake earned a tidy profit but left fans clamoring for the low-budget original.
Combine this with the old guard’s disappearing box office clout (George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead earned less than $1 million in its theatrical release earlier this year), and audiences are left wondering: What’s next on the horror horizon? Who can scare us silly again?
Legendary special effects guru Tom Savini, who worked on many of Romero’s classic films and is an actor and director in his own right, scratches his head over the genre’s current state.
“It’s hard to tell what phase it’s in,” Savini says of the cyclical genre, which rotates from old-school creature features like Frankenstein to psychological terrors such as The Haunting. Today, what amounts to an original idea is having a cell phone that can kill you, he laments. Horror fans are noticing the dearth of quality scares.
“When I go to [horror] conventions and do Q&As, you can tell they’re starving for something,” he says. If the last year has laid the groundwork for any trend it’s toward films evoking the video game experience, says Savini. Both Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead used a video camera as the audience’s main viewpoint, and scenes from each could easily be translated to a shoot-’em-up style video game. “That mindset—that point of view—is what’s important to the young audience,” he notes.
Ryuhei Kitamura, director of The Midnight Meat Train, agrees that the genre is suffering a creative dry spell. He hopes his film, adapted from a popular short story by Clive Barker, will help shake horror from its doldrums.
“This is probably one of the most violent, bloody movies ever made, but it’s not simply a serial killer movie,” Kitamura says of the film, about a photographer following a serial killer who snatches his victims in subway stations. “It has lots of twists, and you can’t expect what’s coming next. Most importantly, it has a story and characters.”
Strip away the gore and kill shots and fans still clamor for such old-fashioned qualities in horror. Too often, moviemakers take Barker’s work and strip away the key storytelling elements, Kitamura says. It’s one of the reasons why Barker’s books lost their commercial clout for a while.
Marc Fratto (Zombies Anonymous) takes a pessimistic view of horror’s immediate future, arguing that the genre’s farm system is frighteningly thin.
“Talk to moviemakers just getting out of film school today and they look at horror movies negatively,” he says. While Fratto grew up on the horror classics of the 1970s and early 1980s, today’s emerging directors feasted on inferior fare. “They associate horror movies with Jason Takes Manhattan,” he notes.
Horror movies of Fratto’s era flew under the studios’ radars, allowing greater independence for the moviemakers to do as they pleased. The results were uneven but sometimes spectacular (witness 1974’s groundbreaking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). But when films like John Carpenter’s Halloween hit pay dirt, the Hollywood system began to see the profit possibilities and stepped in.
The result, according to Fratto, is that “Horror movies have become more mainstream, less independent. Studios have a little more control over them.”
The creative freedom given to directors participating in Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, which recently morphed into NBC’s “Fear Itself,” is part of the appeal that is driving major horror talent to television. The directors “knew they wouldn’t be subject to the same development steps that come with the traditional studio process,” says Keith Addis, an executive producer on both series who has worked with the likes of Joe Dante (Gremlins), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), John Carpenter (Halloween) and Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist).
When Carpenter directed his first “Masters of Horror” episode, he sought out Addis and fellow executive producer Andrew Deane after discovering an actor he wanted to cast in his story. “You don’t need our approval,” Addis told him, much to Carpenter’s shock.
While Addis and Deane are trying to revive the genre via the small screen, Nick Nunziata, owner-operator of Chud.com, suggests the future of horror could be lurking outside of the U.S. “That’s where the real gems are being discovered,” he says.
Horror films from France, the Czech Republic and Spain—some of which hit American shores courtesy of the direct-to-video express—are forcing fans to become treasure hunters to find their scares.
Cracking the U.S. market requires a new paradigm for overseas horror directors, Nunziata says. That, in turn, could goose the moribund horror market domestically. “People coming from the Netherlands or wherever have to have something that sticks out. It has to be extreme in the idea or execution.”
Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film, says it’s hard to deny that horror has hit a lull.
“It seems like audience tastes have waned for the torture porn,” Berg says, and no other sub-genre has caught fire to replace it. Horror films steeped in visual excess tend to have a short shelf-life anyway, according to Berg.
“For some time, the spectacle is enough—special effects is enough. Then audiences tire of that. They start wanting more—more being character, story and theme,” Berg says. “Genres live because they treat interesting questions in symbolic ways. If you reduce it to just a gore fest, then I think the audience is not getting something else.”
Berg suggests the horror film slump could also be due to cultural reasons. “All the movies about the Iraq War have not done well… Maybe there’s some kind of violence or reality fatigue,” he says. “We’d rather watch ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
That’s a shame, since the horror genre can be the ideal format for exploring the nature of violence and other incendiary topics. Just look at Romero’s zombie features, which confront prejudice, consumerism and, with Diary of the Dead, our 24/7 news cycle. “Whatever society is dealing with at the time is what will be reflected in horror,” observes Deane.
John Penney, a guest lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and the writer-producer of 1993’s Return of the Living Dead III, thinks Cloverfield may have pointed the way for the horror genre in two key ways.
Penney agrees with the aforementioned video game analysis, but adds that film’s ability to maximize our post-9/11 fears could be something future horror directors feast upon. “No matter how you slice it, that post-9/11 intensity people feel, that powerlessness, is the heart of what a lot of horror is,” he says.
Norman Twain, producer of the upcoming 3D horror movie Scar, says the improving 3D imagery means horror directors have another way to leave audiences shaking. Buoyed by technological advances and the success of films like Meet the Robinsons, it’s possible the current 3D reawakening could ripple across the horror spectrum. The 1981 horror film My Bloody Valentine is getting a 3D upgrade next year, and Romero’s 1978 feature Dawn of the Dead will be tweaked for a future 3D theatrical release, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Even generic horror movies “will get a new marketing thrust” thanks to the 3D technology, says Twain. He believes that the potential success of a non-horror 3D film like this summer’s Journey to the Center of the Earth could have major ramifications on the horror genre.
“If Scar were not in 3D it would be just another horror film,” Twain observes. “I think there will soon be a lot of horror films in 3D. I’m planning on making two of them.”
Penney, who points to Spanish directors like The Orphanage’s Juan Antonio Bayona as a young moviemaker who could play a part in horror’s revival, has faith that the horror format can rebound. “It’s a genre that will continue to gain more respect because of the complexities it can offer, how elastic it is and how many different stories you can tell.”