The Horror of Growing Up
The real monsters in modern, independent horror movies aren't ghosts or demons—they're other human beings. Is scare cinema growing up?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I am addicted to horror movies. I fucking love them. And so do you, even if you won't admit it.
But the recent crop of mainstream horror films have all been pretty bad. Insidious, Annabelle, The Atticus Institute—they're all the same movie with a different gloss of blood-red paint. And beyond any good, old-fashioned lessons like "Dolls are fucking creepy, you weirdo," and, "Anyone who bangs outside of marriage is a sinner and must be smited," I can't remember what exactly I've gained from them—except the feeling that jump scares must be the cinematic equivalent of repeat shock therapy.
Horror is at its most popular when there's no gray area, when we know—without having to think too hard—who to root for and who to hate. When it's nice and simple. The attractive, intelligent girl with aspirations to go to college? Good guy. David Arquette? Good guy. The clown with tiny little daggers for teeth who lingers beneath a street vent? Bad, bad guy.
When the credits roll, everyone has either been mercilessly slaughtered or returned back to normal life, as if they suffered from an acute case of amnesia and totally forget that heady summer when all their loved ones got murdered by their ex-boyfriend. But it doesn't have to be like this. Horror can be a nuanced, complicated genre that'll make you cry and shit your pants.
Films like Psycho and Rosemary's Baby, for example, are terrifying because of their dependence on realism and their refusal to allow the absurdity of the situation (a man running around murdering people in his dead mom's thong and a bunch of old Satanists smuggling a woman away to a yacht to get screwed by the devil himself, respectively) to take control. They're films that resisted convention and created their own laws, without stupid scenes like this from Troll 2, which is, for my money, the greatest-worst moment in cinematic history. And I've seen Leprechaun 4: In Space, which makes me at least the fifth or sixth most qualified person in the entire world to talk about this.
Horror has the power to show us how fucked up we can be toward each other, rather than just show us how fucked up demons are. And independent cinema has had a bit of a maturity moment with horror recently, peeling back the old tropes to reveal the dank humanity beneath.
"I continue to watch modern horror films, despite the constant disappointment," Jennifer Kent, director of The Babadook, recently told The Cut. "Just because it's a horror film doesn't mean it can't be deep. I think a lot of filmmakers who make horror now go in with dubious motives—money, predominantly. They want to make a film that will feel like a theme-park ride, and ultimately make a lot of money."
Robert Florence, director of Scottish horror The House of Him, agrees. "I think it's always a struggle to tackle heavy stuff in mainstream films," he told me. "You can see it in what happened with The Descent, which was a great horror film with an incredible ending that had to be changed for a mainstream American audience. Studios are just nervous, understandably. It's all money, in the end. But audiences are ready for this stuff."
Screw any Freudian or Jungian theories that might explain our addiction to the horror genre—it's hard to overestimate the blunt power of watching Jack Nicholson take an axe to a bathroom door and seeing Shelley Duvall's powerless Wendy screaming, tears falling down that curiously-shaped face. Horror, at its best, makes for very clear and brutal social commentary. "The vehicle of horror," said Kent, "allows characters to be broken."
Horror, then, is witnessing Essie Davis's Amelia continually neglecting Samuel, her son, in The Babadook until the moment she snaps. It's seeing Anna in The House of Him stare at the camera and whisper, "In the end, he kills me." It isn't seeing a crop-top rocking Johnny Depp dragged through a hole in his bed and spewed back up again in the mother of all blood geysers, despite how fun and gruesome it is. That's popcorn fluff.
Often the most affecting horror films—The Shining, Let the Right One In, even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—come from a female perspective. "It's a commentary on men," Florence says of his film. "It's absolutely an anti-men film. I'm comfortable with saying that about it. It's not me that hates men, necessarily. But this film does. It's a film that hates men, completely."
"I've never felt comfortable talking too much about the themes of the film, because I'm a man too, and a large part of the message of The House Of Him is: 'Listen to women. Shut up and listen to women. Let other women help you. Trust in the experiences of other women.'"
That's not to say that a series like Paranormal Activity, which was made for $15,000 and earned over $190 million in the box office, isn't "good" or "worthwhile," despite being about as spiritually nourishing as a summer holiday to Myrtle Beach. But the very best horror, for me at least, is that which is designed to fuck both with your brainwaves as well as your heart.
"Horror audiences are open-minded and very accepting of zero-budget work as long as there is a strong idea behind it," adds Florence. But of course, in an industry that values familiarity over experimentation, there's only so many opportunities for these rare horror movies to be made. Instead, we keep getting the same movies rebranded, until the sound crescendo or the double-bluff jump scare becomes about as exhilarating as a teacups ride. Which makes films like The House of Him so exciting when they do come around.
"On the surface, The House Of Him appears to be a slasher film," continues Florence, "and these films often (but not always) have an array of victims who exist just to scream and look good on camera."
The real monster in these modern movies isn't a ghost or a demon, though. It's other humans—men, mostly—and mental illness. In The Babadook, Amelia is experiencing something akin to PTSD or depression. The threat to humanity came from within, not without. When films actually possess an end to their means, when they don't just stumble aimlessly around from spooky moment to spooky moment like a red-nosed inebriate at the bar, we get behind it. The Babadook has been pretty fucking successful so far.
"It's outlandish that a woman would be trapped overnight in a haunted house with a masked serial killer,' says Florence. "But there's nothing outlandish about a woman being trapped in a threatening situation with a man. That's commonplace, everyday stuff, unfortunately—exactly what the film is about—and we had to handle all of that with care and respect.'
In many ways, the labeling of these movies alongside commercial horror is reductive, like saying Star Wars and Primer are comparable because they're both sci-fi movies. Because one form of the horror genre exists, primarily, to entertain by providing the audience with what they expect to get. The other is to use familiar themes in order to reveal something new. "I hate any talk about 'deconstructing horror,'" says Florence. "That stuff annoys me. We were leaning on horror tropes to try to explore some serious themes." It was, you imagine, quite a balancing act.
Florence said he also wanted to make a film that felt very British, to make it "real," with touches like lots of "tea-making" and "conversations side-by-side on the sitting room couch—things you don't often see in horror," and not feel like a cartoonish fantasy. And that's precisely what he's done. The film—a slasher, by any standards—is terrifying because it's so believable. Because there is nothing cartoonish about domestic violence.
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