Horror films and Hollywood have had a relationship that’s more like a romantic comedy. They met, they courted, there were ups, there were downs and then years of neglect and ball-and-chain treatment, and now no one even knows why they were even together in the first place … “I don’t even know you anymore!” says Hollywood. Horror Film replies: “You used to have taste! Now you’re this completely different person that doesn’t care about anything!” Leave it to the movies to be the Woody Allen character in the relationship.
And in a twist, most romantic comedies are more horrifying than horror these days. What gives?
There are two schools of scary movie these days: the cheap-thrill remake and the startlingly new vision. Both have their pros and cons.
Let’s take The Stepfather as an example. It was a late-80s cult film starring that bald guy from TV’s Lost, and it had a few shocking moments as the audience realized the main character would do anything to have the perfect family, even if it meant killing the imperfect ones. Was there an undercurrent of satire about family life and McDonald’s-style-instant-gratification in there somewhere? A reasonable guess.
But check out the 2009 remake: A proposed late-00s blockbuster starring that douchey guy from TV’s Gossip Girl, with a few shocking moments as the audience realizes it paid a staggering $10 per ticket for a 101-minute nap. Was there an undercurrent about much of anything? Nah. But Amber Heard was in it. Hella smokin’. Sorry, what were we talking about?
That’s how they get us. They take away the point of a film original and replace it with cheap scares and pretty young bodies to hack ’n slash up. What do you call a film where the only point is to show the audience titillating lewdness and nothing more? An exploitation film. And grindhouses are out, unless you’re Rob Zombie — at least his remakes try to tell us something.
So when movies like Paranormal Activity show up, they are a somewhat fresh reminder of what Hollywood used to expect of a scary film. To understand them properly, we have to investigate their predecessors.
Take the original 1978 Halloween: one of the greatest horror films of all time! Why? It presented an emotionless, faceless killer that walked into the suburbs on the one night when everyone is wearing masks. Identity becomes an illusion, and there is no stopping Michael Myers with reason. His pursuer, Loomis, calls him “pure evil.” And pure evil can kill anyone.
The film led to numerous copycats, but all of them ruined the premise. Friday the 13th took oversexed teenagers into the woods at night. A Nightmare on Elm Street allowed negligent parents to watch over kids dying in their dreams. Even the Halloween sequels turned Myers into a superhuman slasher with motives and increasing ability to defy logic. The 80’s killed horror.
Then Scream came along in the irony-filled 90s and dissected the clichés of the 80s franchises by making the victims privy to movie knowledge, a nice change of pace. Until the third installment. Boring.
And in 2002 came The Ring. It was a chilling portrayal of the world’s most devilish little girl at the bottom of the creepiest well ever infecting videotapes and killing unsuspecting teens seven days after watching the tape. There was a lot of commentary on taboos and urban legends and on the collective claustrophobia of society, and the viral nature of negative energy. The downside: Hollywood thought every great Japanese horror film deserved a good old dose of American stupefying. Cue the poor acting, jumps in logic (again!), the creepy kids with psychic abilities (why?) and the obnoxious twist endings.
The first film in each franchise was scary because it found a new way of portraying the unknown. The unknown, ladies and gentlemen, is what scares us. Michael Myers the first time around was only called “The Shape.” He killed without remorse, for no reason. He lurked in foregrounds, where the victims could not possibly see him but the audience could. The Boo Factor didn’t matter. We bit our nails because we watched the protagonist carry on, aloof. Dramatic irony. We knew the videotape of the little girl killed people, but we couldn’t see what they were watching until halfway through the movie. And that’s why the film was so creepy the first time.
What scares us about horror films is the idea that we can’t control everything. Sometimes, new variables and change arrive in our lives like a foul wind in the black night, and all we can do is clutch our loved ones for warmth and scream when the time comes. It’s not a novel concept. The Exorcist got it. Alien got it. The Terminator got it. People fainted in theaters and sued the studio for their broken teeth. Space lost its infinite wonder and became the darkest, most endless night of all. And the future became a dystopia, and technology the enemy, something that could not be bargained with, reasoned with, that would not stop until we all died, through battle or utter dependence.
Paranormal Activity? A scared young couple is haunted by a presence that their cameras and internet can’t protect them from. They can’t leave their house — it will follow them. The man and woman divide based on their impulses, and our greatest fears, that the one we love can’t be trusted, that our home, our shelter from the elements, is the least safe place. That our past isn’t dead, that it’s not even past. What’s scarier? Combine that with the amazing pacing and you-are-there medium of The Blair Witch Project (another cinematic milestone that would take too many words to praise here) and maybe horror and Hollywood have another chance to save their relationship.
Or maybe you thought The Stepfather was scarier. You’re falling for the remake side! Learn what fear is!