Is horror finally making a comeback?
Horror film has always had a bit of a spotty record. Known more for cheap slasher flicks that appeal to a narrow but aggressively devoted audience, the genre has struggled to produce outright masterpieces. Earlier eras saw ebbs and flows, giving us the consistently brilliant John Carpenter and the creative but uneven Wes Craven, as well as artists who seemed to do their best work in the boundaries where horror overlapped into science fiction or fantasy (James Cameron comes to mind).
The early 2000s showed promise with the rising star of M. Night Shyamalan, but after a string of successes his star crashed and burned with the 2006 disaster Lady in the Water.
The decade of 2000 to 2010 certainly had a few bright moments (The Mist, Last House on the Left) but these were few and far between.
The last few years, however, have seen a resurgence in inventive, quality, compelling horror filmmaking, the latest success of which has been the JJ Abrams produced 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Originally scripted as The Cellar before being acquired by Abrams and adapted into a “blood relative” of the earlier Abrams smash hit Cloverfield, the movie is a masterclass in how to tighten down the screws of suspense.
Much ink has been spilled arguing over 10 Cloverfield Lane’s ending, which is mostly the handiwork of screenwriter Damien Chazelle, brought on by Abrams to shift the story’s world into Cloverfield territory, but perhaps not enough has been said of newcomers Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, who wrote the original screenplay.
Because it is a brilliant piece of work, my friends.
There is a certain kind of challenge and appeal to writing a script that takes place in a confined space and limits itself to only a smattering of characters. Hitchcock’s Lifeboat comes to mind, or (the sadly disappointing) Phone Booth. But this is rarely well done. Campbell and Stuecken, however, make the most of their self-imposed limitations, crafting one sneaky twist after another. Part of their success hinges on how much ambiguity they leave in the script: just how crazy is Howard? Did he really kidnap and murder that poor girl? Did he kidnap Michelle because of the alien attack, or was he planning on kidnapping her anyway?
For all of its ingenuity, however, 10 Cloverfield Lane will likely be marred by the controversy over its ending, which either reads as an exciting extension of the main character’s story arch, or a crass tacked-on excuse to bolster a new Abrams franchise.
But Lane is really part and parcel of a larger movement: a horor movie renaissance. It comes on the heels of 2016’s other major horror release (so far), The Witch. America has had a long and fruitful run at crafting stories out of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, and so it is surprising that The Witch finds anything new to say about the subject (to be clear, the movie isn’t about Salem, but it’s cut from the same cloth).
The Witch is all the more creepy and disturbing for its restraint, a quality not seen much anymore in horror film (or horror television, for that matter, note: American Horror Story). But it is this very quality that makes The Witch—as well as its brethren from recent years—so engaging. Gone are the machete-wielding maniacs, the torture-porn masterminds in little doll masks, the chainsaws and the mutant freaks. In their place, it seems that our current directors and screenwriters are asking not what will shock the audience, but what will creep them the fuck out?
Last year’s The Conjuring (another witch flick) mined similar territory, but it is closer in its DNA to The Exorcist or The Amityville Horror. It is notable that The Conjuring is directed by James Wan, the man who gave us plenty of torture-porn in the previous decade as the creator of Saw, but who abandoned that approach here for something more nuanced and subtle.
The Conjuring is loosely based on the real life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators made famous by their experience in the Amityville haunting. There are plenty of freaky moments in The Conjuring, but the movie relies heavily upon its stellar cast, including Patrick Wilson and the impressive Vera Farmiga (who is also stunning as Norma Bates in Bates Motel).
The Warrens are investigating another haunted house, this one cursed by a witch. The curse ensures that anyone who lives on the land will die horribly. The Warrens act as both investigators and exorcists, as they attempt to cast the ghost of the witch (and her curse) from the land.
But the finest standout is It Follows, perhaps the most brilliant horror movie of the last thirty years.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell managed to mine a deep vein of terror from a decidedly un-scarifying monster whose main action is a slow loping that, like the Energizer Bunny, never seems to end. Sporting the kind of unbreakable stamina usually reserved for porn stars, the thing in It Follows keeps the viewer in a constant state of anxiety, searching the edges of every frame, looking for that methodical lumbering gait.
It’s not only Mitchell’s premise that is inspired (how awesome is a STG: Sexually Transmitted Ghost), but also the way he both invokes and subverts horror classics. The streets of It Follows feel eerily similar to the streets of Halloween. The pulsing soundtrack echoes the terror strains of not only John Carpenter but the visceral eeee-eeee-eeee of Psycho. The staggering STG recalls the careening lilt of George Romero’s zombies.
Mitchell’s screenplay creates tension by also displacing the movie from time. The teenage protagonists appear to live in a Carpenter-esque 1970s/1980s milieu, except there are clearly automobiles from the 1990s, and one of the main characters has a touch-screen clam-shaped e-reader. To complicate matters, the teens seem totally enraptured at one point with a grainy black and white movie from the 1950s. The sense of displacement adds to the overall unsettling effect.
It is hard to know at this point whether the recent spate of horror gems is a strong new wave that will be ridden long into the future, or simply a short-lived ripple leading to a desultory splash.
But there are indications lately that quality filmmakers and screenwriters are returning to horror fully intending to take the genre seriously again. With any luck, we will see many more excellent movies in the years to come.