Clinging to Life, Doing Just Fine: Horror Cinema in the Modern Era

The horror genre is a curious one for many reasons. Its history has been rather topsy-turvy to put it gently, and in recent decades a number of different movements have taken the genre by storm. Slasher films came and went during the 1980s, torture porn cemented its place in the mid to late 2000s, found footage has inundated the genre since the premiere of Cloverfield in 2008, and countless – not to mention needless – sequels and remakes have defined the genre’s modern era. It is clear that audience tastes have made numerous changes, yet one unique facet of the genre keeps such transformations from becoming its identity.

As I have gone through the archives of Bloody-Disgusting’s now defunct ‘News from the Crypt’ podcast, I focused on the discussions of the first year-end special back in 2008. Show guest, and then-writer for Bloody-Disgusting Spooky Dan asked the rest of those on the show where they thought horror was going as a culture. Co-host Tim Anderson, known to many Bloody-Disgusting readers as Tex Massacre, brought up the concern about whether or not horror needs that one film, or movement, that saves the genre from monotony.

This points to an interesting dilemma the genre has faced for years. In spite of its numerous subgenres, horror requires that one film, regardless of subgenre, that changes the game and rescues its vitality. No other genre can say that its relevance is entirely dependent upon a single film, and that’s what makes horror so peculiar. It’s possible for multiple films to perform such a task, but the burden is often left for one. Fortunately for us horror fans, 2008 saw Let the Right One In breathe new life into a vampire subgenre that would soon after be taken over by the eternally divisive Twilight saga. Unfortunately, films like Let the Right One In come around less frequently than once a year.

I would argue that in the last fifteen years, there have been only three truly game-changing films in horror: Let the Right One In, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Let the Right One In, based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, presented vampires in a refreshing new light with gothic tones that beg comparisons to other classic vampire films of yesteryear. Its American remake Let Me In (2010), directed by Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves, enjoyed similar critical success, but its overall impact was likely partially affected because the Twilight saga was in full swing with the release of Eclipse that same year.

Growing up as a teenager in the mid-2000s, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was a unique film for a couple of reasons. First of all, even though I would not see the film until I was in college, it was essentially my introduction to foreign cinema. Secondly, it introduced me to the concept that a foreign film could garner widespread attention here in the U.S. And boy, did it get some deserved attention. Often described as a grown-up’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Pan’s Labyrinth’s effective mix of historical and fictional horror with the darkly fantastical helped attain a limited, then wide theatrical release after its blistering festival run, earning universal acclaim in the process.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was a revelation for zombie fans everywhere. Before this film’s release, the zombie subgenre was seemingly reserved for B-movie territory and George A. Romero’s revered trilogy of Living Dead films. Additionally, the public had generally known zombies as slow-moving, brain-dead creatures nearly incapable of basic motor skills with an insatiable lust for human flesh. With 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle took that basic mythology and flipped it on its head. In Boyle’s film, the zombies are ferocious, fast, and able to infect and turn humans into zombies within seconds, rather than the long, protracted process of classic zombies. Additionally, it raised questions about the classification of these creatures, as perhaps it is more proper to refer to them and other similar beings as ‘the infected’ because of their differing characteristics.

Now, I recognize that there are plenty of other films that one could make a case for. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) was a hilarious take on zombie films, but because it plays more strongly as a relationship comedy, its impact on the horror genre is relatively stunted. One could reasonably make a case for James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield, as both really kick-started the torture porn and found-footage trends respectively. Those trends, however, would become the norms of the genre, thereby contributing to a perceived decline. Not only that, in Saw’s case, it began one of the most lifeless film franchises to date, being produced and released rather monotonously every Halloween for the next six years.

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) was a lively and fun subversion of the genre, but its impact was blunted by a turbulent studio history, moving from MGM to Lionsgate in the wake of MGM’s financial troubles, and having its release date pushed back from February 5th, 2010 to April 13th, 2012. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) has been one of the better examples of ‘word of mouth,’ and David Gordon Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) has made a bigger splash than anyone would have anticipated, but we need a little more time to fully grasp how they have impacted the genre given their recent releases.

All of this speculation begs the question: does horror need that one film every year or less that reinvents our conceptions of the genre, or does it simply need that one film that puts up stellar box office numbers? The answer: perhaps both, but it should be stated that a big box office only helps those films that have a wide theatrical release. Both 28 Days Later and Pan’s Labyrinth were financially successful, but that success pales in comparison to everything else they accomplished. Both Let Me In and The Cabin in the Woods significantly underperformed for former Anchor Bay subsidiary Overture Films and Lionsgate, respectively, in spite of their critical acclaim and star power (Chris Hemsworth in Cabin and Chloë Grace-Moretz in Let Me In).

Meanwhile, films with relatively lower and often very low budgets have surprised everyone. James Wan’s Saw had a budget of roughly $1.2 million and racked up a little over $100 million at the box office for Lionsgate. Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield made nearly $171 million on a budget of $25 million, and subsequently inspired many major studios to finance found-footage style films. Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009), an originally independent production that spread through word of mouth and was picked up by Paramount, capitalized on the peak power of found-footage films and gained almost $194 million from a $15,000 microbudget.

And no discussion about very profitable recent horror films would be complete without mentioning James Wan’s Insidious (2011). While it was not as critically successful as some of the other films mentioned, Insidious made $97 million with its $1.5 million budget. Then two years later, The Conjuring (2013) came from the same production team, rode off the coattails of Insidious, and profited heavily, gaining $318 million from its $20 million budget.

Of course, these are only a few examples of profitable horror films from the last decade and a half, but these films have done what many others could not: started franchises and/or filmmaking crazes – even a spinoff in the case of The Conjuring. Other equally profitable films like The Last Exorcism (2010) and Ouija (2014) simply jumped on the bandwagon and applied similar themes from the above-mentioned films in order to find some sort of similar audience, and therefore have had little to no impact on the genre.

In spite of the successes these films have cultivated, it should be said that big box office smashes are just as unreliable as the game-changers. While there are plenty of mainstream horror films released every year that accrue a profit – especially within the last five years, it seems – very few stick around in public consciousness, not just horror fan consciousness. Hell, even some horror films are virtually forgotten about by fanatics like myself – I had to look through the 2014 release schedule to remember that Ouija even existed.

The horror genre may need both the game-changers and the box office smashes in order to stay relevant among the minds of non-horror enthusiasts, but maybe the proper question to ask is whether or not there should be any concern about the genre’s vitality at all. Perhaps my perspective as a horror-enthusiast makes me biased, but there will always be filmmakers who create fun, effective, and scary horror films in spite of those conventions. You could even make a good horror film that gleefully and unapologetically embraces those conventions.

It doesn’t matter whether or not great, or even simply good films are coming from the theatrical market, the independent market, or the foreign markets. Beneath every derivative film that does not do the genre any justice and proves all of the critics who point to the failings of the genre right – and I know, there are a lot of them – every year will showcase a few films that epitomize the genre’s greatness. At the end of each year, as long as horror film journalists can pick ten films that deserve their place on a top ten list, the genre isn’t failing. Perhaps this is an effective, or even just slightly amusing way to think of current horror: clinging to life and doing just fine.

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