[Horror History] Netflix & Kill (The 2010’s)

@craiggors

This is the 11th and Final Part of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as well

If the 2000’s was the decade that planted the seeds to revitalize and adapt the horror genre, then the 2010’s certainly saw the fruits of that labor. Whether it was New French Extremity, the deliberate excess of torture porn, or the ever-evolving found footage sub-genre, horror was experiencing a renewed interest and priming itself to head in bold new directions. The 2010’s were packed with variety when it came to spooks and scares. The experimentation, range, and quality exhibited had not been seen on such a massive scale since horror’s Golden Age during the 1970’s. Whether the films of the 2010’s will become as seminal and influential as those of the 70’s remains to be seen, but it can’t be denied that the sheer number of offerings on hand made it a peak time to be a horror fan.

The 2010’s saw an abundance of young, visionary directors crafting interesting, thought-provoking work, and a hungry, willing audience growing by the day eager to consume their work. There was horror for everyone in the 2010’s, no matter what your favorite sub-genre was, and the amount of creative freedom for filmmakers was unparalleled. Thanks to affordable digital cameras, social media, and widespread high-speed internet, it was easier than ever for filmmakers to get their ideas onto screens big and small without having to rely on the traditional studio pipeline that would have hampered more offbeat efforts in the past. The rise of streaming platforms allowed for limitless options, and by the end of the decade, everyone wanted to get in on original horror content. It seemed the first decade of the 21st century whetted the world’s appetite for horror. Now it was time to feast.

Pictured: someone who appreciates going HAM

After the mostly financially successful remakes of classic properties in the 2000’s–chief among them The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2009), it was no surprise that studios stuck with the very easy model of outfitting the old guard for a new era. Old fans were drawn in out of curiosity, while new, younger fans came thanks to name recognition and marketing hype. As the decade began, the remake train was going full steam ahead, with many of the most formative and beloved horror films of the 70’s and 80’s getting made over with A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), Piranha (2010), I Spit On Your Grave (2010), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), The Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013), with Poltergeist (2015), Suspiria (2018), and Child’s Play (2019), and Rabid (2019) sprinkled in later. If it wasn’t remakes, it there were still new entries. The Thing (2011) was a prequel that detailed what happened to the Norwegian base immediately prior to the events of Carpenter’s 1982 film, while Texas Chainsaw was given yet another reset/odd continuity scuttle with Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013). Aside from it’s remake at the end of the decade, the Child’s Play franchise first saw two new installments with Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), all priming people for the television series Chucky airing now on Syfy. Perhaps the most high profile sequel was Halloween (2018), David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original and the start of a new trilogy that saw the return of Laurie Strode in a celebration of the film’s fortieth anniversary. On the other end of the spectrum, Hellraiser: Judgement (2018), the tenth entry in the Hellraiser series, gained little fanfare outside Cenobite loyalists.

Though the bankability of established properties was undeniable, critical reviews and audience reception were not always as kind. As such, the word “remake” came to carry a stain by the mid-2010’s, and later decade efforts to continue famous franchises started using words like “reboot” and “reimagining” and “alternate version” to dissociate from those clearly cash-grab prior efforts. The Halloween and Texas Chainsaw properties were particularly fond of this strategy. These efforts have their admirers, and there is certainly solid work in the bunch, but by and large even the best remakes of the 2010’s still bore the caveat “but we’ve seen it before.”

Yet outside of the redo-cycle, those aforementioned new creatives were experimenting with wild abandon, often to great success. James Wan, who had made a mark for himself with his inventive and low budget Saw (2004), was ready to make his comeback in partnership with Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse, which had struck gold thanks to Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009). The story of that success became the Blumhouse model: make relatively low budget films in which the writers and directors have complete creative control, get good actors, and distribute widely. The strategy is heavy on return on investment, meaning that while Blumhouse produced some of the best horror of the 2010’s, it also produced some of it’s most abysmal stinkers. But it was Blumhouse who invested in Wan’s return effort, a script written by his old friend and writing partner Leigh Whannell: Insidious (2010). The resulting film breathed new life into the haunted house sub-genre, drawing heavily on atmosphere, tension, direction, and expertly timed jump scares. While not as earth-shattering as Paranormal Activity, the film was still a hit commercially and critically, paving the way for Wan to take on an ambitious new project, The Conjuring (2013).

The sheet was uncredited, but man what a performance

Based on the real-life reports of paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with serious chemistry by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring channeled new life into the possession/exorcism sub-genre, a massive feat considering the film is not particularly fresh when it comes to its scares or tactics, but Wan’s direction, the strong script, and the film’s deep understanding of horror as a genre crafted a perfectly tense film that appealed to a wide audience and became one of the most successful horror films of all time. That same year, wan released Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), another box office success that led to Bumhouse’s growing stable of powerhouse franchises alongside Paranormal Activity, Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). Wan went on to helm The Conjuring 2 (2016) and consult on the expansion of the so-called Conjuring Universe, a series of interconnected spin-offs including Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).

Blumhouse was not confined to their super-franchises, however. They also produced lower budget efforts that proved to be some of the most effective horror of the 2010’s, including Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), meta-sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), and Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). Flanagan quickly proved himself to be one of the most inventive directors of the new horror class, with a range that is hard to find in any filmmaker, let alone a horror filmmaker. His debut feature Absentia (2011), his Blumhouse productions, and his Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019) are all vastly different types of films that nonetheless brought fresh twists and dark angles to the tried templates of the ghost story, the home invasion, and the possession tale. Similarly, Creep was credited with breathing new life into the found footage parade with its unpredictability and intimate nature. The unease generated by the Creep films was an element not always found in other 2010’s found footage features, though a handful did stand out in the crowd, including The Last Exorcism (2010), V/H/S (2012), As Above, So Below (2014), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Houses October Built (2014), Hell House LLC (2015), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), another Blumhouse effort that hit just the right notes of suspense and terror.

Blumhouse’s model of low budget, low risk, creative control filmmaking quickly caught on with studios large and small. As the decade wore on, a growing number of visionary talents emerged, backed by studios willing to let them steer their own ships. A discussion arose surrounding the lowly financed, highly creative outputs of these filmmakers, one of so-called “elevated horror.” For perhaps the first time, horror was regarded in the mainstream as a genre that could produce “high art” alongside the “low art” of the slasher and the gore fest. Studio A24 became the focal point for this discussion of respectability in the middle of their decade thanks to Robert Eggers’ Puritan panic, The Witch (2015), though their under-the-radar arthouse films Enemy (2013) and Under the Skin (2013) had quietly started the discussion a few years prior. “Elevated horror” was meant to distinguish films like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014) from more traditional horror, but its usage as a critical term immediately came under fire from longtime horror fans who found the language elitist and implying that non-arthouse horror had no intellectual value. They argued that smart, complex, creative horror has always existed and was only recently overshadowed by over-produced studio fare. The true growth of creative-led indie horror in the 2010’s is thanks in large part to technology. Hi-def video cameras became more affordable, impressive special effects could be completed on a laptop, and self-produced horror could thrive at festivals and stream online thanks to Netflix, Shudder, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any of the other endless streaming platforms desperate for subscribers. Even Blumhouse was technically late to the game. Smart, original, and terrifying low-budget movies like The Battery (2012), Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), They Look Like People (2015), The Invitation (2015), and Southbound (2015) had already made their mark on the indie circuit well before studios realized there was a massive audience for creative-controlled storytelling.

Dost thou wish to have butter on thy popcorn?

Stephen King, whose works had been adapted in every decade since 1976’s Carrie, saw a number of his stories and novels get high profile screen translations in the 2010’s. CBS’s Under the Dome (2013-2015) kicked things off, followed by Hulu’s 11/22/63 miniseries (2016), both of which were more well received than the film adaptations in the early half of the decade. Carrie (2013), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), and Cell (2016) were all considered lazy affairs. This was not unusual for King works that made it to screen, however. For every The Shawshank Redemption (1994) there was always a Dreamcatcher (2003). Then, in 2017, two major King properties with large fanbases made their theatrical debuts after toiling in production hell: The Dark Tower (2017) and IT (2017). Pennywise had previously graced small screens in the 1990 miniseries and had been workshopped for a studio film since 2009, while The Dark Tower was meant to kick off an entire franchise that combined television and film in an epic crossover, but poor reception of the film squashed that idea, at least temporarily. IT surpassed expectations critically and commercially, becoming the most successful horror film of all time. It didn’t take long for others to hop on the newly invigorated King train. Netflix dropped Gerald’s Game (2017) and 1922 (2017) within weeks of IT’s release while Hulu launched Castle Rock (2018-2019) as a means to play with old King stories while creating new ones in a familiar setting. Though Spike’s The Mist (2017) didn’t draw in the viewers or accolades that the 2007 film did, executives weren’t daunted. Audience adapted Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019) to decent reception, and Mike Flanagan took on his second King project with his chilling adaptation of Doctor Sleep (2019) and HBO enjoyed equal success with their miniseries of The Outsider (2020).

King-based TV wasn’t the only horror to soar on the small screen in the 2010’s, and it’s hard not to discuss the genre during the decade without acknowledging the renaissance horror television went through. The explosion of streaming services in the 2010’s changed the rules of both cinema and television. The general approach to horror TV pre-2010 was to take the fantasy and/or supernatural route. You could be frightening here and there, but it was best avoid real terror. Shows like Buffy (1997-2003) and Supernatural (2015-2020) filled that niche well, with Dexter (2006-2013; 2021) scratching the itch for serial killer enthusiasts. And while both True Blood (2008-2014) and The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) capitalized on the post-Twilight vampire craze, it was really AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long running zombie comic series The Walking Dead (2010-present) that entered horror TV into the prestige category. The juggernaut series became AMC’s flagship, sparking dozens of imitators capitalizing on undead mania. With the stigma of low-quality television broken, other efforts came pouring in from networks, premium cable outfits, and streaming services alike. FX’s American Horror Story (2011-present) began as a well-crafted, genuinely scary exploration of themes, characters, and horror iconography not previously seen on the small screen, and it’s initial success opened the floodgates for hardcore horror on TV like Bryan Fuller’s multilayered arthouse Hannibal (2013-2015), moody Psycho (1960) prequel Bates Motel (2013-2017), the delectable Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), and anthology series like Into the Dark (2018-present), Channel Zero (2016-2018), Slasher (2016-present), Scream (2015-2019), and the Creepshow revival (2019-present).

The undisputed champion of 2010’s horror television, however, would turn out to be Netflix. They struck gold with their 80’s-set sci-fi/horror hybrid Stranger Things (2016-present), a nostalgic blast from the past that used incidental music in the style of and from the period to envelop audiences into the time entirely. The blend of coming-of-age drama with horror action proved a massively successful formula, breaking streaming records and setting the cultural tone for the latter half of the decade. Netflix continued to prosper thanks to their partnership with the decade’s rising star Mike Flanagan and his The Haunting of Hill House (2018), lauded as one of the most inventive and scary television shows ever. A masterclass in acting, storytelling, and atmosphere, the series weaved together aspects of the Shirley Jackson novel with a tale of grief and trauma. While other Netflix horror efforts like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020) didn’t quite reach these heights, they nonetheless kept horror fans continually checking in with the streaming service to see what horror offerings they would produce next.

Eight bedrooms, six baths, one Bent-Neck Lady

With Blumhouse and A24 paving the way for horror’s cinematic renaissance, and Netflix doing the same for television, options for genre creatives in the late 2010’s were vast. Thanks to their influx of subscribers, Netflix was now able to begin picking up distribution rights for films at festivals to avoid competing with production studios and thus provide an alternative route to market, and thus return on investment, for filmmakers uninterested or blocked by the traditional and often difficult cinematic release or derived straight-to-disc path. This helped lesser known indies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), American Mary (2012), and Starry Eyes (2014) not get lose in the shuffle and find audiences that otherwise would have missed them. This indiscriminate model sometimes resulted in successes for Netflix like The Ritual (2017) and The Perfection (2018), but also opened the doors for a number of weaker, cheap efforts that felt rushed and incomplete.

Many of these lesser known indie films were able to rise to prominence outside of both the major Hollywood studio system and the ever expanding streaming market. Frozen (2010) had skiers questioning if they’d ever take to the mountains again. The Innkeepers (2011) reminded us that it’s best to leave some ghosts alone, while Mama (2013) demonstrated that family can be deadly. Cyber horror exploited the very technology that integrated itself so completely into daily life in the 2010’s: Followers (2017) used found footage to examine social media, while Megan is Missing (2011) and Share.Like.Follow (2017) took online stalking to frightening new levels and The Den (2013), Cam (2017), and Girl House (2014) revealed just how dangerous spy cams and voyeur culture were getting. Cyberbullying was the subject of a number of films, most notably Don’t Hang Up (2016) and Unfriended (2014). It was an eclectic decade, where everything from salacious slashers like You’re Next (2011) and meta-horror comedies like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) enjoyed as much success as extreme exploitation flicks like The Green Inferno (2015) and home invasion inversions like Don’t Breathe (2016). It was also the decade book-ended by award-recognized horror. Black Swan (2010) and Get Out (2017) drew critical acclaim from the highest halls of film criticism, earning Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, but it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out in particular that sparked important conversations about contemporary and historical traumas surrounding racism in and outside horror. The allegorical film was quickly recognized as a watershed moment for horror, and though Peele’s Us (2019) didn’t garner quite as much praise, Peele was nonetheless solidified as one of the elite class of working horror filmmakers whose projects would be followed as closely as Flanagan, Wan, Eggers, and Ari Aster, whose back-to-back gut punches Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) made it impossible for anyone to deny that horror had the potential to be as respectable and philosophical as any other genre.

Crying over all the Oscar snubs, obviously

With genre-focused services like Shudder providing new and original films and programming alongside classic horror too, and major studios, indie outlets, and streaming services all wanting a pie of the spooky pie, the options for horror fans going into the 2020’s are leaps and bounds ahead of where the genre was even at the beginning of the 2010’s. The rise of independent production companies working closely with streaming has changed the game for horror. Creatives have more avenues than ever to produce the work they want unencumbered by hindering oversight. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put theater-going into a dangerous limbo space, horror as a genre has already proven itself adaptable and capable of not just surviving but thriving in the current state of content consumption, much as it always had been since the days of bats on strings and camera tricks in the days of Edison and Méliès.

It’s unclear what the 2020’s will bring for horror, but it’s certain to be interesting, engaging work reflective of the times. As we await what the next decade will bring, genre fans can rest easy knowing that, like the monsters and slashers and killers that populate the films we love, horror will always be back bigger, stronger, and smarter than ever. Here’s to the next decade, and beyond, of all things horror.

Keep up the creep, Chatterers.

This concludes the Horror History series of posts tackling the history of horror films decade by decade. Share your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading!

WORKS CONSULTED:
Armitage, Matt. “Horror Movies in the 2010s.” Horror Obsessive, 18 July, 2020. https://horrorobsessive.com/2020/07/18/horror-in-the-2010s-part1-the-house-that-wan-built/amp/

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

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