[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/.

[Horror History] Hail, Satan! (The 1970’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 7 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, and 6 as well

In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), there’s a scene where Rosemary (Mia Farrow) picks up an issue of Time magazine that bears the incendiary headline “Is God Dead?” This question came to inform many of the horror films of the 1970’s, which represent the grim social developments and cultural downturn of the decade following the revolutionary optimism of the 1960’s. By 1970, that optimism had been cut down with a cold dose of reality. The sexual liberation and civil rights movements had taken major leaps forward, then faltered. The Manson Family killed the California hippie dream during their night of Helter Skelter. The Beatles split. Janis and Jimi were dead. And as the decade wore on, it seemed as though things were going steadily, and rapidly, downhill. Watergate. The never-ending Vietnam conflict and all its horrific imagery shared on endless loop on the nightly news. Oil strikes and angry protests. Skyrocketing divorce rates and exponential increase in violent crime committed by strangers. And there in the midst of it all, the rise of “daytime sedatives” to cope with it all.

But when the world gets bad, horror gets good. In the 1970’s, horror made its way back into the cultural spotlight. Horror movies dealing with contemporary societal issues and addressing genuine psychological fears that hit close to home were massive hits during the decade. Religion, and the question of its place in modern America, became a major theme, threaded into other throughlines like the rise of second wave feminism and gender equality, the fear of children and domesticity, and environmental horror, wherein animals rose up and sought revenge against mankind for their inadequate shepherding of the Earth. All the while, the slasher was slowly coalescing into a recognizable sub-genre thanks to brave, burgeoning new directors, the Davids against big name Goliath directors who also lined up to produce horror properties with big studio budgets that would have made Herschell Gordon Lewis’s head explode. The decade’s early years saw The Exorcist (1973) nominated for ten Academy Awards–the first horror film nominated for Best Picture–winning two for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay, and closed with the birth of horror’s first female action hero in Alien (1979).

The true Alien Queen of that franchise

In terms of output, the horror film was at its zenith in the 70’s. Arguably, it also reached an artistic peak unscaled since the early 1930’s. Though there were still a number of formulaic genre pieces and copycat efforts, the 70’s horror film by and large attracted ambitious and interesting filmmakers as well as play-it-safe schlockmeisters. As such, it was possible for work as unusual and diverse as Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Gary Sherman’s Death Line/Raw Meat (1972), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) to find their places in cinemas, exciting both critics and fans, perplexing and perhaps shocking those who’d turned up expecting something more traditional.

Night of the Living Dead‘s influence would eventually be all-pervasive, but at first it was more of a slow burn. AIP passed on distributing George A. Romero’s film, opting to make a hit out of another indie pick-up, Robert Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Originally planned as a “skinflick” (a horror/porno combo that became very common in the 70’s), Count Yorga was the first of a cycle of films which reintroduced classic monsters in contemporary settings. The Count (Robert Quarry), a waspish Dracula imitator, is air-freighted into California in his coffin and awakens to drain the life and blood of the local hippie students. The film draws on the edgy, up-to-the-moment feel that characterizes Romero’s film, including sudden bursts of shocking gore and a downer, ironic ending. A number of sequels and variations followed. Oddly feminist The Velvet Vampire (1971), blaxploitation cult classic Blacula (1972), Hammer’s desperately trendy Dracula AD 1972 (1972), gritty Grave of the Vampire (1972), and comedic Love at First Bite (1979) all follow Count Yorga to some extent, not to mention TV’s The Night Stalker (1974-1975) and the Stephen King-derived miniseries Salem’s Lot (1979), which find a way to bring horror’s first, most familiar icon into a recognizable world.

Traditional monsters were quite busy in the 70’s, in fact. They could often be found in self-aware efforts like Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) or Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). There were even competing attempts to “go back to the original” such as Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), where Christopher Lee sports a white mustache, and the epic TV film Frankenstein: The True Story (1974). There was a whole slew of TV takes on Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, in fact, many of them the projects of legendary TV producer Dan Curtis. Elsewhere, John Badham’s Dracula (1979) was a lush, romantic film starring Frank Langella that walks the line between revisionist and classicist yet is really just a more expensive Hammer film, sporting an eccentric Donald Pleasance performance. It’s not nearly as interested in sticking to Stoker as much as the BBC’s Count Dracula (1977) with Louis Jourdan, regarded as one of the most outstanding adaptations of the novel overall.

More like Count Sexula

In time, there were many direct imitations of Night of the Living Dead, but only a few had meat of their own, like Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974). Night‘s true and most lasting influence was in encouraging other distinctive filmmakers to make horror films that were at once unprecedentedly gruesome and ferociously intelligent. Romero, who eventually followed up with his own vampire variant Martin (1977) and a Living Dead sequel which was equally, if not more, influential, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was the first of the genre auteurs. James Whale, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, and even Val Lewton had worked within the studio system, lobbying for assignments and taking what came their way. After Romero, there would be many more writer-directors and director-producers in the field. Among the names to make first impressions in the 70’s were Dario Argento with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Suspiria (1977), Wes Craven with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), John Waters with Pink Flamingoes (1973) and Female Trouble (1974), Paul Bartel with Private Parts (1972) and Death Race 2000 (1974), Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Death Trap (1976), Bob Clark with Deathdream/Dead of Night (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Murder By Decree (1979), David Cronenberg with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979), Peter Weir with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976), Larry Cohen with It’s Alive (1974) and God Told Me To (1976), David Lynch with Eraserhead (1977), and John Carpenter with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978).

Not all of these filmmakers stayed in horror for the long haul, and most had or are having dry spells and/or drastic career slides, but back in the 70’s they made the genre exciting, overlaying familiar stories with their own personalities and interests. An astonishingly high proportion of these films and directors founded franchises, sub-genres, and mappable cycles in film. Many have also been treated to largely inferior remakes after the turn-of-the-century, a strange accolade in its own right. The message of Night of the Living Dead and the auteur films was that there was something very wrong with America. Earlier horror movies tended to be normative, with monsters who represented an alien threat and would be banished (until the sequel) by a happy ending. Psycho (1960) cracked this convention– a psychiatrist “explains” Norman Bates but the film has no idea what to do with him. The bullet that takes down Duane Jones at the end of NOTLD suggested that in an era of Attica and Kent State, it was time to worry more about Dr. Van Helsing than Dracula. America was being eaten away from within. Canada too, in the case of most of Cronenberg’s work. This monstrousness that was consuming us tended to rise from strife in the family (evil children, murderous parents, monster babies), society (lingering injustices, economically dispossessed backwoods, mutagenic plagues, bigotries, war-mongering), or a world of the familiar turned threatening (suddenly sentient and malign wildlife, possessed motor vehicles). While Romero, Hooper, and Craven explored the rusting, bone-littered, overlooked corners of America, two films from an Englishman in America (John Boorman) and an American in England (Sam Peckinpah) had much to say about inbred, strife-ridden communities, murderous families, and heroes who find themselves with a disturbing capacity for violence. Both Deliverance (1972, Boorman) and Straw Dogs (1971, Peckinpah) were perceived as horror films at the time, likely due to their strong Western influences, but both have come to be regarded as stealth terror films that show a deep awareness of what was going on in the genre and have each had a lasting influence.

At this time, interesting horror films were being made all over the world. Italy had a boom thanks to Argento and Mario Bava’s late-career masterpieces Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Shock (1978). The U.K. produced both gory, grim features like Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord (1974) and Frightmare (1974) and despairing Hammer efforts like Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1970), Demons of the Mind (1972), and Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973). As small-scale British horror began to collapse in on itself, a few gems still shone. Freddie Francis directed Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970) and The Creeping Flesh (1972), while Don Sharp released both Psychomania (1970) and The Corpse (1971), a rip-off of Les Diaboliques (1955) that featured a nasty, nightmarish performance from Michael Gough. Meanwhile, Norman J. Warren’s Prey (1978) featured a lesbian couple that takes in a vagabond only to discover that he’s a werewolf from outer space. But the best-known product of the British collapse is Robin Hardy’s folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man (1973), which remains one of the most studied and written about films of the genre to this day.

But is there a conspiracy around that hair?

As for Hollywood, they turned their attention and their pocketbooks back to horror after the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, based on the semi-factual novel by William Peter Blatty. The number of taboo-breaking moments in the film was truly shocking for the time, something that until then never would have been found in a Warner Brothers film. The Exorcist was “New Hollywood,” a movement of cinema that combined the grim and realism of French New Wave from the 60’s with classic American film and featuring nuanced performances from no-name players who were more “authentic” than megastars of the era like Robert Redford or Shirley MacLaine. New Hollywood films played fast and low, unconcerned with spelling out every story beat. The Exorcist is at once timeless and of its time, a film that straddles competing styles of horror in a way that few, if any, other films have been able to do, especially the film’s own sequels. It kickstarted a massive wave of imitators, from a Black version (Abby, 1974) to a slew of Italian versions, but none could compare. Its most notable successor was Richard Donner’s solemn The Omen (1976), which combines the bizarre body count format of Price vehicles like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973) with the seeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby to bring the Antichrist into a terrifying post-Watergate corridors of power rather than a cozy coven.

The Exorcist was the first horror film to break into the elite upper tier of box office champs, hitherto reserved for the likes of grand epic spectacles like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965) and soon to be the province of Star Wars (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1981). Friedkin’s film was followed by another throwback cleverly disguised in contemporary gear, Steven Spielberg’s runaway hit and inaugural blockbuster Jaws (1975), based on Peter Benchley’s bestseller about a great white shark terrorizing a coastal community. Spielberg had done well with his TV horror movie Duel (1972), written by Richard Matheson, in which a lone motorist (Dennis Weaver) is persecuted by a grimy truck, but Jaws was a straight-for-the-throat pared-to-the-bone monster movie. If Nosferatu enjoys the subtitle “a symphony of shadows,” then Jaws must be given “a concerto for shocks.” The film is keyed precisely with its memorable and iconic musical theme, much like Carpenter’s Halloween was a few years later, and prunes away any significance that distracts from the suspense. Earlier eco-horror films, from The Birds (1963) to the rat/revenge gothic Willard (1970) to the goofy Frogs (1972) suggest the animal attacks are our fault for being complacent, twisted, cruel, or ecologically unsound. In Jaws, the shark bites because that is what sharks do, and the conflict of the film revolves around what the heroes can and can’t do about that. The shark is the Creature From the Black Lagoon without libidinal urges–it chomps a naked swimmer without lingering to leer as the Gill-Man did–or Godzilla stripped of any stature as a punishment for man’s hubris. This idea of a nigh-unstoppable, inherently dangerous vessel of terror would carry on to Halloween, another masterpiece of pure horror in which a masked, mad killer isn’t the product of a family or society that has warped him like Norman Bates or the Sawyer clan, but is a shark who happens to have been born in human skin.

The re-emergence of horror into the mainstream was helped along by a slew of show and made-for-TV films in the early years of the decade in both American and Britain. Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) drew huge numbers for the BBC, as did anthology series like Night Gallery (1970-1973), Thriller (1973-1976), and Dead of Night (1972). A number of these titles created such a cultural impression they remain cult classics to this day, often referred to as the “What was the One Where…?” movies. Whether it was Karen Black being terrorized by a fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975), imps invading Kim Darby’s basement in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Salem witches in the Old West in Black Noon (1971), or the incessantly creepy crying child in Crowhaven Farm (1970), pop culture took notice, and so did regular television. Starsky and Hutch tracked down a real vampire (John Saxon) in an episode directed by Robert Kelljan of the Yorga films. Ironside investigated a twelve-year old witch played by Jodie Foster. Doctor Who took on Frankenstein, Dracula, and the mummy’s curse while McMillan & Wife (1971-1977) tangled with a Satanic cult and The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974) solved mysteries involving a horror movie star played by Vincent Price.

A total stretch, we know

Meanwhile, more horror novelists were following Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty into the ranks of brand-name authors. Former actor Thomas Tryon wrote The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973), adapted for film and TV. Both were notable and early instances of the emerging “imaginary friend” and “sinister community” sub-genres of horror. Englishman James Herbert turned out a run of what became known as “paperback nasties,” titles like The Rats (1974), Lair (1979), and The Fog (1975, completely unrelated to Carpenter’s film). These paperbacks became an underground phenomenon and right of passage for many budding horror fans, passed around the playground like the literary equivalent of contemporary films like Night of the Lepus (1972) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1974). The most important new writer on the scene, however, was Stephen King, whose debut novel Carrie (1974) became an instant bestseller and invented an entire new sub-genre of high school horror.

King’s smash first novel was then spectacularly filmed by Brian De Palma in his own breakthrough film. Carrie (1976) the film was a mainstream hit, an all-over horror show featuring a delicate, heartbreaking performance from Sissy Spacek as the abused, telekinetic teen. The film is at times gratuitous, shocking, endearing, and earnest, and features one of the greatest and well-executed jumps scares in movie history. Carrie also began a wave of psychic/telekinetic horror, including De Palma’s own follow-up The Fury (1978) as well as Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Patrick (1978), The Sender (1982), the Carpenter-scripted The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and another King adaptation, Firestarter (1984). With Halloween following Carrie, American teenagers increasingly became lead characters in horror films, often marked for death. De Palma’s catch-all approach, typical of the “movie brat” generation, was more often used by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but something of the dream logic of Carrie can be found in both of Dario Argento’s masterpieces, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Like De Palma, Argento had come up making Hitchcockian suspense thrillers, gradually adding supernatural overtones until he was liberated in the late 70’s to be fully fantastical. His “Three Mothers” films tend to lack narrative cohesion but deliver on effect through imagery, music, editing, high style, beautiful faces, surreal lighting, monumental architecture, and a king of elegant nastiness. Argento himself has never quite matched the potency of these films, and few others have dared to try.

King followed Carrie with Salem’s Lot (1975), a vampire novel, and The Shining (1977), a ghost story. Both were quickly adapted, with Salem’s Lot (1979) being the first King project mounted for television and directed by Tobe Hooper, who was attempting to “go straight” after the backlash surrounding The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Meanwhile, The Shining (1980) adaptation opened the 80’s with a vision from controversial visitor to the genre Stanley Kubrick. King had lots left in the pipeline, and by the end of the 80’s it seemed everyone with a track record in horror had filmed one of his stories. In the meantime, there were plenty of other literary fish to fry. Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (1971) became John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973). Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973), a King-acknowledged influence on The Shining), was adpated by Dan Curtis in 1976, while Peter Straub’s Julia (1975) became Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976). Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973) was overhauled by Donald Cammell for the 1977 film, a rare adaptation that improves on the source material. Frank DeFelitta’s Audrey Rose (1975) became Robert Wise’s horror swansong in 1977 and Jeffrey Kovitz’s The Sentinel (1974) found its way to the big screen in Michael Winner’s 1977 film. The Amityville Horror (1977), a supposedly true account of a haunting ascribed to Jay Anson (who may or may not have written it) became a middling but commercially successful 1979 film and launched its own mini-franchise of entirely made-up sequels and prequels.

The true horror is that there’s eighteen billon films in this franchise now

Just as the 70’s began with a boom triggered by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), so it ended with another boom triggered by Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). If Night was informed by Vietnam and the counterculture, Dawn was about conformism, consumerism, and American selfishness. It was so gripping, Lucio Fulci even tried to position his film Zombi 2 (1979) as a sequel to Dawn (which was released in Italy as Zombi), but its more a mix-up of 30’s style voodoo island shenanigans and splatter film tactics. Dawn was all about disenchantment with urban life, and it was only the beginning of such films. Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) turned the ennui up a notch, with inhuman duplicates pointing and shrieking at the few surviving individuals, while Coma (1978), directed and paid for by technological paranoid Michael Crichton, was Frankenstein mad science in an era of corporate profit and the industrialization of health care. All this led to the last big horror hit of the decade, perhaps the ultimate co-option of B-movie ideas by A-movie makers. Not far off from a Roger Corman feature, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) became so much more in the telling. Scott’s direction, combined with a cannily assembled cast of British and American semi-names and the fully-realized creature designs of artist H.R. Giger, created instant movie magic. And chills. Alien is a simple film, the story of astronauts killed one by one by a constantly evolving creature. But, like Jaws and Halloween before it, it’s a relentless suspense machine with a high degree of visual sophistication. It also benefited, as wold more and more successful Hollywood horrors, from an outstanding ad campaign, coining the phrase on everyone’s lips at the turn of the decade: “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Those screams would eventually wither to whimpers by the end of the 80’s, but not without a few good scares first…

Next up, body horror, sequels, and more dead teenagers than you can count take the genre on a rollercoaster during the 1980’s

WORKS CONSULTED:
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/.

31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #9: THE MANGLER (1995)

@craiggors

Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.

The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.

There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.

What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.

Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.

The Mangler

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

Carrie: A Horror Novel Unburdened by Ego

By Miss @MelMoy

Since I kind of fell right off my wagon last year when it came to keeping up with the promised blog about my fall reading list, I’m going to actually make an effort this year to talk about the books I read during the spooky season. I kicked things off on September 9th with my first ever reading of Carrie. I picked this one up on a trip to Maine over Labor Day weekend because…obviously.

For anyone unfamiliar, Carrie is a novel about a 17-year-old girl who finds she has latent telekinetic powers after a traumatic incident in the girls’ locker room involving her period. She takes revenge on the peers who bullied her and the mother who raised her in a strict, Christian fundamentalist home. It was Stephen King’s first novel, published when King was about 25 years old and working as a teacher in Hampden high school. Technically, it was his fourth novel but the first one he got published.

Going in, I was highly aware this was one of the earliest works by an author who would go on to put out over 60 novels, 10 short story collections, and 5 nonfiction books. It’s sort of like a time capsule of the most prolific American writer in the later 20th century.  And I was surprised when I came to the end of the story and found the whole thing to be, honestly, a nearly perfect novel. 

The characterization is incredibly well done, the cast doesn’t feel like anyone was short-changed. Characters are full and realized, something King still does expertly, but here it’s done with minimal scenes, low amounts of exposition, and mainly in-scene choices that build the inner world of the cast of characters.  The dialogue lacks King’s self-indulgent style that began to crop up in The Stand and there is no excessive scene building as he trusts the reader to be present without 3 pages worth of introduction. Possibly the best part, this novel is completely devoid of King’s customary self-insert character of a white male writer and occasional school teacher with a substance abuse problem (Jack Torrance, Bill Denbrough, Ben Mears). This is a story probably farthest away from King’s personal experience: a teenage girl’s first period and mercilessly bullying from her fellow women in the school. 

I think what this proves, if anything, is that this novel is the product of honesty at a different time in King’s life. While I think there is real honesty in his later stories that deal with much more internally complex characters with a different set of problems to work through, this novel feels unweighted by the trappings of success, by an author who is invisible in the story. There’s no contamination of ego or expectation. It’s a novel written by a man who was living out of a trailer, with a story to tell. 

As a horror novel? It’s more weird fiction and speculative than it is actual horror. That being said, this novel is a great example of the true differences between horror and terror, as outlined by Shirley Jackson (a known influence on King’s work). In that regard, the last third of the novel is nothing but horror at Carrie’s rampage and King’s use of secondary texts throughout to hint at what’s to come is a great employment of terror as well. 

Ultimately, there’s a lot to be learned about writing and about the author himself from a glimpse at his first work of full fiction that graced shelves. Keep an eye as I work through more spooky books this fall.