The Problem With 21st-Century Horror Films
Modern horror has reduced itself to cheap jump scares and the perpetuation of old motifs.
I have watched numerous horror films but I am yet to have watched a single post-2000 horror film that has left me impressed. Hoping for this to change, I went to watch It at the cinema yesterday but in that very film I encountered everything that is wrong with modern horror films, in my opinion at least.
What, exactly, do horror films aim to achieve? Simply put, they are supposed to scare their audiences by exploiting primal fears. Horror, after all, refers to terror, fear and dread. These sentiments are products of the unknown, the mysterious and the revolting.
But when an audience is laughing during a ''horror'' film you know that this objective has not been achieved. That was what It amounted to yesterday. What makes it worse is that we were not laughing with the film but at the film.
Indeed, Andy Muschietti's film adaptation of Stephen King's novel essentially amounted to a CGI-fuelled orgy of horror motifs that fail to come to anything significant. To exacerbate this, the film is saturated with cartoon characters, poor pacing and ultimately the lack of a sufficient take home value.
This sorry state could not contrast more starkly with many of the horror films of the past, The Shining (1980), The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) being key examples, in my opinion, of where horror works and delivers on screen.
Each of these films, classics in their own right, contained the elements of subtlety and suspense so lacking in the contemporary horror canon. The slow build-up in each was deliberately crafted to achieve this very effect.
Take the example of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Is Jack Torrance insane before he arrives at the Overlook Hotel or is it the malevolent influence of the hotel that causes his insanity? Do spirits reside in the hotel or are all the characters slowly going insane together? The film never quite answers these questions.
In the case of Roman Polanski' Rosemary's Baby, only at the very end of the film — the climax — is all revealed, well, slightly; the fact that the film is driven forward by an unreliable narrator leaves the audience asking many questions once the curtains close: does anything of a supernatural element actually occur or is it all in Rosemary's paranoid mind?
Similarly, whilst containing themes that are obviously supernatural, The Exorcist builds up suspense both gradually and seamlessly. The reason why William Friedkin's classic was so successful at the box office is because it dived into the new and the untested: no one before had ever seen a 12-year-old girl become host to a malevolent demon.
In many older horror films, the element of horror is itself in doubt. Horror works best when one does not know if it is actually there or not. As aforementioned, Rosemary's Baby is a quintessential example of this. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is another: throughout the film we are led to believe that something is wrong, but only at the end of the film do we find our fears confirmed.
By contrast, modern horror films seem to want to pack as much ''horror'' into the first fifteen minutes of screen time as possible. James Wan's The Conjuring films provide ample example of this. The problem with this approach, though, is that it numbs and dis-sensitizes the audience from the outset, effectively making the remaining screen time futile.
Most conspicuously, contemporary horror films invariably perpetuate the same time-tested clichés. The haunted house. The demented doll. The sinister spirit. The list goes on and on. The very repetition of these tropes makes them predictable and predictability is the very antithesis of real horror; that which is predictable can be anticipated and therefore planned for. No wonder I found myself yawning away at every jump scare and cheap thrill that It had on display. Something tells me I was not the only one.
David Sandberg's Annabelle: Creation is another example of where modern horror films simply fail to deliver. The film was essentially a non-stop sequence of ''scary'' scenes that together were as unoriginal as they were tiresome. Hadn't I seen this already in The Conjuring? Repeating the same thing in expectation of different results is synonymous with insanity. That is the state of horror films at present.
This is not to say, of course, that all pre-2000 horror films are brilliant and all post-2000 ones are rubbish. Personally, I think that The Omen (1976) is overrated. Both Sinister (2012) and The Babadook (2014) contained elements worth credit.
But ultimately it seems that contemporary directors of the horror genre have ran out of ideas. Every film on the topic of demon possession is in one way or other a throwback to The Exorcist. Slasher films invariably pay homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Vampire films owe themselves to Nosferatu (1922). The list goes painfully on. Adaptation and development is one thing but outright repetition is quite another.
At present, the horror film industry is a temple of intellectual bankruptcy. Here is a genre exhausted of novelty and starved of inspiration. Audiences are left wondering what it is all for and whether such a thing as cinematic ''horror'' exists anymore.