The Joy of Fear: Why Horror is Still Relevant in 2016

In truth, the cinematic line-up for 2016 has been looking about as exciting as a dead seal in an aquarium. For the most part, it’s a canvas of schlock that is being held up by the occasional big name hits which, despite having fantastic branding potential, lack anything for the audience to really dig their teeth into.

When you get to the point where your options are limited to either watching Batman fight Superman or Iron Man fight Captain America, you begin to wonder what you’re really doing with your life. Of course, there are alternatives. You could watch some rehashed, CG shit-show of your preferred childhood fiction (BFG, The Jungle Book) or even just settle for a delayed reboot from a film that was never actually that good in the first place (Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters). What a time to be alive!

At this point I think I have made my point as clear as I can; 2016 is to cinema what 1945 was to Germany. So, what can we do about it? When the Hollywood Gods fail us and Netflix becomes a barren wasteland where Adam Sandler films roam, where can we turn? Well, I have an answer and really it has always been the answer ever since the early days of the silver screen; watch horror.

Travis Falligant scooby doo halloween

Yes, contrary to the popular view, I would confidently say that if you’re looking for a few fun flicks to pass the empty hours before your inevitable demise, you should head straight for the horror section and pick whatever title jumps out at you and grabs your attention by the throat. Why? Because, unlike most of what Hollywood has to offer, horror is still fresh.

Now, I understand, you’re not fully convinced by my argument and I can empathise with that. Production companies such as Blumhouse and Asylum are not doing the genre any favours. We are living in an age where if you hear about an upcoming ‘horror’ film, your mind instantly jumps to the likes of Paranormal Activity 4 or Sharktopus 3. These films are objectively abhorrent but they are not a fair representation of the genre as a whole. Sadly, these are just the ones that end up leaking through the cracks and being jammed into your peripheral vision via most multiplex cinemas near you. Chip away at the crusty surface of pseudo b-movie crap and you will find a delicious gooey centre of gore, sex, style and weirdness.

Emphasis on the weirdness because it is (and always has been) the weird that catapults this genre way above the rest. Even back in the early 80’s, films with amateurish production value and low budget, such as the 1981 demonic cabin fever extravaganza The Evil Dead, were able to stand up on weirdness alone. Even objectively terrible horror films (the likes of Trolls 2 or Basketcase) have maintained a cult following today due to their fantastically weird nature and quirky visuals. The weirdness itself is a manifestation of all the passion, creativity and style that the filmmakers bleed into their projects. It’s something very rare to see in most big budget films today and although it doesn’t always pay off entirely, it is still a delight to behold. Due to the balance between how easy it is to make a horror film and how difficult it is to make a commercially successful horror film, creativity is crucial. Without a clear sense of uniqueness the film will probably not last the test of time. The reason that production companies are making shit films is because it is a safe bet for small profits but they are terribly formulaic and in that sense they defy what horror should truly be. Horror is often about making huge risks with creative choices and praying you see some financial return.

It Follows

Fast forward to today and we still have a great selection of horror that is lurking under the radar ready to be scooped up and embraced. The only problem is that, unless you live near a very good cinema, you probably won’t hear much about them until a few years post release. A particularly noteworthy mention within this criteria would be the 2014 film ‘It Follows’, an independent slice of all-American horror from little known writer/director David Robert Mitchell (no relation to the comedian or author).

Anyone with an interest in contemporary cinema will have seen endless threads on forums compulsively praising this overlooked gem of a film. Well, I’m going to do the exact same thing here; it’s great. Truly it is one of the better small scale films released in the last few years and it serves as a perfect example of why horror always works. I will confess, the film is not perfect. The editing could be a little tighter in places and some bits and pieces feel unnecessary but the premise, performances and style are more than enough to compensate for these small flaws. The film is eerie, original and uncomfortably relatable with some visuals that are genuinely worthy of being a desktop background. Furthermore, it is a sincerely scary film that utilises subtlety and common familiarity to its advantage. Despite amassing a cult following already, the film did not meet initial box office success on its opening weekend and even when it did finally breakthrough in the US it was still met with a split crowd. This is often the way with films which dare to be as adventurous as ‘It Follows’; they are either praised or abhorred.

Another fun film from recent years which further enforces my belief in the superiority of horror over most else is the Australian mother-son psycho-thriller The Babadook, a truly inspired directorial debut from Jennifer Kent.

The Babadook

The chances are you have already heard about this film and if you have yet to see it, I implore you to go out and buy a copy immediately because it is incredible. Like It Follows, The Babadook aims for eerie simplicity over full out blood and guts and does so with grand results. What I personally respect so much about this film is that it completely does away with all the clichéd tropes of excessive gore, spectacle and jump scares. This film relies instead on its ability to simulate a very realistic sense of creeping dread which climaxes with some truly disturbing scenes. The best thing about the film is that the eponymous Babadook himself and all his supernatural taunting act only really as a backdrop to a far more compelling story about the relationship between a mother and her son. This is another great thing that the genre excels in – it foremost tells a profound tale with universal appeal. Only once this story is fully established are the horror aspects introduced. Not surprisingly, the film flopped hard in Australia and only gained a cult following from the UK and US around a year after. Another injustice to great horror.

I chose to discuss the previous two films as they are the two that particularly stand out to me from the last few years, however if you are prepared to look back a little further you will find a similar selection of high quality, low budget horror has always been lurking in the shadows. You’re Next, The Descent, Pontypool, Oculus, The Blair Witch Project, REC, VHS – the list goes on indefinitely. I won’t make the promise that you shall fall in love with every one of them but they each have something that will undoubtedly appeal very much to a certain crowd. Though subjectivity will always play a part, I would say most of these films are worth watching at least once for each one is in itself a very unique experience.

Looking forward, we still have many more great horror films to anticipate in the very near future. As I am writing this, Nicholas Winding Refn’s super stylish slasher The Neon Demon hits UK cinemas and I can assure you I’ll be first in line for that. Later in the month, the American sci-fi horror Viral will be popping up in cinemas too. Other titles to look out for later this year include Sundance successes such as Carnage Park and They Look like People and even looking beyond English speaking films, there are interesting foreign titles such as the Turkish hell horror Baskin which should arrive in an indie cinema near you anytime between now and next year.

Horror is an overlooked, under-appreciated and often forgotten genre which has so much more to offer than many people think. The problem lies in a general misunderstanding of what cinematic horror truly means and how versatile it can be. With tiny budgets and unreliable profits it’s no surprise that the industry shy away from risky horror projects but with such a wide selection of independent filmmakers producing great quality horror it’s not too late to embrace the fear.

Wes Craven, in my opinion, was one of the great masters of the genre and in his seminal satire ‘Scream’ he made a very apt observation of the current perception of horror as a genre. In one scene, the protagonist Sidney is on the phone with the killer, Ghostface. In a sinister tone, Ghostface asks “Do you like scary movies?” to which Sidney wryly responds, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting”. I agree with Sidney. It’s insulting.

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