In October 2015, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension was released to the public. The sixth film in the Paranormal Activity franchise, a series of movies continuously beating the dead horse of found-footage horror with exponentially declining value. This time though, there was a new gimmick: you can see the ghosts! Or whatever it was. That didn’t work, and Blumhouse announced that this would be the final film of the franchise, thus signalling the end of an initially promising, yet ultimately much maligned era of mainstream found-footage horror.
Despite the eventual disappointing outcome of that series, remember that the original Paranormal Activity was a rather effective horror film, and found-footage, as long as it’s not used as a crutch for the film, is a clever method of creating tension without spending too much money. The first film was made for just $15,000, and this low budget approach to horror has spawned some absolute gems.
Blumhouse’s frugality means it can afford to produce more films, allowing it to take more risks and becoming a platform for some talented filmmakers to bring their ideas to life. James Wan started his consistently solid Insidious series with a terrifying first film in 2012, the same year as another of Blumhouse’s horror hit, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister came out. Two films which followed mainstream horror sensibilities, but ones that allowed the voices of the filmmakers to be heard loud and clear.
Since then, Blumhouse have facilitated the creation of some outstanding genre films. Joel Edgerton’s gripping and intense feature directorial debut The Gift is one. M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback also comes courtesy of Blumhouse, through the delightful found footage (ok it’s not totally dead) The Visit, followed up by a supervillain origin story in horror’s clothing, Split. We can also count last year’s Happy Death Day, a fun horror spin on Groundhog Day featuring a powerhouse lead performance from Jessica Rothe. There’s the deceptively unnerving social media-based Unfriended, as well. And as culturally significant the message of Get Out is, it is still a horror film, and damn fine one at that. Blumhouse isn’t without its missteps, which is clear when looking at Ouija and Sinister 2, among others, but it’s hard to argue that it is playing a big part in bringing forward an exciting era for horror films.
Some very talented filmmakers have emerged thanks to this approach, chief among which is Mike Flanagan. Flanagan’s profile began to skyrocket thanks to his collaborations with Blumhouse, first with Oculus starring Karen Gillan, followed by Hush, a film about a deaf writer being stalked by a masked murderer. He makes it three hits out of three with the Ouija prequel, subtitled Origin of Evil.
Blumhouse aren’t the only ones producing quality horror, of course. Indie titan A24 have gotten in on the act, with Bryan Bertino’s underrated The Monster, as well as the Old England folklore thriller The Witch. Netflix have picked up the last two of Flanagan’s film. Before I Wake, a film struggling for a US release following the bankruptcy of Relativity Media, and a fantastic adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, possibly his best work so far. They’ve recently picked up David Bruckner’s The Ritual, a great blend of folklore horror and the common lost-in-the-woods trope. They also produced the camp, over-the-top fun horror-comedy The Babysitter (McG’s first good film since, uhh…), as well as another King adaptation in 1922, starring Thomas Jane.
Horror films today are growing far beyond just ghosts jumping into frame accompanied by a loud booming noise. Filmmakers, supported by some high profile platforms, are exploring so many ways to tell a story through scaring the bejesus out of its audience. Today, we have films that tackle “casual” racism, or showing how the abuse suffered in childhood can affect a teenage girl through her abduction by multiple James McAvoys, or how that affects the life choices made a grown woman trapped in a sex play gone awry, all told in the vein of horror. Horror films create some of the most visceral responses from its audience, and now more and more filmmakers are making the most of that through delivering great characterization, a profound message, or just some horrifying scares. There are still stinkers out there, sure. But how else could we separate the gold from the dirt? And there is a lot of gold, alright.
Is it too early to call this a new golden age of horror? I certainly don’t think so.