Revisiting the Collective: The Decline of Modern Horror Films: We Need the Scares Back in ‘Scary’ Movies

(CS: I have loved loads of horror movies released in the past several years, but that wasn't the case back in 2012. I decided to revisit a time when I was frustrated with a genre that I loved. This continues my goal to repost as many of my old Collective Publishing pop culture columns that are still available. This was originally posted on October 24, 2012)

I love the Halloween season. One of my favourite Halloween traditions is to watch a scary movie in the cinema. I’ve stopped doing it for a few years, because my wife hates horror films and we spend the “movie budget” on films we both enjoy. This year I got the dream job of being paid to watch and review films. I finally have a justification for why I needed to go watch something by myself that will cause me to be unable to fall asleep for a whole night (or two). 

You may have noticed that there isn’t a single horror film review on this site. If you glance at your calendar, you’ll see Halloween is very close. So, why haven’t I cashed in on my “it is my job to watch a horror film, hon” excuse? My reason is simple, I’m not a big fan of self-torture. 

A few weeks back, I moaned about the lack of rated R action films. I feared my son would never get to experience the yearning for the forbidden fruit or the attempts to sneak a peek before being shooed off to bed. My father is also a big fan of horror movies, and I remember him renting those about as often as the rated R action films. I wouldn’t call horror movies a forbidden fruit, because they didn’t excite me like action films. The idea of them petrified me, and my imagination alone was enough for me to beg for the closet light to be left on and to make me leap on to my bed to avoid my legs being snatched. Horror films sent a chill down my spine and made me clutch my teddy bear tight. These were feelings that came before I even watched one.  

They scared me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t love them. There is a special thrill about being scared. I’ve said before that I think horror can actually be cathartic and a safe way to explore some of our darkest thoughts. It is a way to face fears. It is cinematic therapy. You get to witness things that you never want to experience or be involved in real life, but this is the healthy way to release those darker desires and curiosities. It is the same reason we always look out the car window when there is an accident, but in the cinema you won’t cause another wreck. 

The current crop of films robs me of dealing with any fears or dark thoughts. The current selection of horror is about as scary as a fuzzy bunny. I am sure a few of you are screaming out that Resident Evil has gross looking zombies or that Paranormal Activity made you jump, but I’m not talking about that. (CS: I banged the 'horror was not good' drum until around It Follows was released in early 2014. After that movie it was clear independent filmmakers were crafting some really great horror pictures, and then about a year later major studios caught up. The last several years has had several really great horror movies every single year. I am very happy to be a fan again.)
Yes, there have been some recent horror films that have been gory. But gory isn’t scary – not always. My son’s birth had a great deal of blood, but I didn’t feel fear. It was the happiest moment of my life, and I’d never felt such spirituality and comfort in seeing my son even if he was covered in blood. A few film producers need to learn there is a big different between making one feel nauseous and being scary. (CS; The gore phase was dying out by this point, and now at a major studios level, there are very few gory horror movies each year.) 

Paranormal Activity and found footage films are the hottest fad in horror and may be a form of entertainment that I like slightly less than shoving my face into a hot waffle maker. One of the big problems is I end up spending the entire hour and half wondering why this family is wasting all this time filming everything rather than looking for a non-haunted house to move into. Does anyone in the world use a camera as much as the people in these found footage movie? “Oh look, you’re eating Bran Flakes; this must be recorded for posterity sake.” “My entire family’s life is in danger, so good thing I remembered to turn on my camera.” “Lugging around this piece of equipment and pointing it towards the danger will definitely help me run faster!” (CS: I am very happy this fad is mostly over.) 

The other massive problem with current horror movies especially in found footage films is what I like to call “the peek-a-boo scare”. Somewhere in Hollywood there is some executive who was really traumatize by a game of peek-a-boo, and have decided it is the scariest thing in the known world. So, now every found footage horror film must have at least one scene where a monster/ghost/rabid llama/vacuum salesmen jumps out of nowhere and essentially says “boo”. Since the viewer wasn’t expecting it, they jump. This is apparently scary. The problem is even as a baby when you’re first surprised by peek-a-boo, it isn’t because you’re afraid of your parents. You were just shocked for about an entire second. It is even less scary when you’re 35 years old. Hollywood, your horror movies aren’t scary anymore, but just predictable and mostly very annoying. If I want to be annoyed then I’ll start inviting sales people to my home or try to finish all my pay copy blindfolded. (CS: I think, the reference to salespeople may be due to the fact that around this time I had a really bad experience with an especially pushy one who lied to get into our house to peddle his wares and stuck around for over an hour. Now that I think about it, we ended up having a few annoying salespeople in our house in 2012. That mostly doesn't seem to be a thing anymore, and now they just call our house constantly, but I just don't answer the phone.) 

One of my all-time favourite horror movies is John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film, Halloween. The movie was done on an incredibly low budget. It has very little blood. A small number of people are actually killed. After you watch it, the film seems far more violent than it actually is. Some may even swear that the film is gruesome and gory. It really isn’t. The film is able to unsettle you in such a way that you think everything is much bloodier and horrific. (CS: Similar to the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

 The film is about setting a mood and an atmosphere. The villain, Michael Myers, is so scary because he is unexplainable and remorseless. The film is largely shot in the dark, has an unsettling film score, and goes at a slow pace. It is the pacing that causes you to feel uncomfortable and forces the cold chills to run up your spine.

There are countless copy cats. They have more blood, more kills, and a bigger budget. This is still the film that successfully scares me every year. This is the film that makes me want to leave the hallway light on and has me refusing to walk down an unlit street. Halloween allows me my cathartic experience and to safely dip into the darkest regions of my thoughts. It is my horror therapy. (CS: The previously mentioned It Follows freaked me out the first few nights I walked Summit. There have been a few good 'unsettle me for hours' movies the last nine years.)

Hollywood, you can still be scary. I know you love found footage movies because they’re cheap to make. Films like Resident Evil and Silent Hill prove a bigger budget doesn’t make a movie any scarier. You can still elicit real scares on a smaller budget. You just need to be a little unpredictable and concentrate on creating an unsettling mood. 

And please, make characters I actually care about. Laurie Strode from Halloween was a smart and likable girl. I cared about her and wanted her to be safe. This is why I invest my time to see if she can survive. She isn’t some dork that sticks around so she can get some cool footage on her camera. She is stuck in the house for a reason. I’m not annoyed by her actions, but I’m scared that she did everything right but is still in trouble. 

Hollywood, you can make me scared, if you can make me care. (CS: There have been at least five horror movies this year that I really liked in Scream, X, The Black Phone, Nope, and Fresh, and you could argue Prey is horror too. There are several horror movies I still need to track down, but the one I am the least optimistic about is the latest Halloween movie. Times have changed.)