Cinema is a vector of emotions among which fear can seem to be the ugly duckling. Indeed, fear is at first sight, like melancholy, something we should fear rather than seek. And yet, audiences want to scare themselves, counting on brave little souls to give them shivers of terror. This is all the ambiguity of horror cinema, but this is also where all its genius lies. Genius which, as we will see, is today undermined by an industry preferring ease to the art of bewitching its viewer.
Horror, a historical genre
If the genre of horror is often associated with Americans because they are probably the most productive in this field, its creation is nevertheless recognized to George Méliès and his Devil’s Mansion of 1896. The film, composed of several innovative special effects such as disappearance, fascinates and will lead to the explosion of the genre in Europe before the sound arrives and the Americans, with their money but also their language more common than the Swedish (sorry Witchcraft through the ages), came to revolutionize the genre in the 1930s.
There follows an evolution of horror, throughout the world and up to the present day, where two trends stand out in the red sky of Dracula. Mainstream horror cinema, driven by the American giant, which saw its artistic aspect abandoned in favor of a thrill of fear “stolen” from the viewer, taking them by surprise with the use of the famous jumpscare and its subcategory the screamer. Does that mean the Billion Slashers in the 70s and 80s were better? Friday 13 and Alice, sweet Alice can testify that no. Do all major horror hits follow the simple recipe of jumpscare ? Not necessarily. The cabin in the woods, yet produced by Lionsgate, was a good surprise. The film, however, seems to pass for an exception.
The second trend is recent and appears to be a revival of the genre, with inspired authors wishing to offer something new. And even if the result is not always perfect, the effort is there. But let’s start with what’s wrong, first of all with the strong comeback of slasher between the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, which is important to present in order to explain the cinema of current horror.
Different but the same
If American horror cinema is experiencing a certain lull after the public grew tired of the recipe for serial killers hunting hormone-filled teenagers, one film is reinvigorating the industry: Scream. It’s the same thing, except that horror films exist in the diegesis and therefore the protagonists, like the killers, know the codes of the genre, thus giving rise to more realistic situations and avoiding the clichés of the time. Freddie and Jason. Also, the killer is no longer a superman who survives a hospital explosion (hello Halloween 2) but a human being, with his reasons for acting. Anyway, that’s on paper, because the kids in Wes Craven’s movie will look more like Scooby-Doo gore than anything else. So the public is getting bored, again. He asks for more fantasy, and other clichés to sand down to the marrow. And a person will come to change things.
The James Wan Phenomenon
Spotted after the global success of his sympathetic and original Sawthe young filmmaker continues this time with larger budgets and a quality that will follow the opposite path, with first the saga Insidious then the creation of the universe of the Warren files, whose appalling Conjuring wants to be the standard bearer. His know-how will be taken up and copied to the point of overdose: Making noise without trying to make good films; the goal is not art, simply to thrill young audiences without too much effort and with an optimized return on investment. It’s “almost” soulless factory cinema. Almost, because if the scenarios do not generally shine by their originality, all the directors are not yes man and some are driven by the urge to do well and complete the film they mostly wrote. This despite inadequate conditions in over-controlled projects to meet general demand.
The case of Brightburn is interesting and symptomatic of what is wrong with this system. The film tells the story of a Superman who would have gone wrong and was to launch Warner’s project to offer horror films from its mainstream films, including the film The pit. The latter should have brought a story of underwater monsters to the Aquaman universe, and be directed by James Wan, as Aquaman. However, this project died in the bud with the very mixed success of Brightburn who nevertheless had marketing assets with James Gunn in production and his brothers Brian and Mark in writing. And if certain ideas of the film are good, in particular the relationship of the psychopathic child to sexuality which is very disturbing, the horror will come down to making noise or suddenly making the flying kid appear, despite once again real good things both visual and narrative.
When it comes to producing this kind of film, Blumhouse is the great champion of the genre by being responsible for the Insidious, American Nightmare, Ouija, Truth or Dare or the sequels of Paranormal Activity.
And yet Blumhouse also produced get-out. It is, however, a separate example in the Blumhouse production, Jordan Peele having benefited from an earlier notoriety guaranteeing him a certain autonomy. In addition, he will go into self-production for his next feature films, perhaps because Jason Blum, director of Blumhouse, wanted to make get-out a franchise like any other from his studio.
The project here is to raise the tension and create an atmosphere instead of relying on the ease allowed by the betrayal of the spectator who is the jumpscare. This makes the fear felt inherent in the viewing in its duration, such as the scene of the ” tall man ” in ItFollows by David Robert Mitchell. It’s not scary if seen outside of the film, but it combines perfectly during viewing with the main character panicking, convinced that something is going to happen. Same thing with Heredity where Ari Aster succeeds in creating fear by using not noise, but silence which then becomes deafening.
This is an opportunity to contrast the “Blumhouse style” with the horrific experiences offered by smaller companies like A24, which bring a breath of fresh air to a genre that has struggled to offer something new for some time. A24 became a film producer in 2016, in addition to being a distributor. The success is immediate and the company produces young filmmakers who will quickly establish themselves, like Ari Aster precisely. A24 will also produce European films, such as the surprising Lamb by Valdimar Jóhannsson.
Fortunately, it’s not just the United States that produces horror. As for the rest of the world, it is often the biggest hits or films that have shone at festivals that cross borders, like Martyrs by Pascal Laugier or films by Julia Ducournau. In Europe, some countries stand out more than others, such as Spain with very good results (Others, The skin that lives) and the shameful (the consequences of Rec Where 28 weeks later). Ironically, we find the Scandinavian countries a century later Witchcraft through the ageswith in particular the cult Walrus or the recent The Innocents. The language border doesn’t seem to be so important these days, even allowing Americans to see European films, and make average remakes of them.
The Asian Resistance
But even if Europe is seeing the emergence of new authors, with more and more women in a very masculine genre, the continent that shines the most in horror in the 21st century remains Asia, whose multiple cultures inspire stories never before seen in the Western world. It is impossible to ignore Japanese cinema with its ghost stories and its assumed extremism that has been present for a long time, as evidenced by the “fashion” of rape films in the 1970s. Japan therefore offers in the 2000s already cult films that mark and to which will be added at the time a virtual ignorance of Japanese culture, making the result terrifying. Nakata, Miike, Shimizu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa to name only the best known authors. And even if the current Japanese horror cinema no longer has the same scope as 20 years ago, its influence has allowed a new impetus of creativity in Asia but also in the West, which may even explain the renewed appeal of the public. western for spiritualism and demons of all kinds (hoping of course that this is not because of Paranormal Activity).
Finally, South Korea is probably the best-known example outside the United States today in terms of horror, starting with the Last train to Busan that the whole world has seen, exaggerating a little, and whose sequel Peninsula is awful. Boon Joon-ho’s work is also something known to Western audiences, now keen on Southeast Asian cultures. The clash of cultures therefore leaves room for curiosity. It is also impressive to see the part that horror represents in the emergence of Korean cinema. However, it is explained by the local public’s desire for genre cinema in order to escape from the post-war period as well as by financing plans issued by the Korean government in order to support its cinema and its young directors. So South Korea stands out as one of the best purveyors of horror going forward, as its traumas to tap into are matched only by its myriad talents to do so.
So what’s the problem?
Even if the success of European and Asian films is growing, they do not yet represent a large part of consumption by the general public, which can be explained by their content and the expectations of viewers. Horror has a generally young audience who may just be looking to scare themselves, not wanting to watch a movie that requires special attention. It’s a genre labeled “popcorn” whose story generally matters little as long as the films offered offer what the public wants: spending time alone or with others without necessarily needing to invest in get the thrill.
Moreover, this does not prevent innovation and artistic research on the part of certain authors in order to speak to an audience, perhaps more restricted, but which expects something different than the same thread-sewn stories white at the Blumhouse or New Line Cinema. These kinds of studios simply give a large chunk of viewers what they ask for, because while online reviews aren’t usually amazing, the success of their production demonstrates some understanding of what works. It is Aristotle’s logic that the popular masses decide what is true. The general public therefore decides what is good for them, because the customer is always right. However, everyone can watch what they want by stopping at the big productions, or by deciding to look further afield for something that suits them better.