The horror genre has existed in cinema for more than a century—in other words, horror films have been around about as long as motion pictures themselves. From the earliest horror short films directed by Georges Méliès in the 1890s to the faceted, robust production industry that propels the genre today, horror movies have always served us by enabling us to project our forbidden desires and secret fears while formalistically stretching cultural boundaries. Our Horror Through the Decades series examines definitive qualities of the horror genre in each decade from the 1940s through the 2010s.
This week, Matt Armitage looks at the continuing boom in horror, its growing creativity, and a newfound acceptance of the horror genre by the mainstream.
Horror in the 2000s saw the beginnings of revitalization in various forms: from the fresh approaches of New French Extremity, the deliberate excesses of torture porn, and the rebirth and evolution of several subgenres such as zombie movies, found footage, and possession movies. The decade fostered renewed interest in horror as a genre and sowed the seeds of exciting new directions that would ultimately bear a richer and more fecund crop in the 2010s.
Others may disagree (and probably will), but for me, the 2010s were the best decade in horror since the 1970s with regard to both experimentation, range, and quality. That’s not to say that the decade didn’t also have its fair share of turkeys, but every decade has plenty of those. What the last decade did have was a glut of young visionary directors, a hungry growing audience, and a lot of freedom—thanks to affordable digital cameras, social media, and widespread high-speed internet—for those writers and directors to get their messed up ideas onto our screens without having to rely on big studios and big budgets. The 2010s were the decade that we reached the age of Peak Horror.
Slaughtering of the Sacred Cows
Following the relative financial success of classic remakes and reboots in the 2000s—regardless of how well-received they were—such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, and The Amityville Horror among others, studios realised that they pretty much had a goldmine on their hands. Fans would go and see remakes of their favourite classic horror movies simply out of curiosity, and new fans would go purely from name recognition and marketing hype. What this meant was that quality largely became a secondary consideration. As we started the 2010s, there was a deluge of remakes of what many fans would consider some of most formative and loved horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. 2010 saw remakes released of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Piranha, and I Spit on Your Grave, followed in the next few years by The Thing, Fright Night, Maniac, Evil Dead, and confusingly, another Texas Chainsaw remake. Other remakes in the decade were Carrie, Poltergeist, Suspiria, another Halloween (2018), and Child’s Play.
The profitability of remakes seemed so bankable that remakes began to blur with even newer remakes, reboots, and alternate versions. The Halloween and Texas Chainsaw franchises seemed quite happy to become a whirling dervish of different takes and re-imaginings from whatever director fancied a punt. Who can blame the studios when critical reviews and previous disappointments seemed to do nothing to put off people going to see the next version churned out?
You would be hard-pressed to find any horror fan who thought any of the remakes were better, or even close in quality to the originals. Obviously we all have a special place in our hearts for the classics and those films that we grew up on, but we also can recognise a good film when we see one, even if it deviates wildly from the plot and style of the original work.
One of the best remakes of the 2010s was arguably The Crazies (2010), based on Romero’s 1973 virus thriller, but you’re really not dealing with the same kind of comparisons there. Romero, despite pumping out some genius horror in his time, was obviously not firing on all cylinders when he made that film. Also, for me personally, the 2018 sequel/retcon of Halloween was a decent effort—certainly better than Rob Zombie’s two tries. It managed to reproduce some of the pacing and tension-building of Carpenter’s classic along with the return of an ass-kicking Jamie Lee Curtis, but would I put it in the same league? Absolutely not. But, some of the enjoyment of watching a remake is surely just to see what they have done with it, to see a different angle on a world you know, and yes, partly to have fun criticising it when it inevitably fails. For all of those reasons, it seems that mediocre-to-bad remakes will survive into the 2020s, and really, we’re all to blame for it.
The Waniverse and the House that Blum Built
James Wan burst onto the horror scene in 2004 with the gritty inventive low-budget Saw that spawned a seemingly never-ending franchise which—while successful—has since diluted the credibility of what was a genuinely groundbreaking horror film at the time and had a huge influence on the direction of horror. Wan spent the rest of the decade on two box office bombs and the successful-but-unimaginative Saw III.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Jason Blum’s production company, Blumhouse, had hit gold with director Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity—shot on a shoestring budget yet making close to $200 million. This basic premise became the Blumhouse model: make relatively low budget films which hand creative control over to visionary writers and directors, often utilising skilled actors, and get them wide distribution. It’s a model that has led to and heavily influenced the trend in the ‘10s often referred to as “elevated horror” but—while incredibly successful—Blumhouse focuses more on return on investment over artistic standards. As a result, while it has been responsible for some of the best horror of the last decade, it also has resulted in some fairly dreadful films and the outright milking of many of its hits with Saw-like franchises that result in ever-decreasing returns in terms of quality.
It was Blumhouse who worked with Wan when he returned in 2010 with a film written by his longstanding friend and writing partner, Leigh Whannell: Insidious. Unlike the trends of the ‘00s which leaned more into visual graphic horror, Insidious breathed new life into the haunted house subgenre. It relies far more heavily on the horror techniques of the ‘70s, utilising fine-tuned atmosphere, tension, direction, and perfectly timed jump scares to grab the audience by the delicate parts and make them genuinely nervous as to what is going to happen next. This all seems to be something we take for granted now, but the ‘00s really didn’t see many wide-release horror movies that provoked a sense of real tension. While Insidious starts off as what seems to be a haunted house movie in the style of The Amityville Horror, it segues into a tale about a dark astral realm called “The Further” populated by tortured souls. Any similarities between this and “The Upside Down” in a certain popular television franchise are obviously accidental. While not as huge as Paranormal Activity, Insidious was still a hit, incredibly profitable, and received a reasonable critical response which is a hard-won accolade for any horror film.
Wan was next brought on to direct the passion project of producer Tony DeRosa-Grund, The Conjuring, in 2013. Given a somewhat healthier budget and some serious acting power in the form of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, Wan managed to craft a tale based on the real-life reports of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Wan took the craft he’d used to such success in Insidious and apply it to the possession/exorcism subgenre, but with the added interest in telling it from the point of view of the investigators rather than the family suffering the incident. There is nothing spectacularly inventive about The Conjuring and nothing that hasn’t been done before many times, but what Wan brings to a well-written script is a deep understanding of the horror genre and the cinematic craft involved in inspiring tension and fear. It is a film that seemed singularly designed to appeal to a wide audience and send them home happy at having being scared out of their seats. It is a film that has its critics in the horror fan community because of its generic nature, but I doubt James Wan is losing any sleep over that given that The Conjuring became one of the most successful horror films of all time.
In the same year, Wan also released the second installment of the Insidious series; it was another Blumhouse production that exceeded the success of the first and added another powerhouse franchise to their growing stable along with Paranormal Activity, Sinister, and The Purge. Wan would go on to release a sequel to The Conjuring and develop The Conjuring universe consisting of the backstories of other entities from the film. Aside from the two The Conjuring films, these have largely been lesser affairs, with only Annabelle: Creation gaining any critical laudits. But as Blumhouse has shown to great success, given the right budget, marketing, and distribution, critical reception doesn’t necessarily stop them from being profitable, and in The Conjuring universe, James Wan has created a kind of name-recognition momentum that could roll on for a few more years until audiences start to tire of the decreasing quality.
Alongside the factory-belt horror not worth mentioning and the super-franchises, Blumhouse also has produced some other extremely effective horror in the 2010s. Worthy of note are Mike Flanagan’s films Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, as well as Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep films—all inventive takes on their various genres. Flanagan has proved for me to be one of the most inventive directors to come out of the last decade, with a range that is hard to find in any director, never mind a horror director. Along with his low budget debut feature Absentia, forays into Stephen King-world, and horror television, the Blumhouse-produced films by Flanagan are all very different types of films that nonetheless bring a fresh twist and a dark sense of otherworldly fear to the templates of ghost story, home invasion, and possession. Creep and Creep 2 managed to breathe new life into the tired found-footage genre by keeping the story unpredictable and personal. The Creep films do not rely on jump scares or repetition but build a genuine sense of unease and a connection to a character that you really shouldn’t feel anything other than fear of.
Also hitting the right notes were the meta-remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, M.Night Shyamalan’s found-footage tale of the worst visit to Grandma’s ever, The Visit, and of course, the unstoppable juggernaut that was Get Out. Get Out was Blumhouse’s own largely accidental foray into “elevated horror” that was not only extremely profitable but possibly one of the most critically lauded horror films ever.
Express Elevator to Respectability
Blumhouse’s model of low-budget, low-financial risk, but creative horror led to other studios small and large doing the same. Instead of solely studio-led horror churned out by the numbers, we began to see in the latter half of the decade, particularly, a growing number of visionary talents emerging and a growing sense of acceptance of horror as a genre that could produce “high art” as well as the “low art” of the slasher and the ghost story. A24 is perhaps the main focal point of horror’s growing respectability in the wider world of polite film society, but there are, as ever, many threads to horror’s long road to acceptance. While A24’s arthouse genre-bending films such as Enemy and Under the Skin sneaked under the radar because they could ‘pass’ as science-fiction or psychological thrillers, Robert Eggers’s The Witch could be called nothing but horror. The term “elevated horror” started to be bandied around, but what constitutes elevated horror is hard to define without coming across as an insufferable film snoot.
Most critics seem to detest the use of the term, and it is largely used as a marketing device by studios to differentiate their films from more traditional horror. This strategy comes across as elitist but is probably more simply profit-motivated to attract audiences who would normally avoid horror films because they expect something filled with cheap jump scares, axe-wielding maniacs and in short, no intellectual value whatsoever.
Horror fans, of course, know that smart, complex, creative horror has always been part of the genre but has generally been less common than studio-led popcorn horror until the last two decades simply because no one wanted to fund it. What has really contributed to the huge growth in creative-led indie horror is technology. High-definition video cameras became affordable, special effects could be likewise affordably produced on a laptop, and self-produced indie horror could be taken to festivals, streamed online. These changes enabled producers to circumvent the traditional studio route, which tended to block anything resembling creativity unless the fates lined up in intricate and mysterious ways.
Blumhouse and A24, among others, simply took advantage of the ability of young horror filmmakers to make movies on a low budget, added a layer of business savvy and distribution, and turned it into a successful revenue stream. Suddenly, the smart indie horror that passed most people by became a new wave of elevated horror that seemingly emerged from nowhere.
Even before A24, Blumhouse, Jordan Peele, and Jim from The Office graced us with The Witch, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, Midsommar and Us, the 2010s had already given us smart, original, terrifying, and low budget movies like The Battery, Resolution (along with Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s other films Spring and The Endless), They Look Like People, The Invitation, and Southbound, to name but a few. But, as with New French Extremism, the film world adores a term they can use to describe or deride a particular type of film. As Matt Zoller Seitz said last year, “Elevated horror is like an artisanal cheeseburger. Make the goddamn cheeseburger. If it’s delicious, nobody will care what adjective you put in front of it.’
Rather than worry too much about the mainstream film media having its head stuck up its own posterior though, what we ought to be thankful for is that smart horror is in vogue and that can only be good for a genre that has suffered for too long under the inflexible control of unimaginative studios.
In Part Two we’ll take a look at the Kingaissance, the impact of streaming services, and how television took the genre to its heart and affected horror cinema as a whole.