When asked to write for Audiences Everywhere in response to, or at the very least in relation to, an ongoing discussion of what makes a horror movie good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, scary or stupid, I knew I had to accept the offer. Like Keith said in his initial post, I was raised on horror movies: at the age of 8, my mother showed me the Evil Dead trilogy (1981; 1987; 1992), and at the age of 12, The Exorcist (1973). Having read the ongoing conversation on Audiences Everywhere, I found myself and my opinions falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that was presented, with classic horror and modern horror as the extremes, and the debate being about quality, subjectivity, and audience effect; my own interests in and reverence for the genre had me mostly unable to choose sides, because I agreed with both arguments to varying degrees, and I love horror films from all eras in between.
Modern horror subgenres actually became the topics of my two large seminar papers this past year, my final year of undergraduate study; my professors joked around with me frequently that they could not watch the movies I chose to write about. In one paper, I examined how torture porn can actually be meaningful as a way of reflecting upon post-9/11 themes of torture, using James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) as case studies for how those themes manifest in and thereby illustrate a vulnerable American Masculinity. In my other paper, I used the found footage subgenre, namely Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2009), to understand post-9/11 uses of technology during times of terror. So, the scholar in me (let alone the critic, blogger, and movie-lover in me) refuses to see some detrimental divide within the genre as a whole because, as a genre, it has always been considered lower culture anyway, and I likewise refuse to see it as such when it is so visceral in its presentation of often allegorical content, and thus so affecting for audience members in its conveying of those messages.
I’ll agree with Keith Rice, however, that modern horror has sometimes lacked deeper meaning, mainly in terms of remakes that never claim to be anything more than bloodbaths and cash-cows anyway. But if torture porn and found footage can tell us something about our culture, doesn’t that mean horror as a genre still has the potential to be elevated in some way? I think the answer to this is affirmative, and comes in the form of what I consider to be a new wave in the horror genre— an independent movement that transcends subgenres and skirts the boundaries of the genre itself by combining indie film aesthetics and norms with those of horror. I’m by no means arguing that these modern horror films are better or more worthy than classic horror films, but I am arguing that these particular horror films are commendably innovative and at the very least interesting, shifting us away somewhat from the often trite and disappointing narratives and tired, familiar conventions that have become so lazily prominent in mainstream horror cinema today. Perhaps one could see my interjection into this conversation then as finding some happy medium between Keith’s and Schyler Martin’s points, but first, I should probably explain what films and characteristics this new wave even consists of.
I first started to notice a trend when the tragically mis-marketed You’re Next (2013) hit theaters. For those of you who are familiar with the film’strailers who chose not to watch the movie based on the trailer’s content, it’s probably because those trailers made it look like a fairly straightforward home invasion thriller. In reality though, the film proves a fascinating case study for modern indie horror in a number of ways. First of all, the film in itself is darkly comic, playing gleefully (and at times gruesomely) with home invasion tropes at every turn; sure, there are brutal kills and we’re given a pretty remarkable final girl of sorts, but there’s also a sense of yuppie cynicism that gives the film its humorous edge and true originality.
Plus, its cast and crew consist of the majority of the movement’s central players: directed by Adam Wingard, written by Simon Barrett, and staring Ti West, Joe Swanberg, and A.J. Bowen. Swanberg’s work as an actor, director and, writer traverses both horror and independent film. Many consider Swanberg to be one of the prominent figures in the “mumblecore” subgenre of indie film. Mumblecore is typically characterized by its low budget production values, amateur actors, and naturalistic dialogue. Interestingly then, it is not just these filmmakers who seem to occupy both mumblecore and horror, but rather these mumblecore qualities themselves seem to inform certain recent horror films as well, like You’re Next.
Barrett, Wingard, West, and Swanberg are still important figures to consider though before moving forward. Like any other cinematic movement, independent horror is thus dominated by a collective of filmmakers and actors who work together, and another independent horror film is certainly worth noting here as an example: V/H/S (2012). Though anthology horror is in itself not a new subgenre, it seems to be a popular outlet for experimentation within independent horror. These particular filmmakers, for instance, employ (and, again, play with the boundaries of) found footage techniques to varying degrees of success in the first V/H/S film, and to arguably better success in the film’s sequel (2013). For those of you who are unfamiliar, each film is comprised of a few short stories that are housed within a larger frame narrative. The first V/H/S features tales directed by West and Swanberg (who also stars in West’s), with Barrett helming the script for Wingard’s frame narrative. The second film took on new talent, except for Barrett who directed the frame narrative and Wingard who directs and stars in the sequel’s first segment.
I defend both of these films and enthusiastically await the third film in the now-franchise that is set for release later this year, V/H/S: Viral. For better or for worse, these films are manifestations of creativity, and they play with found footage not merely for the sake of doing so (which, in the mainstream, often results in an over-reliance on the form as a cheap gimmick). Rather, I’d argue, these films and filmmakers do so as a means of achieving and even questioning realism—or at least, I believe that to be the result of their experimentation, whether intentional or not. Independent film seems to strive for realism as a rule. So, to me, incorporating those conventions into horror narratives, or incorporating horror conventions into realistic narratives as these films also often do, makes for truly fascinating filmmaking if not wholly horrifying horror.
Another example of independent horror that was acclaimed in certain circles is Eric England’s Contracted (2013). I was lucky enough to communicate with England regarding his body horror masterpiece, and he commended me for picking up on the humanity of the film in my review. The film tells the story of a young woman whose life, and body, are falling apart; her physical deterioration after a one night stand (with a man played by none other than Simon Barrett) is not merely gross, satisfying viewers who seek shock value, but it also viscerally and palpably reflects the pressures of being a twenty-something, pressures that could just as easily, albeit metaphorically, destroy her from the inside out.
So, I’d like to end with some advice. I urge you to follow certain independent horror distributors like IFC Midnight and remain up to date on Video On Demand releases that you won’t get to see in many theaters. Contracted was an IFC Midnight release, and many other independent horror films are being released via V.O.D. platforms, including iTunes. Like independent films including the mumblecore subgenre, there is not only a greater sense of reality and humanity to be had in many of these films, but also a greater sense of experimentation, innovation, and playfulness, which may prove to be refreshing for those who have long since grown weary with the modern mainstream. And, like horror films both classic and modern, I do think there is something more meaningful in at least some of these independent horror films. E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills (2014) comes to mind; yet again playing with genre expectations, the film blends dark humor and brutal horror, and speaks disturbingly to issues of masculinity, money and desperation through the increasingly shocking escalation of its dares-for-cash narrative. So, perhaps these films are not masterpieces. But, I think these films’ underground status and their more grassroots modes of production and distribution, and the indie cred of many of their creators as well, allow for more flexibility within and fluidity of genre norms, and this in turn has given us a new horror aesthetic that is raw, realistic and above all, unique.