We’re one week into July of 2014 and already the year has offered numerous horror releases of outstanding quality; so much quality in fact that the genre currently feels as if it’s going through a sort of recovery, if not a renaissance. The early 2014 additions to both the independent and mainstream horror canons have been so measurably improved from the standard of recent years that I finally feel comfortable having a diagnostic conversation about a particular observable trend in horror movie reception, the phenomenon that has been separating self-proclaimed horror fans cleanly into two camps: those who believe that horror has been lacking in recent times and those who have a seemingly unflappable love for all things horror. To pinpoint the weapon that has created this divisive wound between fan groups, it is necessary to point our glance away from the screen and in the direction of the sub-culture created by the screen.
Horror, by its very nature, is not a form that is enjoyable to all film-goers. The ambitions of horror are distinctly different from any other type of film. In some cases, the horror experience is a complete subversion of the typical film-going experience. Horror, in relation to other film forms, is inherently unique in goal, function, technique, and outcome. This easy-to-characterize separation has allowed for the establishment of an internal sub-culture. The distinguishing marks of this sub-culture make the sub-culture recognizable from the outside and within, and it is the sub-culture’s self-awareness that is problematic for the positioning of the current actual product (horror movies) within the framework of the general artistic culture of film.
Here’s where I have to pull away from a film focus and get painfully anthropological. In the post-modern, post-industrial world, self-aware cultures and sub-cultures have a tendency to become fixated on the identity built from their own cultural specificity. Once any culture seeks out the symbols of its identity in an effort to promote and display that identity, it elevates those symbols so that first they become formula and then they become farce. There exists an extensive list of sub-cultures that support this observation, but some current modern examples with the least potential to cause offense include: Westboro Baptists, Bronies, any form of hipsters, Tea Party Republicans, The Jersey Shore.
The same way that these example groups have taken existing cultural symbols (religious text, media, pop culture, political beliefs, geographical descriptors) and distorted them into something abrasively new– not something unrecognizable but rather something hyper-recongizable– the horror collective has taken a short comprehensive collection of horror-specific elements and templates and applied them to an artistically numbing degree. This effort to standardize, re-standardize, accentuate, and advertise the familiar is all done in an attempt to communicate the in-status of those holding residence within the culture (artists, critics, and fans alike). The homages, the reboots, the satires, the sequels, the crossovers– all of it serves as proclamations of being “in the know,” a cultural currency in which the ability to recognize and explain becomes more important than the objective quality of the film measured as a film, a form of insider trading intentionally designed to create exclusive identity and the sub-culture’s isolation from its parent culture.
As a fan of all film, I openly believe that horror at its best observes more naked and important truths of the human condition than any other direction of storytelling. And this is a potential that hasn’t been lost over the last decade (see Oculus, Lake Mungo, Martyrs), but any examples of this higher artistic and storytelling accomplishment have to compete with an ocean of contemporary white horror noise, the buzzing of the horror culture’s satisfaction with itself.
In the studio-backed mainstream, where once storytelling mastery presented film-goers with The Exorcist, modern horror culture’s recognition (and I would argue misinterpretation) of The Exorcist‘s horrific importance has in the modern day given to grossly offensive and value-less films like The Last Exorcism and Deliver Us From Evil. John Carpenter’s Halloween has been filtered through horror self-indulgence to give us a complete, god-awful reboot series directed by a man who is the walking personification of my entire thesis. And one of the most celebrated recent works of horror influence, Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, offers nothing more than a film essay confession that the entire genre has been redundantly formulated to a point where self-reference is referencing self-reference; that horror is, to borrow a phrase from the late Kurt Vonnegut, “disappear[ing] up its own asshole, so to speak.”
Within the independent film circuit, for most film genres a landscape that promotes freedom and daring creativity, the self-absorption has been creating even more stifled works. Horror specific critics measure horror films on a touch-up standard as self-defined as the films they review. Consider the plague-like stretch of comparable films in the 2000s: Teeth, American Mary, The Woman, and last year’s Contracted. All films celebrated by horror critics for their supposed progressive empowerment of their female killers/monsters to enact horrifying revenge against those parties who oppressed or victimized them. And the same critical community that wants the progressive merit badge in gender murder equality turns a blind adoring eye when Mick Taylor of the horror-favorite Wolf Creek series is presented as a paint-by-number social archetype, an Outback redneck who kills because that’s what racist poor Outback rednecks do. See, the model is rigged. They’re fixing the scores. Place any of these six films against the same ruler we use on non-horror films and it’s an easy measurement: they’re all measured somewhere between forgettable and horrible. But that’s not the tool of measurement being used. In the horror-specific critical community, once a work hits the right amount of boxes on the in-crowd’s knowledgeable checklist, the praise can be formed in any direction afterward. That sort of sub-cultural self-protection doesn’t lend itself to improvement within the art.
Farther back in in the independent horror library, the incestuous evolution of classic slasher films has given way to the cult classic Hatchet series, a horror series heavily celebrated by the horror in-crowd even though its only value is to serve as a video checklist of all the films that inspire its part-parody, part-homage, fully-confused end product. However, for the purpose of the current investigation, Hatchet at least opens the door for a useful point of relativity. The only cross-genre comparison available to make here is the comparison between the recent state of horror and Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables series. The action genre, for different reasons, might also be fighting for its life, but The Expendables displays an awkwardly amorous self-obsession for its once-great genre. I shouldn’t have to pull the RottenTomatoes scores here. Horror and general film fans alike should recognize the comparison as an unflattering one.
I present my point hesitantly; my aim is not to disparage efforts or insult a genre which has given me some of my all-time favorite films. I know that it will likely read as such. And anyone who has ever made a similar, fractional diagnosis has probably experienced the predictable counter from die-hard, committed fans of the horror genre: something along the lines of, “You just don’t get true horror.” The intent isn’t hidden, the exclusivity is admitted and by design. My hope is that we can tear down the bloodstained boards that make the walls of this makeshift, members-only clubhouse. Horror needs freed from the grip of its own suffocating self-hug. No artistic movement in any medium has benefited from exclusifying its own audience at the cost of broader quality. Horror needs room to wander and breathe, the freedom to be challenged by other genres, and the boldness to challenge itself toward new horizons. And, after the exciting and downright inspiring half-year of fantastic horror releases that I’ve just witnessed, now is the best time to start that conversation.