A Letter From a 21st Century Horror Film Fan
It's me, George. Big fan just in case you're wondering. I know you're probably not up-to-scratch on your fan mail (who is, right?) but I just wanted to let you know that you're on a roll. Seriously. The past decade has seen a huge overhaul in what the horror genre has been capable of, something that many lifelong fans have always knew you could do, and we're glad that so many others are starting to realise what makes you so special.
It might shock you to find out I wasn't always a fan. Or at least, it was complicated. Whilst growing up I essentially lived off of Toy Story, Jurassic Park and whatever was in my parents' video collection and weirdly enough I vividly remember watching Alien:Resurrection countless times by the time I was five. This is odd for two reasons: 1) Because it's the fourth entry to a series and...not the best one. And 2) anything with a slight horror tinge sent me crying to my room and guaranteed nightmares for at least a week. This was despite my young adoration for the Alien franchise, of course. But it was something that persisted throughout my childhood and grew to the point where if an episode of The Simpsons ended with slightly-sinister music (such as this example from season 11's Beyond Blunderdome) I'd have to briefly hide under the covers and plug my fingers in my ears until the moment was over. I feared the unknown sharp turn of sinister music. I feared what I would soon find out to be a jump scare.
One night I was in bed watching the comedy sketch show Dead Ringers and there was a particular sketch about a woman filming a video diary as she boated around the world. She found a sinister-looking doll whilst searching through her belongings then when the rest of her crew disappeared the video diary showed that the doll was alive and cackled into the camera. I was mortified. That and Ernest Scared Stupid were perhaps my biggest scares, but looking back on them now I actually think they're funny bits of satire, but I digest.
Nevertheless, I avoided horror films like the plague. Stuff like 1999 masterpiece The Mummy and Gremlins were as far as I'd go outside the Alien franchise. I longed for the monsters and ideas that your genre held close to its heart but couldn't avoid my trepidation over jumpscares. Then, on a fateful evening when my cousins were watching The Blair Witch Project on television I found myself popping in every five minutes and challenging myself to watch from behind the sofa (and I don't mean that in an old fashioned 'hid behind the sofa' way - I literally poked my head up from behind for the entire film). When the film's third act hit and the screams started I stayed on victorious right up until the shock ending. And thus a fascination grew like a tumour. I discussed the apparently-true story with people at school the next day and we all bought into each other's collective beliefs and from that I had to know more. Was this what horror was like?
I began to ease in slowly (hehe). From my love of Shaun of the Dead I familiarised myself with George Romero's sacred zombie trilogy. From there I added others like 28 Days Later and The Shining - going for the classics really. This continued up to the dreaded teenage phase - you know the one. Where every time you stay round a friend's house you have to try and pick a film packed with jumpscares even at the cost of plot or quality. You know the perpetrators - The Unborn, Boogeyman and The House of Wax remake. Jumpscares were no longer feared but sought after as value, how little we knew. Alongside that I developed a shield from gore thanks to, mostly, Saw and Hostel. But my taste was changing and I found myself longing for some of the good stuff. I familiarised myself with the iconography and read up all I could. I bought boxset after boxset and tried to reach a comfortable middle-ground between jumpscares and atmosphere in the films I picked for all-nighters (the first Insidious was a good shout for that). Sooner or later all pretenses of 'horror' disappeared and, much like science-fiction, horror revealed itself as a vessel for powerful stories of humanity and desperation, an amalgamation of genres all wrapped up in a ghost or monster or psychological story of terror.
At this time I began to grow weary. Very little was genuinely unsettling to me anymore. I devoured countless 'scariest films of all time' lists and whilst I adored not only them but the international fare I longed for the sleepless nights I experienced as a child. We're born into a world where exorcisms are common knowledge, in thanks partly to The Exorcist. We know our folklore and urban legends, and have grown up in a world accustomed to the boogeyman, whether it be Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees. In that very sense, I felt a little disheartened never fully capturing that feeling of terror the infamous faint-filled test screening of The Exorcist had. In actuality, thanks to extensive behind the scenes work and documentaries (long live physical media and the joys of extras), I'm able to be taken back further into a world pre-saturation. Before slashers had to come up with new tricks to stand out, before technology and society worked together to make us cynical to the supernatural, and before Freddy Krueger became a magnet for puns (one time literally).
It's always going to be harder to scare people nowadays. Our world isn't so small anymore when we've got a computer with limitless information in our pockets. We can no longer wait in line for hours to see the latest film that won't be on home release for another year or two - in fact it's probably already been put online somewhere. There's an immediacy to things now that strips many texts of their tension and atmosphere, and films can't really be events anymore because of the way the industry works.
But then the 2010s happened...
The frankly-dry period of the 00s were washed away by the creation of Producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Pictures. With Insidious and Paranormal Activity in particular he proved that such a feeling could still exist. And the people showed they wanted it with their wallets. Over the next few years horror resurged with a renaissance stronger than Disney's in the 90s. Sinister, Oculus, Sleep Tight, Absentia the list goes on. Not only were audiences flocking to horror but original horror was making a splash. Films like The Babadook and It Follows became new icons and combined the old with the new. Quite frankly, I don't think any other genre this past decade has come close when it comes to experimentation and originality.
Horror, over the past year we've arguably had your biggest blockbuster event yet in terms of It: Chapter Two in terms of budget and scale, you're even playing with the big boys now (you're playing with the big boys now!). Whilst streaming services dominate lives the horror community straddles the existence of physical media like hotcakes. Companies like Shout! Factory, Arrow and Second Sight put together fantastic bundles of films loaded with extras for the fans who gush about them over the internet. And maybe that's what I connected with too in my school days after watching The Blair Witch Project. The fascination lead to countless discussions and theories over whether Heather and her friends actually disappeared sparked friendships and new conversations. It just so happens that those conversations have now mostly moved onto the internet. Hell even you yourself have tackled streaming services with Shudder - a brilliant place for those similarly as dark-minded as yourself.
This new renaissance has ushered in a period of startling originality and quality from arthouse pictures like Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake to mainstream contemporary hits like James Wan's The Conjuring. Mike Flanagan brings gold to everything he touches and manages to split the difference between entertaining (but never cheap jump scares) and slow-building dread across his work, Robert Eggers is very quickly establishing himself as a master of indie folk/dreamlike horror, Jennifer Kent goes for the emotional suckerpunch across her two features so far and Jordan Peele has turned out to be the horror ringleader with a passion we've wanted for years. Sure there are still some remnants from the cash-grabbing 90s and 00s that make their way into production, but it feels like a damn good time to be one of your fans at the moment.
I think it's because you always feel so personal, horror. By definition your goal is to scare or frighten or excite. It's a pure, simple goal and one that can be built off of in any way possible. In terms of film it's notoriously difficult to accomplish, so I feel that through the majority of horror fans we're all goading you on from the sidelines every chance we get. Most releases still have the feeling of an independent production despite their associations and budget. Hell, Andy Muschietti was handed the creative reigns to It by Warner Bros. after just one small (albeit, Guillermo Del Toro-produced feature) Mama. Long before a handful of directors were praised for bringing their unique voices to blockbusters and comic-book movies we were lucky enough to count masters like Stanley Kubrick, Wes Craven, Del Toro, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson as one of us. Even horror short films online now gather so much attention that Hollywood studios are snatching up the people behind them. David F. Sandberg's knockout success Lights Out lead him straight to Shazam's door. Everybody wants a part of you. But it's important that you've never lost the feeling of collaboration on even the smaller products, and it ushers in hope for many aspiring filmmakers to no end.
The best thing about your renaissance over the last decade is that it doesn't have to end either. If the 2010s were about reclaiming the integrity of horror and stepping up to the plate, then surely the next decade will be even better right? I mean, horror, you always reflect the fears of the society you're created in. The 80s slasher craze fed off of the sexual promiscuity of society by punishing all those pesky teenagers that were going around doinking one-another, the 00s turned towards ultraviolence and gore to satiate the growing limits we could see thanks to the internet. With the 2020s? Who knows? Maybe the intensified fear of climate change? One thing's for certain, you're not slowing down. 2020 is already going to see Edgar Wright take on his first horror, the renewed revival of the Saw franchise, the sequel to the Halloween revival Halloween Kills as well as returnees The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, The Grudge, a gorgeous looking Gretel & Hansel and Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man.
Anyways, hope everything's good with you horror. Thanks for asking how I've been. Really shows you care...you could have at least sent me a birthday message. You were probably busy. That's okay, I get it, you got a lot going on.
Hit me back, just a chat,
Truly yours, your biggest fan,
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