Over the last number of years, I have noticed that the genre of horror cinema has hit a bump in the road in terms of its quality. While I wouldn’t regard it as my favourite cinematic genre, I would definitely say that it is an interesting one due to the variety of sub-genres associated with it. These range from the eerie supernatural ghost flick, the home-invasion slasher, the comedy-horror hybrid and by far the most popular and the most profitable according to the studios who distribute these films: the found footage genre. With a variety of filmmakers tackling these sub-genres both on a mainstream and limited scale, the results usually vary from critics praising the feature for creating a chilling atmosphere and effective scares or for not tackling any new ground and just copying material that had been previously used in a more effective manner. For this article, I intend to discuss why there has been a decline in originality with regards to the genre of horror cinema. To emphasise this point I will consider the following sub-genres mentioned above and will analyse films within those genres. The first part of this article will focus on the supernatural.
In the late twentieth century, the concept of the supernatural was an extremely popular genre in the field of literature with the emergence of stories such as The Turn of the Shrew by Henry James and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. These stories focused on the idea that there was a threat that did not obey the rules of the natural order and related heavily to certain psychological conditions that the characters were going through. As the years went by, these ideas filtered their way into cinema and gave birth to the horror cinema as we know it today. A classic example of this is Robert Wise’s 1963 psychological horror The Haunting, which was based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
The film focuses on a group of individuals who are invited to a sinister mansion by a paranormal investigator, Dr. John Parkway, (Richard Johnson) in order to closely observe the strange things that are taking place. The film brilliantly toys with the idea of what is real and what is going on in the character’s heads which is then emphasised brilliantly in one sequence in which the characters of Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom) are in a room together when all of the lights shut off. A panicked Eleanor grasps on to what she assumes is Theodora’s hand hoping that no harm will come to her. However when the light switches back on it is revealed that Theodora is actually on the other side of the room which, needless to say, seriously frightens Eleanor.
In comparison to this, I am going to briefly discuss a short horror film that was released on YouTube back in 2008 titled Bedfellows, directed by Drew Daywalt. It’s roughly two minutes long but it is incredibly effective. When the film starts, we are introduced to a woman in bed sleeping next to what we assume is her partner. She is unable to sleep and is constantly glancing at a variety of photos of her and a man. Her examination of these framed photos is immediately halted the moment her phone suddenly vibrates. She answers it to be greeted by the voice of her husband, which we know because the photo in the contact icon matches the one in the picture she was looking at. He apologises for being late and that he forgot his key and is outside the house looking to be let in. Like Eleanor, she is horrified as there is already a figure in her bed, but it is neither her boyfriend nor is it human. In these short two minutes, Daywalt uses subtlety brilliantly and generates a proper terrifying experience that most feature length films fail to do. This is where I believe true horror lies, being led into a false sense of security and turning everything on its head.
Films like Insidious and Scott Derrickson’s 2012 feature Sinister also did this effectively as they focused on the idea of a family moving into a new friendly environment and the threat was supernatural but there was also the background threat of one of the family members behaving in an unnatural and unsympathetic manner. Adding to this is Jennifer Kent’s brilliant psychological drama The Babadook which is a bleak and powerfully acted tale of a mother’s inability to love her own dysfunctional child and is disguised under the narrative framework of a ghost/ boogeyman type of story. Why all of these films work so well is definitely due to the manner in which they are shot, framed and edited. This is where the idea of the false sense of security comes into play, to make the audience think that everything is ok when in reality the threat was staring them right in the face and they were unaware of it.
In Insidious, (a flawed but effective ghost movie directed by James Wan back in 2011) mentioned above, there is a sequence in which a young mother Renae (Rose Byrne) walks from her bedroom to check on her infant daughter Kali. When she walks into Kali’s room she is suddenly greeted to a horrific demonic face lurking over her daughter’s cradle. The face was only displayed for a brief second but its impact was truly felt. Why this sequence works so well is that there was nothing used to indicate that this moment was approaching, audience members just assumed that she was walking in to make sure that her daughter was ok. Like I said before, a false sense of security.
To make sense of this, I will use this concept in relation to a film that was panned by critics upon its initial release, Ouija directed by Stiles White in 2014. This film completely messes up the idea of the false sense of security discussed already and almost nothing is left to the imagination. The audio is cranked up to 11 so that way the audience is aware of when the scare is going to happen. This allows them to anticipate what to expect, which is why the film fails to scare. It also makes the unfortunate decision to reveal its boogeyman being brought to life by the art of computer-generated imagery. Not only does it look unconvincing but it completely goes against the idea of making the audience think that everything is disguised as being part of the natural order.
The same can be seen with another film dealing with a supernatural presence titled Mama directed by Andres Muschietti back in 2013, which was based off his 2008 short film of the same name. For the most part, the film deals with the psychological horror elements very effectively. It focuses on a couple who adopt two children having found them in the woods. The children constantly refer to someone they call ‘Mama’ and when she makes her appearance in the film’s concluding scenes, it’s a real let-down. Mama floats and moves around the house like she has escaped from an episode of Looney Tunes and it goes against the tone that had been established earlier on. In contrast to this is the boogeyman in one of the film’s mentioned above, The Babadook. The monster itself is only revealed in small portions and is brought to life through a mixture of live-action and stop-motion effects creating this unnatural movement making it both unpredictable and terrifying.
This is why I believe that the supernatural is one of the more effective genres of horror cinema as it can transform objects and people that we have an immense fondness for and makes us see them in another light. We think we are safe, but the filmmakers have just created that atmosphere to toy with expectations. In a way, the filmmaker’s job is similar to that of a magician. The entertainment isn’t through the process of the trick, but rather how they managed to play with our mind and create their fantastic illusion. Another genre that is worth analysing is the home-invasion slasher, which will be considered in Part Two, coming shortly. Sean Moriarty