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State of Horror – The Demise of Reality-based Horror


Having noticed over the years the various forms the horror genre has taken, I find myself wondering what has happened to reality-based horror films. I miss them, I really do.  I miss the energy and excitement, as well as the creativity and the vision, of the ones that hit the mark, that had me squirming in my seat, my anticipation surging, my mind and body undergoing at once a temporary but intoxicating transformation, while unable to contain my admiration of a film well crafted and stylized. I miss the flicks that have left me salivating for the next installment, or for another filmmaker to come along and claim new territory.

After all, I became a writer because of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” a film that made me want to explore my own dark side (then came Hitchcock and an extensive list of others), and I’ve done that by writing dozens of dark-fiction stories and by having had a good number of them published; five of them have been adapted to film, and, since I have a substantial catalog to my name, I hope more of my stories will be developed for the big screen.  Being passionate about films and film making, I—a man without formal training or a college degree—would very much appreciate that. No matter.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’m searching patiently for that exhilarating experience, that high-tension thrill-ride that only a superb dark film, one grounded in reality, can generate. I like being drawn into the characters and their circumstances, caring about them and their journey from the opening scene until the final frame, the filmmaker having incorporated almost all the essential elements—plot, setting, pacing, sympathetic characters, music, atmosphere, cinematography.  In recent times, however, the genre, for my tastes, is going in directions which have severely diminished my interest.  And as a lifelong enthusiast, I wish I didn’t feel that way. In fact, I never thought my interest could drop off even slightly—but it has, indeed, more than I thought possible, and my heart feels somewhat heavy in consequence. How superficial of me, right? Believe me, I know I’m airing a petty disappointment, but it’s fun to talk about nonetheless, especially among friends.

Reality-based horror
is precisely what I’m attracted to. Not campy horror. Not comedic horror. Not remakes, prequels or sequels; though, to be fair, a select few have been very strong. Nor am I particularly interested in supernatural or paranormal or found-footage films.  I can do without over-indulgent amounts of blood and gore—for blood-and-gore’s sake, I mean, as well as sex, nudity, demons, hairy monsters, fanged creatures, zombies, curses, spells, ghosts. Nothing against any of those themes or components, by the way, I’m merely sharing my own preferences, which, for some time, haven’t been in keeping with popular trends.

What is left, then, when you strip away the various strata? What am I, this “discriminating” moviegoer, looking for?—Straightforward horror with a different brain, a heart, a structure, and a rhythm—original ideas brought to life by introducing new cinematic designs, ones which reject clichés, overused formulas, and copycatting; honoring influence is respectable, often commendable, although it’s crucial not to recycle worn-out material.  As has been understood since the inception of the genre, we all define horror in our own way, applying our own built-in principles, judgments, and subjectivity, as it should be. The talent is out there to make distinguished films.

I’m convinced of that. I’ve seen for myself some fine pieces of work from independent filmmakers, both in short films and in full-length features, and I’m determined to find additional movies that aim to reimagine and reinvent the modern-day horror film. Obviously I can’t—and won’t—speak for the legions of fans who follow the genre religiously and worship its every offering. I will say, though, without reservation, that maybe as I’ve gotten older and my adolescent and young-adult years are irretrievably lost that I’m yearning to relive, on the silver screen, the intrigue and sensations and experiences I encountered back in the ’70s and ’80s, having been exposed to a rich, substantive diet of original films, a good number of which left me, and perchance some of you, to wonder about everyday life, about ordinary citizens facing commonplace struggles and dilemmas, and about the unpredictable outcome when tensions rise and human beings start crumbling inward, and, as a result, cannot prevent themselves from succumbing to darkness.

Scenarios of this kind can make for intelligent, riveting, memorable cinema.  I’ve indulged in quite a bit of it myself, and with any luck more stories of quality will be told, and shown, on the big screen. Aging may have eradicated my childishness, ladies and gentlemen, but it hasn’t eroded in the least my child-like core; and in my life, and in myriad ways, movies (of all genres) have been an enhancement as well a source of ongoing nourishment. For clarification, permit me to be objective and say that some might possibly interpret my words and thoughts here as anger, arrogance, pretension—the musings of a self-proclaimed know-it-all. Please dismiss the notion should it enter your mind. Take from this rather extensive explanation nothing more than a moviegoer himself thinking out loud and conversing with his fellow cinephiles.

 Moving on: The truth is, I’ve searched everywhere for exemplary horror movies and have had difficulty finding much I can connect with. I’ve almost given up, but don’t want to turn away just yet. It seems to me that reality-based horror films are not getting made as often as they used to be, and if they have been, I’m hard-pressed to remember many that have left on me a lasting impression.

Time and again I’ve selected a movie on one of the channels (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) only to end up turning it off after fifteen minutes or less, and for a variety of reasons, which I won’t enumerate here. Maybe this essay of mine will prompt someone to inform me of a hidden gem or two that I’ve overlooked.  Certainly I’m not opposed to hearing, “Hey, you forgot about this one, and that one…and that one too.” In any case, it pains me to say the horror genre, in my view, could use a friendly nudge in a new direction. No offense to anyone: not to the creative minds who make movies or to the fans who with great relish watch them, discourse about them, and remain on a scavenger hunt for as many as they can find. Nevertheless, who, other than me, would like to see the genre consider an alternative route and begin anew?

I hold the best of horror films—and their creative teams—in the utmost regard. To my mind it requires tremendous imagination, drive, and talent, among other attributes, to assemble a formidable film, especially one which relies more on the above-mentioned elements than on special effects, CGI, and excessive gore and bloodshed and monotonous, predictable jump-scares to capture and sustain attention; suspense, tension, and drama are vital to the interaction as a whole. Of all the subgenres of horror cinema, the selections carrying the labels “thriller,” “psychological thriller,” “suspense-thriller,” “slasher-thriller,” “dramatic thriller,” “mystery-thriller”—when done with a keen eye, ear, and vision—are the types of movies that intrigue me the most.

To me nothing, in terms of portrayal in film, is as captivating, enthralling and gripping as the conflicts of the human mind, the human psyche, and the actions of and the reactions to those conflicts.  Sure, superior stories of this kind have been told without having incorporated any horror at all. On the other hand, when a little “darkness” gets interwoven with more dramatic subjects and plots, the overall tone, in turn, becomes edgier and multidimensional.  Anyway, I guess I’ll keep my eyes open and see what blips I might find on my movie radar.  And in light of this trivial airing of frustration with which I speak of the dark genre, I’ll always be grateful for all the treasures it has given me since I was a little boy.  They are many and they are jewels, as are you for taking the time and having the patience to read this. Thank you.

by David Boyle

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