In the wake of this weekend’s critical and financial disappointment of The Blair Witch, an article from The Week’s Greg Cwik made the rounds through my feed from more than a few of my horror loving brethren. Titled America Has A Horror Movie Problem, it’s the type of think piece that tends to pop up whenever an anticipated genre film stumbles out of the gate. That’s not to say that Cwik doesn’t make some great points within it. He addresses a number of legitimate critiques that beset the kind of horror films that find their way to the multiplexes while pointing readers towards a pair of independent horror films well deserving of everyone’s attention. The main problems I have with Cwik’s criticisms are twofold. First, in assessing blame for the problems of most modern horror, he points that finger at creators who actually get what makes a genre film work. Second, he fails to make a real distinction between the audience and expectations for an independent horror film versus studio crafted fare.
First, Cwik takes Blair Witch director Adam Wingard, and by extension Wingard’s writing partner Simon Barrett, to task for failing to do anything more than make xeorox copies of the genre films they loved as kids. Of You’re Next, Cwik calls Wingard a “charlatan of modern horror”, and writes that he effectively pulled the wool over the audience’s eyes by checking the boxes (Blood! Gore! People in Masks! A Kick Ass Final Girl!) of what fans are looking for with their love of throwback horror. While You’re Next does indeed include the items listed above, what Cwik fails to recognize are the ways the film put its own subtle spin on these genre staples. The result was something much fresher and original when compared to other wide release horror films of 2013, which include Mama, the Carrie remake, Texas Chainsaw 3D, Dark Skies, an Evil Dead with all the gore but none of the charm of Raimi’s films and The Last Exorcism Part II. How did audiences reward You’re Next for pushing the boundaries of home invasion horror outward just a bit? With a paltry $18 million at the box office, less than everything listed above with the exception of Last Exorcism II.
Of Wingard and Barrett’s followup, the phenomenal The Guest, Cwik is even more dismissive, writing off the film in a single line, calling it “a synth-saturated soundtrack with a bland movie attached.” Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t want to live in a world where something as fun, colorful and suspenseful as The Guest gets summarily dismissed in a single line of snark.
The article is just as dismissive of James Wan, the horror maestro responsible for the first Saw and Insidious installments along with both the ultra successful Conjuring entries. Accusing Wan of using the same stories, jump scare tactics and camera movements of John Carpenter four decades ago, Cwik dismisses the Aquaman director as just making the same kinds of films he enjoyed as a kid.
This criticism feels off base for two reasons. First, neither Wan’s supernatural thrillers nor the low budget, claustrophobic Saw feel like they share any of the storytelling elements of Carpenter’s work when he was at his peak. Granted, I have a weak bladder and might have missed the parts of Halloween where Michael Myers disappeared into a shadowy netherworld filled with ghosts and demons a la Insidious’ “Further.”
Cwik’s criticism also feels off base because it fails to acknowledge that even if you know and understand the trappings of what makes a traditional horror movie scary, it’s still no easy task to bring them to life on the big screen. To date Wan has shown a remarkable ability to combine elements of lighting, music, atmosphere and performance in ways that thrill and entertain crowds. There’s a reason why Wan continues to have success with his films while the seeming never ending glut of supernatural films come and go without making much of a dent in the conversation. Wan’s really good at understanding what your heading out to the cineplex on a weekend with a date movie theater goer wants when they plop down ten bucks for a ticket.
That raises the main issue I have with the article’s premise, something I’ll write about with more detail in my next piece. There’s a world of difference between the kind of horror movie that gets pumped out to 3,000 screens and the independent genre films that can afford to be more personal or push the envelope in exciting ways.
The article does point readers towards a pair of independent titles that showcase the best of what horror can offer. Cwik sites Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch as two films that push the boundaries of what modern American horror offers when it’s at its peak. Cwik praises both films for coopting the trappings of classic horror, in particular Biller’s 35mm arresting masterpiece, and infusing their work with thematic material relevant to the present day. Both Eggers and Biller achieve this by overseeing even the most minute of details in their work, and both films represent the pinnacle of what can be accomplished by auteurs. They’re also two examples of what cannot me achieved by the studio system, which in 2016 means filmmaking by committee rather than the singular vision of true visionaries.
That’s a point that shouldn’t be ignored in the conversation. While it’s true, that when it comes to mainstream horror, there’s not only a lack of original ideas, but a dearth of genuinely scary films. However, if you just head out to your local horror film festival, you will be rewarded with days’ worth of horror programming that pushes the envelope, thrills the crowd and demonstrates just how much great horror there is to be found in 2016.