High Brow Horror

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence.

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Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)? 

We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.

Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche. 

In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).

This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.  

This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.

Great Movie Scenes – Part 1

Sounding the spoiler claxon nice and early here.

‘Interstellar’ (2014) – Docking

Christopher Nolan’s space epic is a favourite of mine. Arriving after his Batman Trilogy and before recent critical hit Dunkirk, Interstellar‘s reception was a little more lukewarm. Its run time clocks in around 3 hours, dives into black holes and time dilation and ties it all together with love and family. There are several spectacular scenes (Miller’s Planet and just about any involving the Black Hole named Gargantua) but the most unforgettable is the Docking sequence.

Starting with the explosion in space without sound is haunting, it puts us in a moment – following from Dr Mann’s last piece of dialogue – and a moment is all Cooper needs to consider his options. The visual of the Endurance spinning, the ticking clock sound underpinning the score, debris scattering above the Ice Planet below, combined with the Organ striking up and thrusting us into the do or die attempt at docking is a perfect build of tension. The track features a grander, stretched out version of the motif which runs throughout Hans Zimmer’s score. It helps emphasise the strain on Cooper and the struggle as he attempts to dock the ship –  failure to do so will see them stranded or sucked back onto the Ice Planet below; their mission and mankind, in ruin.

’28 Days Later’ (2002) – Opening

I’m still holding out hope for the final movie in the 28 Days/Weeks series. It’s a forlorn and fruitless hope, I’ll only be disappointed as it seems the chances are almost as remote as surviving in the post-apocalyptic world built by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. The film rejuvenated the Zombie genre, despite technically not being a zombie film. It’s such a bleak setting, but that only serves to make the few glimmers of hope so beautiful.

YouTube doesn’t have the full opening scene, but it gives a flavor of it. Sadly it skips the part where Cillian Murphy wakes up ‘bawz oot’, but that’s not hard to find. The empty London streets, usually smothered in people, houses only scattered souvenirs. The slow build of the music helps to elevate the unease and yet despite this, it’s an oddly personal scene. We’re questioning everything just as Jim is, where the fuck is everyone? What happened? His simple screams of ‘Hello’ which echo, unanswered, are haunting. I’m sure on reflection I can think of a better opening to a film, but as I write this I think this is probably my favourite. Also, as YouTube neglected to give us the whole opening here is another favourite: “World’s worst place to get a flat”

‘Jaws’ (1975) – Indianapolis Speech

Nothing really needs to be said about how iconic Jaws is so let’s just get into the scene:

The trio of Brody, Hooper and Flint enjoy a fractious relationship in the early stages of their journey. This scene is an absolute masterclass. The visual build up as Flint and Hooper compare injuries which grow as they go on competing gives us a false sense of camaraderie before the tension sets in and Flint recounts the aftermath of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The jovial atmosphere of the scene evaporates. We’re granted an insight into the tragic backstory of Flint, who initially comes off a unhinged, and we share the shock, discomfort and yet an element of sympathy and understanding which Brody and Hooper feel. Flint suddenly seems vulnerable, more human and relatable. It’s a wonderful way of humanising a character who initially appears as a bit of a lunatic and of course foreshadows what’s to come.

‘Baby Driver’ (2017) – Coffee Run

I’ve got some serious love for Baby Driver and I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright – though I’m not a huge fan of his movies. I went into Baby Driver not knowing what to expect, but not really expecting much either. What I got was a captivating experience, one of the most stylised movies I’ve ever seen which deserves all the praise it got and more for some incredible sound editing. This isn’t necessarily my favourite scene in the movie but it demonstrates everything the movie does well.

Each scene in the film features a track and it’s designed to match it. Actions meet the rhythm and beat in the soundtrack. It’s more apparent in the action orientated scenes but the coffee run scene manages to capture the subtlety and the more obvious moments of cohesion. The graffiti matches the song lyrics perfectly, see 0:40-0:45 “whole lotta” is graffitied behind dancers and “soul” appears on the lamp post Baby shimmies around. Baby slides to the left as a passerby barges past, just as the lyric commands, quickly transitioning into him playing the trumpet positioned in a shop window – it’s film making at the highest level. Managing to capture such synchronicity with subtle moments in a near 3 minute tracking shot so effectively is such a great technical achievement, it adds an extra layer to a film which already oozes style.

I’ll leave it here for just now but I’ll try and fill Part 2 with less tension orientated scenes. (and I’ll probably fail at doing so)

Okay… let’s leave it with some fun to counter the serious scenes: