It has been a thrilling year for the genre, with intelligent productions in a resurgence back from the dead
The new wave of cool horror films out to chill us again
Better Watch Out is currently in UAE cinemas, doing the rounds of festive frights. It’s bombed at the box office back in the United States, taking only US$12,000 (Dh44,077) on its opening weekend, but here’s the strange thing: critics loved it. Critical appraisal, admittedly, does not a successful film make – just ask Denis Villeneuve and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) about that one – but a 90 per cent approval on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes suggests something is right about the film.
Tie that in with the box office and critical success of Andy Muschietti’s It, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and David F Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation, all over one summer, and you can’t help asking “when did horror get cool again?”
For years, the horror genre was a thing of ridicule. Critically derided, and viewed mostly by teenage boys with a loyalty card for their local video store (remember them?), it existed outside of mainstream cinema. A thing to be mocked, hated or ignored.
It wasn’t always that way. Look at the ’70s and early ’80s when the genre came into its own. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) were all critically acclaimed, and commercially successful, yet simultaneously terrifying. Look back even further. Ask yourself what is the most striking image of the silent movie era? Max Schreck’s Count Orlock and his shadow in FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is probably on your shortlist.
But something seemed to happen in the ’80s, when horror was incredibly popular but produced diminishing returns. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was a great film, but its interminable sequels are perhaps the most striking example of an entire genre becoming a parody of itself. Throw in Friday the 13th (1980) and we have a prime example of a genre that became creatively bankrupt.
Some cite the ’80s as a high point for horror. I disagree. It was high on quantity, but low on quality. Even outstanding films like The Lost Boys (1987) relied heavily on the fact that, with The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland slaying dance floors that year, there would be a marketplace of vampire-loving goths to buy into the mythology of a film marketed at them.
Fast forward to the ’90s, and horror was nowhere. We’ll give The Blair Witch Project (1999) a pass here as it really was an entirely new genre of low-budget, found-footage genius, but who seriously has Candyman (1992) in their top 10 film list? The downward trend continued into the 2000s, with poor efforts, such as Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of 1973 cult horror The Wicker Man.
Horror-loving directors with any sense set off on paths away from the mainstream, with films such as Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (2009) and Srdjan Spasojevic’s Srpski Film (2010). Gruesome films but each in their own way a reaction to just how bad the horror genre had become, and an experiment in how horrific a niche director could make “horror” in the absence of decent horror.
Now here we are in 2017, and horror is once more in vogue. Muschietti’s It has taken a staggering $700bn at the box office. Peele’s Get Out is being spoken about in Oscar conversations. Closer to home, Babak Anvari’s Tehran-set Under the Shadow retains a staggering 99 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana (2015) is one of the best films to have come out of the UAE to date, as well as the only one to have gained international traction, thanks to Netflix streaming. You could argue that there’s a cultural cause for this. In a world of cult-of-personality leaders, ongoing war and economic meltdown, we have plenty to be scared of.
Ultimately, though, I’d argue that there are two sorts of films that will always have a place in the heart and mind. Those that make you love, and those that make you frightened. We love to be scared, but what seems to have happened recently is that directors have started making scary films that are actually good again. And it’s about time too.