Cinematic Cynicism and the Horror Film

This article is written by Luke Green.

Author’s note: This subject could fill an encyclopaedia sized book. This essay is not intended to be a comprehensive exploration of the issue. As it is, it has taken me months of pondering, deleting and rewriting just to get to the 1,400 words or so below. And I’m still not sure that I’m saying what I want to say. At any rate, hopefully it’s food for thought. 

At present, one might be entirely justified in believing that the movie industry is in the grip of a generational age of cynicism; Hollywood seems to be churning out a never ending stream of sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots. Theatres themselves nowadays are overwhelmingly soulless multiplexes, where any artistry and romance has been replaced by technology and the £5.00 cup of Pepsi. In the 1970s and 1980s, annual UK cinema audiences dropped dramatically in comparison to previous post-war decades. The low was 54 million people in 1984. In 2017 that figure was back up to 170 million, suggesting that audiences are relating to the current trends in film. Of course, raw statistics only really tell us what, rather than why, but it would not take a huge leap of faith to conclude that a significant factor in increased audience numbers is the sheer volume of major movies that are released these days. Take Star Wars, for example; this year the franchise (which no artistic endeavour should ever really be labelled) is 42 years old. Until 1998, so for roughly half of its lifetime, that franchise consisted of three films. There are now ten films, including prequels, a side-story prequel, two further sequels and an “origins” story. Episode nine of the linear story is expected soon and numerous other side stories and “origins” entries are mooted. And that’s not even mentioning TV shows. Since 2015, we have had four new Star Wars movies, that’s one every year, a trend set to continue with the aforementioned episode 9. 

Beyond Star Wars, there is the ongoing and constant stream of superhero movies. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies (2002 to 2007) were interesting, but now, unless you’re a hardcore Marvel or DC fanatic, it’s difficult to keep track of the “re-imaginings,” sequels, prequels, tie-ins and cross overs. 

A movie which encapsulates this situation is Justice League. This is a movie that brings together Batman, Superman and Wonderwoman. It has a cast of Hollywood A listers. In the 80s, 90s or even 00s, this would have been “The Major Motion Picture Event of the Year.” But “Major Motion Picture Event of the Years” don’t seem to happen anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, they happen so often now that everything just gets lost amongst the glut of “product” that saturates the market. As it was, any substance to Justice League was conspicuous by its absence, the movie lurching from one set piece spectacle to another, via a few snippets of exposition and some cringe worthy humour. Not that Justice League deserves to be picked upon any more than its brethren, it’s merely a handy example.

So why this cynicism and why now? Well, that question has no easy answer. However, audiences are not completely free of responsibility. One only has to take to social media or online film forums to ascertain that there are hordes of fanboys (and girls) out there, who are gleefully consuming this “product.” This does not mean that audiences are more cynical themselves. If anything, it suggests the opposite. Audiences appear to be operating on a dumber plane. That does not mean that audiences themselves are dumber, but that, for some reason, they are happy to accept dumber content. As long as that content gives a shallow thrill, requires little intellectual or emotional investment and comes thick and fast. 

The saying is that life imitates art, but it appears that consumer behaviour in the movie industry is mirroring more general cultural trends; media platforms with constant and instant access, the dumbing down of mainstream media, the rise of “celebrities” with no discernible talent. There is also the worrying trend, prevalent in the UK and US, of wilful political ignorance and deliberate failure to properly contemplate the “difficult” questions facing western society. Of course, movies were getting dumber before 2016, but what would you expect cinema audiences to be like in the age of Trump and Brexit?

So where does horror fit into all this? In general, horror mainly seems to be an afterthought for the mainstream, a lack of regard which is encapsulated in Gunnar Hansen’s anecdote about the Platinum Dunes employee contacting him about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and describing it as “not just a senseless bloodbath like the original,” or words to that effect. This lack of knowledge of the source material would suggest a deep unprofessionalism, but of course, it’s much easier to cynically exploit something if you have no prior artistic investment in it. Horror has always seemed to suffer more than its fair share of remakes and sequels, whether they’re good movies or not. Take three of the most anticipated horror releases of 2018/2019, a Pet Sematary remake, Part 2 of the It remake and a Child’s Play remake. 

No other genre engenders a sense of community or a need to belong or to represent as horror does. For example, you never hear anyone pigeonholing themselves as a romantic comedy fan; you never see anyone wearing When Harry Met Sally shirts whilst attending RomComCon, New Jersey, or with tattoos of Duck Face out of Four Weddings and a Funeral. This loyal fan base is a double edged sword. The vast majority of horror fans will say tell you that they want fresh, original output. But most of those people will still go and watch the remakes and sequels, possibly just out of curiosity or even completionism. And they may walk out of many of these films having disliked them. But by that point, the studio has taken their money and they can see they’re onto a winner. So they keep churning out the same old stuff.

Mark Gatiss suggests as much in the closing stages of his affectionate three-part mini-series, A History of Horror. Gatiss opines that such is the tight-knittedness and loyalty of the horror community that genre film makers have no need to reach beyond what could be regarded as a ‘captive’ audience.’ In essence, that the lack of standards on the part of the audience is making film makers lazy. This seems to be both true and not true at the same time. True, in that certainly (as noted previously), a lot of releases are the same old tired rehashes. But also not true, because the insularity of the horror genre gives it a certain amount of protection – so many people grow up loving the genre and go on to become passionate writers, directors, actors themselves. So many, not directly involved, have gone on to become internet “influencers,” mobilising the genre online and becoming unofficial marketers and publicists. No other genre seems to have this. Certainly not to the extent of horror; for example, I can’t find hordes of people on social media, extolling the virtues of actions movies, or starting Twitter polls about who their favourite period drama hero is. 

But this is where the horror community needs to look at itself. It’s great to get out there and support original, independent movies, made by people who have the same passion for the genre as you. But do you really want to be watching more lazy, half arsed stuff like Freddy vs Jason (yeah, yeah, it’s shit, don’t @ me) or Texas Chainsaw 3D? The fact is that the movie industry is just that – an industry. And factors like profit margins and market shares are intrinsic. As with any (big) industry, people will try and give you as little as possible for as much money as possible, that’s how the world works in general, sadly. It’s always a bone of contention in movies, because it’s a struggle between art and business – where third parties such as financiers and distributors are concerned, it’s essentially the exploitation of art for money. So demand more. Don’t let big companies get away with selling you apathetic “product,” insist on stuff that’s been made with care and love. And cherish the people like you, who are telling the kind of stories you want to hear. 

For a broader read on cinematic cynicism from somebody in the industry, check out writer/director Harrison Smith’s (Camp Dread, Death House) Cynema pieces on horrorfuel.com (horrorfuel.com/author/harrison/ )

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