The day I had agreed to write this article, I went to see Paranormal Activity 4, and upon leaving the cinema, I seriously considered requesting not to do this article, that’s how bad that film was. The entire drive home I could barely believe how little I liked the movie and began to question whether it was feasible to defend modern horror when such films were being pedalled in its mainstream feed but I felt it necessary to show that while last week’s piece certainly had some elements of truth to it, real horror cinema lives on and I’ll prove it.
Then I got home, scanned my DVD collection in hopes for a bastion of modern horror, and I found it. A film released earlier this year that completely re-invigorated my interest in the modern mainstream scary stuff. Cabin In The Woods. Joss Whedon to the rescue! I watched it there and then, and it did exactly what it did every other time I’ve watched it, got me excited about the horror genre and made me want to seek out and watch the good, clever, and most importantly, scary movies that are still being made today.
I’m a firm believer that if you can’t find anything of merit in a particular genre or style, then you aren’t looking hard enough in its confines, and horror these days is no different. There are plenty of films that are pushing boundaries and are genuinely chilling, in both concept and execution. They simply fall under the radar because they are being made, largely, by European filmmakers who can’t afford the press bigger American filmmakers can. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it means they have a lot more creative freedom to explore horrifying themes, but they will always be over-shadowed by sub-standard films.
One of the best examples of this is a French film called Martyrs, made in 2008. I watched this not two months ago, and man, oh man; this is the stuff of nightmares. The plot centres around two young girls, one of whom was taken in by an adoption agency after she managed to escape from an un-identified location in which she was being tortured for an unspecified reason. The film is essentially this same girl’s journey for redemption as her and her partner search for those who tortured her to make them pay, and end up finding something that goes way beyond torture. The film is literally Hostel, but with more horrific levels of gore (including one girl who is found with a helmet literally nailed into her skull, still alive) and a more poignant story arc, dealing with psychological illness and how it can be inflicted upon someone with enough conditioning, and religious indoctrination gone, literally, mad. The film is chilling from start to finish, whether it’s the gruesome levels of torture, or our protagonists personal demons, which restlessly chase her throughout the film.
Thankfully, this film has gotten an American DVD release, and has all but made it mainstream, but most people I talk to about horror locally didn’t know of its existence until I pestered them to watch it. What makes this a little bit worse is that Martyrs has been bought for an American re-make from the producers of Twilight. Here’s the trailer for the original, please watch it and support the original before America makes an absolute shambles of it all:
From Martyrs, we will move country to a more popular movie series from Spain, the absolutely fan-TASTIC REC trilogy, soon to be quadrilogy. REC is the films series I truly wish Paranormal Activity was. Set in and around an apartment block, REC is about a news reporter and her cameraman as they get stuck in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, as the building gets ravaged by the spreading infection and the occupants being to turn into frenzy in panicked attempts at survival. As a HUGE zombie fan, this series is right up my alley anyway, but the clever, and I would argue proper use of the found-footage style of film-making makes it a very horrifying film indeed. This is how found footage should always be. Tense, chilling and with a proper use of lighting, in that there’s no conveniently placed lights or windows to illuminate the setting, these films are in the shadows most of the time, and you feel it. You feel every breath of the reporter as she runs from apartment to apartment in a panic, and tries to figure out what is going on.
REC really demonstrates something which I think is a major problem with mainstream horror, and that’s lack of risk. REC is terrifying in its execution, and has a lot of movement, a lot of questioning what’s going on and from where said goings on are coming from. Yet American horror films of the same style, Grave Encounters and Paranormal Activity, are essentially the same film, just in a different setting with different characters. The cameras have a 4:1 ratio, with 4 of them being set in place, and 1 being moved around, this one being held by the protagonist throughout the movie. Cue 75 of watching rooms in one angle until something moves, then 15 minutes of running at the end before everybody dies and we’re given an epilogue. REC is constantly moving and shifting the dynamic, and each film ends with a rather large ‘Holy shit what’s going to happen next!?’ before the next film, which is always set right next to the previous one, answers that question and brings the story forward.
There is still good mainstream horror though, alongside the ranks of Cabin In The Woods, and that is in the hands of Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican film-maker behind The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, and coming out next year, Mama.
Guillermo is a master filmmaker, hence his illustrious career, but ultimately it’s his tasteful filmmaking that makes his movies wonderful, and the horror element of his films is no exception. In Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the most dark and beautiful films ever made, horror is an ever-present theme in the imagery, but one of the most horrifying creatures in modern cinema has to be the Pale Man, a pale skinned creature, whose eyes are in his palms, who feasts on fairies and children. The scene in which Pan goes into its lair is truly terrifying, and without a drop of gore, just good old fashioned terror. The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are different however, as they are straight horror tales. The Orphanage is a disparaging tale of how you always must face your past, about one woman’s fight to save her son from her own dark past. Very spooky tale and the ending is one of the heaviest I’ve ever seen. Incredibly dark and depressing. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the most Hollywood of the lot, the most typical I have mentioned, but what it does, it does very well. Standard people vs. Evil force type story, but I had to speak well of at least one horror cliché in modern cinema!
With this in mind, what I’m basically saying here is that modern mainstream horror, for the time being, is not producing much of merit. But with the internet, accessing good cinema outside of the mainstream has never been easyier, and there’s a wealth of good, creative horror to be found. I didn’t even touch on the Japanese horror, the original Ring and Grudge films are phenomenal, and the Oldboy trilogy is just brutal. These are just the films that I think best represent foreign, modern horror that have some themes akin to what’s in the cinema these days. It’s just a google away!
[Words, Anthony McGlynn]