I should admit straight off that I am a horror movie geek. I’m one of those Boomers who got started on movies in general thanks to the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland —and those roots run deep. (Name a Bela Lugosi movie and chances are I can quote dialogue from it.)
As a horror fan, I’ve not only encountered the idea that we are in the midst of a horror film renaissance, I’ve mentioned it in reviews. This has been batted around for a while now, but it was thrown into sharp relief with the relatively closely spaced releases of The Babadook, What We Do in the Shadows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and It Follows. Cast the net back one year and you can add Only Lovers Left Alive to the list. Step outside the realm of recent titles that got at least a modicum of theatrical release and other films come to mind— New Zealand’s Housebound and Venezuela’s The House at the End of Time make solid candidates.
Oh, of course, there’s the usual rubbish, too. There always is and always has been since horror became a bona fide genre in the early 1930s. The difference then was that the floor sweepings all came from independent shoestring companies, not the majors. The reverse is true today — all the films on that tentative list are independent productions, while the garbage tends to come from the big companies. Another striking difference between what’s going on these days is that there’s no studio brand, not even a specific country.
But perhaps the most potentially intriguing difference lies in the critical response. While I think review aggregation sites are generally worthless, it’s hard not to notice that six of the seven titles mentioned above, the one with the lowest rating on Rotten Tomatoes is Only Lovers Left Alive at 85 percent, while The Babadook weighs in at 98 percent. (The House at the End of Time — which Rotten Tomatoes calls The House of the End Times — only has two reviews and one of those is mine.) The significance of this is simply that horror films tend to be the Rodney Dangerfield of cinema — they get no respect. That these titles straddle the line between art house fare and horror movies has some bearing on this recent acceptance, but I don’t think that explains it all. No, I think these films actually are a cut above.
However, the truth is that — critical response to one side — we’ve been in the midst of a horror picture renaissance since 2010. (Some would argue that it started in 2000 — and I don’t entirely disagree with that.) The catch here is that you have to actually, you know, like the genre to see that, and frankly that’s tricky because horror fans can be horror’s own worst enemies, having settled into a pattern of praising horror pictures just because of the misconception that they’re supporting the genre. (Note to fellow horror fans: It doesn’t work that way.)
Without going too far afield, the decade has given us (so far) Insidious, The Conjuring, and Insidious Chapter 2 — director James Wan has staked a major claim to the decade with that trio. We’ve had Rob Zombie’s startling mix of Stanley Kubrick, Dario Argento, Ken Russell, and his own peculiar vision with The Lords of Salem. And let’s not forget Neil Jordan’s Byzantium or Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block — or, for that matter, Don Coscarelli’s delirious John Dies at the End. James Watkins’ The Woman in Black has its merits, too (never mind the sequel).
Though it never made theaters, Don Mancini’s Curse of Chucky managed to both make Chucky scary again and retain the rich vein of perverse comedy of the later films. Not everyone would agree, but I’d add Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows to the list. Going a little — not much — outside the strict confines of horror, Jee-Woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil and Chan-wook Park’s Stoker qualify. (If old Universal titles like The Black Cat and The Raven are horror pictures, so are these.) And what about the animated ParaNorman, a supposed kid’s film that borrows heavily from 2006’s R rated horror movie Silent Hill? I’d add that to the mix.
Is it a renaissance? Well, it has all the makings of one. It’s easily the richest concentrated period of horror movies since the first wave of the genre — 1931-1936 — and that’s worth noting. Plus, there’s no reason to believe it’s at an end. This June James Wan’s co-writer Leigh Whannel takes over the Insidious series with Insidious Chapter 3. This fall we get what may be the best of all with Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Next year James Wan returns to the genre with The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist. So, yeah, it’s a pretty good time to be a horror geek — and who knows what other deliciously dreadful additions are on the horizon?
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