Question 1: What’s the state of the American horror film?
Steve Barker: There are two popular formulas in horror right now: the super gory torture movies (Saw, Hostel) and the documentary style where things pop out at unexpected moments and scare the shit out of the audience (Paranormal Activity, Apollo 18). Neither of these forums is all that original. The documentary style horror was a great format for Blair Witch, and the first Paranormal Activity was decent, but it’s been beaten to death with so many sequels and rip-offs.
I’ve never enjoyed gory torture horror. Half-naked chicks covered in blood just aren’t my cup of tea. I can’t remember the last time I had any interest in a new horror movie. It’s possible I would have been interested in the latest Scream had I not already been burned on terrible sequels before.
Jared Wade: Pretty weak overall. It seems as though the last decade of horror flicks has been dominated by pushing the envelope of good taste. It’s as if, in the post-Tipper Gore/C. Delores Tucker era of finger-wagging censorship, most everyone making these films got completely caught up in the idea that “Hey, we can not only actually release movies this gory but make money off them.” This happened in music, with the likes of the Insane Clown Posse and Slipknot, and even TV to a degree, with premium cable shows becoming overly sexed up and crass, but it was a shorter blip that those mediums “grew out of” pretty quickly after realizing a novelty wasn’t a replacement for substance. Meanwhile, the “Hostelization” of the horror genre continues as if it remains stuck in the year 2000.
Tim Adkins: I’m really out of my depth here, but the word that comes to mind is derivative. If a horror film isn’t an actual remake, then it seems to borrow liberally/pay homage to all of the films that have come before it.
Dustin Freeley: Unfortunately, the American horror film is rather binary, and, for the most part, neither is done well. First, we have the super gruesome and gory blood fests. In general, I’m not against these; in the past, Dario Argento, Wes Craven, Brian DePalma, and John Carpenter have made some solid films with barrels of dyed corn syrup. At the same time, a number of these new bloodfest movies are remakes, thus eliding any semblance of story and focusing solely on the various ways someone can be impaled. Then, we have the handheld cam, docu-style films like Paranormal Activity, etc. Granted, the first was pretty okay, but the jump-causing gimmicks in the rest are predictable and contrived. As film evolves, it must take into consideration that the viewer has also evolved. A character who wanders down a dark hallway to inspect a strange noise is going to be jumped upon or find him or herself momentarily relieved when discovering the noise comes from an apparent mouse scurrying along a dresser – only to turn into the stoic, psychotic face of a killer. In both the gore-filled and the documentary-style, the tropes have grown stale, and without a reinvigoration or some clever tales (one could check out some German or Korean horror flicks for suggestions), the American horror film will best be suited for laughs.
Billy Loomis: People could complain about the snuffy nature of the American horror film, but I prefer to see this as a commentary on our desensitized society. If we don’t want to get too metaphysical on the subject, we could also look at the American horror film as a pure escape from reality. It’s likely that the majority of us won’t impale someone with a sign post, eviscerate someone with a Garden Weasel, or drop random campers into a combine, so there seems to be little harm in watching the improbable play out on screen. Whereas some people love sitting through hours of fantasy in make believe lands, others dig the momentary fear of improbable circumstances.
Question 2: What formula works best for a horror film?
Steve Barker: As I stated in the first answer I’m not a huge fan of the gore-porn style and I’m pretty much over the documentary style. I prefer it when a bunch of good-looking teenagers get together and a monster picks them off one by one. As a kid I watched all the Friday the 13th movies repeatedly with my friends. I enjoyed the revitalization of the style in the 90s with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Unfortunately they made the mistake of too many sequels and my interest quickly fizzled.
I heard a rumor a few years ago that Quenton Tarentino had written a script for a Friday the 13th reboot, I haven’t heard anything since, but something like that would spark my interest in the genre again. And if it was just a rumor, someone should ask Rob Zombie if he’s interested. The franchise would be in good hands with him in charge.
Jared Wade: It’s not so much dependent on a formula as it is two ingredients: suspense and psychological terror. From Psycho to Funny Games, it is those two factors, in addition to having a decent plot and a good thing to dread, that unnerve the viewer.
Tim Adkins: When the conceit is simple–something that could plausibly occur to anyone–the sense of danger a viewer feels is deeply terrifying and hella thrilling. Supernatural stuff I can’t relate to too easily becomes farce.
Dustin Freeley: A successful horror films depends on a sociopathic killer, one with motive. A killer without an agenda is just an empty metaphor. In the original Friday the 13th, Jason kills no one. He’s the victim of cruelty and indifference. Mrs. Voorhies is the killer (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s been thirty years), and her motive hinges on revenge and a desire to transform her son from forgotten throwaway to a notorious consequence of bullying. In the subsequent trail of dead camper-sequels, Jason rises from the grave, but we’re not sure why, so our interest in his agenda fades. If we look at it from a justice stand point, his first murder would avenge his death, no? Also, take the classic Hannibal Lecter for example. The eeriest parts of the movie are when is stoic charisma collides with his thirst for violence and dominance. This same conflict can be seen in The Exorcist, a movie that sends chills not because of the blood, vomit, and uber-eerie bodily contortions, but because of the evil manifested within an innocent girl. There is nothing creepier than watching a twelve year old stab herself with Jesus while blaspheming.
Billy Loomis: The formula is simple: make the audience squirm. People tend to underestimate the impact of visceral images. It’s not pleasant to watch someone get disemboweled, but that’s the point. It’s something unusual and unfamiliar. If not the visceral, the movie needs to go for the scare, whether it’s a hidden psycho jumping from a closet, or a creepy noise beckoning its inspector.
Question 3: What are your thoughts on Silent House? It’s handheld and it’s without a score, but it’s also shot in “real time.”
Steve Barker: This is going to fall into the style where things pop out at unexpected moments causing audience members to jump out of their chair. I think it will be one of the better versions of the formula. No score will add to the tension and the fact that it says, “Based on True Events” also heightens the scare factor. The trailer was enough to make me want to see it. It will be the first horror movie I’ve seen in years.
At the end of the movie when Elizabeth Olsen is victorious—at least I assume she will be the last one standing at the end of the movie—I hope she looks at the camera and says, “You got it, Dude.”
Jared Wade: Cautiously optimistic. I actually haven’t seen Mary Kate, Jr. act in anything yet but have heard rave reviews. And while this movie does have a gimmick, it is one I can get behind. Long, single-take camera shots are something I generally enjoy (particularly the first scene in The Player and the shelled city orphanage scene in City of Men), so I’m hoping this one can make good use of those and not let the “real time” concept get in the way of good film-making.
Tim Adkins: When I first saw the trailer for Silent House, I had the sense that it could read like a snuff film. Maybe it won’t. But the idea that a film would have no score, I think, could make the film much creepier than a film with an spine-tingling soundtrack.
Dustin Freeley: I’m torn on Silent House. On the one hand, I really dig Elizabeth Olsen. On the other, I’ve grown tired of the handheld-camera conceit. It’s not found footage, but it’s “based on true events,” which is often a bigger harbinger of the awful than the former. At the same time, this film has a number of continuous shots and is, supposedly, shot in real time, which is pretty unique to the last two decades of horror film – though not so much if you ever sat through a season of 24.
Billy Loomis: Silent House takes a hand held gimmick and adds something a bit extra: real time narrative. This is tricky to pull off, but certainly promises suspense, and, if Olsen can pull off realistic fear or terror, it’ll be even better.