How Modern Horror Tropes are Revitalizing the Current Horror Genre
Since the introduction of the horror genre, our love for being terrified has only grown. What is it about being frightened to death that makes us feel alive? Is the rush of being able to view others in horrifying situations from the safety of our homes a voyeuristic thrill? Oh, you better believe it.
The trouble is, what happens when the familiar tropes stop scaring us and the over saturation of horror films reaches critical mass and we can no longer reach the same euphoric terror we once had? Unfortunately, the same ideas from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have been rehashed and repackaged so many times over to the point where the things that should scare us couldn’t even frighten a small child.
Hollywood’s peddling of mediocre films has flooded the genre into a frail, shambling corpse of its former glory. The lumbering serial killer pursuing its victims at a pace never exceeding that of a brisk walk, the family wronged by a group of depraved lunatics to the point where the only justice is bloody vengeance, a small group surviving the never-ending onslaught against an insurmountable force, and the supernatural/demonic force that wants to inhabit our heroes has been driven into the ground so deep that you’d think Jason Vorhees had his undead boot pressing on the back of its skull.
However, there are some directors that exist today that are able to take the old, outdated tropes from these bygone eras and bring them up to date in refreshingly gruesome ways. Directors like Robert Eggers, Leigh Whannel, Jennifer Kent, David Robert Mitchell, Panos Cosmatos, and Jeremy Saulnier have all contributed to the revitalization of modern horror by taking what made the previous generation’s horror movies that we loved great and updated them to fit into our current world. Spoilers ahead.
What could be more terrifying than an unstoppable force that wants to pin you to a wall with a kitchen knife for all of that teenage angst you’ve been getting up to or chopping a machete diagonally through your face for all of that premarital sex you’ve been having? Doing so without ever breaking into a sprint, apparently. From undead machete wielding freaks to the “stabby” result of a druid curse, the slow killers and gruesome death-dealers have been a staple of horror franchises for some time now. Unfortunately, however, Hollywood has peddled these tropes into mediocrity.
That is, until director David Robert Mitchell’s film debut of It Follows was released back in 2014. The tale of a sexual transmitted curse that afflicts the host with a constantly pursuing supernatural entity that never stops and only those that have the cursed are capable of seeing it. Taking the form of complete strangers or your best friends, this being’s only goal is to catch you, kill you, and move onto the next poor soul that gave it to you.
The slow pacing of both the film and the unique take on the stalker antagonist builds a never-ending sense of dread. During the second act, Jay, our protagonist, is sitting in her high school classroom when she glances out the window to see an elderly woman in a hospital gown walking in her direction. For such a peculiar sight, no one in the immediate area seems to notice and the woman just keeps meandering towards Jay while never taking her eyes off of her. In a panic, Jay leaves the classroom only to come face to face with the elderly woman now in the hallway. Still, no one seems to notice and she simply keeps walking right towards Jay.
It is a dreadfully uncomfortable moment almost straight out of John Carpenter’s Halloween when Michael Myers can be seen outside of the school just looking in at Laurie. Utilizing the tropes of the slow pursuer and updating the setting and killer to a modern era, David Robert Mitchell managed to take what was once an old, outdated method of characterizing the antagonist of horror films and created a new, refreshingly terrifying film that broke the previous mold by telling a familiar story in a new way.
What happens when a small group of everyday people encounter a roaming cult of depraved, sadistic murderers? Death, obviously. We’re talking about horror movies here people, keep up. How many films took this idea and ran? Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left are just a few in a long line of films featuring villains wronging our heroes in such a uniquely horrible way, there was only ever one option left: sweet, bloody revenge. But how many times did we see a film such as this before we stopped caring?
Panos Cosmatos is a Greek-Canadian film director born in Italy. His debut film, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a psychedelic callback to films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, taking the 1960s perspective of what the future would look like and setting it in what feels like a sci-fi horror film from 1980. His follow-up film, Mandy starring Nicolas Cage and Andrea Risenborough, is where the director truly found his stride.
The film follows Red and the love of his life, Mandy, living their quiet lives in a secluded forest when a nightmarish hippie cult and their demonic, blood-guzzling henchmen arrive and terrorize them. The cult leader, Jeremiah, spots Mandy walking down a lonesome forest road and sends his followers to take Mandy back to their compound.
In a performance that is comparable to real-life Keith Raneire and his former sex cult, NXIVM, actor Linus Roache brings a true flair to the lunatic cult leader. After his failed attempt to indoctrinate Mandy through the use of a hallucinogenic wasp sting and his sales pitch about being the messiah, she turns him down in the most powerfully emasculating way possible: laughing in his face.
Mandy is ultimately murdered in front of Red and the cult leave him for dead, leading us down yet another one of Panos Cosmatos’ hallucinatory, psychedelic rides. Only this time into the depths of bloody vengeance and over the top mayhem.
Panos Cosmatos has taken the classic revenge plot and blended it with his own unique perspective. Mandy is beautiful and violent all at the same time. With outstanding performances from the entire cast (I know, even Nicolas Cage brought his A-game to this one) this tale of revenge should be held among the greats of the past fifty years.
Let The Wrong One In
Long before films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were introduced to audiences, people have been truly unnerved by the idea of demonic or supernatural forces, and films have often prayed upon this fear in audiences. Is it because it taps into a fear of hell or eternal damnation. Perhaps there is an innate fear of the dead or otherworldly haunting the living.
But after six Paranormal Activity movies and countless films with titles like The Exorcism of “Fill in the Blank,” people may have officially stopped worrying about it. Perhaps it turns out that hell might be the more desirable alternative to watching another hack film about demonic possession. So, how do we change the game? How do we make the idea of the devil in film scary again?
Well, in 2015, Robert Eggers released his debut film The Witch. The films revolves around puritanical family in 1630s New England being torn apart by the forces of black magic, possession, and witchcraft. The film begins with the family being shunned from their community and forced to live in solitude far from civilization. Shortly after their move to the border of a vast, unexplored wilderness, the newborn son goes missing. What follows might be one of the most horrific scenes ever witnessed on film and that’s relatively early on in the second act. Their crops begin to fail, another child becomes “sick,” and ultimately the whole family turns on one another and one by one, they all succumb to the devilish force plaguing them. Every detail of this film is eerie and the ending is one that no one will have seen coming and almost demands multiple views to catch the minute details throughout the film.
The true horror of this uniquely bleak film is the fallout that occurs within this already destitute and diminishing family. A missing baby, the son being cursed, the twin’s malicious nature, the angry and helpless father, and the mother who blames everyone else around her for what is happening. Robert Eggers brought fresh sense of dread and intrigue to his film that makes the film truly stand out among the slogs of Hollywood’s shortcomings.
Then, there is Ari Aster and his film Hereditary. Clearly Ari Aster takes a great deal of influence for this film from both Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity films (more so the latter of the two films because there is almost a one to one comparison that could be made for the major plot points of the film; a family is haunted by a demonic spirit, the parents are responsible, there’s a cult, etc.) but where Aster’s film differs is in the delivery. Hereditary is no found footage rehash; it is a deep dive into a family in mourning with a powerhouse performance by Toni Collette as the grieving mother. It’s a film that the moment it is over leaves you wondering “what the hell did I just watch?” and upon subsequent viewings provides the sufficient foreshadowing towards the absolutely horrifying ending.
Directors like Robert Eggers and Ari Aster both understand that what is most important part of any story, horror or otherwise, is the characters and they’ve told fantastic, dramatic tales of families suffering and wrapped that around the supernatural to bring new horror to the outdated subgenre.
Nazi Murder Party Massacre
Back in 1976, John Carpenter (still mostly unknown at the time) made the cult classic, low-budget action film Assault on Precinct 13. The film follows a ragtag group of cops and criminals joining forces to survive the onslaught of violence by a bloodthirsty street gang. In 1977, Wes Craven releases the cult classic The Hills Have Eyes where an unfortunate family’s car breaks down in the middle of the desert and are attacked by clan of psychotic cannibal criminals. Perhaps the “pinned down and fight for your life” scenario was never as popular or familiar to most horror aficionados but these films truly capture dread and tension so well.
Reaching its heyday in the late 1970s, the likes of such films never quite saw the resurgence of some other more popular ideas that mainstream horror films tended to capitalize on. Sure, both previously mentioned films had their own modern remakes (The Hills have Eyes remake is actually rather impressive) but other than similar ideas of a group being slowly picked off by a monster, such films mostly just went away. That is, until a talented young director by the name of Jeremy Saulnier came along with the film Green Room.
Now, perhaps there are those of you out there shouting at your computer/phone screens that this shouldn’t count on a list of horror movie tropes, and maybe you’d be right, but I’d argue the events in this film are more dreadful, more gut wrenching, and more nerve-racking than anything most horror films would hope to achieve.
Jeremy Saulnier has stated that this film marks the third in a trilogy in which he highlights “inept protagonists,” or individuals doing they absolute best they can or are capable of given their circumstances. The film follows a young punk rock band who get a gig in a secluded Pacific Northwest bar that’s run by skinheads. After the show, one of the members witnesses a murder in the titular green room and they band end up locking themselves in for fear of what the skinheads will now do to them.
Things devolve quickly as in an attempt to give the skinhead leader a gun the punks acquired during the initial mayhem, Anton Yelchin’s (RIP) arm is viciously attacked with machetes to the point where it appears that his hand is barely hanging on. From there, dogs rip people apart, people are stabbed, shotgun blasts are caught to the face, and never once does the audience feel like the events are nonsensical. Every move made by both the punks and the skinheads are logical and the very best they can do given the situation each party finds themselves in. Both parties, the punks and the skinheads, are trying to get out of the situation on top and both are limited as to how they’re able to go about doing so.
The shock and awe of a first viewing of this film is horror at its finest with the tension never ending from the moment of the inciting incident and will keep you on the edge of your seat.
(A few honorable mentions include Ready or Not and The Belko Experiment as well.)
In 2014, the world was introduced to Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent and her debut film The Babadook: a harrowing allegory for grief and parenthood. This may be the one film on this list that doesn’t actually have it’s own counterpart. Perhaps the aforementioned film Rosemary’s Baby share some aspects and Hereditary certainly deals with grief but The Babadook might stand alone in this unique story utilizing German Expressionism (using hyper-expressive performances to show inner turmoil).
The story centers around single-mother, Amelia, and her ill-behaved son, Samuel. We learn that Sam’s father died on the way to the hospital and Amelia is unable to separate her son’s existence from her husband’s death, making her unable to move on and simultaneously unable to love her son. Because of this, Sam has some severe behavioral issues.
Soon after the film starts, Amelia and Sam discover a children’s book about Mr. Babadook, thus starting the downward spiral the two go through. The Babadook becomes the physical manifestation for everything plaguing their relationship, making the mother becomes increasingly unnerved, reaching a boiling point where she becomes inhabited by the spiritual monster and attempts to kill her child.
Sam gets through to his mom and tells her that he knows she doesn’t love him and that he still loves her, bringing their relationship’s issues to the forefront and breaking the monster’s hold on Amelia. By the end of the film, Amelia and Sam both seem happy, having dealt with the metaphorical and literal monster that had been plaguing them and having finally confronted the tragedy that Amelia had refused to acknowledge and finally moving on past her husband’s death.
The film as a whole is about not dealing with a tragedy, and the emotions that come with it, portrayed through a heightened reality. It is an exploration into mental health that Jennifer Kent uses to create a truly terrifying story about loss and the monsters we can unwittingly create in the process.
What You Can’t See… Could Kill You
Perhaps some of you reading this are familiar with Australian actor/writer/director Leigh Whannell who is responsible for penning the first three Saw films as well as the Insidious franchise. In recent years, Whannell has taken a step forward towards not only writing the stories but directing them as well, starting with Insidious: Chapter 3 and working his way to Upgrade (a discussion for another article of its own) and final reaching the film that we’ll be discussing: The Invisible Man.
Now, of course this is a remake of the classic Universal Monster and tales of invisible foes has been done several times over (perhaps most recently in Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man and that was back in 2000) but what Whannell accomplishes with this modern update is as refreshing as it is unsettling.
The film begins with Elisabeth Moss’ character, Cecilia, attempting to flee from her boyfriend’s estate in the middle of the night, and Adrian (the boyfriend) is quickly revealed to be some sort of tech millionaire, setting up the plot right away. With almost zero dialogue until she leaves the house, we’re able to infer that she is in an abusive relationship which is made explicitly clear shortly after her sister picks her up in the middle of the night and Adrian charges the car, yelling and breaking the car’s window to get to Cecilia before the pair is able to escape. Days later, it is revealed that Adrian has taken his own life, left her millions of dollars, and finally freeing her from beneath his abusive shadow.
The story from there delves deep into the psychological aspects of abuse and fear, making Cecilia questions her very sanity and causing those around her to have a hard time trusting her as well. The tension never stops as we watch Cecilia struggle to make those around her believe her that her Adrian is not only dead but more often than not, in the very room with her.
The reveal comes approximately halfway through the film and from there, we see the extent of what Adrian had accomplished and Cecilia’s turn from abusive survivor into a strong-willed protagonist unwilling to give up or let Adrian’s reign of terror go unpunished. Elisabeth Moss blows us away in her ability to capture the mental state and perpetual fear of someone living in an abusive relationship and seeing her turn, growing into someone willing to fight back, is nothing short of impressive.
Taking the timeless trope of fear of being watched by someone or something we cannot see and bringing it up to date for modern audiences with a strong emphasis on technology and abuse, this modern update on The Invisible Man is one that any horror fan should take note of (as well as keep a close eye on Leigh Whannel [whose also been tasked with directing the Escape from New York remake]).
As much credit is due to these talented individuals, it is not due solely to the reintroduction of these classic horror elements as much as the characters themselves. Each film listed has, at its core, has a powerful story of human conflict creating compelling narrative and building the tension and dread, telling them in new ways to unnerve us all once again.
Do you disagree with any of the films mentioned? The value of the directors or the validity of their contribution to horror cinema? Are there any films that were overlooked that you think should be included?
What do you think? Leave a comment.