The New Classics in Horror Film Formulas
The scary story is nothing new. Take the Grimm fairy tales, for instance. They are filled with horror, blood, and terror to equal most horror movies today. But they served a purpose. They taught children to avoid the dark woods and be wary of the big, bad wolves in the world. Today, scary stories resound lessons as well. They teach us to always look in the backseat and avoid going out into the dark alone. We may not sit around the campfire and tell stories as we once did, but we sit in front of a glowing screen waiting to be scared, tantalized, and shocked. Most horror films follow the same basic archetypes, but that does not seem to hold us back from wanting more. While the formula of scary stories may have changed overtime, the themes remain the same. Horror films have transitioned from haunted house ghost stories and crazed maniacs to the films we see today. These formulas are becoming the new classics in how we view horror films.
The Nazi-zombie horror seems like an odd combination at first glance, but our culture has been fascinated and horrified with all things World War II, Nazi, and Holocaust for the last seventy years. The numerous “based on a true story” war films always shine as box office gold. So why not incorporated some war stories into the horror franchise? Nazis still serve as the ultimate villains worldwide. With the renewed interest in zombies, why not combine the two and see what happens? The results are some chilling and often funny films set apart from the classic zombie movies.
If you can handle subtitles, Dead Snow (2009) is one of the best available. This Norwegian film combines hormonal students, a secluded cabin in the snowy mountains, and treasure seeking Nazi-zombies. The film is also full of dark comedy, but what else do you expect when treasure seeking Nazi-zombies are involved? Director Tommy Wirkola commented on why he made a Nazi-zombie film:
“Well there are many reasons for us making a Nazi-zombie movie. First we just wanted to be first in the whole of Scandinavia to make a zombie movie so when we were about to sit down and write the actual script, we started thinking ‘What is more evil than a zombie’? A NAZI-ZOMBIE! We have a really strong war-history up in the north of Norway from World War Two, so it was fun to combine actual events with our own story. And you know Nazis have always been the ultimate villains in movies. Combine that with zombies and you really get something that NO-ONE would sympathize with. So we knew that we could kill these creatures in any way we wanted, and no-one would feel sympathy for them.”
As Wirkola stated, part of the fun of the Nazi-zombie formula is that viewers feel no sympathy for the villains. We enjoy seeing them zombified, and the characters mutilating them as enemies. It adds a fun and often comical flavor to an otherwise grotesque story. The zombies in Dead Snow and other similar films are also more terrifying in their SS uniforms and display more intelligence than a typical zombie. A few other films to view are Shock Waves (1977), Zombie Lake (1981), Outpost (2007), and Blood Creek (2009). It is a small, but hopefully growing sub-genre that more filmmakers will continue to explore.
Taking off with The Blair Witch Project (1999), mockumentaries have become the horror film’s play on reality television. They tantalize and tease the audience about what is real. The Blair Witch Project even tricked many movie goers into believing they were watching a documentary about people disappearing while searching for the Blair Witch. The film was heavily promoted on the internet, and internet news stories, blogs, and fan sites added to the confusion surrounding the film. It’s similar to Orson Welles’s infamous performance of War of the Worlds on radio in 1938. Nowadays we are less likely to fall for the “found footage” ploy, but we still like being drawn into the seeming reality mockumentaries bring forth. As the character of Josh stated in The Blair Witch Project, “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
There have been several successful mockumentaries in the last few years. One of the most popular franchises to come out of this sub-genre is Paranormal Activity. These films provide scares without the violence and gore that has become standard in modern horror. They are gritty and realistically filmed, and often made for a fraction of the cost–Paranormal Activity’s budget was $15,000, while grossing $107,917,283 in the United States (IMDB). Filmmakers can create these low budget horror films that are almost guaranteed to draw viewers. In a generation where everything is filmed and documented by technology, we can relate to the horror characters face in these films: “It would seem that the trend of found footage horror reflects a new modern fear – not only that something terrible might happen to you, but that there might also be someone filming it” (International).
Some other lesser known mockumentaries to try are Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), [REC] (2007), Lake Mungo (2008), Troll Hunter (2010), Grave Encounters (2011), and V/H/S (2012).
“Sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.” – Stephen King
While mockumentaries tend to skimp on the violence, “torture porn” films bring out the most despicable and detestable forms of violence and gore. Torture porn refers to horror films that focus on gratuitous violence rather than story. This formula has been written about plenty over the last ten years, but this is not an argument for or against it. Whether we agree with it or not, it has been established in our horror film canon. This sub-genre started with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) in which Craven stated that “the violence was inspired in part by Vietnam War newsreels” (Zinoman).
When there is so much violence going on in our world, why would we want to watch more? Maybe that is exactly the reason we are drawn in. It is mind-numbing entertainment to shock and awe us. Stephen King says it best in his description of torture porn:
“There’s another side of that too. The gore obscures, particularly in the minds of critics, some of the reasons why those movies are successful. The gore in movies like Last House on The Left was so new that it kind of slapped audiences in the face, ‘I can’t believe I saw that, let’s go see it again!’ Like driving past an accident. But people get desensitized to that in a hurry and you cease to get involved on a level where there are characters. It’s like watching people in a shooting gallery being knocked over one by one. You can’t go for gore for the sake of gore in movies anymore.”
It is entertainment to make us debate. Is it too much violence? Does it lead others to commit violence or become too desensitized to real violence? Much like skydiving or riding a roller coaster, it is a dare to see if we can handle it and an adrenaline rush if we survive.
If you are brave enough to give it a try, here are a few of the best: Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), High Tension (2003), The Collector (2009), Martyrs (2008), and Inside (2007).
Asian Horror Remakes
On the flip side of torture porn is the inundation of Asian horror film remakes in the last fifteen years. They bring a striking scare with little gore. While there are many violent Asian horror films and their remakes, this is referring to those surrounding ghosts and curses we have become so fond of. The remakes are not any better than the originals, but they reach an American audience wary of subtitles with a new type of ghost story. These films are founded in the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean trope of using vengeful ghosts. These are not our grandparents ghosts. These are not the tortured spirits looking for release into the afterlife or to say one last goodbye. These ghosts are bent on revenge, and are, in a sense, immortal. They cannot be easily stopped, and they work on our psyche.
According to the article “Asian Horror Frightfully Successful”, the appeal and scare tactics of these films lies in the psychological scare they provide:
“You have a lot of differences between the Asian horror and traditional horror. The horror of the characters comes not from someone coming at you, with a chainsaw, for instance, but the terror comes from within the characters. Perhaps they are still afraid of a previous terrifying experience, or feeling guilt about something they have done.”
These films, like The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004), prey on our inner guilt and terror of secrets that might be found out. These types of ghost stories leave us terrifying images to haunt our nightmares. Those who see The Ring never forget the television scene when the movie almost comes to life and starts crawling towards the audience. They are the new classics for the ghost and haunted house stories.
For further viewing, check out the following: Dark Water (2005), Pulse (2006), The Eye (2008), Shutter (2008), Mirrors (2008), and The Uninvited (2009).
Based on “True Events”
Like with mockumentaries, the many “based on true events” movies try to trap us into faux reality. The “true” in these films may be no more than rumor, but they play on our fears of what humankind is capable of. If audiences imagine any part of these films to be true, they create new and sometimes irrational fears. But we liked to be scared; we like to be tantalized with stories based on reality. It’s how the Lifetime channel survives, bringing us tales of survival and hints that the monsters we fear could actually be real.
The most recent trend has been with exorcism or possessed films. The stand outs have been the ones based on the paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren including The Amityville Horror (1979, 2005), The Conjuring (2013), and Annabelle (2014). The films are loose adaptations of their stories, but we are drawn to the idea that these events did happen in someway, and that is enough to bring in a curious audience. (The real stories behind the investigations can be found on the Warrens’ website.)
Open Water (2003) is another film in recent years that reignited our fear of going in the water after getting over Jaws. The film implies that the couple’s demise was from shark attack, but in reality, no trace of the couple was ever found to verify cause of death. Nonetheless, the implications are enough to instill fear in us, to make us hesitate to go back into the water and receive the same fate. Whether or not these films are based in reality, the “based on” tagline is enough to entice us to believe we will be learning the characters’ true fates as we watch in terror.
Other films that claim to be “based on true events” are The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Wolf Creek (2005), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), and The Possession (2012).
These sub-genres of horror have quickly made their way into our viewing habits and serve as the new trends in horror films. Nevertheless, we will always have our classic slashers and monster movies, but in the times we live in, the above categories of horror play into what we currently find fascinating in the world. Our tastes as viewers have changed since the days of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Michael Myers. Not that they won’t always have a place in our dark hearts, but changing times reflect in our cinema, and, hopefully, the things that haunt our imagination on the screen will stay just that, a figment of our imagination.
Bennett, Dan. “Asian Horror Frightfully Successful.” Home Media Retailing 27.25 (2005): 18-20. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Cockwell, S. “Interview with Dead Snow writer and director Tommy Wirkola.” (2009). eatmybrains.com.
IMDB. Paranormal Activity. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/?ref_=nv_sr_3
International Business, Times. “V/H/S, Chernobyl Diaries, The Helpers and Sinister: Is There Any Life Left in Found Footage Horror? [VIDEO].” International Business Times 6: Regional Business News. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Olsen, Marc. “Stephen King on the artistic merits of torture porn”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on July 14, 2007.
Zinoman, Jason. “Killer Instincts.” Vanity Fair 571 (2008): 304. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
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