At the end of Mark Gatiss’ excellent three-part A History of Horror series, which ends, appropriately, with a review of the power and impact of John Carpenter’s first Hallowe’en film, released in 1978, Mark explains his decision to stop the series in the late seventies.
He says that whilst he feels there have been ‘standout single films’, too much modern horror seems like ‘more of the same fare, spiced up with pointless torture’. Mark ends by saying that he thinks this is partly due to growing older: as you do you ‘fear your own mortality’ and your tastes shift as a result, in the case of horror ‘towards ghosts and spookiness and away from blood and gore’.
Like Mark, I’m also a fan of horror films, and these comments caused me to reflect on why certain films in the genre feel groundbreaking despite of, or in some cases even because of, the extremity of the images they show, and why others seem gratuitous and almost entirely unnecessary. I was also reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s comments made in London at the start of this year: he said that ‘[violence in films] affects audiences in a big way. You know you’re watching a movie.’
There’s obviously a difference between horror films and films containing horrific things (and most of Tarantino’s films fall into the latter category), but for what it’s worth I think there are three key ingredients which mark out a brilliant horror film with violent imagery from a shoddy one.
First and foremost: realism. I can’t be the only person who’s had the pleasure of watching Peter Jackson’s 1992 film Braindead (yes, Peter Jackson the over-sized hobbit), which has levels of blood, guts and general goo that, if they were in any way realistic, would’ve prevented the film from ever being released. But as it is, Braindead is so over-the-top, silly and, crucially, funny, that not for a minute do you ever entertain the possibility that what you’re seeing is real. Also in this category: later George A. Romero zombie films, the Evil Dead series, and plenty more besides.
But of course realism does have a place in horror, so what does a realistic, violent, but really good horror film look like? This is where key ingredient number two comes in: impact. By the time we’ve got to the third in the Saw series (or, in fact, halfway through the first film) the increasingly horrible images are having no impact at all on our deadened brains.
Impact is usually a factor of the originality of the image, its unexpectedness, and the way suspense has been built (or not). So when, in one of Gatiss’ favourites the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first teenager is offed upon entering the house where the serial-killing redneck family live, the sequence is brilliantly effective because of the way suspense has been amped up and because of the gruesome originality of the style of the attack and, actually, for its brevity: it’s all over before you know it and you’re left wondering what exactly you’ve seen.
You can, however, have realism and real impact without having a good horror film: they can still be horrid rather than horrific. I think it’s when genuine nastiness enters a film – misogyny, explicit torture, sexual violence – and when there’s either a focus on that over everything else or no actual point to it beyond displaying the act itself (because we can!) that a horror film falls down.
There are, few and far between, exceptions that prove the rule: the scene of torture in Eden Lake is one of the examples of genuine nastiness which serves a purpose; in this case parodying the Daily Mail style demonisation of the nation’s youth.
At its best, to come back to the Tarantino quote, really good horror can – sometimes literally – jolt you out of the everyday and make you feel more alive. It’s when you find yourself wondering ‘what’s the point?’ that you know something’s gone horribly wrong.
Am I missing something crucial? Have I got it completely wrong? Let me know on Twitter @philblogs.