By Jay Hunter I avoided saying anything during the avalanche of Walking Dead memes and articles last year. I sat, thinking of some words to say, a new angle or take on the skull’s heard cracking around the world. Then I realised, we hadn’t seen a horror badman like Negan in over thirteen years. Not since Jigsaw stalked our screens in 2004’s Saw had a character integrated so effortlessly into pop culture psyche.

Horror’s grand empire was assembled by it’s wretched icons and odious creatures – but ironically, in 2017 the architects of the genre seem to be dragging their own creation into the grave from whence it came. It’s time to get of rid our contentment with the rules of horror in cinema and look toward it’s television counterpart for guidance.

I’ve heard people blame Hollywood studios for this absence of silver screen regeneration, I know I have. But whilst it shoulders a portion of the blame, it can’t be totally at fault. Let’s take the release of Halloween in 1978 for example. A cataclysm for not just horror, but how movies were created in general, we would do well then to remember that Alien, The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, The Shining, The Fog, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and Poltergeist all hit screens within five years of Michael Myers introduction. Mostly profitable horrors of all shapes and sizes, facilitating many sub-genres, these movies went on to be bonafide classics. So whilst the machine is fragmented, the same can also be said for innovation. After all, behemothic properties are still made – ostensibly apart from horror.

Is horror destined to be the same forever, and ever, and ever? (The Shining, 1980)
Is horror destined to be the same forever, and ever, and ever? (The Shining, 1980)

Slaves to the rules

As Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek slasher, Scream pointed out in 1996, horror rules are now nothing more than crosses to bear. Body-horror, slasher, gothic, psychological, sci-fi and zombie movies are now all prescribed by their regulations, things that once made horror striking have become a checklist. Going from statements of identification to decree’s that assimilate every facet of a feature. Both fans and studios are guilty of excommunicating blooming disciple’s, muzzling raw concepts and safeguarding the exterior consciousness of horror behind locked doors. Surrounded by a moat overflowing with interchangeable posters, identical trailers and indistinguishable characters. What prospect is there for a new Halloween or Psychowhen we rarely open the castle gates to the uninitiated?

I’m not an exception to this, either. I formally pinpointed how upcoming directors have to play ball with trends if they want to land a hefty studio movie and I’m partial to a conventional slasher movie. I even stifle new high quality horror by lumping them in with the classics of the past, instead of praising them for breaking into present day popularity.

It Follows (2014)
It Follows (2014)

Take It Follows for example, one of my most treasured horror movies of the last decade. Chic, disparate, well paced and well shot but a film that voluntarily alludes to every trope of nostalgia-horror. The movie resonates with me because I worship the ancient gatekeepers so assiduously that when watching a movie that acknowledges them with any capacity of self-awareness, I find warmth with the direction. Sins reaffirmed with my love affair with the world-beating Stranger Things. I wear my cliches with delight, in my circle of friends I’m the go to person for date ideas around Halloween and I’m only a text away when a cohort wants to pick up a scary film in HMV. But I also know horrors place and see the wider picture.

For all intents and purposes there is no horror criterion that is left unturned by caricature in the mainstream. Sexy Freddy Krueger’s drink alcopop’s on bachelorette parties. People snigger at the shark in JawsThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre is my favourite horror movie of all time, but fifteen year old girls will still laugh at it during a slumber party because it’s “not even scary”. Venerate it all you like but Game of Thrones shocks more people than The Exorcist.

I’m aware that this makes me sound like I’m a film snob, a horror wayfarer who has out grown the genre’s humble roots. Turning to bite the hand that fed him. But we’re reliant on zimmerframe clad boogeymen and movies that follow suit.

Small screen saviour

Image: AMC
Image: AMC

Of course there have been those that buck the trend. The Walking Dead cast it’s shackles by becoming the most popular show on earth, dominating the ratings whilst basking in a shower of blood and brutality the likes of which television had never seen. Last month, in one swing of a vampire bat, horror was once again culturally and commercially relevant. A slasher pariah was born in Negan. A villain we all love yet despise, who could feature on South Park or a prime time talk show. Horror finally created a new personage.

Now I’m not going to argue as to whether season seven’s premiere was or wasn’t a good hour of television, everything has already been said on that front. But it was emotive. Millions of people were horrified, grieved and/or sickened with the acts of barbarism shown on prime time television. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, theParents Television Council President Tim Winter said:

“Last night’s season premiere of The Walking Dead was one of the most graphically violent shows we’ve ever seen on television, comparable to the most violent of programmes found on premium cable networks.

It’s not enough to ‘change the channel,’ as some people like to advocate, because cable subscribers — regardless of whether they want AMC or watch its programming — are still forced to subsidise violent content. This brutally explicit show is a powerful demonstration of why families should have greater control over the TV networks they purchase from their cable and satellite providers.

I understand violence is inherent to the storytelling here but the manner in which the depictions were made… it crossed the line. With The Walking Dead, the creative team has resorted to the graphic violence as a crutch for what used to be better storytelling. When you can’t figure out what lines to write, you put something in easier, which is a graphic depiction. To me, it’s too much.

Everything between the opening credits and the closing credits was graphic and explicit, you don’t need to show it to show it. Back in the day, you’d see violence about to be committed and then see you’d some after-effects of someone recovering or some other aspects rather than skulls crushed in. Now it seems like they can’t tell a story without adding the severity of the graphic violence, and it seems to me like a crutch.

Programmes with violent content are proven to be harmful, especially to children; and most parents agree that having greater control over violent content coming into their homes is vital to protecting their family. When a basic cable network like AMC edges or even surpasses the premium networks in terms of explicit content, consumers must be afforded more control over which networks they purchase and which networks they don’t.”

The Walking Dead dared to push the envelop and AMC took the risk. Fans, studios and creators worked in unison as they created a hybrid that simultaneously broke the internet and terrified middle America all at once.

Cinema and television are art, therefore they must always strive to discount the rules, to breach the mundane. A recent video from acclaimed critic Mark Kemode backs this up (see below).

After that premiere, scores of people ditched their Harley Quinn costume’s and donned red scarves, leather jackets and barbed wire bats for fancy dress. They were horror evil doers, they were controversial, they were relevant and they were proud. When was the last time we celebrated a horror movie villain in the same way?

Looking to the future

Unfortunately, we’re not creating more captains of industry because we’re fixated with uniformity. You see it at conventions, every gore-hound sports iconography from a horror movie spawned long before their birth. Look no further than your very own movie collection as confirmation. Pretty much all from the 70s and 80s, aren’t they? Fair enough, you like the magnum opus. They’re important and quintessential. But to evolve, horror needs the new blood to be the talk of the town. So many great horror movies of the last decade are shot down by fans blinkered with sentimentality, demanding movies like they got thirty years ago. It’s the only explanation for celebrating properties like the dog-eared Jason Takes Manhattan more than the cerebral incubus that is The Babadook.

At best, these guidelines suppress ingenuity. At worst, they provide a kind of grotto from which the racketeers and fiends can bombard those sanctioned targets. Take Halloween’s Rob Zombie, who received so much hate he has to defend himself vehemently in interviews to this day. His atrocity? Making Myers a killer due to nurture rather than nature.

Scout Taylor-Compton, director Rob Zombie, Dee Wallace on set of Halloween (2007)
Scout Taylor-Compton, director Rob Zombie, Dee Wallace on set of Halloween (2007)

Of course Halloween (2007) dealt with a periphery of anti-Zombie extremists, but the resentment was also about his disregard for the rules of a revered movie nearly forty years old. In the grand scheme of things, he didn’t even break the rules that much: it’s set in Haddonfield, Michael wears a mask and stalks babysitters, Dr. Loomis talks about how evil he is and so forth. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all of these are pretty commonplace in a Halloween movie.

Recently I read the now jettisoned Halloween Returns script by Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan which was originally going to be put on screen for the new 2017 movie. It was an alluring approach, that felt acutely immediate to Carpenter’s Halloween spirit. However, in place of Loomis was a new character named Dr. Rodgers, I can only imagine the maniacal outcry from fans if that ever came to fruition.

Fixing the problem

There’s immense convenience in similitude. I understand, horror is communal, where most genres are passive, we are fanatical. It’s an aspect of the faction that I love. So why don’t we use that? It’s down to all of us to coalesce, to battle the trend toward idleness. Whilst horror may be doing well at the box-office, we have to encourage the seeds that will bloom new fright icons. Let’s be delighted when Nightmare on Elm Street 2 stars a male scream-queen. Let’s acknowledge that youngsters might unearth a time-honoured movie after going to see a studio horror-feature that isn’t rated R.

Daring creators and fans accepting change is key. When new exciting properties are cherished, then the big studios will be more open to allowing more innovative creations to be financed. To flourish, horror needs to be served with a pinch of salt and a healthy distain for canon. Remember; Carpenter got into Hollywood to create westerns. Ellen Ripley was going to be a man and The Walking Dead was just a stupid zombie comic. Joyous fender-benders that evaded the red lights of heritage. After all, tradition is the death of creativity.

(This article was originally posted to creators.co on November 3rd, 2016 by Jay Hunter)

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