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Horror: An Essential Genre

Distribution experts Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe present their celebration of horror cinema as a democratic breeding ground for exceptional filmmaking talent.

As The Woman in Black, the latest film from the revitalised Hammer Horror, begins its campaign to scare the bejesus out of cinema audiences across the globe, now seems a good time to reflect on a genre that continues to thrive, even in today’s climate.

It’s a climate in which big-screen trends will continue to come and go in the bat of an eye; studio picture budgets will continue to skyrocket; Hollywood stars will get ever more greedy in their blinkered wage demands; and new technology and special effects will continue to defy our visual, hearing and even our emotional senses. Yet, despite all that, there is one thing in this crazed industry of ours that will stay reassuringly cheap, reliable at the box office and consistently abundant. We refer, of course, to the good old-fashioned horror flick, and 2012 promises to deliver yet another river of cinematic blood with a slew of top-ticket studio theatrical titles, including The Cabin In The Woods, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Tim Burton’s reimagining of 60s TV gothic soap Dark Shadows, standing by to churn our stomachs. There are also new entries from such perennial franchises as Hellraiser, Underworld and Resident Evil—all in eye-gouging 3D, another throwback to the horror boom of the fifties—showing that the genre remains in rude health despite the vicissitudes of audience taste.

In truth, one can see why the genre has remained so strong over the years. It is now, and has always been, the cheapest entry point into the market for young talent trying to find a way to blossom and develop. In the UK specifically, tax incentives and box-office driven financial instruments such as the Eady Levy gave birth to the first British horror boom of the fifties and sixties, ensuring its health to the point at which the original Hammer studios achieved the distinction of receiving the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968 for their voluminous output of fangs and bare breasts!

Despite the abolition of these incentives, and the concomitant decline of British theatrical production at the end of the seventies, the emergence of the VHS rental market and the video nasty melee of the eighties, followed by the DVD boom of the late nineties and early noughties, saw two further generations of horror auteur and consumers come of age. With its well-defined and fanatically loyal user base, the sector remains as clearly the safest route to a potentially voracious market. No surprise, then, that romantic comedy is less seldom explored by those making a first film using their credit card; it’s hard to imagine what a £2,000 version of Four Weddings and a Funeral would look like. We can only hope we never see it!

The other remarkable thing about this genre is that it also has the barefaced cheek to occasionally confound all known commercial logics and create a successful franchise or two along the way. Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, Scream, Final Destination and Saw, to name but a few, were all made on a shoestring budget but went on to break box-office records and spawn bastard sons in copious sequels and commercial offshoots. Sure, the studios do dabble in the dark form from time to time; notably, Paramount’s Paranormal Activity has gone from a low-cost third-party pickup to a high-grossing franchise in the space of little more than two years. A new entry is due for release this coming Halloween.

The genre’s main creative drive, however, does seem to be born out of the fan base itself, with horror buffs such as Guillermo del Toro, Neil Marshall, James Wan, Troy Nixey and Kevin Smith being very vocal in leading the charge for its artistic respectability. Yet the bottom line is that if you can muster a rubber mask, a fake axe, buckets of theatrical blood, the use of a deserted mansion and a group of understanding friends, then you can probably fashion a gore-fest flick—as long, of course, as you have mastered your Apple Mac editing, sound design and effects package on your home computer. It may sound like a new punk-style guerrilla filmmaking movement but, in reality, this is where some of America’s brightest and boldest talents cut their milk teeth back in the day, honing their skills on 16mm student films. Halloween director John Carpenter was swiftly followed by the likes of Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi, a generation of movie brats afforded their entry into the commercial mainstream by genre filmmaking.

The Brits, too, have always had a trick or two up their sleeves in this area. Companies such as Hammer, Tigon, Amicus and British Lion thrived on such quickie quota fare throughout the commercial heyday of the fifties, sixties and seventies. From Dracula, Quatermass and Witchfinder General through to Carry On Screaming and The Wicker Man, a diverse range of genre programmers kept the domestic box-office tills ringing for over three decades.

Today in the UK that tradition has been reinvigorated with recent titles such as The Descent, Attack the Block, Kill List, Cherry Tree Lane, Eden Lake and 2010’s lo-fi sleeper hit Monsters, all paving the way for considerable home-grown talents such as Neil Marshall, Joe Cornish, Ben Wheatley, Paul Andrew Williams, James Watkins and Gareth Edwards to get off the starting blocks onto the big screens. Even long-practicing stalwarts of the UK’s glory days of horror are seeing a return to the form, with the celebrated and unjustly neglected Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid) promising a genre comeback in 2012 with his first theatrical release in over 25 years.

Another huge factor in British genre success is that we have the bonus of a great literary history on which we can draw our inspiration. From Horace Walpole, M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Lord Dunsany through to Dennis Wheatley, Nigel Kneale and Susan Hill, this vein has informed British genre cinema throughout the years and still resonates in recent attempts at English gothic, such as The Awakening, and the forthcoming remake of James’ classic, Casting the Runes.

And let’s not forget our bloodstained European neighbours, as countries such as France, Italy, Sweden and Spain have also been a rich breeding ground for twisted and tormented young talents to get the cinematic chainsaw out. Let The Right One In, Haute Tension, Them, Julia’s Eyes, The Orphanage and numerous others have all blazed a trail across the international marketplace, providing inspiration and, in select cases, near immediate remakes in the English language markets.

It’s strange, really. Although those films we have mentioned can all be gathered together and labelled under the rubric of ‘horror’, in reality they highlight the amazing diversity of style, inspiration and quality of production that has been brought to bear in this genre. It is astounding that so little importance or respect has ever been afforded to the purveyors of the best of these films when the awards are being dished out. In truth, horror cinema is still regarded as a pejorative term for many, and an artistic leper for others. What should bring comfort to those largely unrewarded filmmakers is that modern audiences, in the same way as their parents and grandparents did, still respond to their visceral cinematic thrills, and still want to be scared out of their skins in the darkened and hallowed halls of the cinema. Like the undead themselves, long may it continue. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 26 (Jan/Feb 2012)

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