Checking the Pulse of the Wide-Release Horror Film

Posted: March 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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The current issue of Fangoria has its ballot for the 2013 Chainsaw Awards, and the nominees for “Best Wide-Release Film” got me thinking about the current state of the horror film. Here are the nominees:

–          The Cabin in the Woods

–          The Grey

–          ParaNorman

–          Sinister

–          The Woman in Black

Let’s parse this for a moment. I haven’t seen ParaNorman, but though its subject matter is obviously near and dear to the hearts of horror fans, I don’t think anyone is seriously making the case that the film is (or intends to be) scary.

Nor, for that matter, is The Cabin the Woods. I have no quibble with it being on this list. I strongly suspect it will win in a landslide, and I don’t really have a problem with that, either. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, a wonderful treat for every horror nerd out there. But though it is certainly filled with horrific moments, it is also very funny. The gift it brings to the aforementioned horror nerds (and I most certainly am one of those) is laughter, not fear.

The Grey. I find its presence here very interesting. It’s a terrific film, and is certainly nightmarish. In fact, I see its inclusion as further evidence of the fact that the horror film is defined by its effect (or, more precisely, by the affect it is designed to raise, whether or not it is successful in doing so), rather than by its actual content. So, personally, I applaud the move. However, from the perspective of the broader movie-going public, I think it safe to say that said audience probably looks at The Grey as a suspenseful action/adventure film, and not a horror movie.

Which means The Woman in Black and Sinister, released at opposite ends of the year, are the only two films on the list that are problematically horror movies. And Sinister, despite some nastily creepy scenes, has so many problems with it that I have to qualify it as a considerable disappointment. It is the one entry here that I really don’t think belongs on a best-of-the-year list, and its presence, along with the other oddities, raises the question as to whether it was that hard to find five good wide-release horror films in 2012.

Perhaps it was.

I had been asking myself a related question shortly before seeing this list. I had just been to see Mama, and had been very badly let down. As with Sinister, there were good moments, but there was also a massive overuse of CGI, jarring incoherence, and an unearned, ridiculous, weirdly maudlin ending. Over the next couple of days, I found myself trying to remember the last time I had seen a solid horror flick in the theatres. If I excluded The Grey to focus on the supernatural horror film, The Cabin in the Woods as a form of comedy, then I was left with The Woman in Black. And before that: Insidious.

That’s quite a gap.

Do I need to worry, once again, about the health of my beloved horror field?

I don’t think we are heading, yet, to the grim days of the mid-1990s, when I was reduced to seeing the likes of Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh if I wanted to see any theatrical-release horror at all. But we’re obviously a far cry from the glorious revival of 1999, which saw, in the space of a few months, The Blair Witch Project, Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense and the retread of House on Haunted Hill hit the big screens. (I’m not saying these are all deathless classics, and yes, I know the dismal remake of The Haunting also came out at the same time, but I do find much to enjoy about the other four.) Nor are we facing the even darker period of 1946-51, when horror film production around the world fell to zero. And of course there are many films coming out of beyond the Hollywood machine, but for the purposes of this thought exercise, I wanted to limit myself to films that show up at the local multiplex.

I can’t help but feel a bit pessimistic, then, about the state of the wide release. Unasked-for sequels and remakes loom before us (as has ever been the case), and the number of projects with real promise are a little thin on the ground. We may be hitting another horror recession.

I truly hope I’m completely out to lunch, of course. I hope the new Evil Dead knocks my socks off (but I’m leery). I hope that James Wan’s follow-up to InsidiousThe Conjuring – does the same. (But why is Insidious 2 necessary?)

So I’m worried, but hanging on to the hope. Despite what many think, we horror fans have to live in hope.

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