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The Dark Side of Horror PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Apr 26, 2005 at 02:00 AM
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The Dark Side of Horror
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Like its many subjects, the horror genre never truly dies. Unlike the musical or the western, it never really goes away entirely. If you count Edison’s Frankenstein as either the first film ever made or simply one of the first, it cannot be denied that horror, with all its grue, has been around forever and in all likelihood will continue to slouch towards Bethlehem, leaving countless victims in its wake.

It does have its slow periods, though. Horror took it on the chin in the mid-‘80s amidst the hue and cry over a seemingly endless period of mindless slasher films. The movies were accused, predictably, of being misogynistic for their brutality towards women (despite the fact that it was invariably a woman who ultimately prevailed over whatever killer was marauding), of being overtly-violent, bloody, misanthropic, etc. Horror got a near-death blow with the creation of the PG-13 rating in 1984. Suddenly, studios were now aiming at the wallets of the 13-and-below crowd, rearing back on blood, gore and the requisite nudity. For the next ten years or so, hardcore horror fans had to get their kicks from the video stores, snatching up unrated versions of Re-Animator and Evil Dead II, while their younger siblings dragged mom along to Troll and Mannequin.

Because of the video store boom, horror continued to thrive almost subversively. This was the VHS era, where folks like Tim Ritter (Truth or Dare) and Ron Ford churned out backyard grue for the salivating gorehounds. In Hollywood, every now and then, a good one—Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Candyman (hmm, a Barker theme)—would slip into mainstream theaters. But for the most part, the googleplexes were largely blood-free.

But in 1991, something happened that took everyone by surprise. A tense, scary movie called Silence of the Lambs broke box office records and even won a number of Academy Awards. Sure, everyone was calling it a “thriller”, but blood-fans knew a horror movie when they saw one. Suddenly, serial killer movies were all de rigueur, but it wasn’t until 1996 that they were finally acknowledged for what they were. That’s when Scream was released. And a new generation of slasher fans were born.

Like it or hate it, Scream gave new life (death?) to the horror genre. Again, it was imitated mercilessly, worst of all by its own sequels. But horror was a legitimate art form again. No longer did horror fans have to feel like part of the raincoat crowd to check out old copies of The Mutilator. Parallel to the Scream boom came the DVD craze, and what was old was suddenly new again. Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead reappeared in stores with shiny, chocolate-covered “special editions”. Army of Darkness fans alone had four-hundred different versions to choose from (or so it seemed).

And with the DVD boom came the Digital Video boom and suddenly, it was 1982 all over again as more and more backyard horror epics were born. The collector’s market was overflowing with horror, studios couldn’t remake movies fast enough. Horror had found a home again.

The current, as-of-this-writing climate of horror is somewhere between 1982 and 1986. The studios can’t decide whether to honor the wishes of the fans and give them all-out bloody fun, like, say the Dawn of the Dead remake, or keep the parents and conservative watchdogs happy with shallow, watered-down blood-free PG-13 movies like Boogeyman. For every Wrong Turn that is released as an R, there are a half-dozen flicks like The Curse, that get butchered for the eventual tamer release—only to pop up, intact, as “Special Unrated Versions” on the DVD shelves.

The R-Rated blood fests 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead made buckets of money at the box office. For all its faults (and it’s teeming with them), the much more sedate and bloodless Boogeyman took in $19 million during its first week of release. Hardly a record-breaker, but not a bad take for an essentially low-budget shocker.

The problem now is that Hollywood, as usual, hasn’t the slightest idea what to do now. Horror is big, perhaps bigger than ever, but “community standards”, via the FCC, MPAA and Governmental Nannies, haven’t been as strict, seemingly, since the McCarthy era. Add to this the inherent problem that horror fans just aren’t that fussy—they’ll go see anything, if only to bitch about it later—making for big takes for even the dumbest “shockers” ($42 million for Hide and Seek??), and the Tinseltown Suits are running in circles. What to do? Bloodbath R’s or papercut PG-13’s?

There is no real answer. It lies in the hearts and wallets of the filmgoers, of course. After a while, horror will either return to its late-80s dormant stage, or continue to thrive at the hands of the consumers.

Like any good film meteorologist can tell you, however, there are ways to track these storms…

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