It was only a matter of time. Blood is finally beginning to seep back into the corners of film again with the gradual revival of splatter movies in America. And we have Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Rob Zombie, and–yes, I hate to admit it–even Eli Roth to thank for that. Which filmmaker audiences choose to attribute the re-emergence of splatter to has been the constant argument among the fan base, but the topic became extraneous when they considered that finally, collectively, horror was returning back to form that garnered such a following to begin with.
Dario Argento explained that horror is the future, a future that must be pushed to the absolute limit, and for many years his words were in vain. After what has seemed like a dark age for the genre with dry PG-13 teenage marketed films that boasted “intense scares!” and really only showed the level of horror you’d find in R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books polluting theaters for years, blood is once again dripping back on to the big screen. And I’m not referring to the cheesy underground films where fake blood is splashed on walls while a girl pretends to be ripped apart, I’m talking about mainstream, the main bloodline for audiences that keep them coming in to theaters, because whether we admit it or not, the mainstream is an important factor in the direction of the art form.
For too long, studios have taken the horror genre for granted, trading edge for profits, originality for familiarity pandering to the teenage demographic only. And this new exploration into the teen market had the horror fans biting our tongues watching pollutants of lightweight horror s**t come and go with films like “Venom” and “The Amityville Horror” to name a few. The effect of the studio’s path of destruction affected many in the horror world; 2005 witnessed even the forefathers of horror hit a slump with John Carpenter selling his film rights to studios at a rapidfire pace, allowing the remake of “The Fog” and hinting at a remake of “Halloween”, just to name a few, while displaying alarming empathy towards the art he created and to his fan base, even being quoted as declaring “As long as they pay me”. While Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson explored the blockbuster action genre, Takashe Miike’s installment of an American horror series for cable was banned in the states, and fans unanimously turned their backs on the Wes Craven turkey “Cursed” and were mixed on “Red Eye”.
Most affected though was George Romero, whose much anticipated return to the big screen tanked, thanks in part to poor last minute advertising, a premature release, reports of him walking off the set, and Universal cutting his budget. “Land of the Dead” which grossed a measly $10 million on its opening weekend, was received with mixed reaction from both critics and fans, mostly due to the fact that the story felt incomplete. “Land”—a very admirable effort—showed only one part of a full story, and Romero never had the chance to give us the last parts of the obviously epic plot he had envisioned into the entire film. Even with a team of popular actors such as Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, and Tom Savini helping to push the promotion, fans were split in their feelings towards “Land” by reaction of gimmicky zombie characters, a more aware zombie leader (with their allegiances lying with Bub), and lack of the true blood splatter Romero’s zombie films were famous for (Romero who attempted to work around the MPAA, inadvertently ruined his own product).
Though “Land” was indeed gory in some respects, most of the violence was implied and kept in the shadows, and Romero pulled away from the brunt of the violence which ultimately affected feedback from audiences whom were expecting a return to bloody form. “Land” disappeared in the blink of an eye before audiences could stagger in to theaters. To add insult to injury, the remake of his masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead” was a box-office hit a year prior, grossing $26 million on its opening weekend. But it’s taking individual filmmakers once again, under the Hollywood radar, to enter the scene and give it the shot of adrenaline to the heart the horror genre desperately needs. Too often the genre has been deemed irrelevant in exchange for younger audiences, to witness cinematic bile like the “House of Wax” remake–a mere sloppy slasher vehicle for WB/CW stars–dominate the scene while the blood slowly dried from horror’s rotten corpse. Who can forget the dry exploits of the snore fest “Cry_Wolf”, the smug and boring “slasher” that promised the potential for gore and horror and provided audiences with nothing but a story reminiscent of “Fear Street”?
Around the millennium, the horror medium was at a point of a relapse, and despite the best efforts from studios like Lions Gate and Anchor Bay respectively to push classic horror and splatter films into the public consciousness once more, studios drowned them out by pushing one over-publicized PG-13 entry after another. Even “Fangoria”, once a facet for independent and underground horror, snapped in to line with studios, featuring in-depth articles involving tame faux-horror films like “Dark Water”, “The Village”, “The Jacket”, “Assault on Precinct 13”, and “The Ring Two”. Whether or not a horror film can still be frightening with or without blood became a moot argument. It became all too apparent that the studios were sucking the genre dry in exchange for profits. And fans lost sight of what the genre was, becoming complacent and tolerable while Hollywood fed that tendency with more redundant carbon copy crap. Horror’s been reduced to self-parody, constant remakes, and bland affairs all due to the popularity of self-referential slasher films made popular in the late nineties, and Japanese horror that aided in the drastic altering and saturation of the genre.
Japanese horror became a very popular sub-genre for American film buffs in the early millennium seeking out different kinds of stories from the usual American fodder. Ironically, Japanese Horror was also a genre ripe with a library of films that rarely shed any blood, to which Hollywood followed with numerous remakes of films with a possibility for PG-13 ratings. Films like “Ringu” and “Kairo” were remade while films like “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer” were conveniently sidestepped. Proceeding that grasp for the almighty dollar and milking the fad were films like “The Ring” [and its sequel], “The Grudge”, “Dark Water”, and so many others. To wit, the market became congested with remakes of Asian horror and its knock-offs and most of the fanbase turned away from the fad. The increasing trend that goaded fans the most, though, were the studio’s insistence on squeezing supernatural dramas by audiences as horror with films like “Dark Water”, undoubtedly a supernatural melodrama, and “The Village” which was heavily marketed as a horror film only for audiences to feel as if they’d been cheated into watching a drama.
Also contributing to the marginalizing of the genre in the public eye, were the studio’s insistence on hiring inexperienced music video directors to take on the tame films, instead of bringing experienced directors in to carve their own works. It was bad enough these films were terribly written, but these directors catered more to visuals than texture. Thus, any atmosphere or grit was traded for dizzying quick cuts and kinetic camera work. As with the Japanese remakes, studios opted in some cases to hire the directors from the originals with no success. Hideo Nakata’s foray in to “The Ring Two” was a failed effort, to which Nakata blamed the studios for re-editing the film and chopping it down against his will. The studios also pushed remakes out faster than critics could review them and remakes of classic horror films littered the box-office with awful, tedious retreads of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “When a Stranger Calls”, and “The Fog”, which was a box-office and critical failure featuring perhaps one of the most plot-hole apparent storylines ever written.
Horror, like basically every facet of pop culture is a cyclical process, and it was time for the serpent to change its skin. On September 12th, 2003, a young man named Eli Roth brought to theaters one of the goriest films made in years with his debut, “Cabin Fever” which became an instant fan favorite. Though “Cabin Fever” is quite possibly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, Roth’s insistence on featuring shameless gore and sex (the apparent raison d’être for his films) showed audiences what they were missing and soon the insistence on harder edged films began. In spite of the lack of quality and truly coherent stories from Eli Roth’s films, one aspect that many fans have praised is his willingness to bring unbridled gore and violence to horror once more.
As a result, Hollywood began to slowly welcome horror from up-and-comers in the indie film circuit and films like the gruesome slasher “Saw” [by James Wan and Leigh Whanell] became a box-office hit, and 2003’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” directed by rock star Rob Zombie garnered critical acclaim. With Zombie’s rousing and exciting ode to Peckinpagh and Hooper, 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects” exposed the pure bane of humanity doing what they loved to do: torturing helpless victims and leaving a trail of bodies across the country. A follow-up to “House of 1,000 Corpses”, “Rejects” featured his most popular characters from the former wreaking havoc on a family in a hotel room all leading to a highway shoot-out with state officers in the climax. Zombie’s film was a wet dream of torture, gore, nudity, rape, disemboweling, and gratuitous sex that clicked with fans.
With the tide turn came a slow delivery of horror films that produced products for the audience instead of the system. In 2004, “Shaun of the Dead”, a horror-comedy spawned by UK comedians Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, both creators of the smash comedy series “Spaced”, snuck its way to the genre and became a neo-zeitgeist for horror comedy. From a budget of only $4 million, the duo created one of the best horror-comedies in years, and brought the zombie sub-genre back in to its form. Before then, imitation zombie films like “Resident Evil” were dumped in to theaters, but it took the resources and love of two horror film buffs to create an intelligent and scary zombie film that gave horror fans what they were craving. “Shaun”, a pure love letter to George Romero, became a critical hit and earned the duo instant clout and praise from predecessors like Romero, Craven, Raimi, and Peter Jackson.
Eli Roth’s 2006 follow-up, “Hostel”, a sloppy, overblown but fascinating exploitation film about college students being tortured while touring the UK, proved once again that bloodshed sells earning box-office success and critical praise. Whether or not one can define “Hostel” as a horror film [or even a good film] wasn’t important to executives, Roth’s formula proved successful for all involved. In spite of crafty false advertising throwing around Quentin Tarantino’s name, declaring this as “the goriest movie ever made”, and Roth’s insistence on imitating Takashi Miike, his success acted as an example to movie studios showing that blood and gore can be lucrative, and made him one of the notable up-and-coming horror directors. Roth has often been loosely tagged as “The Future of Horror” (not hard to believe with a population that considers Michael Bay a genius), but if there’s any future of horror, it’s in Alexander Aja and Neil Marshall, two foreign filmmakers who have created films on their terms and carved their own niche.
Both directors are slowly gaining notoriety in the American film industry bringing both blood splatter and genuine storytelling to the table. Aja’s film “Haute Tension”, released in 2003, became a fan-praised instant horror classic that would shock many audiences with its brutality and unflinching torture sequences. Aja’s knack for gore and nihilism gave horror the jolt it needed. Though a flop in the states thanks to poor advertising and lack of hype, horror fans embraced both Aja and his film, and flocked to see his superior remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”. A year subsequent to “Haute Tension”, director Neil Marshall served another beloved independent film named “The Descent”, a frightening survivalist horror film which earned praise from fans almost a year before premiering in America. The England native who’d made a name for himself in the states with the underrated werewolf actioner “Dog Soldiers”, once again added spice to the genre with the frantic, gory, anarchy that was once a staple in horror, with a frenzied story of a group of women spelunkers stuck in a cave with flesh-eating monsters.
With the further emergence of gore flicks like the foreign slasher “Wolf Creek”, “Three…Extremes”, “Saw 2”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, and “Slither”, the genre has begun to show its teeth again with the new wave of splatter, and fresh directors with a clear idea of how to create are successfully transforming the genre back to what it used to be, even if audiences refuse to acknowledge it. Though Hollywood also refuses to change with the fandom, the new genesis for horror has finally developed to where more and more audiences are demanding films that go for the throat.
And with upcoming films like “Grindhouse”, Marshall’s “The Descent” finally arriving to the states, the third installment of the “Saw” franchise, and the upcoming adaptation of “Cell”, horror is finally returning to the form that sent Conservatives in to an uproar. The tide is changing once more and it’s up to Hollywood and American audiences to either change with it, or be caught under the waves. Either way, the future of horror is looking mighty bright.