Horror movies have risen from the grave and seen an incredible revitalization. Not only are there more horror films in production and more audiences watching, but the stories themselves are being treated with the care and respect deserved. In this resurgence of big-screen horror films and streaming originals, the once-scorned genre is producing some to the best stories of all the styles.
A few years back I wrote an article titled, The 12 Best 5 Minutes in Horror. In revisiting it, I had three thoughts.
The first was that I stand by my opinion on those twelve scary scenes. They represented moments where we, the audience, saw something new, unexpected, and frightening.
The second was that most the scenes were from older movies. The article, written almost eight years ago, came at a time when horror suffered from bad films, the constant use of out-dated tropes, and a belief that horror was synonymous with “slasher” films.
Perhaps the worst offense was the apologetic nature of every producer and director of horror. It seemed the only way in which they could save face among their peers was to tack on some comedy to every horror film they made.
My third realization, however, gave me great hope for my beloved genre. Horror has finally and mostly grown up.
As a Gen Xer, horror fan, and dark fiction author, I came upon the movie genre during its “second coming.” That period in the 1960s and 1970s when horror again found new and previously unseen ways to frighten us.
Films like Pyscho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), and Halloween (1978) serve, even today, as benchmarks for movie-makers.
Most of the decades following were just horrible for horror. There were some exceptions like Friday the 13th (1980), and The Evil Dead (1981), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The rest of the stuff fell flat or was little more than a rehash of the brilliance found in earlier films.
We somehow veered off into some misguided crap called horror-comedy. Which was neither Scary nor funny except for Shawn of the Dead. For decades we suffered through the slash, slash, slash of stupid characters. It happened so often, and with such lack of creativity, that audiences came to cheer Freddie and Jason.
Horror movies all shared the same subtitle: Stupid cliched characters you don’t care about getting what they deserve and what you hope for.
Over the past decade, however, things have changed.
Yes, there are still plenty of straight to stream, B-movies produced. It seems that every film student feels they have the talent and authority to make a horror film. Perhaps they’re just following the tropes they grew up on—a knife, fake blood, a mask, and boobs.
And it’s to this last point that I believe lies at least one of the reasons for horror’s improvements.
There is a new generation of horror film-makers, writers, and directors.
But over the last decade, we’ve seen much better. Movies like Heredity, Babbo, The Conjuring, and many others.
I think the reason is simple. Today’s movie producers, directors, and writers are some of the most talented folks in their industries. They are also an A-list of Gen-Xers who, like myself, grew up on horror’s really “good stuff.”
The list is long, and their horror films are impressive. Watching any of which would be well worth two hours on a Saturday night. These film-makers are not horror apologists. They take their art seriously, and they treat their genre with respect. Even when they blend comic relief into their films, it’s done not as an excuse for the lack of film fright, but because life is a mix of horror and comedy.
Today’s Best Gen-Xer Horror Film Makers
Eli Roth - The Last Exorcism, The Green Inferno, Hostel
James Wan - Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Lights Out, The Nun
Oren Peli - Paranormal Activity, Insidious
Adam Wangard - V/H/S, You’re Next
Jordan Peele - Get Out
Karyn Kusama - Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation
Rob Zombie - Slither, House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects
Ti West - The Side Effect, Innkeepers, V/H/S, The House of the Devil
M. Knight Shyamalan - The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, The Devil, Split, The Visit
The second and equally important factor is something Stephen King voiced in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre (1981). Horror is always at its best when the world is at its scariest. (That’s my translation, not his exact words.)
When world events are such that we have bigger things to worry over than horror films, horror films tend to rise in both their quality and in audience viewership. In the 50s the threat of nuclear war and communism drove us to classic horror films about alien invasions like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1958). In the 60s and early 70s, the fear of Viet Nam fueled a string of horror films related to losing our souls.
During the 1980s and 1990s, things in the world felt better. The cold wall ended, the wall came down, America seemed mostly happy, more prosperous, and the world’s problems were no longer ours. Horror films became a reflection of the care-free feeling. Monsters were funny, slashers weren’t such a big deal, and almost every horror movie was a B-movie.
Then 9-11. We again had reason to fear the world. And then the 2008 recession. And then the constant flow of hate over race, the have’s and have nots, the political ideologies that would destroy the world ( both sides feel the same on this issue). We feared the world, but more so we feared our neighbor, we fear “what is happening,” and all those fears have manifested into some the best horror films ever made.
Yes, as stated there are still plenty of bad horror films. But the general trend is toward better movies and a growing audience of viewers.
Movie titles that once could only be found (deservingly) in a small, dusty section of your local Blockbuster Video now get treated to large-scale marketing, are hosted in mainstream streaming services and get big budgets from AMC, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, HBO, and Starz.
I wanted to include the SYFY channel, but they still make silly low-quality “films.”
Even the 70-something King of Horror, Stephen King’s stories are enjoying a resurgence. Once his stories suffered from terrible film production or were slaughtered by directors who wanted to use King’s name, idea, but not his story (Kubrick's version of The Shining). It, Pet Semetary, Hulu’s Castle Rock, and an upcoming revision of The Stand are all being produced with a seriousness and respect that is winning big with audiences (BTW, the 2017 version of IT was directed Andy Muschietti . . . A GenXer!).
So, horror movies have for the most part grown up. The reasons may be those I argued, or it may merely be the natural cycle of horror and horror films. We live in a world where nothing lasts forever and where fickle consumers change their minds far more often than they change their passwords so one can’t say if it will continue.
As a horror fan and dark fiction novelist, I’m enjoying this new dawn for my favorite genre. And even if it should fade like that sunset over Dracula’s Castle, I’m satisfied. Content in the knowledge that the genre has shown itself to be capable of great stories and even greater entertainment. Happy that an entirely new generation of twelve-year-olds is sneaking away to Netflix, Prime, and Hulu to see real horror greatness.
That these are their films, as I had mine, that will forever be the measurement for every new horror film.
And someday, should horror fade and spoil, this will be the new generation to pick up the script and camera and again bring horror out of the darkness.
By Raymond Esposito
Raymond Esposito is an award-winning dark fiction author and Amazon bestseller. His articles and interviews have appeared in a variety of publications including Family Circle and Sanitarium Magazine. He has a degree in Cognitive Psychology and has spent over 28 years as a criminal behaviorist.