As it has been stated by a slew of critics over the course of cinema history, horror is the one genre that will never die.
In terms of mainstream cinematic entertainment, other trends fall in and out of fashion, and certain genres rise and fall at the mercy of popular opinion. Horror, however, has always bubbled up underneath it all, persistently moving forward like an immortal zombie, watching its surroundings as tastes evolve around it. Each decade can lay claim to several horror trends, of course, and even trends within horror come and go. But horror as a whole seems to persist.
Occasionally, however, horror fans begin to notice stale edges from within — we tend to like a great deal of variety, but we can be fickle as well. Horror trends can arise, succeed, and overstay their welcome, and fans can tire of them. The genre as a whole will evolve, of course, and the health of horror is usually ensured by a form of creative biodiversity; we’ll always be treated to something new, and the current generation of horror filmmakers is actively turning out an exciting new wave of indie horror.
But the current generation has carried with it a nagging and unfortunate undercurrent of something far more insidious: as horror is currently evolving through its current bodily forms, it carries with it a mild scent of regression. Indeed, much of current horror cinema may not be understood for those who are not already incredibly well-versed in the horror cinema of the 1980s.
Are we creatively exploding… or are we just stuck in the ’80s? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Given the glorious pantheon provided us by the vast swath of horror cinema history, we seem to be unduly focused on the genre’s trends and titles that first arose in that decade. When we aren’t remaking notable ’80s horror classics (everything from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th to APRIL FOOL’S DAY and CHILDREN OF THE CORN have been remade), we’re evoking the vibe of 1980s genre films with pacing, tone, and John Carpenter-inspired musical scores. Great recent horror and genre movies like THE GUEST, IT FOLLOWS, WE ARE STILL HERE, YOU’RE NEXT, and the ’80s tech-centric anthology V/H/S are all reliant on what we know about ’80s horror cinema for their aesthetic — and, by extension, dramatic — oomph.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is basically a stoner’s deconstruction of THE EVIL DEAD, which will make absolutely no sense to people unfamiliar with THE EVIL DEAD. The most recent example of ’80s nostalgia-based horror is Netflix’s balleyhooed STRANGER THINGS — which obviously takes its tonal and visual cues most heavily from the ’80s output of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg.
This, of course, doesn’t pertain to all recent horror movies — there are many original and striking classics coming out all the time — but this regression is a noticeable trend.
It’s easy to see why it’s happening — the current generation of horror filmmakers are in their mid-30s to mid-40s, and they definitely grew up during the horror boom of the 1980s. Pre-teens in 1984 were able to see a glut of horror movies in theaters, slashers came to the fore, and horror cinema had invaded the public’s consciousness in a way it hadn’t since maybe the 1930s. Growing up in that milieu –- the heyday of FANGORIA magazine — can produce a generation of horror fans who want to grow up to be horror filmmakers. Fast-forward to the present day, and children of the ’80s are now making horror movies that resemble their most beloved horror classics.
I was a child of the ’80s, and I too, dear readers, have an undeniable nostalgic affection for horror cinema of that decade. I will never be convinced that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HELLRAISER are not great cinema, and even the crappier 1980s horror films hold a certain sway over my consciousness. I even like John Carpenter’s lesser titles. But in the modern age, the pervasive push of ’80s nostalgia seems to be twisting horror cinema back on itself. In a way, we’re stuck in a rut.
Horror cinema, in the modern age, seems to have reached a weird sort of impasse: ever since war broke out in the Middle East in the early 2000s, and real-life horrors and fears arrived at our doorsteps, more audiences have become concerned with economic hardship than ghouls and the breakdown of the domestic unit (a common theme in the 1980s, a time of skyrocketing divorce rates). Horror movies became less interested in exploring the immediate fears in front of us — which were already too unsettling. Instead, the genre, like much of cinema, began to offer up a weird form of comfort food to audiences. Rather than scare and unnerve, horror cinema began to bank in the familiar. We’re not going to find new monsters… but simply repackage the old ones. Horror became about the expected, the branded. We moved into a place of complacency.
1980s horror fans were a bit terrified at this prospect (no one my age asked for a remake of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and they summarily ignored and pooh-poohed a lot of the nostalgia-banking remakes that were coming out at the time. But the remakes did provide a vital function: a new generation now felt like they were part a larger cultural legacy. Younger people tend to be closed-minded when it comes to their cinematic consumption, and many of them may not bother to go see something like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE on their own. They’ll have heard of it through a general cultural osmosis, but they won’t necessarily have consumed it. A remake allowed them to be part of the conversation for the first time; they now have a new version that they are more likely to approach. These younger horror fans want something new and immediate, but still want to know what all the fuss was about to begin with. The remakes served that function.
As we older horror fans might hope, the remakes could also eventually offer a path back to the originals. Younger fans may actually watch horror films made in the 1970s and 1980s… and find great cinema waiting.
But while encouraging younger people to find cinema classics is a noble endeavor, older horror fans began falling into the trap of nostalgia. It’s one thing to encourage people to watch great films; it’s quite another to become the asshole uncle who is eager to forcibly sit the kiddies down, take away their new-fangled mp3s, and crack out the dated classic rock to “let ’em know what some real music sounds like.” Nostalgia is a warming and comforting thing, to be sure… but it’s the best possible way to ensure a halt to creative and aesthetic evolution.
So we need to be careful moving forward. Quoting the aesthetic and aural cues of the 1980s draws on some pretty glorious cinematic horror traditions — I think IT FOLLOWS, THE INNKEEPERS, and THE GUEST are among the best horror films of the decade so far — and continuing to explore our own horror influences is a fun way to delve into our own collective unconsciousness.
What drew us to these things to begin with? Surely there is something there worth exploring.
But recently, we find we are only gazing at our own horror navels. We are commenting less on the universal fears of the world, and only on our reaction to the films of the past. ’80s-based horror cinema isn’t so much a comment on fear or filmmaking — it’s a comment on ourselves, on our nostalgia, and on how we react to horror cinema. But it’s also clear that we’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
The influence must remain. Many horror films of the 1980s are still great, and I’m glad to see they’re still a part of the conversation. But horror filmmakers need to intentionally find a new voice; we need to make sure that nostalgia doesn’t rule us. We can have that voice, of course, and we can share it… but the conversation should, I think we can all agree, continue to expand.