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On The Seventh Art In The Age Of The Digital.

The State of the Horror Nation: Part Two

Rob Girvan returns with part two of his three part look at the current Horror cinema landscape.

Where Are the New Horror Icons?

Monsters are the linchpin of the Halloween season. They are why people dress up, and are what we enjoy watching on our TV and cinema screens. From the traditional creatures such as vampires, werewolves and the modern-Prometheus created by Frankenstein, to the nightmare of H.R Gigers Alien, Romero’s zombies and the towering shadows of Godzilla and King Kong, monsters have infused our imaginations for decades on the silver screen.

What all famous monsters have in common are clear designs – for instance vampires and teeth, werewolves and hair. Looking at specific creatures such as the Alien, the entire design consists of very simple shapes, and at a subconscious level compels audiences to focus on the head, and the mouth. Even monsters from the 1980s horror franchises were distinct. Freddy, with his black and red jumper and knives, Jason, with his hockey mask and machete and Pinhead, with his Lovecraft meets goth club look.

It has been a long time since we have had a new monster enter the fray.  Yes, creature features still happen. And horror movies continue to present monsters, both human and otherwise. But where are the modern horror icons?

If you have ever gone shopping for costumes for Halloween, how many of them are based on characters or creatures from the last two decades? For my money we have had the mask from the Scream franchise (which was already pre-existing) and maybe the clown face in Saw (a series of movies which let’s be honest, don’t even have the charm of a bad 80s slasher movie).

Why is there a dearth of modern horror icons in our cinemas? Where are the new monsters to terrify us? Why does it seem they vanished as soon as the 1990s hit? I have a few ideas.

Modern Design

Creature designers have in last couple of decades have become engrossed in replicating and exaggerating real life. Go and watch any DVD extras with designers from movies released in recent times and they will say more often than not, that there creatures have a basis in reality, usually back up with a picture of said beastie. Now I am not saying this is a bad thing on its own. But what it has done is make realism the king, and sadly that realism often makes for monsters which all kind of look the same.

People respond better to simple shapes, and if combined with memorable scenes, they will leave the cinema with an imprint in their head. I can’t really tell you what the alien in Super 8 looked like, but I sure as heck can remember the one from ET.  Anyone remember what the creature in The Relic looked like? Or Mimic?

Special Effects

Closely linked to the above, is the use of CGI. Now I am not one of these peoples who bemoan computer effects. Much like stop motion and every other technique it can be really great or really bad.

However when it comes to horror, directors now have so many tools at their disposal that they can create whatever they want. And usually what they want is overly complicated. When you are using practical effects you cannot over-do the design. Too many parts and it becomes hard to control and light. Now you can make monsters are complex as you want, have them do crazy stuff and fix issues such as lighting in post-production. On the one hand this creates unlimited freedom, on the other; it results in seeing the Alien swimming underwater, with the danger reduced to the level of a videogame level.

Remakes

Why bother creating new icons when you can go back to the well and remake successful horror movies? Nearly every famous horror icon has been remade in some shape or form in the last few years. The Thing has recently been turned into a prequel (which also kinda, sorta looks like a remake), and we are promised yet another reboot of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (but this time in 3D).

Horror has gotten lazy. It no longer wants to come up with new things to scare you, but rather feed off your nostalgia of being scared in the past. Sadly for the most part this has been largely unsuccessful, and continues to be unsuccessful.

No Monster is a Cheap Monster

What do Final Destination and Paranormal Activity have in common? Apart from being the biggest horror franchises still going, neither of them has a bad guy in them. The horror comes from invisible forces.

While this is an undoubted way to create fear, it has also created a system in which not seeing the horror is seen to be every bit as effective (and a lot cheaper) than showing the horror. Thus I am sat watching The Last Exorcism, and something at the end happens. But no, I don’t see it. Why? Because for some reason there is an idea that having a monster kept in the shadows is the exact same thing as having no creature at all.

I understand the creative reasons for doing this, but on the other hand, if you come up with a great horror design, people remember, and the world is your oyster.

It is time that we stopped looking into the past for inspiration, and called on designers to come up with new ideas, and images to scare us all. Things have gotten stale. While looking for shadows is cool, it is much cooler seeing something, or someone going after our heroes. Perhaps I am forgetting something, and if so, please put your suggestions in the comment box.

In the next and final instalment of this series, I will be defending the Found Footage genre, and why we shouldn’t dismiss the format. 

Rob can be found on Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. I agree with many of your points. I’d add, though, that the iconic nature of monsters breeds a sense of familiarity that can make them less threatening. Freddy and Jason became beasts that audiences started to cheer as they picked through nasty teenagers. King Kong was the tragic hero nobody understood. Godzilla went from instrument of destruction to child-friendly guardian of the Earth. A monster you don’t see or can’t identify with can, when used effectively, prevents an audience from relating to it. To further this point, I’d argue there have been iconic, instantly identifiable monsters on screen in the last decade, but they’re ones we buddy up to and cheer along with in films that are far more adventurous than they are frightening. I’m speaking, of course, about Monsters, Inc. and Hellboy.

    The problem with any icon is that it becomes a brand, and through mass recognition and proliferation, the threat of the beast is diluted and instead becomes welcome familiarity.

    • It is a good point about dilution, and something which I kinda, sorta mention with regard to seeing full CG shots of the Alien swimming.

      But then there is a reason that these things are so popular to be diluted in the first place.That they had such an impact on their intital release that it propelled the character forward into sequels etc. I still think Carpenters Halloween for instance, has a power which in the fullness of time, goes beyond all the sequels and Rob Zombie.

  2. I blame CGI for a lot of this, to be honest. Part of being scared of a monster is the reaction of the actors in the movie, and if they have nothing to act off of they just aren’t gonna be as invested. You have to dig a lot deeper to act off of nothing, and even then nobody will buy it. I think it can be a lovely tool when used properly, but it’s rarely used properly.

  3. Jon (FES Designs)

    November 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    I would agree that realism is the killer. Focusing too much on that has made it immensely more difficult to create creatures. I was working with a couple other individuals on a horror game/movie combo and I was replaced as a creature designer simply for the fact that another person’s designs were more complex looking and they were able to provide pre-made CG models for the directors.

    CG is a tool, and it should be kept as just that. I’m a firm believer in the older practical effects school. If it can’t be made practically in some way, shape or form, then it shouldn’t be put in the final product.

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