Have Horror Films Lost their Imagination?

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The year is 1974, the young little known director of The Sugarland Express is working on another film for Universal Pictures. It is an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s horror/ thriller novel entitled; Jaws. The production is troubled; director Steven Spielberg is losing the confidence of his cast and crew. The film had been pitched to Universal as what was referred to at the time as ‘ A Monster Picture’ ; a giant Great White Shark terrorises a peaceful seaside resort and causes death and bloody mayhem.  But the film’s star an mechanical shark (initially referred to as Bruce but later nicked named ‘The Great White Turd’) is not cooperating, as it turns out that he unfortunately and rather ironically does not like salt water. There are mummers on the set between crew questioning how Speilberg will make a monster movie without a monster. These mummers soon develop into screaming rows. Bruce refused to behave within the water, he would stall and hold up filming for hours, the young director was forced to move through the shooting script abandoning countless scenes that were intended to showcase a ferocious beast. The situation seemed hopeless, those involved in the filming believed that the picture was going to be an utter flop- if it even managed to get released.

Then Steven Spielberg did what he is now renowned for doing best, he directed. Realising that physical effects had failed him Spielberg looked to the great Hitchhock’s films namely Psycho and realised that he could create the idea of his terrifying monster without the audience having to see much of the titular creature. By filming at water level and from the sharks ‘POV’ Spielberg created the impression that a terrible creature was hunting human prey.  John Williams now legendary score was also hugely instrumental in giving Jaws it’s monster. It has been claimed that when John Williams was given the film to score, that appeared to be in desperate need of a terrifying Great White he told Speilberg “I’ll give you your shark”.

Jaws went on to become of the most successful horror/ thriller films of all time. Now ask yourself, if Jaws had been handed to a director today in 2013, what would have happened? I believe that the CGI special effects artists would have been put to work and everyone else would have gone to lunch. Jaws petrified people, creating suspense and suggesting horror caused people to use their imagination and effectively scare themselves. It was an ingenious concept that was later put to use by The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Both of these films gave the audience just a simple idea, they suggested at a malevolent presence and this was enough for the audience to experience genuine terror.

Both of these films garnered huge box office sales, world adoration and attention. But unfortunately not many horror films today seem willing to trust their concept. I feel that the successful concept that they put forward was not ‘ use Found Footage’ it was ‘let the audience do the work’. Lately I have been beginning to feel that many horror films use CGI and fake gore to do the work for us. The Saw series is no longer scary ; in fact it’s hardly even disturbing anymore. For me watching people (often young attractive people) being ripped apart and seeing every stage of their bloody death just makes me uncomfortable. I’m a known detractor of ‘torture porn’ mostly because I don’t truly understand it’s purpose.  What am I supposed to be feeling as I watch a young woman scream for her life as she is slowly murdered? A fear of death? One could feel that while pouring milk on their cornflakes. Just plain fear? I think perhaps torture porn may have begun with that intent, to scare us (as all horror films should). But I believe that less is always more when creating fear.

So have Horror Films lost their imagination? There are still certain films that try to give us the material to create fear, 2010’s Insidious being a good example. But I worry that they are becoming a dying breed. 

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