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Sunday, March 2, 2008

From Post-Mortem to Postmodern: A History of Horror Movies, Part 6

It seemed like the horror genre had nowhere else to go after the blood-drenched, boundary-pushing 1970s and '80s. And in a way, that was true.The 1990s is remembered by many as a lowpoint in the history of scary movies. And while that's a slightly inaccurate generalization, the decade did suffer in some respects as a result of the excesses of the years that preceded it.

On the one hand, you had many of the deathless franchises of the 1980s lurching forward, series like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween churning out sequel after sequel, burning out the moviegoing public in the process. New slasher series like Child's Play, Leprechaun and Candyman, while offering some new ideas, also added more fuel to the fire.

In addition to that, a backlash occured. Beyond the genre, American moviemaking in general became more conservative, reacting to the unbridled violence and sex of the previous generation with more restraint and less gratuitousness. Criticisms of the business had begun to have an effect, and filmmakers had finally gotten over the fact they could do certain things they couldn't before. Now they were being more prudent about when and how often to do them.

Within horror, the gore factor was greatly reduced. Of course there were some exceptions--the most notable of which was a certain 1992 horror comedy by New Zealand director Peter Jackson called Brain Dead (or Dead Alive in America). That offbeat zombie flick ratcheted up the onscreen violence to ridiculously unheard of levels, but played it for laughs all the way. Perhaps that was the only way Jackson got away with it.

Ironically, once the splatter scene became old hat, Hollywood made something of a return to the grand guignol of a bygone era. Gothic horror made a brief comeback, and even the old monsters got taken out of mothballs for movies like Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), Wolf (1994) and The Mummy (1999) (though the latter was reimagined as more of an action film.) Vampires in particular benefited from a "goth" movement that buoyed Anne Rice's series of novels to worlwide acclaim and led to a motion picture version of Interview with the Vampire starring mega-stars Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

The genre was lost in a way, heading in several different directions at once, unable to find its bearings. It was playing, after all, to an audience that felt as if it had seen it all. In hindsight, it seems only natural that the only thing to do under the circumstances was to deconstruct. For the first time, horror films became self-aware and self-reflective.

Just as he had been among the pioneers of the previous era, director Wes Craven led the pack again. Toying with the concept with 1994's New Nightmare, something of a coda to his Elm Street saga in which dream killer Freddy Krueger crosses over into the real world, Craven committed fully to self-aware horror with Scream (1996). A slasher flick in which all the characters seem to know about slasher flicks and all their cliches, the movie plays upon our expectations, injecting new life into a tired subject with a healthy dose of postmodern irony. Scream and its sequels, along with pics like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), led to an unlikely rebirth of the hack-and-slash subgenre.

After years of searching for a new identity, the horror genre benefited from the shot in the arm, and by the end of the decade seemed to be on the road to recovery. Yet it also seemed as if horror filmmakers everywhere had learned over the course of the 1990s that they didn't necessarily need buckets of guts to effectively generate terror.

Witness the types of films that led the renaissance in the late 1990s. In America, it was newcomer M. Night Shyamalan and his atmospheric, Oscar-nominated ghost story The Sixth Sense (1999). There was also the ground-breaking Blair Witch Project of the same year. Although the overdose of internet hype that accompanied the film may have sabotaged it to a certain degree, it was the ingenious decision to inspire fear through the hyper-realism of a so-called "mock-umentary" approach that makes the movie a landmark--and one of the biggest influences on the genre to this day.

Meanwhile, from overseas in Japan, a movement was spreading abroad that would have an even greater impact in America in the years to come. With Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) being the most well-known, Japanese horror would further reinvigorate the genre and open up new avenues to explore.

Horror had proven that it had a lot more life left in it. In fact, with the dawn of a new decade, it would soon become unimaginable that it had ever been in trouble in the first place. If the 1990s saw horror go into hiding, then the start of the 21st century saw it make up for lost time, exploding into the mainstream consciousness like never before.

Other major releases:

Part 1: The Silent Dead
Part 3: It Came from Hollywood
Part 5: Blood & Guts
Soon to come: Part 7 - Gore Goes Mainstream (a.k.a. The Final Chapter)


Karl Hungus said...

Very well written piece, I have to say.

I'm looking forward to your next chapter.

B-Sol said...

Thanks Mr. Hungus, that means a lot coming from you. Hopefully I should be putting the last part together sometime in the next couple of weeks. Must admit, it's actually more of a challenge writing about more recent history, due to the lack of perspective.

Karl Hungus said...

Means a lot coming from me? I'm starting to feel all important and stuff!

I'll tell you what, if you'd like some help writing your final chapter, I'd be happy to contribute. I've got quite an interest in Asian horror over the last decade, so it could be a useful perspective.

Unknown said...

Great chapter.
Again, very elegantly written and definitely reflecting on all of the key pieces of the 90s.
I can't wait to read the final chapter.

B-Sol said...

Thanks Ryne! Hey Karl, I'll tell you what. Since I've been writing the historical saga myself from the beginning, I'd like to pen the final part on my own, just for the sake of continuity. BUT, I'd be very interested in having you contribute a seperate piece specifically on J-horror if you're up for it.

Karl Hungus said...

Surely. I'll shoot you an email about it, yeah?

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