Anyhamburgerphone, Kirk Hamilton wrote a piece for Kotaku about horror, its relationship to the mainstream, and the diminishing returns of sequels in the world of movies and video games. He kindly asked for my opinion on these topics, and like a proper old person, I went on and on and on way more than I should have. He wanted a sentence, and I gave him a filibuster...so there's lots of our little conversation that didn't make the final piece. SHOCKING!
In the interests of history and science, I figured I'd post up all of my yammering here because if there's one thing I can do at Final Girl, it's yammer freely forever! Oh lawd, bless this l'il Internet. Read Kirk's piece first, yeah? And then continue below.
Kirk: I feel like commonly, when a horror film (or game) finds success, its sequels aren't as scary. They may still be as good, but they're not as scary. Do you think that's the case?
Me: For my money, Silent Hill 2 is far scarier than the first game, but other than that I tend to agree with you with regard to sequels. It's most obvious, for example, in the Silent Hill series and the Resident Evil series- why are the earlier games so much more frightening than the later ones? I think it's a pretty easy answer: they lack the atmosphere they used to have. It's most obvious with Resident Evil, which moves further and further away from its horror roots with each new installment, but it's true for Silent Hill as well. Early games relied on shadows and darkness and sound- sound is PARAMOUNT in a horror game- to create an oppressive feeling of dread. What's that shape lurking down the hall? What's scratching on the other side of this door? For the love of pizza, what is making that NOISE? The games simply give you the creeps. Jump scares are fine and good, but they flare out quickly and they don't stay under your skin.
The difference between shock and suspense is illustrated as you play Dead Space- early on, as Isaac is slowly walking the abandoned corridors of the Ishimura, you hear sounds from all over: footsteps, maybe, or a piece of metal clanging in the distance. Your stomach tightens because you don't know what to expect, and you're scared. Four hours later, you know a necromorph is going to pop out of every dark corner and while your heart rate increases for a moment...eh, it's not going to give you nightmares. I think any sequel CAN be as scary as an original work if the creators can find new ways to utilize the ESSENCE of horror, which is what makes the originals work.
Why does that happen? Is there something about horror that's fundamentally not mainstream-friendly?
When it comes to films in the genre, I agree with you- mainstream tends to miss the mark. I think that by and large, this simply has to do with money. Every big budget has a fleet of executives behind it looking to earn back that money and then some; they've all got a vested interest in the property and a say in what ends up on the screen. It becomes filmmaking by committee and it shows. Some of the greatest horror films of all time- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and so on- were made on shoestring budgets and were therefore solely the vision of the writers and directors.
If you want to earn more money in theaters, your film needs to appeal to a wider audience...which means, say, toning down gore or extreme content to secure a PG-13 rating. Of course, "scary" is totally subjective and the MPAA rating doesn't necessarily dictate whether or not a film will be successful, but it does signify "mainstream" and it's going to put off many horror fans.
Do you think there's something about horror and fear itself that doesn't work with mainstream PR--the kinda porny nature of it, the way that it taps into such innate human darkness--like, can something like that ever truly be mainstream? We never see widely publicized release for a hardcore horror film. At best we get a "Scream" or a "Drag me to Hell." (Fine movies, but they aren't "Dead Alive," you know?) Why do you think that is?
John Carpenter once said that horror is viewed maybe a notch or two above pornography by the masses, and I don't think that consensus has changed much since he made Halloween. As a horror fan- and, let's face it, particularly as a female horror fan- I find myself defending the genre and/or myself pretty frequently. Assuring people that while I dig scary movies, I'm not a psychopath, a sociopath, or a degenerate. I don't watch horror movies because I dearly love watching women get butchered. I've answered "Why do you/how can you watch that stuff?" more times than I can count, and believe me, I can count PRETTY HIGH.
Sure, horror taps into human darkness, as you said, but...I don't know, people who DON'T watch horror movies tend to think that quality means that horror movies are ONLY endlessly violent and brutal and ONLY completely pointless and dumb. The genre has much more to offer than simply "dead teenager" flicks- although I'm not going to say I don't love those, too. I just think horror got slapped early on with the "low-rent" label and it's never going to shake it.
Horror will never thrive in the mainstream simply because the mainstream doesn't want it...and that's fine, I get it. Not everyone finds tapping into the dark side of life "entertaining"- they'd rather watch a movie about baby penguins doing their thing, you know?