Friday night saw me drag myself to the cinema for a late night showing of The Thing, the sort of prequel to, well, The Thing (although most people think of that has John Carpenter’s The Thing, so they’re not counting on false advertising). Two hours later I emerged decidedly pissed off having seen an absolute travesty of a film that jettisoned everything that was good about the original remake (I can never remember if it’s the first or second remake of the Hawks film) in favour of the all that is unholy in modern horror.
In retrospect the signs were there to see beforehand (indeed, I had a conversation with the cashier about the fact that I didn’t have high hopes beforehand – he remarked that most people were being positive about it but for the life of him he couldn’t imagine that any of them had seen the original / remake). The fifteen certificate indicated that in all likelihood the guts had been ripped out in order to maximise audience potential, and it seemed to be aimed at distancing itself as far as possible from any comparisons (strange, considering the film fluffs it’s many attempts at mimicking what came before). Within two minutes of the credits the warning signs were there, a screeching, action-style score and a jump-shock indicated that there would be little on the way of creeping paranoia of Carpenter’s film. Worst was to come and come the end all I felt was a pang to watch Carpenter’s classic and try to forget about the experience.
It’s akin to Highlander 2, we’re sure there are rumours of a sequel, and in some way there’s a dark and troubling dream of actually seeing it, but that’s not possible as there’s only the one film.
Afterwards I began to think at length about the state of the modern horror film (primarily those within the studio system) and why so many of today’s offerings seem so anaemic. Now, cards on the table, I’ve got a fondness for the gonzo days of the late seventies / early eighties when there was the last peak, but even since then there have been a number of decently mounted efforts that genuinely get under the skin (this is removing the whole Jap-horror phenomena from the equation, they’ve certainly upped the overall quality). To my mind the in recent years there’s been The Crazies, Shutter Island, Antichrist and most recently Kill List all of which have presented different approaches to the genre. On TV we’ve had The Walking Dead (well, certainly the first season, the second hasn’t been as strong) as well, all indicating that there is still good stuff being produced within the genre. However, with the exception of Shutter Island, none of these are mainstream studio releases.
Modern studio horror seems to have branched into two distinct paths. The first has a foothold in the gonzo category, but seems to have lost the social commentary that seemed to have bizarrely been a part of it as well. The Saw / Hostel / Torture-porn genre seems to have mistaken atrocity for horror and become about presenting a parade of ever more bizarrely designed torture and death sequences instead of any form of narrative. They seem to have mistaken gore for horror, often remaking older films and making them more extreme, thereby missing the point. Platinum Dunes (an offshoot of a large, Michael Bay owned production company – thus increasing the list of his crimes against humanity) is largely responsible for these, having so far managed to butcher Halloween (worse, if possible, than the directors other film The Devils Rejects), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original is surprisingly bloodless – you think a lot more happens than actually does) and The Hitcher to name a few. Only one film in this genre is worthy of being called a great horror – the French film Martyr’s was certainly stronger than most other films, but it also had a degree of intelligence behind it that made sitting through its many horrors worth it – although I’m not sure I’d want to do so again. Elsewhere it’s designed to maximise gore for profit.
The other strand is the jump-scare toothless horror. These are pitched firmly at an American market between the PG-13 and R crowd in order to maximise income. Here again remakes play a big part, but everything is sanitised instead (most often with a CGI makeover) and jump scares replace either chills or genuine horror. This is horror presented as a theme park ride, build-up – jump – repeat. Again there is the occasional gem –Drag Me to Hell springs to mind – but they seem to be self knowing, realising what type of film they are and poking gentle fun (it doesn’t hurt of course to have helped invent the genre). In this category falls the absolutely appalling remake of The Haunting (seriously in the top ten worst films I’ve ever seen at the cinema), the appalling remake of When A Stranger Calls etc. – all designed for people who think anything made before 1990 is probably in black & white.
The CGI point is one of my major criticisms of The Thing. Carpenter’s film predates the CGI explosion by nearly two decades and instead relied on physical effects to produce its genuinely disturbing imagery. Mindful of what could and couldn’t be done (although it pushes the boundaries in ways that haven’t been matched since) it located all of the action in the dark, used tension to create the mood and kept shots of the monster at a minimum (a technique employed to similar effect in Alien) – indeed the only sequence that shows the monster as a whole fell back on stop-motion and was far less successful. Here, everything is replaced with CGI and a desire to show everything as clearly as possible which leads to lazy filmmaking. There’s no need to hide the limitations of the technology (although it’s so patently CGI as it’s laughable) and everything it presented in full – except it also looses the immediacy and random nature of the practical, everything looks to clean, no random eruptions of goo to shock the viewer, just varying degrees of brown.
Get off my lawn and all that…
The major problem is that many modern directors are relying on shock and awe as a means of grabbing attention rather than interesting ideas or creating anything other than the easiest of scares. As commented above, there used to be an element of social commentary in horror (Hawks & Carpenter’s Things are both about Cold War Paranoia, Night of the Living Dead & civil rights etc.), something most ignore these days. Instead everything is about creating franchise (although this isn’t limited to just the horror genre) rather than originality.
The Thing represents the worst excesses of this. It’s almost been designed by committee. The lack of commentary on wider issues (not necessary, but nice when it happens). The reliance of CGI to cover up bad filmmaking and showing too much because effects are cool! Everything that made the original remake the genre classic it is today.
Avoid like the plague, especially if you don’t want to be shouting for those damn kids to get off your lawn.