Fandor, the terrific new site for watching “essential films instantly” has a great primer on horror by Dennis Harvey, which reminded me of the superb exhibit on the history of horror film I saw at the EMP Museum in Seattle earlier this year. I’m not a fan of watching horror but I do enjoy the theories and history of the genre and Harvey’s essay on “bringing the uncanny to celluloid life” is lively, insightful, and a lot of fun to read. He puts the films of each era in the context of their time and describes luminaries like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff, along with the monster films of the atomic/drive-in era. psychological thrillers like “Psycho,” slasher films, vampires, and zombies.
More horror films are produced each year today than probably ever before. From major studio releases to the most shoestring direct-to-download fan project, a majority are clock-punching exercises that recycle familiar ideas without much inspiration—and sometimes without much competence, either. Still, there have been encouraging signs, like the deployment of horror tropes in critically lauded, genre-defying films from around the world like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Chan-wook Park’s Thirst.
Then there are the number of talented rising directors who’ve emerged from indie roots and so far managed to avoid being homogenized by their variable degrees of commercial success. That would include Brits Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday), James Watkins (Eden Lake, Woman in Black) and Christopher Smith (Severance, Black Death). Yanks worth watching include Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (Pop Skull, You’re Next) and the three writer-directors behind The Signal (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry). Farther afield, Australia’s Sean Byrne and Mexico’s Jorge Michel Grau have made such promising first features—The Loved Ones and We Are What We Are, respectively)—that one can hardly wait to see what they do next.
Cinematic history has seen a few once-invincible genres fade from favor, like the musical and western. Yet it seems safe to say that horror will endure as long as the medium itself exists. At the very least, it offers the comfort of schadenfreude in bleak times: No matter how bad the environment, economy, political landscape and whatnot gets, there will always be celluloid monsters and madmen to reassure us that things could indeed be even worse.