The power of horror films today

With IT currently enthralling movie-goers worldwide, Arts and Culture editor Laszlo Szegedi takes a broader look at the power of horror films in the modern world.

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Illustration by Lindsey Wiercioch

As innovative as contemporary independent horror films aspire to be, filmmakers have not yet turned away from Stephen King’s works. Every now and then, an adaptation pops up on our screens with the promise of spooking us sleepless for the night. For more than 40 years now, King’s works have proven to be favourable source materials in the genre (encompassing 63 films and 29 television series), the latest of which was Argentine director Andy Muschietti’s take on It.

Within its first ten days of release, it became the largest September release of all time in the US, and continues to conquer both domestic and international box offices. Once it surpasses The Exorcist’s $232.9 million total, It will also become the highest grossing R-rated horror film of all time. The question arises: what is it about the source novel and Muschietti’s adaptation that managed to resonate with audiences on such a wide scale? Based on its positive reception, is this what we look for in the horror genre?

     One of King’s most well-known works, the voluminous It revolves around the Losers Club, a group of outcasts who unite to defeat their fears, both real and paranormal. As a flesh-eating monster terrorises the inhabitants of the small town of Derry, the protagonists set out to fight it on two timelines: first as children, then as adults 27 years later. The creature referred to as ‘It’ takes on many forms, but appears most commonly as a clown by the name of Pennywise, an avatar he uses to lure children his prey of preference.

     Muschietti’s adaptation was not the first onscreen incarnation of It. In 1990, ABC aired a two-part miniseries with Tim Curry in the lead role, whose unforgettable performance as Pennywise set the bar very high for his successor Bill Skarsgård. Once all creative sides were settled for the film’s production, the news sparked excitement, curiosity and plenty of speculation on whether this It would be a darker take on the source novel than the mini-series. There is an undeniable cheesiness to the 1990 version, where the shock and gore of the book fell victim to the cable censorship laws of the time. Tim Curry indeed shines as Pennywise and successfully embodies both his goofy and predatory sides, but the show’s mediocre photography and colourful TV aesthetic gives it a trashy quality that ironically feels too family-friendly compared to King’s original work. On the contrary, the film quickly establishes a stark contrast with its predecessor in its opening scene, as the frames not only shine in colour-corrected, chilling shades of blue, but the iconic encounter between Georgie Denbrough and Pennywise reaches a climax so graphic and gory, that it is virtually incomparable with the TV show’s blurry zoom into Tim Curry’s sharp-toothed mouth.

     Preparing for the worst before a potential scare tends conclude in a comforting resolution: the spectator remains unharmed, and has the privilege of contemplating the narrative’s possible outcomes. It is the character on screen, the source of empathy who either flees or fights, while the viewer can sit in their chair and take safety for granted. There is a sense of reward evoked, which is perhaps the most pleasurable effect in watching a horror film. It is an interesting challenge then to explore how the standards of the horror genre have transformed. Demands have undeniably changed: no longer do audiences hide behind their popcorn boxes in terror at the sight of a traditional, practically designed creature, and there cannot be enough mutilation scenes in a slasher film to impress their benumbed eyes. As in the example of the opening scenes of the two versions of It, there is an enhanced need for shock value that resonates with buried, subconscious fears, and addresses them with methods beyond the commercialised, conventional thrills that audiences have grown nearly immune to.

     East and southeast Asian horror cinema from the turn of the century is a prime model of effectively touching on these traumas. Built on the idea of depriving spectators from their sense of security, Japan’s The Ring (Ringu), Pulse (Kairo), or Thailand’s Shutter direct the origin of the threat towards technology. If everyday household items such as televisions and cameras can kill, the fear of helplessness is enhanced in the viewer. Hong Kong’s Inner Senses focuses on mental health and depicts the mind as an overlooked, and consequently powerful enemy of itself. Psychological trauma is raised to the spotlight, provoking a lack of self-trust. Taking this even further are the narratives that reach for the buried questions of childhood, and find the curiosity towards the paranormal: Japan’s The Grudge (Ju-On), and South-Korea’s A Tale of Two Sisters rely on curses and myths to provoke fear. They encourage viewers to recall memories of folktales, especially the ones that caused sleepless nights during their childhood, and adapt them to a real-life setting. East and southeast Asian horror films successfully touch on universal anxieties, and with a dark “what if?” they set a social mirror in which audiences can quickly recognise themselves.

     From The Ring through Dark Water to Pulse, many of these ended up being remade in Hollywood, where filmmakers never quite succeeded in recapturing their essential atmosphere. Before a western horror film like It could become a major blockbuster, some independent directors with a taste for experimenting had to realise that most moviegoers today are exposed to an extensive amount of tragedies. Global warming, the fear of terror, the witch hunt against otherness are just a few in a list of grave issues that develop the collective of social anxieties, and in this context the horror genre cannot rely on worn out formulas, but should instead develop contemporary everyday fears into scenarios of “the worst that can happen”. Audiences can then sigh in relief once the credits roll, as the films would carry the reassuring message that it could be worse than it is now.

     In this regard, low-budget and independent horror cinema has showcased an upsurge in creativity on an international level. With the slow but positive shift of women’s representation in society, a number of films have explored this subject, usually in a setting where the balance of tradition has somewhat shattered. As such, motherhood has become a recurring motif in narratives, bringing up the issues with conforming to certain roles. Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala helmed 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, the tale of identical twin brothers whose mother is severely disfigured in an accident, and soon becomes abusive in her disturbed psychological state. Goodnight Mommy presents a broken family through the eyes of children, who can’t help but antagonise their single parent. As it toys around with the audience’s empathy towards its traumatised characters, the film delivers a true punch in the end by presenting a seesaw-like, unsolvable climax and a staggering image of mental illness. Jennifer Kent’s brilliant The Babadook, It director Andy Muschietti’s debut feature Mama, and Bryan Bertino’s The Monster present the trials of motherhood as embodied by paranormal creatures, while Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow adds to this by drawing a parallel between its haunting djinn and the horrors of war-torn Iran. The immensely popular It Follows introduces a bone-chilling representation of sexual frustration and STDs, while the cannibalism in Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a memorable metaphor of teenage sexual awakening. Some have found their effect in returning to the simplest premises, and succeeded to evoke what viewers feared during their childhood: The Conjuring, The Witch, and last year’s South Korean The Wailing proved that the fear of the unknown is just as prominent as it was for the first time. This year’s It Comes at Night profited of this suspense in its marketing campaign and presented one of the most stunning horror posters of recent years, featuring a dog barking at something unnoticeable in the blurred-out darkness of a forest. It Comes at Night also shed light on society’s subconscious fear of the other; amongst unspecified sci-fi circumstances, any side character could be viewed as a potential intruder. Jordan Peele’s Get Out reflected on racism with a slap in the face for audiences, while another South Korean standout feature, Train to Busan drew on class struggle in a fast-paced, and necessarily thought-provoking zombie setting.

     There is plenty of reason for optimism in the genre, as the examples mentioned above all managed to deny tired conventions and take a spin on them instead. As long as spectators can reassure themselves that the fiction they are watching represents a worst-case scenario, creativity can flourish in horror. The monster of It gained effect by its embodiment of the traumas touched on by these films. With the realisation of moviegoers’ exposition to today’s grave global issues, It resonates by promising the hope of defeating them, and by finding the heart in viewers through the coming of age of its child protagonists.

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