The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema

Ian Conrich
Ian Conrich

As a popular form, its pervasiveness has seen it succeed as a modern series of blockbusters (‘The Mummy’ [1999– 2008], and ‘Hellboy’ [2004–2008] films), independent breakthroughs (‘The Blair Witch Project’ [1999], and ‘The Sixth Sense’ [1999]), films for children and young adults (‘Coraline’ [2009], and ‘Twilight’ [2008]), and innovative international arthouse releases (‘El labertino del fauno’ [‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, 2006], and ‘Låt den rätte komma in’ [‘Let the Right One In’, 2008]).

Horror, like other major genres, works in cycles and there is a definite return within the contemporary form to its modern origins and to the classics of the horror new wave of the 1970s and 1980s, with recent remakes and sequels of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), ‘It’s Alive’ (1974), ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (1977), ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978), ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979), ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980), and ‘The Fog’ (1980).

The American remakes industry has, in addition, turned to foreign horrors for ideas, with English language versions of ‘Let the Right One In and Martyrs’ (2008) scheduled, and Asian films such as ‘Ringu’ (‘The Ring’, 1998), ‘Ju-on’ (‘The Grudge’, 2002), ‘Gin gwai’ (‘The Eye’, 2002), ‘Geoul sokeuro’ (‘Into the Mirror’, 2003), and ‘Shutter’ (2004), already reproduced.

Any reflection on the drive of the contemporary horror film for establishing remakes could conclude that the genre is saturated, imitative, and lacking progression. But this would be overlooking the multifarious nature of contemporary horror and the ways in which it has developed over the last thirty years into a global and multimedia phenomenon.

Contemporary horror cinema provides a transcultural experience, one that demonstrates the striking presence of the genre globally and the levels of influence and crossovers between different national forms and identities.

The horror film has always had an international dimension, with European examples of production peaking in particular in the 1960s. It is, though, the spread of European countries releasing notable horror films now that is noticeable as well as the emergence of horror new waves from countries such as Spain and France.

Vital horror new waves from Japan and South Korea have also emerged, with the burgeoning horror film industry in Asia effectively combining traditional stories and myths with comic book creations and the aesthetics of new media digital technologies.

The dawn of the video age some twenty-five years earlier, which marked a dramatic adjustment in the non-theatrical consumption of films in general, coincided with the early years of the horror new wave. It is not surprising that the horror genre experienced a surge in production and interest, as the video industry sought to establish itself partly through sensational films and lurid video covers.

The ability then for video rental shops to frequently bypass the age restrictions set for theatrical releases — in the United Kingdom, for instance, videos did not carry certificates and a minimum age for viewers until 1985 — added to the appeal of rental horror as a dicephalous cultural form.

In many instances the horror videos were “for adults only”, yet they were everywhere on the urban and suburban high streets, easily reached and borrowed by under-age youths. It is significant for a cyclical genre that many of the auteurs who were most associated with the horror new wave — John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, and Joe Dante — had been inspired by the films of the Hollywood studios, and post-war B movies and experimental filmmaking.

Horror directors of the last ten years — such as Christopher Smith, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie — have subsequently been acknowledging their debt to the 1970s and 1980s and the horror films of the new wave and the video age.

In a digital age which fuels a culture of exchange and transfer, horror films have acquired greater ubiquity and are viewed on portable DVD players, on mobile phones, and over the Internet. The latter presents a supporting culture of discussion groups, fan appreciation, bloggers, independent reviewers, and online trailers, that have extended the connections of a horror community that was before most dependent on a print culture of fanzines and specialist magazines.

The synergies between the horror film and popular culture can be observed in the post-war boom in horror comics, such as those from EC Comics — ‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘The Haunt of Fear’ and ‘The Vault of Horror’ — which inspired the omnibus features of Amicus and the work of Romero and Carpenter.

These synergies are enhanced in a contemporary cinema of interconnected multimedia industries, where horror films are developed from theme park rides (‘The Haunted Mansion’, 2003) and theme park rides from horror films (‘The Mummy’ and ‘Saw’ [2004–2009] series). Computer games are reconstructed into live action horror features (‘Resident Evil’ [2002–2007], ‘Silent Hill’ [2006]), horror films emerge from cult comic books (‘From Hell’ [2001], and ‘Constantine’ [2005]), from musicals (‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ [2007], and ‘Repo! The Genetic Opera’ [2008]), and retro television (‘The Addams Family’, 1991–1998), and inspire popular merchandise (the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ [1984–2010], ‘Child’s Play’ [1988–2004], and ‘Scream’ [1996–2000] series).

The experience of contemporary horror cinema is broad, and it is the context, the culture and society, in which the films are produced, exhibited and viewed that is the focus of this collection.

Horror films are presented and received in a heterogeneous manner, and this is not simply the regional and social differences. The films ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (2009), and ‘The Final Destination’ (2009), were made essentially for screening in 3D, with effects exploiting the extra dimension, but they were also exhibited in neighbouring venues in 2D and without the attraction of lethal objects “breaking through” the screen and assaulting the audience.

A film such as ‘Antichrist’ (2009), has been shown in UK cinemas with — somewhat bizarrely, considering the story — added special “parent and baby” screenings, a recent development which has also seen special “autism friendly screenings” for films such as ‘Igor’ (2008). Meanwhile, the development of horror film festivals for premiering and promoting new features to devoted and knowledgeable audiences has seen an explosion in cities and towns hosting gatherings that create a concentrated cultural environment.

In the UK alone, there are now annual festivals in London, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Bradford and Aberystwyth (with the suitably named Abertoir festival). Such is the cross appeal of a core of contemporary horror that it can cater for both a subculture and the mainstream.

The strong presence of the horror film in contemporary culture has often been read as a reflection of a crisis in society. The horror film has been seen to peak at times of war, and during periods of economic, political, and moral exigency.

And whilst other factors should be considered when contextualising the wave of horror films in the 1930s and 1970s, there is no doubt that some of the films and filmmakers were drawing on contemporary experience and social pressures.

There should be some care when approaching texts in this way, but horror films, in particular, can act as effective cultural and social barometers and with recent productions there is a discernible occurrence of panic narratives, a horror cinema of abandonment, helplessness, and futility, a concentration on torture and extreme distress, and an inescapable, omnipotent force.

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