From Fear to Toothless Commercialization: What Has Happened to Horror Films? / by Keith LaFountaine

When I was a kid, I would spend entire weekends holed up in my room, devouring all different kinds of films. I didn't have much of a social life, and many of my days were spent reading Stephen King, and buying tons of films from the Blockbuster that was up the street from my house.

I used to be afraid of the idea of horror films when I was younger. I remember being afraid of the posters, or VHS box covers, of films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Candyman. When I actually started watching horror films on my own, I realized that the films were scary, but not in a life-altering way. 

Since then I have loved horror films with a passion, and I try and binge a ton of them during the month of October (with varying degrees of success, depending on my schedule). However, I have noticed a difference in horror films being made since 2005 or so. 

Part of the inspiration for this blog post has been Andrés Muschietti's adaptation of It, which is coming out on September 4th here in the US. I have been very vocal about my distaste with the trailers, and my low expectations for the film.

The reason I'm not very excited is because it abides by what I'll call "the Hollywood formula", insofar as it relies on jump-scares and harsh musical cues to sell its horror.

It is not the only film that is susceptible to this -- far from it. In fact, since about 2005 I have noticed that the vast majority of horror films being produced by bigger studios -- let's call them "mainstream horror films" -- consistently rely on jump scares to sell the horror, and have sapped these projects of all passion, and creativity. In essence, horror films feel like items on a factory line -- mass produced, and substituting quantity for quality.

Since 2005, there are have been 1,194 horror films released internationally (including straight-to-DVD horror films). Therefore, over a span of 12 years, on average there were 99.5 horror films released per year. Comparatively, from 1993 to 2004, there were only 560 horror films released -- half of what was released in the following 12 years, equating to roughly 46 horror films released per year.

All of this information was taken from Wikipedia, which has cited sources for all films released in these respective decades.

So immediately we can see that there has been a huge increase in the production of horror films since 2005, and while it is not necessarily a truth about business, we can generally infer that if something's production is massively ramped up, so that a specific product is being created at two times the speed it was previously being produced at, that quality is going to suffer (since quantity is taking precedent).

Now, to be clear, this is not to say that every film released from 1993 to 2004 were gems of the genre. We still got the pulpy, nonsense gore films like Wishmaster and The Rage: Carrie 2. Horror films themselves are only as good as the people making them, but it is important to note that even in these horrible films, you could see passion, and life, behind the production.

Objectively this is not a scary scene, nor is it a good horror scene by any sort of metric we would use to qualify one. However, the performances in this scene, and the direction, clearly show some kind of enjoyment of the project. The people working on the film know it's bad, but they're having fun with their premise. They know they can't make this scene good, but they can make it enjoyable to some degree. Even the ridiculously harsh musical cue is played up. It feels self-aware. 

Wishmaster opened to a $6 million opening weekend, and was largely panned by audiences and critics alike. Even still, if you take a look at the reviews on IMDB, you will find that many viewers will say a similar rendition of the same phrase: "it's a bad movie, but it was fun to watch." Wishmaster, as I said before, was never going to be a classic staple of American horror. However, the team behind it made it a fun, cheesy movie to watch. It didn't feel boring, for lack of better words.

Now compare that to a scene from Annabellereleased in 2014 to a $37 million opening weekend.

Annabelle was also panned by audiences and critics. However, if you look at those IMDB reviews again, many people are saying the opposite of what they said of Wishmaster: it's bad, and it's boring. In other words, it's not enjoyable to watch.

Granted, there are people who hated Wishmaster and loved Annabelle.

Now do I think that some of this has to do with the amount of forced jump scares in Annabelle? Yes. But I think it it goes deeper than that. 

Robert Kurtzman, who directed Wishmaster, knew he had a bad script and yet he put his heart into it, and created a popular cult film in the process. The point is that he respects cult films, and he still works hard to make what we would consider a bad script into a fun movie, even if it's not necessarily a good movie.

This is a very different perspective than John R. Leonetti's to Annabelle. In this interview about Annabelle, he seems bored almost. Passionate about film? Certainly! Passionate about this film? Not so much.

Now you might say "Keith, how can you know for sure he isn't passionate about his film?" To be fair, I can't know concretely. However, I feel comfortable in asserting this because he barely talks about his film. He gives a plot rundown in the beginning, he sells it as "scary" at the end, and that's about it (in terms of him talking about the film he helped create). Nowhere does he mention his visual influences for the film, or his cinematic influences (which Kurtzman briefly touches on), nor does he really talk about his role on the film. In fact, he often pushes praise onto James Wan (producer for this, director of The Conjuring, and Insidious, films, among others). Now one can see this as a humble way of pushing away praise, but it seems more indicative to me of a man who is strictly a guiding force to deliver a pre-determined vision.

He's not even the person credited in the promotional material for Annabelle! Instead, that is producer James Wan. So essentially what we have is someone who has been hired to deliver a visual aesthetic, and cinematic vision, that has already been determined by producers. Of course he's not crazy about his film! It's not his film, in the way that Wishmaster was Kurtzman's film.

Leonetti was also the director of 2017's Wish Upon, where -- again -- he is not mentioned at all in the promotional material. 

Leonetti is hardly the only the director whose presence on a film has been erased by the production company, or the producers. There are a large array of films, and filmmakers, that fit this category.

I think you're getting the point. And, to be fair, the director's name is, most of the time, listed at the end of the trailer. However, this credit is often quick, and rarely focused on. More importantly, out of all of these trailers, can you name more than one director -- the one director being James Wan -- associated with these projects? If you can't, don't be ashamed -- I can't either.

Directors have lost their authoritative presence on the sets of these films. The horror genre has been taken over by producers, and production companies, and directors have been relegated to the final seconds of a trailer. When directors are stifled creatively, films often aren't as good. When directors aren't handed the reigns to do what they want with a script, the film as a whole suffers.

The other reason why horror films are suffering is the PG-13 rating. This ties into the commercialization of horror projects as a whole. Part of the reason we have seen an influx in the creation of horror films, and part of the reason why these horror films are suffering critically, can be attributed to the PG-13 rating, in my opinion.

When a film is rated PG-13, it allows said film to be shown to a wider demographic of viewers. People under 17 don't need an adult with them to let them into a film. The only thing people a PG-13 film restricts are young children. This allows producers to make more money, and get more people into the theater.

The following horror films, or film franchises, have a PG-13 rating, and have been released since 2005:

  • Insidious (2010)
  • When a Stranger Calls (2006)
  • The Last Exorcism (2010)
  • White Noise (2005)
  • The Woman In Black (2012)
  • The Skeleton Key (2005)
  • House at the End of the Street (2012)
  • The Haunting In Connecticut (2009)
  • The Possession (2012)
  • Prom Night (2008)
  • The Messengers (2007)
  • One Missed Call (2008)
  • The Uninvited (2009)
  • The Eye (2008)
  • Boogeyman (2005)
  • Devil (2005)
  • Poltergeist (2015)
  • The Lazarus Effect (2015)
  • Shutter (2008)
  • Mama (2013)
  • Ouija (2014)
  • Dark Skies (2013)
  • The Rite (2011)

This is just a very small sampling of examples. What else do all of these films have in common, though? 

  1. They all rely on jump-scares to sell their horror.
  2. They all have either poor, or mixed, reviews from audiences and critics.
  3. They all have made millions at the box office.

So, essentially, these kinds of commercialized, watered down, toothless films make tons of money at the box office, yet are often despised, or disliked by critics? They aren't even regarded as fun, or enjoyable? So what happened to horror films? Why have we seen a huge increase in their production, and a huge decrease in their quality?

To be clear, there are exceptions to the rule, as there always are. But, in general, we can hone in on three specific reasons as to why horror films are, generally, poorer in terms of quality, and less fun, than they used to be.

  1. A huge increase in the amount of horror films being produced -- two times what it was pre-2005.
  2. Directors have seen their control over a project diminish, and they have been scrubbed from promotional material.
  3. A huge increase in PG-13 horror films, which often see low critical and social response, but make millions at the box office.

So what's the solution?

Honestly, until these films begin to do poorly at the box office, there is no solution. Production companies are the arbiters of what makes it to the silver screen. On the rare off-chance that an independent, low-budget effort -- where a director has complete creative control (like the first Paranormal Activity film) -- makes it big at the box office, production companies quickly franchise it, fast-track sequels, and ruin what made the original film great in the first place while searching to capitalize on its success.

This is also not just something that is strictly a horror movie issue. The YouTuber Nerdwriter, whose videos often have a great level of educational insight into filmmaking, and films in general, made a video about this epidemic of 'passable' films, which have risen in recent years.

His point, and my ultimate point, is that we need a surge of originality in Hollywood. We need more films like It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch, which have used the independent platform as a place to explore new ideas, new techniques, and subversions of the genre to varying degrees of success. We need more distribution companies like A24, who are willing to take chances on original, and interesting, films.

I see this going one of two ways: either horror cinema crashes and burns from too much commercialization, and too much "safe filmmaking" so to speak, or the independent scene resurges with new, interesting, original horror films that become the norm.

I hope the latter is what happens, though, for right now, I fear we are rapidly pursuing the former.