Few things have aided the rise of horror on television more than the decline of horror at the movies.
There is a rich history of great horror at the movies. Consider the early Universal monster flicks of the 30s and Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary, contemplative re-imagining of the thriller sub-genre. Think about the classic slasher films in the 70s and 80s and the Oscar-sweeping The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. These movies left a permanent imprint on the industry; James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) alone has influenced masterworks ranging from Victor Erice’s political-drama The Spirit of the Beehive (1976) to Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein (1974).
In recent years, however, moviegoers looking for great horror films have been left wanting. The genre has fallen from its lofty heights at the expense of gory, unsubtle shock films. Higher budgets and improved special effects have pave the way for endless remakes of older films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, remade in 2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977, remade in 2006), which rarely serve any purpose other than as fleetingly nostalgic cash-grabs.
Perhaps the disappearance of censorial and financial limitations hasn’t been an altogether great thing for the horror genre, considering that those conditions spawned the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, whereas today we have few if any horror-focused filmmakers of their creative class.
Filmmakers’ pacing and audiences’ attention-spans are also worth considering. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is paced slowly, creating the ominous and meditative feeling of being on a ship in the empty blackness of the universe. Scott builds tension with this approach, bolstering the film’s tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It is an intelligent movie which arguably would not have benefited from a bigger budget. The same can be said for David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and John McTiernan’s Predator (1987).
Contrast these examples with Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), which seems to build slowly, as with Alien, before inundating the audience with obscene imagery of violent self-mutilation. Similarly, the “versus films” — AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) — feature the same characters from Scott, McTiernan, and Craven’s previous efforts. But, while employing their iconography, they neglect everything that made those older films work.
Some filmmakers have responded to the decay of the genre by making films that almost mock it. Most notably, the aforementioned Craven helmed the incredibly self-referential Scream franchise of the nineties, a parody of the slasher genre he helped create. And Michael Haneke used dry, biting satire in the despicable Funny Games (1997) to illuminate and mock audience infatuation with “torture porn.” Just this year, Drew Goddard‘s trope-heavy film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) challenged the status-quo with humor and paid obvious homage to other major franchises — and offered a solemn warning about what might be next for horror at the movies.
Films like these take aim squarely at moviegoers who favor endless remakes and low-grade gross-out scares — think along the lines of Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) and The Human Centipede (2009) — over the wit and quality of genre classics and point toward a glaring hole in modern cinema.
To fill this vacuum, television networks have started mining the rich history of horror on the big screen as they develop new properties. A&E turned to Hitchcock, creating a Psycho-prequel show entitled Bates Motel that was good enough to earn star Vera Farmiga a best actress (drama) Emmy nomination. NBC took a similar route with Hannibal, which features the same iconic antagonist of Silence of the Lambs and has also been well received.
The genre revival doesn’t stop there. FX has found great ratings and awards success with its various incarnations of the horror anthology series American Horror Story, which have starred the likes of Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. NBC is already on its third season of the fantasy horror series Grimm. Very recently, Fox launched a modern-day version of Sleepy Hollow. And fast-rising Netflix attempted to capitalize on the phenomenon with Hemlock Grove.
The point is that television is making a strong case for itself as the go-to source for horror, much as it has made an overwhelming case for itself as the go-to source for drama in recent years, luring top talent from the big screen to the small screen as a result — see Lange, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Daniels, etc.
I wouldn’t count out the movies just yet. Outliers like Drag Me to Hell (2009), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Conjuring (2013) give me hope that a resurgence may still happen, as do foreign films like Let the Right One In (2008), 28 Days Later… (2002) and Caché (2005), which contradict horror conventions while respecting its tradition. And that’s not even delving into the horror renaissance that appears to be happening in South Korea and Japan.
But horror at the movies, overall, is not what it used to be — and neither, in a very different sense, is horror on TV. The former better pick up its game quickly if it wants to hold on to those of us who love the genre and will follow it to wherever it is at its best.
This article was originally published on ScottFeinberg.com.