Friday, 20 February 2015

Feature - The Death of Horror?

I have had a love of horror films since being very young. I was given a book about horror films (mainly Hammer films as I remember) containing lots of lurid images for one of my early birthdays. (One of my favourites images was the sewn up autopsy bloke from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.) The photos of headless corpses were the most worrying for a young little fellow like me. Yet I kept going back to the book and taking another sneaky peek. It was like an addiction. 

But what is it about horror that makes me love it so much? Why do I want to watch things that occasionally make me feel uncomfortable and slightly disturbed? And why has my interest in horror plummeted recently? Is horror dead? I sincerely hope not.

If Asmodexia is anything to go by, then yes, horror is dead.

In this feature (split into multiple posts), I'm going to pull together some ideas that I've written about in these very pages before, along with some new stuff to explain this phenomenon. Let's start with what I think is the most important component of a good horror film:


Where would horror films be without a great atmosphere? Probably in the bargain bin at Poundland. Here's the definition for 'atmosphere': "the dominant mood or emotional tone of a work of art". Sounds easy enough, but a great atmosphere is something that only a select few horror films have.

So many aspects of filmmaking work together to create the atmosphere, from pre-production all the way through to post, that it must be tricky to deliver a coherent and consistent atmosphere. The script, direction, acting, setting, effects, sound design and possibly most importantly, the music all go towards making that oh-so-elusive atmosphere. There is one more aspect that contributes but I'll come back to it later.

Some films have managed this tricky balancing act brilliantly: The Beyond, Deep Red, The Thing, The Mist, Quatermass and the Pit and the King of Atmosphere, The Wicker Man

Let's take The Wicker Man as an example. If the atmosphere was magically stripped out would this film still be revered now? Probably not. Even changing one element, the music, would have a massive effect on the impact of the film. Imagine The Wicker Man set to the music from Beverley Hills Cop and you get the idea. The tone of sheer dread pulls the viewer through the film to the inevitable climax; it really couldn't end any other way. (Some people involved in the production, mentioning no names, wanted to change the ending to a more positive one. Completely clueless.) 

Atmosphere is so important, that it can turn an otherwise average film into a great one. And vice versa. Occasionally I will watch a film that I think is okay, no great shakes, but not bad. Then weeks later it will creep back into my head and I have to watch it one more time. This happens again and again. I tell myself that it's not that great yet I can't help myself. The Pack is a great example of a film that has stuck with me. The atmosphere makes it an experience that I just want to spend time with. Compare this with a film like Peacock that has many good qualities, and I was pleased to have watched it, but it doesn't have what it takes to bring me back time after time.

So what is the mystery ingredient? Well it's something that is distinctly lacking in modern horrors: the film stock used. There's something about the look of older films - from the seventies especially - that is stunningly gorgeous and incredibly cinematic. This is probably why no-one wants a remake of Suspiria. It would look way too shiny and antiseptic, whereas the original is rich, lush, saturated and very atmospheric. The Fulci zombie films are other fine examples. I would possibly argue that the recent blu-ray of The Beyond, while still a delight to behold, still misses a bit of grain. They should transfer a copy from VHS, or a dodgy old print as an extra just to bring back that forbidden feeling of the video nasty. I'd watch it. Modern film stocks are just too good. They are perfect for glossy science fiction epics and the Marvel superhero films, but completely lack any atmosphere for horrors. At the other end of the scale, low budget horrors shot in a digital format feel completely soulless. So modern horrors have got that hurdle to overcome before they even start.

Music, as a major contributor to the overall atmosphere, is another area where modern horrors are found wanting. Can you think of a great soundtrack to a new horror film? I can't. Going back to The Beyond, I would argue that without the haunting score it would get a lot lower rating than with the usual death metal type score that have been desperately overused in low budget zombie films now. (And indeed some big budget zombie films - the remake of Dawn of the Dead perhaps?) It would go from 10/10 to probably 5/10. The music is that important to me. In the same way that modern production techniques and film stocks spoil horror films, modern music production techniques also work against them. Great for techno type stuff, that should be cutting edge shiny, but useless for creating any kind of disturbing feelings in the audience. Horror benefits greatly from analogue media.

Over the coming year I'm going to watch a fair few horror films, both old and new, and try to find one that I love. Just one and I'd be happy. If anyone out there knows of a horror film (recent or otherwise) with a great atmosphere, let me know and I'll give it a try. I'm desperate to find one but I seem to be struggling. 

Next time we'll have a look at another aspect of horror films that used to be great but is now a bit duff. See you then.


Related Reading:
Review - The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
Review - The Beyond
Review - Deep Red
Review - The Mist
Review - Quatermass and the Pit
Review - The Pack (Doccortex review)
Review - The Pack (evlkeith review)
Review - Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Feature - Celluloid Screams 2014


  1. Have you seen Don't Look Now (1973), Eraserhead (1977), Nosferatu (1979), Hausu(1977), Black Sunday (1960), The Descent (2005), Dracula (1992),Ghost Stories (Kwaidan) (1964), or House of Usher (1960) ? All are strong for atmosphere in my opinion.

    1. Thanks for those Chris. I have seen Don't Look Now, Nosferatu and The Descent. Eraserhead is a film that I keep meaning to get around to seeing but haven't quite managed it. The others all sound good though. I'll give them a watch. It's interesting that many of the films you mentioned are pre-1980. This is what I've also found when I'm looking for films with atmosphere.