We all know the recipe for a standard, run-of-the-mill horror film, right?
1. Take a seemingly innocent protagonist or fun-loving group of friends
2. Place them in an unfamiliar situation
3. Confront them with a mysterious evil or looming threat of mortal danger
4. Have some impure or overly skeptical characters killed off
5. Add a dash of jump scares and/or some visual gore
6. Have the main character overcome the monster or evil presence
7. With a hint that maybe the threat isn’t completely gone
8. The End
While this structure works well for most horror fare, there are many horror films that either completely disregard this structure or find a way to subvert it, thus giving us as a film audience a new take on terror, a novel approach to scaring us silly. Here are some examples:
From Dusk Till Dawn — Available on DVD
This 1998 film, directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino, does something interesting — though not totally unique — with the horror genre. The film begins by introducing two brothers and fugitive bank robbers, Seth and Richie Gecko, who kidnap a family with an RV to avoid being captured. The film is nearly at the halfway mark before the main characters wind up at a strip club in Mexico, where they discover that the staff and many patrons are vampires.
The film spends nearly half of its runtime giving us a chance to connect with these characters before “pulling the rug” on the premise, becoming a vampire movie. Like I said, this is interesting, but not totally original. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Swank link; Available on DVD) we also are introduced to a character and premise that only last through the first half of the film before everything takes a huge turn in another direction. This is a bold narrative choice, but giving this abrupt shift is as disorienting to the audience watching as it is to the characters onscreen.
Zombieland — Available on DVD
This 2009 zombie apocalypse film was a runaway hit (Rule #1: Cardio) grossing over $100 million in the box office and making it to the #1 film in North America for the weekend of its release.
Much of the film’s success had to do with a shift in balance from normal horror films. Often, horror films will feature some sort of humor to offer momentary relief from terrifying situations, or even as a misdirect for something terrible that’s about to happen. In Zombieland, the humor coming from the situations and kooky characters are front and center, with much of the action and gore of escaping zombies pushed into the periphery.
In this film, we care about Columbus and his budding romance with Wichita, the sense of tragic loss that Tallahassee reveals, and of course, the “West Coast Hospitality” that Bill Murray personifies. The zombie attacks and high-adrenaline action scenes offer graphically violent relief to the comedy that comprises most of this film.
While Zombieland is by no means the first to offer this balance shift (Shaun of the Dead did this back in 2004) what it does is put the humor of real, flawed, believable characters before anything else, resulting in an action-packed thrill ride that also has emotional resonance.
The Cabin in the Woods — Streaming Link; Available on DVD
This 2012 “meta horror” film from producer Joss Whedon takes a huge departure from most horror films by being astutely self-aware. Because of this self-awareness and the absurdity of the film’s premise, we are given a wide variety of horror film tropes to feast our eyes on, all while getting top-notch comedy performances from the archetypal cast.
This 1979 classic from visionary director Ridley Scott has all the trappings of a quintessential science fiction film; it takes place in space, in the future, where a crew has to rely on each other and their own intuition to accomplish the mission and save mankind. What’s interesting is that inside this sci-fi outer shell, the main plot of the film feels much more like a horror film.
There’s a mysterious evil creature that lurks in different dark corners of the ship is incredibly deadly, seemingly impervious to attack, and presents a catastrophic threat to humanity should it make it back to earth. The space on the ship is confined, there are many shots that restrict what the viewer can see, and the sound design has an intensity that rivals any standard horror film. This is probably why the tagline was: “In space, no one can hear you scream.
The Belko Experiment — Available on DVD
This 2016 horror film has been described as “Office Space meets Battle Royale”. Belko Industries exists as a huge skyscraper in the middle of a lone field in Colombia. On a day when mysterious security forces tell all of the Colombian citizens to go home, only 80 (mostly North American) employees are in the building. Soon some blast doors cover every entrance and window, and the workers have to kill a certain number of their coworkers to avoid a worse fate.
This film subverts the horror genre by giving us a huge ensemble cast of mostly loveable characters, who must then either kill or be killed. By giving us these affable characters, the audience forms a closer connection to them and feels their pain as the nightmarish scenario unfolds. Written by James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy.
There’s the list, but that ain’t all. If you’re looking for a horror flick to check out this Halloween, why not stream one of the films from Swank? Here’s a list of the horror films we have on offer, available to stream anywhere on or off campus:
-Blog post by Josh Harris, Media Services Supervisor