The State of the Genre - March 3, 2011
by Matthew Dean Hill
Posted March 3, 2011
In this, the opening installment of what is to be a bimonthly editorial feature, I'll be setting the tone for this feature, and jumping right into the fray. Today, I'll be focusing on the current state of "mainstream" genre films in the USA. Note that, for the purposes of this discussion, I'm defining a "mainstream genre film" as a horror film that has gotten any kind of moderate-to-wide theatrical release in the States. So for all intents, "mainstream" will equate to "of enough generally perceived interest to the American viewing public that a theatrical release was warranted, and any trappings thereof (advertising budget, promotions, studio backing, MPAA ratings, etc)".
Right now, in this country, there are essentially three core categories of mainstream genre film; they are remakes and/or sequels of existing films (both old-school and recent), so-called "fringe" mainstream films that attempt to capture both the core demographic audiences as well as the "hardcore horror fan", and finally, original horror features that attempt to break new ground, tell a familiar story with a new twist or from a different perspective, or are ostensibly "fresh" in both craft and content. Naturally, there will be some "crossover" between the categories; for example, a remake of a "fringe" movie (e.g. I Spit On Your Grave, Last House on the Left), or films that are remakes of "classics" but that attempt to breath fresh life into their subject matter (e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc). Ultimately, though, it's just those three categories, encompassing the fantastic, the merely good, the bad, and the outright fucking horrid and insulting.
Let's be clear about this; there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a film simply due to what category to which it belongs, nor is there anything inherently wrong with any of those categories in and of themselves. Further, I'll go out on a limb and state that there is nothing wrong with the mainstream label or status, and this is coming from a confirmed, cork-sniffing Horror Hipster. Face it, the mainstream is the industry. While the truly independent genre market does have some influence on the mainstream, both good and bad, the mainstream doesn't require the independent market; it exists, and will continue to exist on its own, within its own particular idiom, benefits and limitations notwithstanding. Problem is, it's exceedingly rare, as with any genre, to have a mainstream horror movie that works within the context of its category and turns out to be much more than complete tripe. No genre of mainstream film is free from these shackles; it's part of the trade-off for being a "mainstream" film. Don't believe me? Let me try to convince you.
For some context, let's look at a film series...nay, a certifiable cultural phenomenon...the Saw films. They certainly fit the category of "fringe", in that they have an appeal that speaks to a specific (but powerful) demographic, and their inherent subject matter and status as so-called "torture porn" (a term that I loathe, but that's for another rant) guarantees at least the perception that they are created by and for the cinematic fringe. Yet they are utterly mainstream movies, with (comparatively) enormous budgets, studio backing, a juggernaut press and promotions, and widespread high-profile theatrical releases to help them along in reaching their audience and making money. Rule of thumb; if a genre movie has merchandise on the shelves of Hot Topic at the same time as its theatrical run, then it's officially "mainstream", regardless of how gruesome it may be. Again, not that this is an inherently bad thing, it's just part of the marketing machine...the business of show business.
But in contrast, let's look at the original Saw. When it came out, it kinda took everyone by surprise, didn't it? I mean, slasher movies were nothing new, on-screen violence was nothing new, and certainly, post Seven serial killer movies were nothing new. But what Saw did, cleverly and quite effectively, was show what a couple of Australian blokes with a limited budget, a good script (and even better central conceit), and some good faith from a studio could do. They could create something reasonably fresh, and new, and something both legitimately "fringe" yet simultaneously mainstream; something that had the power to convert whole swathes of fandom. It also helped to reawaken the viability of the horror movie as a cash cow. But now, six sequels later (including the ostensible "Final Chapter", which I'll believe when I see), Saw is the poster-child for chronic and terminal sequelitis. The series will (if it hasn't already) ultimately be crushed under its own weight and as a direct result of its own success. Not that the overall quality of the films hasn't been mentioned at all. That judgment lies squarely on the shoulders of each individual viewer. Yet, the Saw series continues to make scads of money for all involved, and the fans still seem undeterred by the fact that, at this point, literally every single character in the series has been directly associated with Jigsaw in some profound, personal way, to the extent that the whole population of North America is going to be revealed as the next "accomplice" in any future installments.
Meanwhile, a film like Let Me In fails pretty miserably at the box-office, and aside from people like me who adore films like that, it's one of the most underrated and under-seen genre films of the last twenty years. Of course, the film is a "remake" (though to be fair, I prefer to think of it as an alternate adaptation of the source material rather than a remake of the Swedish Film Let the Right One In), is also startlingly original, incredibly fresh, and inherently "fringe", due in no small part to the underlying paedophiliac themes and content, yet mainstream enough to have received reasonably wide-spread theatrical release, studio backing, and moderate (if slightly askew) marketing. It's all the categories at once, and though it also had the benefit of a glowing Stephen King quote (remember The Evil Dead? That film absolutely raked it in because of a King blurb), and huge amounts of respect from critics and viewers alike, remains a moderate failure in terms of both income to expenditure ratios and overall exposure.
Thus is the State of the Genre at this writing in March 2011. This is not an indictment of the industry, of viewers or their tastes or opinions, or of the filmmakers (who, let's face it, are merely trying to make movies to be elicit a response of one type or another from an audience); it merely is what it is. These are merely things to think about...to ponder. Since I'm planning this to be a bi-monthly feature, reflecting what's going on in the industry at that time, this could all change suddenly and significantly, but will nonetheless remain familiar and simultaneously beautiful, rewarding, maddening, and frustrating to those who love it.
So, I will end this installment the way I intend to end each of them moving forward; with a semi-poetic thought...
Twas ever thus, and evermore shall be.
- Matthew Dean Hill - Wednesday, March 3, 2011