The new face of horror

America has gone crazy for 'The Blair Witch Project'; George Romero's classic 'Night of the Living Dead' walks again. Fear is back in fashion - and Hollywood is running scared.

What becomes a horror movie most? After years of scaring audiences with bloodshed, war, alien life-forms, technology gone awry and future- shock nihilism, Hollywood has decided that all it really needs to say is "boo". The phenomenal US success of The Blair Witch Project underscores a sudden resurgence of interest in supernatural-themed movies, which include The Sixth Sense and The Haunting - released in the US this summer, out in Britain soon - as well as at least four additional ghost stories due out by the end of the year.

Supernatural stories are hardly new, but their earnest revival in the official age of cynicism prompts intriguing questions. Americans have overdosed on irony, apparently, and are now in dire need of the healing power of suggestion. Thoroughly sick of what we are seeing, we now seem to be ready to believe that what happens off-screen is at least as significant, probably more so, than what happens on it.

But before descending any further into philosophising, let's look a bit closer at Blair Witch. Making deft use of cinema verite and film- within-a-film conceits, the film is, according to its prologue, a piece of footage found by police searching for three college students who went into a Maryland forest in 1994, but never returned. The found footage is in fact a recording of the group recording itself; the audience watches the students starting out in high spirits, then slowly spiralling down into a kind of madness.

Blair Witch is a phenomenon chiefly because it has made staggering amounts of money - thanks in part to cunning advance marketing that included college campus screenings and placement in internet gossip loops (this is called "event movie" marketing). It cost $35,000 to make and grossed $50m in its first week of release, and it will probably end up recording the highest profit percentage in film history. It is almost a foregone conclusion that Hollywood will try to repeat that success with Blair Witch knockoffs, sequels and studio horror movies tailored to look like the independent, rough-and-tumble original.

BUT the fact remains that audiences are eating this stuff up. They want their horror plain again without the fancy extras and high concepts that have ultimately taken all the fun and intimacy out of being scared. I don't think that Blair Witch is very scary at all, but apparently that is not the point. Or such dissension is exactly the point - where there's ample room for interpretation it makes for lively discussions and keeps interest in a film high.

We haven't had to conceive horror at all for the past decade and a half because real things have been in full media view - war, drug addiction, pestilence, serial murders, nuclear weaponry, children killing children, all of it live and omnipresent thanks to round-the-clock cable broadcasts, television network news and the internet. Small wonder that around 1980 or so, demonic possession and haunted mansions started to seem quaint, even naive. Suspension of disbelief for such stuff seemed regressive to adults, a bit like still believing there were monsters in the closet.

But it wasn't so long ago that ghost stories were a solid film genre, perfectly respectable viewing if not Oscar material. Despite the social upheavals of the 1960s and the aftermath of disillusionment that permeated the 1970s, people were still living out a certain age of innocence. Horror was becoming less musty and gothic and more post-modern, but it was still built around nuance - creaking houses and curses, vampires and things going bump in the night.

Some of the most memorable horror came out of that period - Night of the Living Dead (1968), a shoestring-budget ghoulfest that became a classic, a touchstone for Blair Witch; The Exorcist in 1972, Rosemary's Baby in 1974, The Shining, 1980. Into the 1980s, however, there was a notable trend away from classic supernatural horror to homicide - bloody, teen- slasher pics that had their roots in campfire stories about what happens to children who don't heed warnings to stop fooling around and stay out of the woods after dark. The grandaddy of the genre is 1974's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the most widely imitated is Halloween, John Carpenter's 1978 blockbuster, which swapped suburban streets for the woods and thus made horror much more earthbound and closer to home for the audience.

Once Hollywood acknowledged that the bogeyman was in our midst, the movies did not look much further than that for horror villains: Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street series is a sadistic janitor at a high school, with knives for fingertips, who preys on his victims through dreams. Those villains who did retain a supernatural bent were now more schlocky than scary (Chucky the animated puppet doll, Hellraiser's Pinhead, Michael Keaton's wisecracking Beetlejuice). The new breeds of monsters were less mysterious outside forces than products of our own sophisticated technology gone awry - the Terminator, Robocop, scientifically enhanced animals who got too big and turned on us a la Bride of Frankenstein.

In the increasingly paranoid 1990s, as America lost its moral footing, horror assumed larger and more amorphous shapes. It came to include any force that preyed on an unsuspecting society and signalled its dissolution. As the rich thrived and the poor in the US got poorer, domestic crime rose up from its pulp- fiction confines and was recast as horror in its own right. Ghetto dwellers went from being struggling, sympathetic figures to ominous "others". New Jack City featured a Harlem drug lord (Wesley Snipes) who was far more ruthless and destructive than the most vengeful spirit Hollywood could conjure up; the gun-toting malcontents of Menace II Society struck more fear into the hearts of south Los Angeles residents than a thousand abandoned graveyards ever could. Outbreak and Virus gave us infectious diseases as malevolent forces worthy of the devil himself.

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television, believes that the currency of horror starts with America's geopolitical climate. The more clearly defined its natural enemies - the old Soviet Union, say - the more clearly and logically defined the evil entities in horror films. With the fall of that Communist regime and the rise of violent crime at home, he maintains, "You see the US in a bit of disarray in terms of self-representation ... The evil is not so clear in our imagination."

Blair Witch, Professor Boyd adds, is a conscious anti-blockbuster, a simply made student film that, with its jerky camerawork and lack of even rudimentary set designs, asserts control over technology we had long since given over to Hollywood experts. By having fear "in our own hands" rather than waiting for it to be evoked by visual or aural cues, we reassert some measure of power in an age of cynicism and impotency.

It's power on a small scale, granted, but we have to start somewhere. The reinvigoration of old-school horror can be considered part of a larger back-to-basics movement in the US of the past 10 years, which emphasises personal rather than social good, and embraces everything from traditional family values to eating ice cream with all the fat and calories intact. As part of this quest to uncomplicate our lives we want our horror straight up again, on the rocks, no flavours or frilly umbrellas.

The thirtysomething makers of Blair Witch have admitted as much. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez say they were inspired not only by horror films such as Friday the 13th and the Halloween series, but those movies of the early 1970s, like The Exorcist and the 1972 "mockumentary" Legend of Boggy Creek. Sanchez recently remarked that he and his partner longed to make the kind of horror flick that scared them as kids, the kind that simply hadn't been made in a long time, stories instead of big-budget films with special-effects wizardry at their centre.

This emphasis happens across the board, of course, but with the horror films that are so intent on making audiences jump out of their seats, the special-effects syndrome is particularly glaring. "The problem these days," says Sanchez, "is that the audience has become so used to $100m budgets, the pay-off is becoming bigger and bigger, and yet it's becoming less and less of a pay-off."

So Hollywood may be forced to do something similar to what California's commercial developers, who saturated suburban markets, have begun doing - returning to the inner-city, to the original sites of profit, so as to continue making money.

MOST significant of these new horror releases is a spruced-up version of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, the cult hit that altered the course of American horror methodology. This new "special edition" was done by John Russo, who wrote the screenplay of the original Dead. Romero is reportedly working on another Dead sequel (there have been two since 1968) called Twilight of the Dead; Russo is scripting yet another, called Day of the Dead.

Neither has offered any in-depth analysis on the enduring, albeit cyclical popularity of the bare-bones horror genre that they have created, though Russo has admitted to his own ghoulish proclivities. "I'll never get tired of zombies," he said recently. "I just get tired of producers."

The horror revival may not stick around - remember break-dancing movies, anyone? - and the genre will be subject to change without notice as our sociological mood or philosophical fashion shifts. But if Hollywood manages in the meantime to kick-start this genre, it may inadvertently also liberate other moribund forms - romance or comedy, say - and make flesh and blood what was truly once the living dead.

'The Haunting' is released in Britain on 24 September; 'The Blair Witch Project' on 29 October; 'The Sixth Sense' on 5 November

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