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

'BLAIR WITCH' IN EDINBURGH: PAGE 7

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee