If you break down the cinematic horror genre by decade, it is widely accepted that the 70s was the general pinnacle of quality output. That perfect renaissance of horror creativity, sitting right at the crossroads of classical and modern horror.
Not only did the later 70s see the genre crossover to major theatrical releases, and the associated profit margins, the 70s as a whole saw more groundbreaking techniques and thereto taboo social subject-matter than any time before it. Two major factors led to that horror paradigm shift, the growing availability of filmmaking equipment to non-studio related filmmakers and the burgeoning of small, independently owned theaters or, as they grew to be called, “grindhouse theaters”.
Not only were horror filmmakers free to explore darker themes and taboo visuals, they were actively encouraged to do so by this grindhouse distribution model. These theaters peddled in shock and awe. Less important was market studies and demographic research, and more important was the ability to pull in viewers based solely on the forbidden and shocking images that were promised to flash across the screen. While this sounds particularly greed driven and more than a little pessimistic, and it probably was, the side effect was that talented filmmakers were given carte blanche to create films with little or no influence by anything except the creative process. Wes Craven was allowed to make The Last House on the Left because it would titillate and shock an audience. Because of that broad economic canvas, though, he was also able to make an especially dark film with no real happy ending. Most importantly, Craven and his filmmaking peers were allowed to infuse these grindhouse films with morals, underlying themes, and real messages. In other words, the grindhouse allowed horror films to become art.
Fast forward a decade and you will find that the studios noticed these films. Not for their artistic merit, but for their obvious ability to make money. This led to studio horror films that were more interested in excess, puns, and one-liners than advancing the genre. It is important to pause at this point and acknowledge that these decade markers are not infallible. There are amazing horror films in the decades that followed the 70s, and some of the “70s style” horror films bled into the early 80s. In broad terms, though, these trends are true.
And the trend of excess did not end in the 80s, it continued well into the 90s. In that decade, however, that excess began to be tinged with a sense of cynicism. Returning to Wes Craven, “Scream” is a perfect example of this. The film is still glossy, clean, and mostly safe, but it contains an undercurrent of self-referential parody. The frame of the studio system still intact, but with a creative shrug that said “yeah, we know”.
Instead of growing from this recognized cynicism towards the marketization of the horror genre, the 00s delved into an empty market based method of horror. Again, there are exceptions but as a general rule the multiplexes filled up with horror remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings of classic horror films. Nary an original thought or theme could be found in the movie release schedule.
But then a funny thing happened in the 10s: VOD. While small, “grindhouse” theaters had dwindled to nearly zero through the previous decades, a new form of independent distribution began to flourish. Video-on-Demand, or VOD, allowed viewers more access to more movies than ever before. And beyond that, all of the films were available at the push of a button in their own homes. This allowed for a market, and subsequent demand, for a new kind of horror movie. Much like the 70s, filmmaking equipment costs were at an all time low and with the advent of VOD, distribution was no longer tied to the studio system.
Again, much like the 70s, this led to a flourish of creative and boundary pushing horror films. Instead of Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Argento, and Romero we now have McKee, West, the Soskas, Wingard, etc. Though the technology is different, homes becoming the digital grindhouse theaters, the methodology and result seems to be the same. In the wave of a new distribution system, boundaries and cinematic techniques are shifting. More importantly, though, is that horror is also shifting back into that arena of incredible creative output. As a community, we are granted more quality horror films presently than maybe the entire previous decade combined, and a large portion of them are released on VOD alone.
Even the filmmakers themselves seem aware of this rebirth of the grindhouse model. Consider the stylistic tributes of Hobo With a Shotgun, Machete, and Planet Terror. The timing of this nod is most likely not accidental.
What remains to be seen, however, is where horror goes from here. So far this creative explosion has led to some incredible films being released widely to major theaters everywhere. Consider 2013’s own The Conjuring, You’re Next, and The Purge. All of these are original films that would probably have never seen the large screen of your multiplex if not for the noticeable revolution happening over on VOD. So will this marketability and economic shift lead to another downturn in horror? Or will it lead to more freedom of creative output from these filmmakers? While only time will tell on that, and optimism is not in my nature, I do believe one thing wholly. The current period of horror films is a very special one. And we should all just stop for a minute and enjoy the revolution, it may be another forty-years before we see it again.