The Disintegration of Cinematic Horror

- by Sarah Appleton, Director

Time has long passed where you could pop down the cinema and see a 'second' feature movie along side the main feature film. During the 1940s and 1970s second features were made by small film production companies to be shown alongside the main feature. Films like BHP's The Shadow of the Cat were seen alongside Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf to complement the film and create a fun lengthy cinema experience for all. The end of the seventies saw the introduction of multiplexes and therefore the eventual downfall of the second-feature. People liked going to see hours and hours of horror films, short films didn't even come into it.

   Supernatural horror broke away from the cinemas between the 70s and 90s, with the introductions of supernatural television shows and series like Tales From the Crypt and The Twilight Zone. These shows made it possible to watch horror from the comfort of your own living room, the scariest place to be faced up with supernatural happenings. This was only brought back to the cinema screens in the late 90s with The Blair Witch Project and the rise of the Japanese and Asian ghost films; Ringu, Ju-on and One Missed Call, all of which were remade in the US.

   The idea that horror is designed to be in short form, with short, sharp, shocks, seems the perfect format and delivery for frights within books as well as film. M R James, E F Benson and H P Lovecraft all mastered horror story telling with their famous ghost stories which occasionally appear as a TV adaptation; James' Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Boy, and perhaps even his Casting the Runes on BBC2 at Christmas, but never are these brilliant stories taken up by film production companies. The lack of historical knowledge that these stories are popular on film, dissuades production companies from attempting them, and therefore gives perpetual life to the few stories that have worked in cinematic form: the haunted house, the exorcism and the home invasion.

   Hollywood's timidity towards trying anything new, works out well for certain genres and audiences, with the action genre or even perhaps romance at the forefront. This works with realistic genre films like romance because we all have similar experiences in that respect in our own lives and these films are about relating to the audience rather than frightening the life out of them.

   Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is out this Halloween, and the number sequel this film is, is beyond my comprehension. Hollywood has completely lost touch with the idea of horror, catering for people who don't actually want to be scared. This sadly means that we are faced with the most dyer Halloween releases this year including Goosebumps: The Movie made for children, A Christmas Horror Story, "Christmas" being the operative word, Final Girls (basically a comedy version of the Scream franchise) and Knock Knock, a typical Eli Roth home invasion movie.

   Although the grandfathers of the horror story wrote some of the most frightening things ever put to paper, adapting these old ghost stories isn't necessarily the best idea, because as we all know that reading horror fiction can be the scariest way to consume fear and because of this, turning it into a film might just destroy the scare factor. But honestly, at this point, anything would be scarier than PA The Ghost Dimension!

   Next Halloween will naturally be more of the same until some bright spark suggests remaking Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu again, but even that will go straight to DVD just as the 2005 independent remake did, and the 2011 The Whisper in Darkness. At least watch one Lovecraftian tale that managed to squeeze through the film doors, The Dunwich Horror (1970). We simply mustn't forget the great horror stories of the 20th century due to our decreasing attention spans and acceptance of everything Hollywood.

Cattle.

- S. Milsome
"I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." -Hitchcock, on the 'stars' of the movie industry.

It doesn't take a Hitchcockian level of intellect to observe that contemporary cinema runs in circles and revels in pursuing its own tail. One only has to look at the past half-decade; we have had the comic book hero renaissance, are currently going through the Young Adult fiction adaptation-saga and now erotic bondage thrillers are bound to finagle their way into the regular listings following a certain Valentine's weekend release. While these genres have been bulldozing people's imaginations to ashes, a few subversive pieces seem to have quietly let themselves in through the stage door. Said releases have decided to focus on and even make mockery of the very personnel we willingly gawp at for up to three hours at a time; the movie star. 

   Admittedly, it isn't something that hasn't been done before, but the past 12 months have seen a handful of releases hit the ground with some traction, enough so people are starting to notice. It is a somewhat puzzling approach, even for the willing stars, because no matter how fervently they insist the characters they are assuming are vastly different from their actual personalities, they are still assuming the part nonetheless, knowing that their portrayal will be convincing, or so they hope. What they may not realise is that they are making their ilk come across as needy, desperate, insecure and narcissistic to a near-sickening degree. 

   Take Alejandro G. Iñárritu's ambitiously-shot and critically lauded Birdman, starring ex-superhero of the screen himself Michael Keaton, playing an ex-superhero of the screen attempting to cut his teeth in contemporary theatre, with generally catastrophic results. His best days far behind him, this man has delusions of superpowers and a holier-than-thou attitude which, when pitted against the mammoth-ego of Edward Norton's character, causes nothing but destruction and even hospitalisation. Some of the less lucid segments, such as where he imagines himself to be Birdman, or at least has his powers, seem to owe a certain amount of homage to Lynch's seminal and daring Inland Empire, where an actress begins to mentally unravel and adopt the personality of the role she is playing. Also not forgetting that Birdman features Naomi Watts, who starred in Lynch's other skewed look at movie stars and their struggle with identity, Mulholland Drive.

   Following the unexpected success of Birdman, David Cronenbourg unleashed his vision of Hollywood's unpleasant undercarriage in the form of Maps to the Stars. When Julianne Moore isn't conjuring visions of Lindsay Lohan in a couple of decades' time, she is showing the world how quick an actress can go from lauded to past-it, exacerbated by her tragic childhood. Other characters include a child star who has grown nihilistic and bitter, already having battled addiction and depression by the tender age of 12; his parents, one of whom is an over-the-hill Hollywood type, projecting her desire to be valid on her son; his mentally unstable, estranged arsonist sister and finally a limo driver who just happens to be caught up in the mess (as well as some of the female characters' nethers) somehow. The film not only shows how being in showbiz can mess the actors' lives up, but affect the lives of those around them too, often driving them to insanity. It also reveals the ugly depths that humanity is capable of sinking to if there is a chance they'd become somehow validated by fame once more.  

   Lesser-known but rightfully cemented in the horror genre is Kolsch & Widmyer's spiral into occult madness Starry-Eyes. Very much a slow-burner and verging on the utterly absurd at several points, it focuses on a fresh-faced but clearly troubled young lady struggling to make herself known in the film industry as well as holding down a stable part-time job. Stable is certainly a choice word, as this hopeful starlet mentally and physically deteriorates, allegedly under thrall of the ominous 'Producer'. Things take a grisly turn or two before a rebirth of sorts, which is a clear allusion to the sacrifice of humanity, or one's soul, just to be the toast of Tinseltown. It alludes to stardom making you immortal, inasmuch as that when someone is captured on camera they are essentially frozen in time, displayed for future generations to witness and no doubt discuss the finer points of in an online forum.  

   All these films share traits, include elements of fantasy, ghosts and apparitions, and ultimately lead to a wholly unsettling or tragic conclusions, all involving past-it actors, struggling actresses and hopeful stars-to-be. The fact that these pictures are cutting into the mainstream is a testament to the changing face of cinema; people don't seem to want to be entertained so much as informed, or maybe the inclusion of an ensemble cast overrides the message for most viewers. After all, if they knew what the directors were really trying to tell them, that their perfect archetypes are just puppets dancing along to the tune of the camera's whir; that they are hollow beings unable to function unless said camera is pointing at them, they'd surely take umbrage. 

   Or maybe, just like the actors themselves, they don't care so long as they are getting a reward or recognition from the experience: no matter the cost. They are not like cattle in this way, for cattle are oblivious to their overall fate; humans simply don't seem to care.

Catch 22

by Sarah Meikle (Director)

Are you sitting comfortably?.. Then I'll begin.

   For those of you who have never experienced the trials and tribulations of a crowdfunding exercise, it's a lot more difficult than it seems. The media portray it as the easiest way to fund anything you want to do. I mean, a guy raised $55,000 to make a $10 potato salad. Really! Sometimes I wonder if there is any logical reason why things go viral... Is Alex from Target really that interesting?

   I digress. Kickstarter is the most popular crowdfunding site for media and creative projects around the globe, despite its famous funding for salads. The crowdfunding site has successfully funded many films including the Veronica Mars movie gaining over 5 million dollars of support from avid Mars fans.

   So we at Caprisar Productions decided to attempt to fund a large documentary project about the London homeless population through Kickstarter... and it completely and utterly failed. As I am writing this there are still a few more days to go until the funding is shut down and with a mere £130 of the £3k goal, we will definitely have to find other sources of funding.

   This failure could be down to many reasons, but the main one is that people simply don't care about the sort of charitable causes we want to document. And hey, who can blame them? We were making the documentary in the first place to combat the fact that nobody cares about the homeless, so why would they care enough to donate to the documentary? We wanted to bring to light the stereotypes and misinformation that causes the discrimination against the street population. But little did we realise how we couldn't possibly expect people to put money behind something that is yet to change their opinion about itself. It was a complete catch 22 and we didn't even see it coming.

   I have discovered a lot even just at the beginning of the journey into this documentary and one thing I found particularly intriguing came when I was approached by a police officer via email about helping me with the film. He said he could arrange for me to come out with him on a shift where he goes around and talks to some homeless people, so I can get a better idea of what it is really like, in safe company. Then I received a follow up email suggesting that his team and/or superiors don't like the idea of me coming out on a shift with him because they don't know me and I could be a journalist... Now let's ignore the fact that I am obviously a journalist, that's what documentary film makers are, and wonder why on earth they would care that I was a journalist. I can't think of anything other than the possibility that they personally might be shown in a bad light, and that definitely interests me a whole lot more. Perhaps looking into the way our police deal with the homeless population might show up something terrible. I guess I'll have to find out for myself.

   So we may decide to re-launch the Kickstarter project for Invisible: Britain's Forgotten People in the summer months, when we find a better way to market the documentary, and possibly have some footage to show as an example of the shocking stuff we need to show the world. Until then, as we continue the search for funding for the project and you continue your life, people are out there on the street still being ignored, freezing to death in the cold, and being beaten or murdered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

   I hope you're sitting comfortably, because they aren't.

Imitation, imitation, imitation.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

-          Charles C Colton

The above quote has been exhaustively paraphrased since its inception; so much so that it has turned into something of a trope and even an ad-hoc excuse whenever the authenticity of someone’s work is called into question. While it is true that imitation can indeed be flattering, it seems to be seldom appreciated by those yearning for something original and fresh, especially where modern cinema is concerned.

   It doesn’t take your avid cinephile to observe that the world of contemporary cinema is saturated with remakes, reboots and re-imaginings of (arguably) classic films. Over the past twenty years or so, audiences the world over have been subjected to mostly questionable-at-best slices of what has already been witnessed, but with a new lick of paint and a few rivets; a worryingly large amount have even warmed to them. 

   So, why are the execs investing in so many high-budget revisits of the same tale? It most feasibly boils down to one main factor: money. It is no secret that online streaming sites and (heaven forbid) less legitimate means of acquiring movies have hit the film industry right in the finances over the past decade. As a result of this, distributors and production companies alike are understandably less willing to green-light the likes of an indie film set in a backwater town with an unrecognisable cast and unfamiliar plot devices. Instead, they’re more likely to play the safe-bet and allow big-budget remakes of films that were either already financially fruitful in the past or highly acclaimed in their native country.  

   Filmmakers either don’t realise or are apathetic toward the fact that the existence and indeed blockbusting success of these types of film are in themselves causing significant damage to the industry they’re clutching so tenaciously to. The more money they generate, the more vested interest will lie with the producers to encourage even more being made; thus the vicious cycle may continue, threatening modern cinema to become a stark parody of itself.

   That’s not to say that all remakes are necessarily a creatively bankrupt affair; some re-imaginings have admittedly improved upon the original. A shining example of this is Scarface, the original of which came out in 1932. It was a gritty tale of mobsters, or rather one in particular’s goal to rise up and dominate the city. It was by no means a bad film, but back in the thirties cinema wasn’t as widely marketed, ergo less popular with the masses.  In 1983, Brian De Palma took the original tale as inspiration for his cocaine-drenched adaptation, swapping out dimly-lit streets for a sun-kissed Miami and the fast talking for multiple cuss-words and highly quotable dialogue. At their bare bones, both films are the same, but the latter propelled the protagonist into being one of the most iconic anti-heroes in cinematic history, not to mention heightened Al Pacino’s star status.

   One of the aspects which set Scarface apart from most modern remakes was that there was a 51-year gap between both films, unlike today where it is not uncommon to see a remake churned out in less than five. In fact, 2011’s English-language adaptation of Swedish coming-of-age vampire classic Let the Right One In, which was remade by Hammer Film Productions and renamed Let Me In, emerged just three years after the original was made. Both films, although visually arresting and share a gripping yet touching narrative, are eerily similar. One could argue that they simply took the same aspects away from the 2004 source novel, which could go toward explaining why they are alike. However, it appears to be almost a shot-for-shot remake, but in English and with recognisable actors. This appears to be but one of many attempts to grant cult classics further reach to international audiences, whilst simultaneously insulting everyone by assuming that no one wants to read subtitles or watch a dubbed version of the originals, for greater financial gain.

   Other notable mentions of recently redundant retellings are Oldboy (2013) which, save for one or two scenes, was a faded carbon copy of the 2003 version; Funny Games (2007), which was directed by Michael Hanke, the same individual as the 1997 original and was a literal shot-for-shot remake. It could be said that the latter was done to prove some kind of a point with regards to the whole remake culture, but it was more likely that the director was hired by an American studio to direct it so that it would generate more revenue. 

   A dishonourable mention goes to the utterly flaccid US retelling of the modestly-budgeted and mirth-inducing British comedy Death at a Funeral. Rather mercifully, the remake flopped so hard at the box office there will be little chance of such a thing occurring again in the near future, proving that not every half-baked rehash is a financial success after all, especially if the source is from a dry English farce-comedy.

   Still, there are surely some films out there that remain untouched, but these are most likely the ones begging to be remade with a bigger budget by passionate people willing to bring something fresh to the table. Sadly, until said productions become more financially viable, it is not likely that avenue of experimentation will be visited, much to the chagrin of the more dedicated film fanatics.

   There is hope, however, in the sense that underdog directors are being brought in to shoot big budget films of late, which could be a gateway to better cinematic standards on the whole. James Gunn, for instance, went from making indie horror-comedies and skewed superhero films to the astronomically-budgeted Guardians of the Galaxy. A similar individual with humble beginnings, Gareth Edwards, directed the other summer 2014 blockbuster which coincidentally happened to be a remake, Godzilla. A few more of these blokes and Hollywood may soon see the stagnant tide of rehashes awash with fresh ideas.  With that in mind, here’s hoping for a big-budget all-star adaptation of The Room...

...okay, perhaps not.

-  Sam Milsome