August 23rd, 2010


Horror Directors Need to Step It Up

Remember Showtime's dismal anthology series Masters of Horror? It was a huge disappointment. Bad acting, bad scripts, often terrible directing by the very same directors it was supposed to be showcasing, if not downright honoring. I joked at the time that a better title for the series would have been Shitty, Cliched Horror Nonsense By Directors You May Have Heard Of. Or maybe I wasn't really joking.

I was reminded of this again today when I read Nick Masercola's excellent essay on, "Horror Directors Need to Step It Up." It's well worth a read for anyone who, like myself, holds onto the sliver of hope that good horror films can still be made.

I don't necessarily agree with Masercola's taste in films. Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow, for example, is a fine film and shouldn't be counted as part of the long creative dry spell between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. John Carpenter has done a lot more of worth than just Halloween and The Thing. What about In the Mouth of Madness, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York? Classics, all of them. I also happen to think Eli Roth's Cabin Fever is a brilliant horror-comedy. It's even funnier if you listen to the cast commentary on the DVD.

Masercola's general thesis isn't wrong, though. Craven and Carpenter are hardly the groundbreaking directors they once were, and celebrated newbies like Roth and Aja aren't going to take their place. They're just not original or creative enough to. (Far more likely in my opinion are Neil Marshall, Christopher Nolan, Brad Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, directors who have unique and original visions.)

Masercola really drives his point home when discussing Dario Argento:

I don’t care whose heart I break with this statement: the man does not have talent anymore. His heralded films were created over two decades ago, his output becoming increasingly insignificant (JENIFER, are you kidding me?) over the years.

I couldn't agree more. To my mind, Argento hasn't made a good film--with "good" being defined here as something that's actually watchable, if not necessarily coherent--since 1987's Opera. Sometimes when I hear people lauding his later works like The Stendhal Syndrome or The Card Player or hell, even his atrocious The Phantom of the Opera, part of me wonders if they really like these films or if they're stuck in an recursive loop of nostalgia, so desperate to recapture the Argento magic of the 1970s and '80s that they force themselves to see something on the screen that's not actually there. Or maybe they're on crack. Regardless, as anyone who has seen Mother of Tears can attest, Argento ain't Argento anymore. Even his forthcoming film Giallo looks like a waste of time, despite being originally written as an homage to him. As with Craven and Carpenter, Argento's golden period is behind him now. Long behind him.

That doesn't mean these directors should stop making films. What it means is they would do well to start bringing their A-games again. Masters of Horror was an abject lesson in what happens when directors rest on their laurels and no one tells them they're slacking. And that's why I like Masercola's no doubt already controversial call to arms. He's asking the questions that horror fans really ought to be asking themselves if they're going to stop feeding the cycle that churns out crappier and crappier horror films every year:

[Why is it] so difficult to keep making good horror, and why [do] we accept the mediocrity of many of these supposed auteurs of the genre[?] Compare the track records of famed horror directors with generally great ones. Carpenter vs. Scorsese. Now some will say this is an unfair comparison, and to an extent it is a little cheap, but think about it. Carpenter is considered one of the best in the genre, yet his track record is far spottier than Scorsese’s, who has made many great films (though, oddly enough, faltered with his only horror flick). Think Spielberg. Think Kubrick. Think Hitchcock. While no one’s perfect, their classics far outweigh their missteps, but the same cannot be said of “great” genre directors....I think that’s a problem uniquely inherent to horror—we have no Spielberg, no shining light who can produce hit after hit after hit, and we still call those who continually strike out “masters” of the craft. Would you be considered a master swordsman if you only won two out of every 10 fights?

I've been saying the same thing for a long time now. If we stop accepting and supporting the mediocrity that contemporary horror films are feeding us, and if we support the films that are actually smart, enjoyable entertainments that don't treat the audience like imbeciles, then maybe, just maybe, we'll start seeing some good, groundbreaking, original horror films again. Just like back in the day when Craven, Carpenter and Argento truly deserved the moniker "Masters of Horror."