What Happened to Horror?

I used to like horror. Movies or books, it didn’t matter. Like Westerns, horror stories seem to fall into one of two extremes: excellent or horrible. Not much in the way of mediocre stories in either genre, though there seem to be more horrible horror than Westerns. For every Stephen King or Dean Koontz, there were dozens who maybe should never have seen print, at least in my opinion.

With the exception of crap like Longarm, Westerns have taken a nose dive in the last couple decades. That’s the nature of the business. Westerns wax and wane in popularity, though they seem to be on the rise again, and it’s good to see that. In the meantime, though, I fell off on reading them for whatever reason.

Horror has kept right on plugging along, though I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I’ll still pick up a Stephen King book and the occasional Dean Koontz—especially if it’s an Odd Thomas novel—but on the whole, I avoid horror like the plague. When it’s degenerated into sparkly vampires who have melodramatic love triangles with hunky werewolves, I’ll find my entertainment elsewhere, thank you very much.

The genre has also shown a tendency to stereotypes. I would imagine that, during the eighties, there were more fictional small towns destroyed by some horrible thing or another—most ending up being men or women who were really ancient demons of one kind or another—than probably exist in this country. Stephen King started this trend with novels like ’Salem’s Lot, where the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot became infested with vampires.

Small towns make good fodder for horror, because when you see neighbors you’ve known all your life all of a sudden start acting hinky, it makes the terror more personal. And since small town people tend to be friendly-but-private, that lets folks get away with all kinds of madness. Problem was, when you picked up a horror novel to read the back, the synopsis almost inevitable started out with something to the effect of In the small town of…

That got old. In a hurry. I decided if I read about one more small town getting wiped off the map by one Satanic force or another, I was gonna participate in some small town horror of my own.

And the movies? Please. Last thing I wanted to watched was the latest iteration of Jason/Freddie slashing up unfortunate people caught in some remote location. When Jason went into space, I swore off horror movies altogether.

But, I decided to try one this week, much to my regret. I guess the title, The House of the Devil, should have warned me off. Thing is, most horror stories have tacky titles like that. Again, it’s part of the business. Besides, the premise sounded good. To quote the opening of the synopsis on the back, During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults. This film is based on true and unexplained events. It goes on to tell of how one Samantha Hughes, a broke college student, takes on a babysitting job in an isolated mansion. Of course, her best friend warns her off, but she needs the money, no matter how creepy the family is.

Long story short, the first hour and fifteen minutes or so of the 95-minute film are about as exciting as a travelogue of Outback, USA. The movie makes some attempts to build up tension with such tricks as having Samantha call the people from a payphone, leaving the number to her dorm room and yet getting a call back on the payphone before she can get more than fifty feet away. You have to remember that this movie takes place in the eighties, before the advent of things like caller ID so, okay, maybe that’s a tad spooky.

Problem is, they fail to follow it up with much of anything until things start going bump in the house very late in the movie. She ends up getting tied down in the middle of an inverted pentagram painted on the floor with what we assume is blood. The creepy family comes in, does some arcane ritual involving blood poured on her stomach and into her mouth from a weird skull, all timed to coincide with a lunar eclipse mentioned earlier in the film.

Samantha manages to break free and kill two of the family members on her way out—her white shift suitable soaked in blood, of course—and confronts the patriarch in the local graveyard. He informs here that it’s too late, that she can’t stop what’s happening inside her. She’s managed to pick up a pistol—looked to me like it was a .38, but it can be hard to tell on film—and she shoots herself in the head. We cut to news footage saying that astronomers the world over are confused at how fast the eclipse moved off the moon, then pan into a hospital room where Samantha is miraculously alive, her head in bandages. A nurse comes in, injects something into Samantha’s IV, then pats her on the stomach and says that everything will be fine for both of you. Fade to black.

What a major disappointment. 75 minutes of next to nothing happening, followed by 20 minutes of predictability. Spare me. I ended up fast-forwarding through much of it just to see if anything of note occurred.

Maybe it’s my changing tastes, but I really don’t think it’s just that. Horror has gone downhill in a major way in the last twenty years or so, maybe more. Maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with—with certain exceptions, of course—and I’m just now realizing it.

But in a world where we writers are constantly told to tighten up our stories and keep them moving, I fail to see how this piece of drek got filmed.

So, I guess I’ll go back to avoiding horror, just when I thought there might be some hope for it.

What do you think? Am I right? Has horror degenerated in recent years, or is it just me realizing what has been true all along? Let me know what you think.



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