The Cultural Diversification and Evolution of Modern Horror Films

This piece is an adaptation from my post, “The Modern Evolution of Horror Films and 13 to Watch this October” that exclusively focuses on the analytical component of the post (AKA–the top part that introduced the recommended films).  The adapted post (below) was also published on Movie Pilot (*throws confetti*), and they’re responsible for adding the clever photos and some gifs that didn’t transfer because I still don’t fully get technology (*throws more confetti*). Movie Pilot also posted the second half of my original post (the 13 Modern Horror Films to Watch) in a separate article and you can check them both on Movie Pilot’s site if you’re tired of poking around here- Tracking the Evolution of Modern Horror Films and 13 Must Watch Modern Horror Films.

Just at a surface glance, it’s interesting to see how American cinema has evolved since the millennium, particularly post 9/11. The most obvious change is the action genre, wherein terrible eastern European accents once reigned and targeted crises on public transportation systems and business buildings ruled (ex. Speed: subways and buses; Mission Impossible: subways and helicopters; Speed 2: cruise ship (lol); Die Hard: LA skyscraper; Air Force One: “Get off my plane” with a hilariously Russian Gary Oldman, etc.)

The Post-Millennium Shift In American Movie-Making

After the shift in our country’s war-peace status, all of this popcorn fun seemed to be exchanged for coded-patriotic, Bourne-type action that was designed to simulate a gritty and unstable reality that safely removed the faces and presence of pedestrians in danger.

Comedy took a big shift too; the self-aware goofy/silliness that made Airplane, (early) National Lampoon, Mel Brooks, and (early) Ben Stiller such key figures were seemingly exchanged for a slew of superficial gross-out gags and lazy mockeries (ex. Wedding Crashers, Waiting, the Scary Movie franchise, Not Another Teen Movie, Along Came Polly — with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s infamous “I sharted” scene for which I will always shed a tear, etc.). Not to suggest that these kinds of films were new to the genre, just that they seemed to become the norm. Perhaps this evolution would’ve happened eventually, but it’s worth noting that this change began to occur around the same time that there was a major shift in tension and attention in our nation.

The ‘Outsourcing’ Of Critically-Acclaimed Horror Films

Dramedy doesn't get better than Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Dramedy doesn’t get better than Shaun of the Dead (2004)

This pattern arguably holds true as well for horror, although the shift seems more subtle and in the opposite direction of action and comedy. That is, as action and comedy movies became fiercely in-group and back-door patriotic, the most compelling and critically acclaimed (read: good) horror movies that played in the US originated in other countries, particularly the UK, Japan, China, Canada, Korea, and multiple others across Europe. This includes films like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Descent, 28 Weeks Later, Trick r’ Treat, The Orphanage, Let the Right One In, and a large handful of American adaptations of successful Asian horror films, such as The Ring (2002, USA; based on Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu, Japan).

Through some box office digging, it seems the largest contribution US cinema seemed to throw in the horror pile until recently were the Saw and Paranormal Activity series and a generally poorly-received pile of remakes and sequels from pre-millennium films. This post-2000 gaggle of reboots includes, but is not limited to, attempted continuations of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Alien, Blair Witch Project, Final Destination, The Hills Have Eyes, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, Prom Night, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, House of Wax, The Omen, Carrie, The Fog, It, and My Bloody Valentine—3D. Of course, a few US-made gems managed to sneak in, but it seems like this “outsourcing” of foreign scary movies ultimately had a tremendous impact on the landscape of current horror cinema.

A Friendly Reminder From Abroad: Old-Fashioned Scares Don’t Grow Old

If I wanted to take a quick stab at explaining what it is about these largely-international modern horror movies that I feel makes them so good, I suspect it has to do with what themes they cling onto. Early American horror cinema was dominated by monsters and vampires (many of which were later dominated by MST3K) and gradually evolved to include a complex blend of fantasy, magic, superstition, and dogma. This included hauntings, witches, supernatural killers that just would not die, demon possession, and the ingenious invention of zombies. It seemed the landscape went from telling stories about monsters to telling stories about people who became monsters, and this worked very effectively. Come millennium, this landscape switched to the aforementioned remakes/sequels, “found footage” stories, and torture films. Some of these were quite chilling, but on the whole it made American horror movies much more predictable, simplistic, and oftentimes just plain gross rather than creepy.

Post-millennium foreign horror films and the culturally diverse philosophies that come with them seem to have held on to the best horror tropes that used to be prominent in American cinema — monsters, vampires, witches, curses, and zombies that are too terrifying (or hilarious) to belong on television. With critical hits like The Conjuring (2013), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), It Follows (2015), The Witch (2016), Lights Out (2016), and Don’t Breathe (2016), it seems like American filmmakers are finally beginning to catch up. I’m not attempting to provide an explanation for this evolution and cultural diversification of modern horror movies (although it’s still interesting to think about). However, I did want to point out the pattern, especially as this shift has resulted in a critical cultural diversity in scary storytelling that has turned the horror genre into one of the most exciting, inventive, and insightful treats for cinephiles to watch.

In which ways do you think the horror genre has evolved over the years? Let me know in the comment section!

Just to name a few...
Just to name a few…

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting analysis!! True there is nothing new in most modern horror flicks, and end up being too predictable, with nothing more than just blood and gore. Give an old Horror flick, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Polanski, etc… to most modern day crap, any day.
    A recent Horror flick, I loved, was, H.P. Mendoza’s ‘I Am a Ghost’ (2012)!! Brilliantly creepy, Art House, more psychological, Horror flick!!! ‘Twas Excellent!!!


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