Upon watching recent horror film Annabelle a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about the current state of the genre – in particular the trends we’ve seen in American cinema in recent years. As I thought more about this I decided the typical review just wouldn’t do on this occasion, so I would write a full essay instead. This is partly because, in order to fully comment on the qualities that Annabelle has or does not have, it is worth setting some context about how we got to this point first. And I think we can only really start in one place: The Exorcist.
While The Exorcist may be ‘loved’ by many in the film industry for its revitalization of the horror genre back in 1973, there are reasons why, in hindsight (which is all I’ve ever had in relation to this film, having been born over fifteen years after its release), I view it less favorably than some other horror movies. In part, this can simply be put down to personal taste. My cultural preference has typically been for the East and their treatment of horror as ‘fear of the unknown’, an evil presence that isn’t necessarily named or revealed but is always felt.
This is why The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), while not an Eastern film, is one of my favourite horror movies. It’s why I became so interested in the brief J-horror resurgence between 1998-2003 that produced such films as Ring (Nakata, 1998), Pulse (Kurosawa, 2001) and Dark Water (Nakata, 2002), all of which rank amongst my personal favourites.
The Exorcist certainly has an evil presence, though it is steeped predominantly in Western religious beliefs – Christianity, and the devil as our main enemy. It is not shy about revealing this to its audience through Christian (or more appropriately: Catholic) imagery from the start. Far from building on a blind fear of the unknown, its focus is on trying to make this story seem as authentic and known to us as possible; it is, after all, supposedly based on true events, and the majority of the audience, even should they not hold strictly to the beliefs this film advocates, are at least vaguely open to it by virtue of their cultural heritage. These foundations were a large factor in why the movie proved so effective at the time, and why its label of ‘scariest film ever made’ has stuck.
I don’t really have a problem with any of that. Like I said, it’s about personal preference as it pertains to what you find more frightening, and I still admire The Exorcist for being one of the most powerful films ever made. I don’t have any more gripes with it on an aesthetic level that I wouldn’t otherwise have with Jaws (1975) or Aliens (1986), which are also considered classics of American cinema. But the fact is, within the field of Film Studies, one does not simply judge a film by its individual quality, but by the context of its production and overall impact on the industry in the years following its release.
Of those films, Jaws kick started the trend of the ‘summer blockbuster’; when Hollywood would selectively pour all of its efforts into marketing one or two of its biggest movies for release between June and August, to take advantage of a time when everyone is in good seasonal spirits. To an extent this has been balanced out in recent years, as major film studios saw the benefit of significantly pushing their top movies during the Christmas season as well. We’ve seen this happen most clearly with Avatar (2009) and the Hobbit films, while Star Wars Episode VII (titled The Force Awakens within the past few days) has been confirmed for a speculative release date of December 18, 2015 – meaning that, if anything, Hollywood has since identified Christmas as an even more lucrative market than summer has typically been for its very biggest draws.
Regardless, Jaws showed how a good marketing campaign and oversized budget could produce results for getting audiences into the cinema. Aliens would go one step further, providing a blueprint for every generic popcorn action thriller to follow.
You may argue Star Wars did that in 1977, but no: ‘how to write a well-structured plot’ was the gift George Lucas’ space opera gave specifically to the American blockbuster (a trick Lucas himself learned from Akira Kurosawa and his 1958 film Hidden Fortress), to the point where almost every modern screenwriting class will reference it. Indiana Jones (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981) became the typical portrait of what a young Hollywood action hero should look like, something that Aliens did not achieve on a large scale despite its portrayal of Ellen Ripley as even more of an action heroine than she already was in 1979’s Alien.
No, it did something subtly different than either of those other two movies. Aliens was the first to truly show Hollywood studios how much audiences liked overly illogical scenarios and continually exaggerated fight backs from a hero on the verge of death, facing up to overpowered adversaries. Most of all, though, it was an extremely successful sequel, and the fact that it was so full of action and cheap humorous lines in the face of danger told the business-minded people in power that this should be replicated if other movies were to be a financial success. You can see its creative influence strewn through the Transformers series and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name two examples of the kind of film that now dominates our mainstream movie landscape.
Similarly, The Exorcist sent an emphatic message that the use of a specific set of tropes, such as demonology and possession (of innocents specifically, or a woman at the very least), were perhaps the most effective way of creating a profitable horror film that would both scare and pull at the heartstrings of the average viewer. The Exorcist was certainly effective at doing this. It sets out to shock its audience with juxtaposing imagery of evil and innocence, and manages to pull it off with aplomb.
That was 40 years ago. Fast forward to 2010’s Insidious, a curious hybrid of East and Western horror techniques due in no small part to the influence of a director (James Wan) who was born in Malaysia and lived in Australia before moving to California. The simple notion of a house being haunted by who-knows-what was one I enjoyed, up until the second half of the film when it becomes about a demon (albeit a creepy looking one) who wants to take possession of a little boy. It slightly marred what was, for me, one of the most original concepts for a horror movie in years, and showed that horror in the West was still struggling to get away from a fascination with the demonic at its roots.
You see why I found this to be a problem? Whether or not a certain thing works well for scaring people (and The Exorcist did very effectively scare audiences with its chosen subject) is not what I’m concerned with. Rather, what I’m thinking about is whether or not that thing has been done before, and how many times it has been recycled since. Originality, creative output, open-mindedness – these are attributes that contemporary Hollywood cinema often finds itself short of.
I understand that there have been exceptions, such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), a number of movies by David Cronenberg, I’ve already mentioned The Shining, and The Sixth Sense (1999) was a refreshingly conventional ghost story. But these are considered exceptional films for the very reason that they don’t represent the majority, and one can hardly deny that handing out the ‘demonic’ label to any evil entity haunting a white middle class family is the default position of some American horror movies.
Annabelle, a spin-off of The Conjuring (2013), is as guilty of this as any film I’ve seen. It features a husband and wife who are about to have a baby, when the doll of the film’s title comes into their possession (…no pun intended). After an unfortunate encounter with a murderous duo representing a cult intent on summoning the devil, the Annabelle doll appears to have a spell cast on it that allows a demonic presence to latch onto it.
Cue a number of set pieces I actually quite liked, including an atmospheric scene where one of the characters has a Silent Hill-esque encounter with their demonic pursuer in the basement. However, once you realise where the film is going; after a Catholic priest is called upon for help and it is revealed “the devil” only wants the baby, you may find yourself thinking you’ve seen this all before.
That’s because you have, though in the end you may not mind paying for it, as you’ll remember enjoying similar films previously. I enjoyed parts of Annabelle too, albeit in the same kind of way that one enjoys eating McDonald’s or playing Call of Duty – it’s a recycled form of pleasure/ entertainment that provides quick thrills but from which you’ll gain nothing meaningful. You could argue there’s not much wrong with that, and maybe you’d be right. Hollywood’s familiar formula may do for you exactly what you want it to: provide that crucial bit of escapism away from the depressing patterns of real life.
Understand, though, that you’re not really making this decision for yourself. You’re going to see a Hollywood movie because Hollywood has told you to. By the clever design work that goes into their film posters, the well-edited content they carefully select for trailers, even the strategic placement of those trailers on the reel of a film of the same genre… I compare these films to McDonald’s because that’s exactly what they’ve become. A product that only finds its way into your wallet due to practiced marketing techniques and the spoon-feeding of ultimately unsatisfying content that makes you come back yearning for more.
For as long as films like Annabelle – whether they be a spin-off, prequel or sequel – continue to coax viewers like me to go and see it, the American horror genre will not move forward. Of course the key question is one I have avoided up to now; what exactly do I mean by ‘move forward’?
It’s a statement that, much like the rest of this essay, may not have crossed my mind had I not also watched another recent horror film that completely restored my enthusiasm for what the genre can achieve. It both paid homage to the past and brought something entirely fresh to the table. That film is The Babadook (Kent, 2014), and reviewing it in the gushiest of fashions shall be my next glorious task.