Its hard to deny that Universal and its monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s essentially invented the horror film. Audiences came out in droves to see Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man and Boris Karloff as Frankensteins Monster. It wasnt so much the plot or the supporting players that drove moviegoers wild. It was these terrifying (and often fascinating) larger-than-life figures.
Horror was then reinvigorated in the late 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of an entirely new class of big-screen boogeyman. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Pinhead : the list goes on and on. However, ever since these modern monsters burst onto the scene, very few characters have joined their ranks, with Ghostface of the Scream series and Jigsaw as the only worthy contenders in the last 20 years.
Instead, the genre has relied on remakes, reinventions and follow-ups of both modern and classic movie monsters alike to scare up box office cash. Case in point, Wes Cravens Scream 4 is coming your way this April.
While some of these rehashes of existing horror icons may connect with audiences, history has shown that the genre needs a reigning horror icon to keep the genre afloat. Bear in mind that horror was considered a box office gamble prior to the $100 million domestic gross that Scream raked in back in 1996. Also, who do we have to thank for horrors current resurgence? Tip a hat to the dearly departed Jigsaw killer for that one.
But with the Saw series seemingly at an end with the recent release of Saw 3D, who then will pick up the mantle as the new king (or queen) of horror cinema?
Likely, the first series to come to mind is Paranormal Activity. True, the recent sequel was a box office triumph, earning more than $40 million opening weekend, but its steep drop-off in its sophomore weekend indicates that audiences are already getting that been there, done that feeling from the franchise. Plus, its a little hard for a faceless demon to keep audiences coming back again and again.
As stated above, it takes a strong villain to root a franchise and keep it going for film after film. This is why Freddy Krueger has haunted our dreams in nine movies thus far, and Jigsaw has played his torturous games seven times now. Granted, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers arent the most charismatic characters, but even they have interesting backstories that root their subsequent actions at a personal level.
The fact that the horror genre is poised to now rely only on established monsters does not bode well for the future of the genre. Sure, Ghostface will probably make a killing (pun intended) at the box office next spring, and most of the remakes of classic characters will perform decently. But without a captain to steer this ship, horror films will eventually sink. That is, until someone creates a boogeyman intriguing enough to reinvigorate the genre once again.
More than nearly any kind of film, horror has and always will be cyclical. It has its up and downs, gains a bit of credibility and then loses it and alternates freely between box office gold and an audience-repelling curse. I have no doubt that another iconic character will come along to join the established rogues gallery, but until that villain that we love to hate comes along, the genre may have some dark days ahead of it.
Editor: "Piece of Mind" is a biweekly column published Tuesdays.
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