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GHOST STORIES: The New Era of Horror Cinema

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Written by Christopher Melkus

Horror movies are almost predictably cyclical compared to other genres of filmmaking. Often, one generation is born in reaction to the previous. As the slasher boom of the seventies and eighties led to a glut of critically panned sequels and imitators that dominated the next ten years, the “torture porn” era was born as response, leaving its mark on the 2000s. With those films now aging and losing ground, an emerging trend in horror is showing signs of taking hold; ghost stories.

Ghost stories are certainly nothing new in horror; THE EXORCIST, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and POLTERGEIST were all successful ghost stories released within ten years of each other and while they certainly weren’t imitators, their success relied partially on the theatre-filling fear that each prior film inspired. But, unlike slasher films, ghost stories have always been a riskier bet for a studio looking to make a quick buck off a genre known for guaranteed profit. THE EXORCIST, considered as much a classic as FRIDAY THE 13TH, only has five related films compared to the latter’s twelve. Even the SAW franchise, both more recent and generally considered less broadly appealing, has spawned more derivatives than any such supernatural-inspired horror flick.

Then, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY proved that, with the right style and (more importantly) marketing, a ghost story could make a profit on a budget even smaller than the standard slasher production. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY wasn’t just a clever film; it was also perfectly timed to engage audiences who were tired of the HOSTEL and SAW derivatives. Like Saw before it and Halloween before that, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has triggered a wave of sequels, imitators and innovators: THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, INSIDIOUS, THE WOMAN IN BLACK, THE DEVIL INSIDE…

Three new “ghost stories” loom on the horizon of 2012, bringing something new to the table that may or not lead to box office and/or critical success. First off is THE POSSESSION, produced by Sam Raimi (of EVIL DEAD fame) whose own stab at supernatural horror (DRAG ME TO HELL) did not live up to expectations. Director Ole Bornedal’s only notable work is 1994′s NIGHTWATCH, a Dutch suspense film remade in 1997 by the same director, starring the up-and-coming Ewan McGregor and Josh Brolin alongside Patricia Arquette and Nick Nolte. Unlike that film, THE POSSESSION has a lesser-known cast; the biggest names are Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Matisyahu. The recently revealed trailer for the film has been received positively, and appropriately so.

The story appears to rely on a tedious trope; broken-but-hopeful family man adores daughter, spoils her by buying a mysterious box from a yard sale. Contained within the box is a spirit that proceeds to terrorize father, child and estranged mother. This bears more than a passing resemblance to INSIDIOUS but, rather than working entirely on the “child-in-danger” angle, the shocks come from some surprisingly surreal and creative visual effects paired with Raimi-esque camera work. There’s also a Hebrew mysticism angle that might just derail what appears, in the trailer, to be an effective, simplistic frightener. Personally, I’m going to have to refer to my inner pessimist and declare this one dead in the water; LIONSGATE is the studio responsible and that doesn’t bode well. Arrives in theaters August 31st.

Bearing an even more straightforward setup is LOVELY MOLLY, a horror tale that blends the found-footage elements of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY with a straight-forward “haunted house” story involving a newly wed couple moving into her family home, leading them to deal with both her dark past and a supernatural force. Much is made of the main character’s mental state; it’s nothing new to make the audience question what is real and what is imagined but with the right performance, it can be a gratifying alternative to solid scares. This film has been released already and the reviews for it are neither scathing nor encouraging, which says something given the low-budget and fresh cast. It’s a fairly clever twist on an ongoing obsession that provokes more than just a bit of curiosity. Some of the imagery presented by the website and trailer are particularly intriguing. Hopefully we’ll see a home video release fairly soon, as the theatrical premiere was very limited.

From the director of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and starring Ethan Hawke, SINISTER is widely known as the film successfully pitched by an Ain’t It Cool News writer. Reviews of its stealth debut at SXSW have been unanimously positive despite the director’s previous efforts coming off stunted. The story seems to take LOVELY MOLLY’s focus on the descent into madness and adds it to the “threatened family” approach of THE POSSESSION. By lashing together multiple plot elements (The Ring comes to mind) as well as retaining a lead actor of some merit, the film is probably far more engrossing than THE POSSESSION or LOVELY MOLLY. Ironically, the film’s trailer is a strong contradiction of the reviews; it’s fierce and intimidating for a film that’s said to be almost sedate. Unlike THE POSSESSION, this one is rated R so I’m betting that, between the two, this will be superior.

With these three films, we have reached a point in the continuum of this era where filmmakers are struggling to stand-out from the glut of similar releases. While nobody would argue that trends like these are necessarily bad, by now creators should be aware of the impending critical mass and seeking to differentiate their work by bringing fresh themes to the screen. There are small but burgeoning movements focusing on horror anthologies (V/H/S, THE THEATRE BIZARRE, THE ABC’s OF DEATH) and a revitalization of the giallo genre (AMER, RED RED, SORORAL, YELLOW) so hopefully those will expand and encourage diversity in a genre known for saturation.

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