Rings and the sad state of studio horror

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Rings, the latest US entry in the Ring franchise, made me wonder why I even bother going to see modern studio horror films anymore.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

It’s not even as if Rings is a terrible movie, because it’s not. It’s totally competent in every conventional sense. It is professionally made by, y’know, professionals, and it money has definitely been spent on it.

It’s just so utterly soulless, so devoid of freshness and originality and ideas, so bland and homogenised that halfway through you’ve forgotten what film you’re even watching.

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It didn’t have to be this way.

I listened to an interview with the director, F. Javier Gutierrez on the Shock Waves podcast and he spoke passionately about his attempt to marry his ‘extreme ideas’ with the studio’s wish for a mainstream movie with young, attractive stars.

Javier, I believe the studio won this particular battle.

There are glimpses at the start of what could have been. An opening scare on a plane, almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the movie, suggests an over the top rollercoaster ride of multiple Sadakos (damn, I mean Samaras) emerging from every built-in tv screen, but doesn’t actually go there.

Then, we discover a scientist (well, a biology teacher) who has set up a large scale experiment to study Sadako (Aaaargh, Samara, whatever). A line is dropped about Samara (nailed it!) getting angry about being messed around with, and all sorts of possibilities as to where this story could go are still racing through my mind when the thread is unceremoniously forgotten about to focus on a virtual remake of the original, but with added young-people-in-their-underwear.

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And so follows a plodding retread of The Ring, tiresomely trudging from one tedious expository sequence to the next. The once-fresh scares of the Japanese original are now so hackneyed, the filmmakers don’t even bother with them, instead setting up a human villain who falls totally flat.

I almost never walk out of movies (Dogma and Air Force One are still the only two), but after checking my watch and seeing the minutes crawl by for the umpteenth time, I strongly considered it. But I stuck with it, hoping my perseverance would be rewarded with a batshit crazy conclusion, an amusing twist, anything. But the climax, when it finally limps around, is the old ‘put-the-villain’s-bones-to-rest’ idea, as fresh as Samara’s corpse at the bottom of that well.

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It’s a tedious, impotent misfire of a movie, a braindead, pandering, charmless slog aimed only at the lowest common denominator. Luckily for the studios, us horror fans are so committed, we will go and see anything.

But no more.

I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of sequels, of franchises, of remakes, of prequels, or remaquels, of reimaginings.

I’ve had enough of films where nothing is truly bad enough to be entertaining, but nothing is good either. I’d call it Fifty Shades of Gore, if these films had the balls to go harder than PG-13.

Frankly, I’ve had enough of studio horror.

It’s no surprise that the only great horror films of the last few years have been from just outside the mainstream, where gifted directors have been allowed to follow their own paths and put their obsessions up onscreen unexpurgated. Starry Eyes, It Follows, The Devil’s Rejects, Maniac, all films that push boundaries, that defy convention and often logic, films that stick with you.

It Follows is a great example, coming under fire from, of all people, Quentin Tarantino for not following it’s own ‘rules’. I’m sorry, but who the fuck wants rules? I’d take the strange and unsettling twists and turns of It Follows over the rigorously dry formalism of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, which devotes it’s entire last act to explaining, in detail, something that never even needed explaining. And the man supposedly loves Fulci’s The Beyond, a film that revels in it’s own nonsensical nature and emerges triumphant as one of the great surrealist horror masterpieces.

Guys, I’ve just had an image of Fulci ramming Tarantino’s head back onto a nail and his eye popping out. Let’s take a breath to enjoy that for a moment.

I think I remember seeing an interview with that most unfairly loathed of directors, the incomparable Jess Franco, where he spoke about how we need more amateurishness in movies. Now I admit I may have dreamt this – my dreams are so boring it’s entirely possible. But regardless, it’s a great quote that perfectly sums up what I look for in a movie these days. People can laugh at Franco’s films, and deride them for not being slick and professional, but they’re missing the point.

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Because what we’re seeing is unique, a one-off vision from a one of a kind man, an idiosyncratic auteurist making deeply personal films. So what if the dubbing isn’t always great, or some shots are out of focus? So what if he has the actors move slowly because they couldn’t shoot slo-mo? So what, so what, so what. There’s a beauty and a poetry alive in his films, a personality, a stunning audio-visual synthesis. The same goes for directors like Jean Rollin, Andy Milligan, Sergio Martino et al, filmmakers whose work is recognisably their own and all the better for it.

What I think I’m saying is this; we need more idiosyncratic horror films. Now I know they’re still getting made outside the mainstream, but why can the two no longer exist hand in hand like they once did? The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, all studio films by serious directors. But they don’t all need to be classics like those, just give me something that isn’t bland teens being menaced by bland PG-13 ghosts to a bland soundtrack.

It can still happen.

There’s one studio that is bucking the trend, even if they’re not one of the majors.

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Blumhouse Films gives it’s directors a small enough budget to allow to them to have some degree of creative control, and while it’s not always successful, it has given us entertaining and memorable fright flicks like Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister, Oculus and The Visit.

Compare, for example, Blumhouse’s surprisingly okay Facebook horror Unfriended with the DOA studio version Friend Request, which featured the usual CGI insects. crappy girl ghosts, false jump scares and dream sequences.

What other studio would release a horror film that actually stops for five minutes to allow the lead actor to sing an Elvis song to two children, in a deeply moving scene that tells us more about the characters than a thousand expository scenes? That’s The Conjuring 2, by the way.

Having said all that, you know as well as I do that we’ll still go and see the next dumb studio horror that comes out. Why? Because that’s what we, as horror fans, do.

We trawl through the shit. Sometimes the stench gets too much and we emerge gasping for air. Other times we just vomit. But sometimes…yeah, sometimes…we find that diamond. That one film that reignites our passion for horror, for the fantastic and macabre.

And that film makes it all worthwhile again.

Happy hunting guys.

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7 Responses to Rings and the sad state of studio horror

  1. lysette says:

    Great read, David. I shit you not I almost went to see Rings last night but thanks to the snow storm I stayed home and re-watched Wizard of Gore instead. I gather now this was the right decision. I have so little patience and gave up on studio horror long ago but like the contemplation of going out to see the Rings, I’ve been trying to give it another go around, yeah, what a struggle. Do you think it’s exclusively American studio horror cause almost every other country continues to put out gems, though I suppose they’d be independents? If I see a movie that has the same name as director/writer/producer I am guaranteed to watch it because there going to be an earnestness to it and a strong vision when one person has that much creative control, even if (almost always) it’s a total train wreck. I love that Jess Franco said we need more amateurishness in film, that’s pretty inspiring, though doubtful it’s a word in the studio moneybags minds. To that I say support Indie horror!

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    • You know, I’ve never seen Wizard of Gore. There’s a lethargy to much of Lewis’ work that I find makes it difficult to actually sit through some of his films. He’s definitely a filmmaker where you have to be in the right mood. I saw him introduce Blood Feast 2 about 10 years ago though, and he was a delight.
      Yeah, there’s still good horror from all over the world, including America, but I think it’s mostly outside the studio system. It’s my fault, I pay about $20 for a monthly cinema pass so I can go and see every single crappy studio horror that comes out. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably never see any of them. But I still go into every one hoping that it’ll be good!

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      • lysette says:

        Hahaha lethargy is totally accurate, for some reason I am often in the mood for that especially if it’s surreal. It must be from my dad raising me on French New Wave movies, which also might explain why I embrace trash cinema so heartily. Got to rebel against something, right? Cool you saw him introduce his film! I’ve always imagined HGL as an upbeat, positive to a fault kind of person. 20$ monthly pass sounds like a good deal, I actually love going to the movies. When I lived in the city I went every week but living in a small town the local theatre just plays the big blockbusters that I grapple with investing energy on, especially when my family’s shop has 26 thousand (and counting) movies to chose from. Oh yeah Ouija, when it was in the theatre dad and I were laughing that metacritic scored it in the 90’s, higher than any of the ‘serious’ movies that were showing. I meant to go see it but didn’t get around to it. We have it for rent now in our shop, I’ll give it a watch. I admire your tenacity to keep trudging through, it really does make the diamonds in the rough shine brighter. You also save us from it, kinda like the Little Red Hen Aesop fable but for horror movies rather than bread 😉

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      • I think my problem with Lewis’ films is that the actors all tend to look so bored that it becomes infectious. In Blood Feast, Fuad Ramses seems to do everything – walk, talk, kill – in slow motion. Whereas in a leisurely paced Andy Milligan movie or something, you get a sense that the actors are at least trying, and you can get caught up in their enthusiasm!
        Going to the movies here can be fraught with peril. People talk all through the movie, spend more than half of it checking their Facebook, sometimes even take a call! ‘Yeah, I’m in the cinema. Yeah it’s good. So what are we having for dinner?’ etc. Mind-boggling!
        Glad I’m performing a public service. I watch these films so you don’t have to, there’s the new slogan for the blog.

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  2. I’m not a huge fan of Hollywood in general. It seems like they always go out of their way to appeal to the lowest common denominator in taste to attract the largest possible audience.

    That being said, I thought last year was a fair year for “mainstream horror.” There was The Conjuring 2, like you said, as well as Lights Out and Don’t Breathe. And surprisingly, Ouija: Origin of Evil was quite good, too.

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