Friday, October 31, 2014

Steaming Video and a New Wave of Horror

If you're a regular user of Netflix streaming, you've probably noticed which genre is by far the most visible. There are hundreds upon hundreds of horror films available to watch, the vast majority of which have been released in the last several years. There's a huge new wave of independent horror that has injected new life into the genre - horror's been vibrant since the turn of the century, but the mid '00s were stymied by an overdose of the torture subgenre. Ebbs and flows are typical for this genre, but what's unique about this current wave is that it's almost completely playing out on video streaming services rather than theaters.

It started with the first Paranormal Activity, easily the most influential horror film of the last 10 years. The runaway hit was evidence that you could make a popular and successful horror film with very little money. While it regrettably spawned an onslaught of unimaginative rip-offs aping its "found footage" format, its true contribution to the genre may be the inspiration it gave to aspiring filmmakers all over the world. The resulting boom coincided nicely with the rise of Netflix's movie streaming option and other digital services like Itunes or Amazon. Suddenly, it didn't really matter if you couldn't get a nationwide theatrical release for your movie. Most horror films these days are just having a brief run in big cities before making a beeline for streaming.

The timing works out pretty well because mainstream studio horror is an embarrassment right now. The Saw series is finally over and the Paranormal Activity sequels are basically out of gas, leaving Hollywood, in its escalating desperation for franchises, to produce a whole movie about the doll from the first 10 minutes of The Conjuring. The movies that aren't direct sequels might as well be, since the exact same demonic possession movie gets made every year. One of the most scathing reviews I've read recently was of Ouija, which takes a scene from countless other ghost stories and extends it into a whole feature. The critic wrote that "if that board was telling the truth, it would say 'Wait until Netflix.'" Ouch.

The big studios just don't get horror anymore. You don't market it the same way as superhero movies or young-adult book adaptations. In terms of its cultural role, horror has a lot in common with heavy metal - aside from a few years in the 80s, it's never been truly mainstream. Sure, horror movies always make money, but no other genre has as large a contingent of the general populace saying "I can't watch those movies." This leads to a closer relationship between the creators and the audience, which makes horror ideal for the streaming format and for the creative freedom you can find in independent film. For big fans, horror has a versatility to it - sometimes we want to have a good laugh at the tropes and cliches of classic films, but other times we want something new and terrifying to come in and blow our minds. Thanks to Netflix and other services, there are plenty of choices for everyone. It's a godsend to someone like me, who loves movies but has family responsibilities that keep me from running off every time I get psyched for a movie. It's easier than ever before to keep up on horror movies and movies in general despite living in a small town in Connecticut.

With so much choice, the question becomes: How do I pick out the good films from the tidal wave of movies? Well, it's been my experience that the star ratings won't steer you wrong. If fellow horror fans haven given a movie 1 star, it's probably abysmal because we're known for tolerating a lot of shit for the sake of a good scare. A movie with a 2.5 or 3 star rating is likely very polarizing and controversial and may still be worth checking out. Anything over 4 stars is probably a safe bet.

I'll also give you a list of personal recommendations. I like watching a lot of horror in October and here are some gems I found on Netflix.

The Conspiracy - An incredibly gripping story about two guys who are making a small-scale documentary about a local conspiracy nut (played beautifully by Alan Peterson) who suddenly disappears, leaving them wondering if maybe he was on to something after all.

The Pact - A near-perfect ghost story from up and coming director Nicholas McCarthy. Doesn't break any new ground but there's a lot more thought put into the overall story than is typical for movies like this. McCarthy's got a real talent for generating tension that pins you to the screen like a magnet. His follow-up, At The Devil's Door, is more ambitious but a little less coherent. That one is on Itunes right now.

Pontypool - A weird, cerebral Canadian movie about a small crew broadcasting a radio show from a basement while some kind of contagion breaks out. The real twist is that the virus is somehow spread through the English language, leaving the characters nervous that if they say the wrong thing, they'll be infected too. It's very surreal and interesting and has a lot of highbrow cinephile fans who normally don't bother with horror.

Satan's Little Helper - A ridiculously dark comedy about a kid with a few screws loose who unintentionally helps a masked serial killer who uses the spooky trappings of Halloween to cover up his crimes. It's got a classic 80s-horror vibe and the villain's mask is just awesome.

The Sacrament - A devastating tale of a strange cult in the jungle that is inspired heavily by the infamous Jonestown commune. This one works so well because the first half of the movie establishes the dynamics of the cult so well, making you hope against your own good sense that maybe this place is okay after all. Spoiler alert - it's not, and that's when the movie grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Gene Jones deserves a Supporting Actor Oscar for his simultaneously charismatic and intimidating performance as "Father," the cult leader.

You can go watch any of these right now if you've got Netflix. Enjoy the brave new world and Happy Halloween!

No comments: