When I was a horror film critic for the Examiner online from 2011-2016, my bio stated that I found the scariest part of the genre to be how few films were actually scary. Equally disappointing was how few modern horror movies starred a monster character. What happened to the idea of creating new and terrifying faces of horror? Films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Final Destination, and The Purge launched giant franchises, but they didn’t contain a singular bogeyman that lent itself to a poster or even a costume at one of those Halloween Spirit stores.
Why was that?
Granted, I wasn’t expecting a new bogeyman to necessarily give all-time icons like Dracula or Frankenstein’s creature a run for their money, but surely, someone out there had the ambition to create the next Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Chucky. Instead, in the past decade, many great horror films have premiered that struck a chord with audiences like Get Out, It Follows, and Hereditary, but they didn’t contain a singular, monstrous face to front its horror.
One film that did manage to create a new superstar creature was the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Indeed, that story’s killer clown, Pennywise, became an instant terror stalwart, recognizable to millions and, yes, a very popular Halloween costume available at Halloween Spirit. But beyond that, the pickings are slim. Even TV and streaming platforms, while serving up a lot of superb horror like Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, don’t have that many recognizable monster characters fronting them. No wonder Showtime is bringing back Dexter.
Do most filmmakers consider it too gauche to center a film around a monster these days?
Monsters like The Wolfman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon came off more than a bit cheesy in the 1940s and 50s, I grant you, and the history of monster movies have too often been associated with bad budgets and worse actors. Up until the late 60s, most horror films were considered lesser fare, relegated to the grindhouse or second-run theaters. Even Vincent Price’s star vehicles, so many of which were excellent like House of Wax and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, didn’t quite get the due they deserved. The horror genre felt like Hollywood’s bastard child: part of the family, but most definitely not a favorite son.
Things changed in 1968 when Paramount released Rosemary’s Baby as a major studio tent-pole, chock full of A-list talent above and below the title. Its success soon spurred other major studios to jump into the mix with their own ‘elevated’ horror. Satan was a more sophisticated villain, having sparred with Jesus in the Bible, and his presence gave a loftier credibility to other top-notch, major studio productions like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Shining. Regan, Damian, and Jack Torrance, the main characters from those films, however, felt much more like victims than pure faces of evil.
Hollywood was embracing horror as a big concept, but less and less as entertaining monsters that kids could dress up as.
Other films of that era, like Jaws and Alien, had more definitive monsters, but they didn’t dominate the action the way that vampires, Martians, Jekyll & Hyde, or The Invisible Man once did. Indeed, part of the success of having a Great White shark or an acid-dripping alien at the center of horror was that they weren’t seen much at all. That also helped Candyman become a monster icon in 1992 as he didn’t even show up in the original film until 45 minutes had passed. Less is more as they say, and keeping such monsters more mysterious worked in their favor. They were never onscreen long enough to become too familiar or ludicrous.
Indeed, film critic and horror expert Cati Glidewell thinks that too many screen monsters have lost their mystery and that is the reason that others shy away from creating new ones:
“Jaws is frightening because it is a living, killing machine in the water. There’s no reasoning with it and no reason why it does what it does. In Halloween, there’s no reason why Michael goes home just to kill.”
Glidewell also believes that the popularity of true crime shows always explaining precisely why criminals do what they do has hurt the monster genre. When monsters are too easily profiled, they seem less threatening. She also thinks that modern horror suffers from modernity. It’s hard for any beast or baddie to rule when their victims could stop them with a well-placed text to the authorities. Glidewell prefers her horror told as period pieces, when technology wasn’t at our fingertips, or scary stories that take place in barren places that isolate potential victims. Monsters do very well in the woods. In the city? Not as much.
The effectiveness of movie monsters suffers too when they became laughably ridiculous in a plethora of increasingly ineffective sequels. Jason Voorhees became a virtual comic with a machete the more the Friday the 13th franchise lurched on. The only entertainment left was in the crazily hilarious ways he found to butcher his victims. Horror too often can become unintentional parody, perhaps reaching its zenith with Freddy Krueger cracking wise through his Nightmare on Elm Street series like a Borsht Belt standup. Even the Predator and Alien characters started to seem more like spoofs the more films they fronted. Treating the two intergalactic warriors like they were in an MMA cage match when they battled in a couple of films neither any favors.
Finally, real life may have helped squelch the monster as star, too. With the infiltration of serial killers in society, endless wars, terrorism, and Mother Nature providing plenty of real-time horror, how can any Babadook or Body Snatcher compare? As January 6th proved this year, the enemy is us and we’re plenty scary without any window-dressing. Who needs monsters in the Cineplex when our citizenry is terrifying enough?
Still, everything in Hollywood is cyclical, too, so maybe it’s time for writers to sit down and pen a lasting monster that serves audiences plenty of escapist scares. The world needs new monsters, ones that are fun to hate, not depressing to experience like so many that the news covers each day. Who knows, maybe even such new monsters can finally bring this country together, letting us all agree on a worthy villain to boo and hiss.
Hollywood and Halloween Spirit are waiting.
*Feature Image: Monsters Wanted by Jeff York