Walk through a video store (if there’s one left in your town) and look at the movies in the Horror section. It’s a horror, all right, especially when you consider what it once was.
The horror fantasy category of movies began at Universal Studios in 1931 with the Todd Browning/ Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. The silent era had some fine horror films, too, but Dracula was really the catalyst for all that followed, and the wonders of imagination and style that came out of this genre would stand with the greatest films ever made. The high points are so legendary it’s unnecessary to name them.
These were movies with atmosphere, subtlety, and intelligence. They set the psychological gears in motion. The great horror movies of history were dreamlike landscapes, rich in symbols of sexuality, death, menace and rescue, triumph over the unknown. They offered poignancy, humor, and surrealism. They had humanity, despite whatever trappings of the supernatural were set in place. But again, that was history.
Since around the time of the 1980s, horror movies have consisted almost entirely of one of three heavy-handed, blunt and stupid formulas. Most are slasher movies. Some have satanic/exorcist themes. And then there is the seemingly bottomless mine of knock-offs of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, where partially decomposed corpses walk around killing people. These three modern-day canons have been joined in recent years by a Fourth Way, a new formula which is tired already, but is likely sick enough to have a long life in the present culture. This is the straight-out torture movie, characterized by Saw, Hostel, and Final Destination, and their numerous sequels and clones. The entire reason for the existence of these movies is their prolonged sequences of extremely graphic torture. The plot is usually just a person being lured into some place where he (usually she) is confined and subjected to barbaric torture by some predatory stranger.