CGI is killing the modern horror film

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As CGI becomes abundant in the horror genre, we wonder if fear of the unknown is being obliterated by software-wielding whiz kids.

“I don’t think you need to spend $40 million to be creepy. The best horror films are the ones that are much less endowed.” While there is a lot I don’t like about George A. Romero, he’s certainly right about one thing: The horror genre has changed a lot over the years, but two aspects have long correlated – small budgets and big scares. However, with the advent of CGI (computer-generated imagery), the relationship between funding and fear has become confused and augmented.

For all the benefits that CGI brings, its application to horror leaves something to be desired

It’s now possible to put to screen whatever you can conjure up in your mind. So it’s no wonder that filmmakers are turning to this technology to put their nightmares on the big screen, especially when you consider how cheap the technology is. However, for all the benefits that CGI brings to most genres, its application to horror still leaves something to be desired.

It’s not that the tech is under-developed. Avatar confirmed for us all that CGI could deliver a visually convincing display, even if the film was utter gobshite. But in horror, ‘visually convincing’ isn’t enough to cause genuine fear. Considering the sheer volume of criticism that horror films endure at the hands of critics, there’s a great deal of care required to create the suspense needed to actually frighten an audience. However, thanks to the practicality of CGI, the temptation for directors within the genre has been to employ action over tension, often with anti-climatic results.

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alien xenomorph

Take recent sci-fi horror/Signs rip-off, Dark Skies, a classic example of how to ruin a film with CGI. Things start strongly, with the usual build-up of bizarre, household occurrences creating some well-orchestrated tension. But then, just as we’re settling down for a shocker, the director decides to show us exactly what’s been causing all this inexplicable activity. The shot that we’re treated to shows the extra-terrestrial assailant in all its digital glory – spindly, jet black and obviously spawned from the labours of a couple of software-wielding whiz kids.

Every appearance of Alien’s Xenomorph carries a great deal of meaning, no matter how unconvincing the costume

When I compare that lacklustre experience to the my very first taste of horror – Ridley Scott’s nerve-shredding Alien – the issues become patently clear. Even though it was quite obviously a man in a suit, the sight of that creature still haunts me to this day. Unlike Dark Skies’ digitally birthed monstrosity, Scott’s alien had a weight and physicality that can only be achieved with the use of actual objects and props. Throughout Alien, every appearance of the Xenomorph carries a great deal more meaning, because no matter how unconvincing the costume, we know it’s actually there.

It was in a similar vein that Fede Alvarez’s recent reboot of Evil Dead managed to achieve both commercial and critical success. The film had come under immediate criticism since its announcement, with fans voicing their concerns over the possible implementation of CGI. The technology was used, but only out of practical necessity. Gone were the blood-spurting garden hose scenes and laughable makeovers; the result was an old-school bloodbath that had a stunning level of polish, a genuine sense of dread and a decent script. In the case of Evil Dead, less was more.

evil dead remake

Horror auteurs have succeeded for decades in constructing tension without having to show their hand at all. Yet, in the face of digital effects, the fear of the unknown is totally obliterated. Considering the sheer simplicity of films like Kill List and In Fear, it’s a wonder that more mainstream horror releases haven’t tried to follow suit. Straightforwardness was always horror’s best tool, from the sequential killings of Friday the 13th, to the restraint of Poltergeist. Horror films worked best when the emphasis was on the execution of the plot rather than the scale of its events.

In the face of digital effects, the fear of the unknown is totally obliterated. Straightforwardness was always horror’s best tool

Those films worked because they sustained an unnerving atmosphere that kept audiences guessing and thinking about what lay ahead. They may not have offered visual spectacle, otherworldly figures or truly ‘unbelievable’ events, but they were a damn sight scarier. More to the point, they stood the test of time. Behind all the remade, rebooted and rehashed films, there is a truly haunting original picture. These behemoths of horror attained glory through a constant suspension of disbelief rather than with some lazily inserted, digital shit-storm.

Read next: Stop the Saw franchise, I want to get off

Featured image: Dimension Films

Inset images: 20th Century Fox; Sony Pictures

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