Epic horror: The unattainable genre?

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Whether dampened by effects, production woes or the MPAA, realisation of an epic horror movie has so far eluded Hollywood.

War, in reality, is a truly terrifying thing. On the silver screen its horrors can be captured, its drama and impact felt (when taken seriously). The act of war in itself is terror eventified. So how is it, when you incorporate into it the archaic nightmares of our most heinous imaginings, that wars involving ghouls and beasts and all manner of hideous thing beyond our mortal comprehension are unable to shock? Unable to leave us sleepless? Grand mythological tales from all corners of the world contain some of the most despicable acts that could ever be dreamt up, and somehow those evils have remained unproven in the filmic sense. Can the untapped genre of the epic horror ever truly be realised?

The evils of grand mythological tales have remained unproven on film. Can the untapped genre of epic horror ever truly be realised?

This trail of thought derives from Francisco Goya’s Black Painting, Saturn Devouring His Son. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was greatly inspired by another work traditionally attributed to the Spanish painter – The Colossus – but, although no doubt a highly exhilarating action affair, Pacific Rim fell far from capturing the bleak doom portrayed within the famous painting. Goya’s image of a god munching on his own son at birth is even darker than the Colossus painting, and probably the most accurate depiction of the terror those mythologies and fairytales attempted to illicit. Yet, in this day and age, we can’t seem to achieve that same effect on film.

Not that anybody has had the opportunity to take a true stab at it. We’ve seen the monsters come and go, falling effortlessly to the humdrum heroes of Clash of the Titans, Thor and the like. The gods within those features, emblazoned in glossy CGI, their homes sparkling clean in the sky, lack any of the grit needed to terrify and cement a lasting effect on the audience. The sickening portrayal of Cronos in Goya’s twisted painting would put all their combined villainy to shame, if only Hollywood would try. But would it even be possible?

saturn devouring his son

Visual effects have become an ever evolving mainstay of big budget epics, as they try to present terrifying beasties in large scale detail. Understandably, they want to show off their work, but in doing so they disregard the tried and tested method of leaving the antagonist hidden. But how could that technique work with high fantasy? The creatures, their methods, and the locations may be horrifying in theory, but on the big screen it all becomes spectacle.

The creatures, their methods, and the locations may be horrifying in theory, but on the big screen it all becomes spectacle

Even the likes of Prometheus, with its established xeno history and sexualised malevolence, left audiences untrembling. It had its moments of course, but all were short-lived, made open and chastisable by the film’s own vastness. On the other hand, Hellboy, with its plethora of folklorist creatures layered with Nazi occult themes, became a fantasy affair where, although nice to look at, was not as dark and spooky as Frank Miller’s original comic work. Bizarre that even a more grounded effort, choosing special over visual effects, still can’t achieve that sense of dread our own logic dictates possible.

Maybe it’s our disbelief of these mythical beasts in particular that disallows us to be frightened, no matter how realistic they look. We know they aren’t real and if we’re old enough we should know better than to fear them. But the fantasy elements of the epic alone shouldn’t solely be blamed. Even in regards to warfare, our minds have been bludgeoned over time with the ‘coolness’ of realism, to the point where the closer you can get to the real thing (particularly in videogames) and then bend that into an unbelievable action sequence, the more exciting it is perceived to be. Both sides of the coin, real and unreal, are rendered useless. With the horrors scaled up and over-saturated, it becomes even harder to imagine the epic horror being achievable.

cabin-in-the-woods-movie-image

With that said, where a full frontal portrayal may be too much, a reflection of the epic in horror has been proven possible. The Conjuring towards its end gave a sense of grand battle between good and evil. The outcomes of more contained fright films such as these (Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead, most zombie films) weigh heavily on a scale which we don’t see but still get an idea of. Of course we know all too well that R-rated doesn’t sell as well as PG-13 affairs, so would Hollywood even risk taking the horror elements of a high fantasy flick and amplify them accordingly?

R-rated doesn’t sell as well as PG-13 affairs, so would Hollywood even risk taking horror and amplifying accordingly?

Probably not, and in the wake of that we are left to ponder and come to the conclusion that an epic horror film just isn’t possible. Not in its purest sense. Not without breaking away from the epic side of things and plunging us momentarily into claustrophobia for a brief scare or jump. But who knows? Maybe someday a godlike filmmaker will play with film language until they find something that works, and then be given free reign to terrify the audience as those original stories of old had been intended. Or maybe an enemy will be conjured up as terrible as Saturn himself and, no matter how much screen time it’s afforded, we will never grow comfortable watching it. Until then we are stuck with wide angle displays of pretty boys battling shiny monsters as our reactions to a horror epic remain untested.

 

Read more: Forget paranormal horror – bring back slasher films

 

Featured image: Universal

Inset images: Francisco Goya (via Wikimedia Commons); Lionsgate

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