With modern horror now so pale and scare-free, are dark thrillers like Prisoners and Side Effects providing cinematic thrill-seekers their kicks?
The Borderlands has finally found its way into UK cinemas (albeit on a very limited release) and has managed to garner some impressive reviews, given that it’s a found footage supernatural horror film. From what the critics are saying, The Borderlands is at least genuinely terrifying – a quality that has been lacking in mainstream horror films for some time. So it’s perhaps fitting that The Borderlands is anything but a mainstream horror release.
With mainstream horror films growing increasingly tame, it seems that audiences are turning to thrillers for their fix of fear
Popular thrillers like Prisoners, Captain Phillips, Side Effects and Frozen Ground have of late been delivering the high levels of tension, dread and shock usually reserved for the horror genre. With mainstream horror films growing increasingly tame and predictable in the past couple of years, it seems that audiences are turning to thrillers for their fix of fear. However, it’s not as if the horror genre is beyond repair, as some of the more independent releases in recent years have been as harrowing and original as the genre’s best.
But for whatever reason, those independent horror efforts have failed to penetrate the multiplex arena. So for the past couple of years horror fanatics have had to make do with films like Evil Dead and The Conjuring, two measly movies that are sadly the best of a rotten lot as far as mainstream horror is concerned. Given the choice of another Paranormal Activity film or a by-the-numbers gorno, is it any wonder that thrillers are growing increasingly popular among fans and critics?
Take last year’s Prisoners, a taut and sometimes disturbing thriller that performed outstandingly well at the box office. Denis Villeneuve crafted a superbly dark film, fuelled by a concoction of dread and anxiety right through to its conclusion. Prisoners doesn’t take the gory approach to its subject matter, but it offers as much shock and tension as audiences might expect from an above-average horror film. In many ways, Prisoners plays out like Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, a film that is often mistakenly identified as a horror classic.
Thrillers are becoming better vehicles for white-knuckle thrills than their crimson-soaked counterparts
Prisoners is actually a damn sight more terrifying than what’s commonly being passed off as horror these days. Compare it to films like The Purge, Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Devil Inside and it’s not hard to see why audiences are so apathetic towards a genre that has become overly reliant on jump scares and repetitive plot devices. Unlike the new wave of thrillers, horror films are becoming increasingly overcomplicated every year, with heavy-handed CGI and an increased emphasis on supernatural elements contributing to mainstream horror’s descent into mediocrity.
By their very nature, thrillers utilise slow-burn tactics to build up to dizzying levels of tension. Generally speaking, the genre avoids shock pay-offs. Ultimately, thrillers and horrors possess very different qualities, even if their endgame goals are identical. Yet as mainstream horror films continue to offer up more gore, more mutilation and more gimmicky plot devices, thrillers have remained relatively simple and focused, and as a result, they’re becoming better vehicles for white-knuckle thrills than their crimson-soaked counterparts.
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Captain Phillips was little more than a well-executed, dramatic thriller – yet it was a 12A that would have your heart pounding faster than could be considered healthy. Films like this are showing time and time again that monsters and gore don’t intrinsically elicit fear. If mainstream horror stands any chance of survival, then its directors need to draw inspiration from the independent horror films that are still managing to deliver nerve-shredding cinema to their audiences. Ideally, the multiplexes would be showing films like In Fear instead of Texas Chainsaw 3D, promoting original concepts and torturous cinematography over cheap thrills and overused franchise figures.
Many films easily blur the boundaries between horror and thriller. In reality both genres are serving largely the same crowds
While audiences might be able to observe tension and suspense in today’s thrillers, they won’t find the same visceral shocks that unify the horror genre’s finest. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Prisoners was that despite its dark themes and disturbing tale, it consistently lost its nerve when it came to actually exploring any of those concepts. Prisoners had a complex narrative that touched upon motifs of systematic abuse, kidnap, molestation and murder, ideas that begged for some kind of harrowing visual representation if they were to truly trouble the viewer. It was a film that managed to make its audience sit up, but that didn’t dare to twist the knife.
Of course, genre is a fluid concept, and many films can easily blur the boundaries between horror and thriller. Last year’s Stoker, for example, was an unnerving experience throughout, drawing upon supernatural elements to construct a sense of isolation and mystery in every scene. But it was neither horror nor thriller. The distinction between the two is hotly contested among fans and critics alike, while in reality both genres are serving largely the same crowds.
Certainly thrillers tend to focus more on suspense than shock, and they rarely possess the same levels of violence that one might expect from a typical horror film; but these aren’t concrete foundations of either genre. Mainstream horror is failing across the board, while the more approachable thrillers that horror movies are up against are getting darker and more expertly crafted every year. It’s still a step too far to suggest that thrillers are about take the place of horror films entirely, even if they are satisfying the nervy excitement that fans of both genres have come to expect from such films.
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Featured image: Warner Bros
Inset images: Warner Bros; Columbia