To weave a tale...
A quick note before we begin: I’ve linked to several videos in this essay that are very graphic in nature, so please keep that in mind while clicking. Happy reading!
There is a claim out there that technology, at its core, is neutral. It is described, these folks allege, as a tool at its base, a resource for the human race – whatever meaning and uses we attach to technology is borne of our own biases, deficiencies and desires. It does not advocate for one stance over another when it comes to a multitude of moral questions.
For the last century, technological advances have allowed filmmakers to tell stories in increasingly complex and visually arresting ways - but is it really worth it? Are these advances simply smoke and mirrors meant to dazzle an audience, or do they truly enhance a filmmaker’s ability to actualize their story without sacrificing.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the horror genre. The culture that has been created and that surrounds this type of film is amongst the more diehard in all of the realm of motion picture fandom. For decades, people have lived to be titillated, frightened and excited. There exists many figureheads who have found success in different subgenres – auteurs from around the world have managed to sustain long-running careers out of the dark, the lurid, the scary. And they’ve often employed cinematic tricks to be more effective in their storytelling.
Let’s go down the horror rabbit hole and explore both how technology detracts from the horror genre, and how it also aids the genre.
The monster lives
There is something palpable about effects created in the same space where the action takes place. True, some effects are shot apart from when principal photography is undertaken, but there is something about these bits of a movie existing in a real, physical, shared world that makes immersion a lot more easy, in some ways.
No matter how much we perfect post-production effects, I feel as though there is still an inauthentic feeling when you view the latest instalment of a Halloween blockbuster, like when a computer-created ghost suddenly whisks itself into a series of frames, evoking a classic jump scare in the viewer.
I understand that there are financial limitations for some productions who decide to enter the realm of the horror film, and for a long time this has kept some at bay and made others turn towards digital effects houses. Now, this may be the snobbiest thing I’ll say during this entire essay: practical effects rule, and they are second-to-none when it comes to the horror genre. They create a purer movie viewing experience for a number of reasons.
Take the practical effects of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing - the way that the parasitic spider being/head crab exists in that remote outpost, sharing space with the actors in scenes, and inserts shot on-location. There’s a real tension to the way in which the action and tension is portrayed.
Picture one of A Nightmare On Elm Street’s iconic kills - Johnny Depp’s Glen getting sucked into a bed, and then the bed becoming a virtual blood geyser as it spits him back out. An ungodly amount of fake blood, gushing out. The lurid reds of Glen’s blood bulging out, imprinted on the film in which it was shot on, has a certain cohesive feeling to the entire experience. These practical effects, of course, are artificial but they exist, and are concrete. You can touch the materials used to create these effects. They were put together by hand, in a shared physical space, most likely an effects warehouse or workshop.
Let’s take a more extreme example: Peter Jackson’s 1992 horror/comedy hybrid Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) features a scene where Timothy Balme’s Lionel enters a home with a lawnmower, cutting down hordes of undead beings as blood and chopped limbs go flying around. These practical effects are all done in-camera, congruent with the narrative being told. Everything’s being left in the frame - we aren’t altering its composition or trying to include something that hadn’t existed outside of the context of what the camera captures.
These effects, which admittedly can sometimes be imperfect in creation and execution, bring their own flavour. Think of every kill Michael Myers undertakes in the Halloween franchise’s first few films (barring, of course, Halloween III and its gruesome maggot-filled ending) - they all happen right in front of us, as someone stood there filming these sequences. They soak up the same energy and benefit from existing in a physical reality.
Legends in the field of special effects like Tom Savini and his protege Greg Nicotero have been able to translate words on a piece of paper into spectacles that still delight, fright and haunt us to this day.
Visual effects created in a digital landscape add a layer of artificiality to film. Beyond fictional narratives being acted out by people hired to take on roles, we now introduce more artificiality to the proceedings, further removing the conceit of cinema as real. And in the horror genre, being able to pass off the narrative as “real” is essential in most cases - it creates a version of reality where the events that take place could be construed as real and have to lull the viewer into buying into the film in order for the jump scares and frightening moments to be effective.
Sidenote: There also exists a cottage industry of “so bad it’s good” films that, in their own strange little way, celebrate the conceit of cinema and exist (sometimes on purpose, but mostly by naivete) to excite audiences, who have mythologized certain terrible films (such as Troll II or Birdemic) in a knowing, “wink wink” way that real gorehounds trade when they get together either online or in a shared physical space, such as one of these special screenings. The fact that “revered” (to use the term broadly) 1960s stinker Manos: Hands of Fate got a great Blu-ray restoration put out by Synapse Films should be a testament to horror fans at least having a sense of humour about themselves.
Yes, yes, of course – most movies are now shot on digital mediums and therefore some of what I’ve said before is now negated for reasons of practicality, but I still contend that in-camera practical effects enrich the filmic experience and offer greater immersion to the viewer.
The modern viewer: a minefield of adverse issues to overcome
Technology has also robbed us of the ability to be genuinely surprised. We are smack in the middle of spoiler culture, and the notion of filmic myth is shattered due to our constant connectivity.
In the early 1980s, Ruggero Deodato's gory Italian faux-documentary Cannibal Holocaust was a circus unto itself - Deodato made his cast sign agreements to not publicly appear in any public productions for a year after the release of the film. While this plan backfired and Deodato was forced to produce his actors in court when charges were levelled against him, his intent was nothing short of old-school theatrical. The myth of these dead characters seemed plausible because of the fact that it took more effort to locate and identify the film’s players due to the modes of communication of the time.
A subgenre also entered the limelight in North America during this time period that blurred the lines in-between real and fake - the Faces of Death-style films created in the spirit of the mondo film.
Mondo, or “world” in Italian, is a type of exploitation film that sensationalized the ways in which different subsets of people in the world lived to create shock, horror and awe in the Western viewer. First popularized in Italy in the early 1960s (the most famous example, perhaps, is Mondo Cane), these faux documentary films purported to show how life really happened out in “the wild”. It is a deeply problematic (read: racist) subgenre of film that was effective in certain ways because viewers had no way to independently verify the claims made in the films lest they themselves decided to travel to (for example) South America or Africa to ascertain the validity of these assertions.
Faces of Death largely put aside the globetrotting aspects of the original Italian mondo film and instead focused on blending reels of graphic news footage that the filmmakers procured through a number of means and obviously cheap-looking fake scenes involving cults (a buzzword that could easily set the public off when used in the ‘80s) in an effort to pad running time, all with a framing narrative delivered with lurid delivery by an actor purported to be a medical professional, delivering laughably over-the-top narration to sell the value of these clips. Through a law of diminishing returns, the series was watered down as budgets dwindled and interest dropped off as the the 1980s ended, putting the notion of fake-as-real films to rest in popular culture.
Over the following decades, however, these modes were transformed in such a way that it made it much easier for people to connect, with both good and bad repercussions.
Jump forward to the middle of 1999 - a summer soundtracked by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas' “Smooth” - we have a pair of movies that contained twists and spoilers meant to throw audiences.
The first, The Sixth Sense, about a boy who sees dead people, is a tale about mortality and its twist during the film’s third act revolves around the fact that the man who guides him on his journey is a ghost himself. This was, of course, a narrative slight that was so effective because of the fact that the story was carefully crafted to shield the viewer from this fact until it was used to great effect, in the same vein as Keyser Söze’s reveal.
The ways in which this film could be spoiled were largely through word-of-mouth interactions propagated by asshole friends, coworkers and acquaintances who proto-edgelorded in a way to anger those around them. The commercial web, still in its 1.0 infancy, did offer up similar spoilers and a breakdown of plot threads, but since web culture wasn’t as prevalent, it was largely these physical interactions that served as a pretext for spoilers.
The second, the Blair Witch Project, was arguably what began the modern found footage horror movie phenomenon. Although films like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer flirted with the inclusion of home video-grade footage as part of its narrative, the basis of its storytelling approach was not to in “reconstructing” reality and passing itself off as real - Henry was a film, through and through, with its non-diegetic music and linear camera movement.
The Blair Witch Project was perhaps the first modern horror movie to try and present its contents as "real" through consumer-grade equipment. While Henry and the other films strove to try and present themselves largely as pieces of fiction despite their budgetary shortcomings, this was really a film trying to disguise itself as a sort of "truth on video and film".
A largely improvised film with a remarkable ending, the creators of the film also used the internet, just entering a period of unparalleled accessibility in North America, to create a website filled with content related to the film to try and call into question what to believe in when it came to the film’s lore.
Modern audiences don't have the luxury of organic discovery when it comes to pop culture.
Now, within hours of any Hollywood premiere, we can scan a film's Wikipedia entry for all of the relevant plot points. The magic of mystery is robbed. When The Force Awakens came out in December 2015, there were choppy stills of Han Solo's death splattered across large corners of the internet within hours of the film's wide release.
Trolls would insert this info into non-Star Wars-related discussions across message boards and social networks. A campaign was seemingly waged to spoil the entire thing. The only way to properly avoid anything would be a cold turkey approach to the internet: cut it off, or else.
Technology has inserted itself firmly in-between viewer and viewing experience, a buffer that distracts and creates chaos in the relationship in-between film and film buff.
Sometimes, though, technology has the ability to empower people who may otherwise not have the financial means to create the sort of film they wished to create, with a look and feel that can be measured to any studio offering.
This is how we do it
Technology, of course, can also be used effectively to convey a story for a fraction of the price it would have cost even 20 years ago.
Cheaper video equipment appearing on retail store shelves opened up an avenue for filmmakers (who, in some cases, we can refer to as auteurs because their brand of film would certainly be referenced as… unique, to put it mildly) to shoot their pieces on affordable, readily-available consumer-grade video, starting in earnest in the 1980s. Films like Germany’s bluntly-named Violent Shit, Woodchipper Massacre (I’m unsure if you can really call it a massacre if only two people are murdered, but I digress), Video Violence (and its sequel), Canada’s Things, and more all felt like winking nods to the horror genre, but these never strove to be considered authentic - and by authentic I mean that their narrative is anything but an artificial construct.
I will note an affinity for a lot of these entries, especially something as outrageously (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) entertaining like the Todd Sheets-helmed Zombie Bloodbath trilogy. The first film, in particular, is fun to watch – pay attention to the mulleted fellow who appears throughout the film (and turns undead during the film’s runtime) and how he makes his way into several scenes, as geographically-impossible as it may seem.
Although critics first labelled 2005’s Hostel with the term torture porn, the truth is that much more convincing films had been in existence for almost 20 years at that point, utilizing consumer-grade video equipment to drive home the point of realism. Case in point: the Guinea Pig film series, from Japan.
The first entry, The Devil’s Experiment, captures unknown assailants kidnapping a woman and conducting tests on her to test the human threshold of pain – the entire film lasts about 45 minutes but watching it feels much longer, probably due to the harrowing nature of the activities presented. Unflinching and presented, this is probably one of the finest examples of the effective use of consumer-grade video equipment.
The second entry (Flowers of Flesh and Blood), involving a man in a samurai getup kidnapping and dismembering a woman, is also shockingly effective. This is technology harnessed for maximum shock value, and it largely works… So much so that the lore surrounding the film has grown, mostly due to the much-told tale of Charlie Sheen viewing Flowers of Flesh and Blood and believing it to be real, contacted the FBI. They then opened an investigation but quickly dropped it when the filmmakers provided the bureau with extensive making of footage documenting every nasty trick undertaken.
I’d be remiss not to mention the last two entries in the series (Android of Notre-Dame and Mermaid in a Manhole) are a definitive shift in tone for Guinea Pig. Gone is faux-real feel of the first few films – in its place is a strange and, dare I say it almost kitschy quality to the tales that seem like a ray of absolute sunshine when put up against the start of the series, and the first two entries in particular.
Advances in technology have democratised the ability to crank out a piece of budget-minded video nastiness. Gone were the days where you had to oversee a budget largely governed by how many feet of film you could shoot and develop.
Filmmakers of the current generation can cheaply buy high-definition grade cameras and lenses, and storage mediums are cheap and plentiful. You can easily dump your footage onto a portable hard drive after a day of shooting and begin to edit on a digital editing suite pretty much right away. It’s no coincidence that the found footage subgenre of the horror film has exploded in popularity over the last two decades thanks to these advances.
The most obvious example of the modern found footage trend is the original Paranormal Activity film. In a post-The Blair Witch Project world, this was the first franchise to spring up and weaponize the trope to great financial returns. Released in 2007, the film was shot on an estimated budget of about 15,000 dollars and went on to gross over 193 million dollars worldwide, making it, ratio-wise, the most successful film released by a major Hollywood studio. But the studio system isn’t the only one to take advantage of the perks of digital-only filmmaking.
Take, for example, the indie studio produced trilogy of V/H/S anthologies - gruesome stories that are told largely through a variety of media by genre directors of some renown like Ti West, Gareth Evans and Adam Wingard. (Aside: the second entry in particular is worth at least one viewing and both Angelo and I give it our patented Double Density seal of quality.) There’s a zombie tale as told by a mountain biker wearing a GoPro. A documentary crew witnessing what may be the end of the world. A tale of a hostile alien threat as told through video chat. These stories take advantage of the limitations of the technology in their employ in order to more effectively tell the tales.
Now, I have to take a second here and mention that although the found footage subgenre is one that has taken prominence, more traditional forms of filmmaking have also utilized newer forms of technology to further their storytelling.
One of my favourite films of the past few years is the 2012 zombie film The Battery. Shot on a purported budget of 6,000 dollars, the crew spent most of their money on catering and equipment rental, allowing them to borrow lenses that gave their film a gorgeous feel.
I have to underline the idea that I’m making a differentiation here - when I say that technology has aided filmmakers, I mean the tools at a filmmaker’s disposal have made life easier (ostensibly, and tongue-in-cheek, the means of production). Camera equipment, digital editing suites, and media storage options are readily available from retailers. These are all ways in which cheaper costs and a substantial rise in equipment quality make for an easier barrier of entry. I’m still stanning for in-camera action, with as little post-production meddling as possible – I’m advocating for the usage of physical space to execute what’s required for a film’s story.
It’d be naive of me to say that this lowering of the barrier has only had beneficial impacts on the film industry. There is a also a lot of run-of-the-mill fare out there now vying for attention. A quick glance at several platforms on smart TV apps, for example, display a very crowded field from which to choose from. I’ve watched a few myself and a lot of these movies commit the cardinal sin of being competently-told stories that run through the regular tropes - in short, boring, formulaic by-the-numbers affairs. Neither horrendously awful (entering into amusing territory), but certainly landing on any critics’ year-end lists.
Another upside to technological advances in general is that media literacy has also played a large part in how viewers now approach film viewing. The use of technology as a tool for fact verification . Take, for example, the mondo films I’d mentioned earlier. They wouldn’t as easily pass muster now given the exposure viewers have had about how the world operates, and beyond that, they can also easily demystify the claims made in the film through a simple search engine search. This makes for more well-informed viewers, and forces filmmakers to become more and more creative with how they want to present a story, understanding that the tricks of yesteryear don’t hold much weight with viewers’ expectations.
Pulling the curtain back
From the days of silent fare like F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the monster pictures of the 1950s, to the gore-soaked 1970s and ‘80s, up until now, the horror genre runs the gamut of interesting tales bolstered by ever-emerging ways in which to bring them to life.
Technology has made it easier for those who want to to enter the arena to do so, although this has also created a level of market saturation that makes it harder to find quality content. These advances have also made the creation of special effects more affordable, much to the detriment of some of us who agree that tactile special effects are superior. Technology has also made it harder to avoid learning almost everything about a film before its release - a loss of mysticism that the genre can benefit from.
How we view these films, and the knowledge we possess about how to consume media, is becoming more and more sophisticated and filmmakers are continually trying to figure out how to keep this in mind as they create new entries into the horror cannon.