Halloween Post: Blumhouse Productions and the State of Modern Horror

With the Halloween season in tow, I’d like to tell of a spooky encounter I had with the film Insidious 3, the 2nd sequel to the successful 2010 super natural horror flick, and a stark revelation I had while watching it.

It was a cold and windy night. I switched out the lights. I slipped the DVD into my computer and pulled my duvet around me. I watched. The film wasn’t good. It was actually pretty rubbish. However, beneath the veil I sensed a disturbing presence; a hidden message of far more sinister intent lurking within the film, a message that had much to say about the state of horror in pop culture today.

To be honest, I was actually quite a big fan of the first Insidious movie. It had a strong and simple haunted house set-up, some cool Twilight Zone-style twists and a nice visual style. It actually felt like it came from a genuine spark of creativity. With that in mind, let’s talk about this sequel.

Insidious 3 is directed by series regular Leigh Whannel. The film actually has a very strong opening half. However, I felt that all potential was quickly dashed as the film progressed. By the end, I was left cold.

Why did not liking a little movie like this matter so much to me? To try and illustrate why, I’m going to talk about the film’s production company: Blumhouse Productions.

You’ve probably heard of Blumhouse. Every horror film that you’ve seen a poster, advert or trailer for in the past couple of years has probably been released through Blumhouse productions. (I can think of seven right off the top of my head that have all had major releases in this year alone).

Blumhouse got their big break through producing Paranormal Activity. That movie was a big game changer at the time. It brought an end to the torture movies of the 2000s and hailed in a new breed of horror: slick, mainstream scares with indie sensibilities.

Films like The Purge, Insidious, Sinister and The Gift are low to micro-budget films that try their hand at swaying mass audiences. From the success of these movie, this is a strategy that is obviously working. Another notable thing about films by Blumhouse Productions is that they’re all original properties. Blumhouse choose the smart route of making original films that could potentially become the next big franchises rather than rushing out forced remakes.

This can only be a good thing right? After all, what Blumhouse is putting out is much better than all those j – horror remakes or Saw clones that we all got so tired of, right? Why should anyone have such a problem with them? Well, to start, I feel that Blumhouse is actually playing up to cynical game of viewer recognition just like the horror films of the 00’s. It’s just doing it in its own way.

A lot of people tend to think that horror only has two audiences: teenagers looking for a scary date movie or obsessive gore hounds. Plenty of horror films over the years have helped contribute to this image. After all, being scared isn’t a good thing. Why on earth would any normal person pay to experience it?

The thing is, creating fear is a fundamental part of story telling (just as being scared is a fundamental part of life). Why else do you think so many old Disney kids films have scary and traumatic moments in them? Creating horror and fear is definitely not something that should be geared only towards two kinds of audiences. However, as time has gone on, this has seemingly become more and more the case.

A typical list of what might generally considered the most culturally relevant horror movies might look something like this:

“The Shinning”, “Psycho”, “Alien”, “The Thing”, “The Excorcist”, “The Fly”, “Silence of the Lambs”, “28 Days Later”, “Evil Dead”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Innocents”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Night of the Hunter”, “Rosemary’s Baby”

Here are a few of my own personal favourites:

“The Mist”, “Angel Heart”, “Jacobs Ladder”,“Brain Dead”, “A Tale of Two Sisters”, “Phantasm”, “The Cabin in the Woods”, “The Devil’s Backbone”

A regularity I can see in both of these lists is that most of these films come from film-makers who don’t just commit themselves to one genre. In fact, most of them are successfully established in many other genres as well.

A lot of the film-makers putting out movies through Blumhouse (Scott Derekson, Oren Peli, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, James Wan, Leigh Whannel…) as well as other popular horror film makers of today (Marcus Dunston, Patrick Melton, Alexandre Aja, Tom Six…) are almost exclusively resigned to making straight horror films. This isn’t to say that the movies put out by them are necessarily bad. However, I fear that they can only be good within the boundaries set by the studios. As such, they are churned out from exactly the same people to exactly the same audiences as if on a factory assembly line. As I mentioned before, the sensation of fear and the feeling of horror are essential components of story telling and basic facts of life. They deserve to be treated with more seriousness than this.

The earlier mention of James Wan and Leigh Whannel bring me back to talking about Insidious 3 and one other thing I had to say about that particular film…

As I said before, Insidious 3 has a very strong set up, likeable characters and a menacing villain. However, as the film goes on, these elements become less and less of a focus. They are sacrificed in favour of making references to the previous two films. For example, the reveal of the of the villain from the first Insidious movie in the final scene particularly reminded me of a Marvel “stinger” moment. It brought back bad memories of the most recent Saw film and its reveal that Cary Elwes (the first film’s victim) was actually the mastermind behind the subsequent films plots all along (Which makes no goddamn sense whether you’re a fan of that series or not).

This idea of constantly referencing other films in the same series is a trope I despise in modern cinema anyway (can’t a movie these stand on its own two feet rather than being part of some larger and ultimately meaningless whole?) It’s just another example of quality being replaced by recognisability. With Insidious 3, this idea has finally reached the horror genre in the lamest way possible.

Horror, as a genre, should exist as the dark smirk in the corner of pop culture’s smiling face. It should exist to seek out and explore the dark side of ourselves and our society with distance, safety and (sometimes) fun.

Now, not only is it manufactured with such a small demographic in mind but it’s seemingly packaged with the same business mentality that goes behind making Action/Adventure comic book movies. The whole horror genre can now fit under just one roof, one company with the aim of appealing to its audience of tweens and fanatics as well as trying a hand at mainstream audiences. How can you ever get an extreme reaction out of any viewer with a mentality like this? (Oh, now I remember; by just including bucket-loads of jump scares). It is literally the worst of both worlds.

You only have to go to the “Horror” section of Netflix or your local video store to see that almost every film now follows this pattern. Even the ones that aren’t put out through Blumhouse seem to follow that company’s image and business model. (Just look for how many movies begin with the word “Paranormal…”)

Can a modern horror film break free from this mould in a climate where every single horror film advert says “from the producers of Insidious and Sinister…” on it?

What Blumhouse need to understand is that there can be no such thing as a ‘Marvel Studios’ for Horror. Creating fear in a story should never be processed into a softened, packaged product. At the same time, it should be embraced as the essential story telling component as it is. When this basic human sensation is sold to the mainstream as something that would only ever appeal to a small, greedy audience and can be pitched in the same way as a comic book movie, our culture loses something important. It’s then that really scary stuff might begin to take form.

Anyway…

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Don’t eat too many sweets.

Oh, and watch The Halloween Tree (that is, if you haven’t already been watching it every October 31st for the last 15 years like me)…

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