Safety in Formula: Franchise Horror and “Torture Porn”

I consider myself a fairly avid horror fan. Ever since watching “Shaun of the Dead” in high school, I’ve slowly learned to enjoy the genre more and more. I love movies from every subgenre, from slashers to zombies (my personal favorite) to good old-fashioned ghost stories. I love ‘em all.

But one thing that’s always baffled me is franchise movies, particularly those of the “torture porn” variety. I was inspired to start doing some research after noticing the release of “Saw VI” a couple of weeks ago. I remember pretty vividly seeing “Saw II” and the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” in high school, and realizing (with some relief) that, in fact, I did have a standard when it came to horror. I don’t stand for mindless stuff. If something horrific is going to happen to someone, as a viewer (and, I think, as a human being) I need to have some kind of justification for it. Otherwise, it just isn’t worth my time. I need a moral dilemma, a killer with a background, something other than random acts of violence that don’t send a message.

From my perspective, it seems like franchise horror movies are the epitome of what I consider “the wrong kind” of horror movie. The original films, the ones that start off the franchise, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Halloween,” even the original “Saw,” have some kind of message or some creative spark that stokes the interest of audiences enough to keep them coming. But whatever the original movies had going for them, it gets lost with every subsequent sequel or remake.

I wanted to get a professional opinion on this, so I turned to Eric Melin, who runs the movie review site Scene-Stealers.com. He told me the popularity of franchises comes from, in the case of Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers, a cult of personality and audiences who want to be scared, but don’t want to have to think about it too much.

“I worked in a video store for a while, and I used to see this every Halloween, when people would come in, because they’re so desperate for scary movies, and they want a new scary movie, so they go straight to the franchises,” Melin told me. “It’s just easier for people to say ‘This weekend we’re going to watch all the Children of the Corns.’ Why not watch something else?”

Why not watch something else, indeed? Why would people willingly choose a formulaic, predictable, meaningless horror movie when there are so many other great ones out there? Why watch “Freddy Vs. Jason” when you can see “The Orphanage?” According to Mark Kermode, a movie critic for BBC Radio 5, it’s precisely because of the formula that franchises are so popular.

In an essay he wrote for the Independent, called “Horror Will Eat Itself,” Kermode writes that familiar elements are exactly what many people like about horror movies. He uses Wes Craven’s “Scream” movies as an example, noting that the director’s simultaneous celebration and skewering of horror tropes were what made that particular franchise so popular.

Taking these opinions into consideration, what I’ve come to decide is this: familiarity is popular in horror, as in many other genres, but it’s popular for a unique reason, which is fear of the unknown. Consider the way you feel going into a horror movie you know nothing about: the uneasiness, the idea that you don’t know what to expect. All you know is that it’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Say the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie really scared you. Then, a while later, the second one comes out. You decide you want to go to a scary movie, and that’s the one you pick because now you know what to expect. Most of the uneasiness that you had with the original movie is now gone. You know how the killer operates, how and why he chooses his victims. Thanks to that formula, you can satisfy that bloodlust without having to be bothered by it.

Without the unpredictability, the only factor franchise horror movies have left to impress their audiences is what Melin refers to as “the creativity of the kill,” which is where torture porn comes in. With that, the movie loses its soul.

“I’ve had a lot of horror enthusiasts tell me that I can’t review horror movies the way I review another movie, in other words, I can’t apply the same criteria of wanting well-developed characters and story and stuff like that,” Melin said. “And to a certain extent, I kind of agree with that…But when there’s movies out there like Drag Me to Hell, and Slither and Frailty that do everything so well and also manage to be campy and fun at the same time, I think that I’m not really going to want to forgive a movie like the Hills Have Eyes remakes…I’m just not interested in what they’re doing, because they’re not doing anything interesting.”

Horror isn’t an easy genre to love. Fans probably get disappointments and cookie-cutter studio releases more often than legitimately good, creative movies. And it takes a certain kind of psychological toughness to go for the unfamiliar stuff over the movies you already know. But, in my mind, it’s worth it. “Jason Goes to Hell” might be fun, but “Shallow Grave” has meaning and thrills. That, to me, is more valuable than any number of Leatherfaces, Freddy Kruegers or Jigsaws.

Related Link:

Mark Kermode’s essay, “Horror Will Eat Itself”

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