How Modern Horror Is Breaking the Rules of the 1980s

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Teresa Palmer in Lights Out. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

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The blessing and burden of being a horror filmmaker is that mainstream audiences don’t expect much of you. Studios treat scary movies as a low-cost, low-risk investment, and many moviegoers consider them worthwhile so long as they're not terrible. On the occasions where a horror film achieves greatness, it's quickly followed by a swirl of subpar entries that repeat its same formula. For better or worse, many of the expectations for what horror movies should be are a legacy of the genre’s last boom time — the slasher explosion of the 1980s. It was an era when masked super-killers reigned supreme and sin-addled dead teenagers piled up like old newspapers, and it established a strong foothold in the popular consciousness that horror films of the present day must still reckon with. But today, an independent horror insurgency is pushing the limits of horror narratives, and upending expectations of what makes a scary movie great.

Scary movies of the 1980s imparted two very important elements onto horror cinema. The first is the widely accepted notion that horror is a high-volume, low-quality business. (They don't call it "cheap thrills" for nothing.) The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street — classics all, but movies whose structures lent themselves to easy imitation. Studios latched onto this low-hanging fruit and saturated the market, producing upward of 80 slasher films in the 1980s alone. This same process has continued into the current day with the work of the Blumhouse horror factory, home to the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Purge franchises, among others.

The second great influence from the 1980s is the idea of the rules, memorably laid out in Wes Craven’s Scream: If you want to survive a scary movie, don’t say you’ll be right back. Don’t drink, and don’t have sex. If there’s a sequel, the body count is always higher. And never forget: The killer always comes back for one final scare. The rules gave us invincible killers, final girls, and easily digestible avatars of good and evil — but too much of a focus on them can overshadow great horror's capacity for narrative complexity and emotional impact.

Fortunately, contemporary horror is working to break from this algorithm-driven era of film production. Here are some of the biggest and most exciting ways today's fright flicks are departing from the 1980s template.

Empathy for the Wicked
There’s no denying the brutal simplicity of the slasher film: The killer is evil and indestructible. The pure will survive. The wicked will be punished. But when the rash of horror remakes and reboots started surfacing in the mid-2000s, many put a new emphasis on the origin stories of murder machines like Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Meyers. Rob Zombie’s Halloween created a mythology around the dirty details of Michael Myers's messed up childhood. Texas Chainsaw 3D showed Leatherface as the troubled son of an infinitely more troubled family, with a Final Girl that ended up as his new caretaker. The 2009's Friday the 13th had a sentimental Jason keeping a prisoner that reminded him of his mother, and 2010's Nightmare on Elm Street plumbed Freddy Krueger's origins to give him context. Even Jigsaw, the killer at the center of the Saw universe was revealed as a cancer patient trying to convince people to live life to the fullest — a murderous Tony Robbins. Any empathy for these villains often only lasts until their next kill, but still, even attempting to give them an emotional context is a break from how they were introduced.

The Evolution of the Final Girl
Killers aren’t the only horror figures getting more character development. The rules of the Reagan years condemned to death those who partook in sex and drugs, and the genre's famous Final Girls were simultaneously saved and fenced-in by their virtue. But in recent years, the horror heroine has evolved, as the genre embraces female characters who would have gone down in the second act during the slasher heyday.

In his 2013 Evil Dead remake, Fede Alvarez switched the franchise's focus from Bruce Campbell's Ash to a recovering heroin addict played by Jane Levy. Alvarez then brought Levy back to play play a burglar out to rob a blind man in the recent Don’t Breathe. Movies as diverse as Neon Demon, 31, Raw, The Eyes of My Mother, The Witch, Under the Skin, and both versions of Let the Right One In followed heroines who had more in common with villains then heroes, prompting viewers to empathize with witches, murderers, cannibals, and criminals. These women were powered by their past transgressions, not hindered by them. Having fully developed female characters paves the way for meaty central narratives, too, as recent movies like Lights Out, The Monster, and Under the Shadow use the core relationship between mothers and their children to deepen the emotional attachment to the central characters.

The Rise of Meta-Horror
After ten relentless years of low-brow slasher films, the genre sat dormant until Scream, which influenced a new wave of postmodernist horror. Movies like Cabin in the Woods, The Final Girls, Behind the Mask, and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil deconstructed the clichéd mechanics of slasher films, and were often better and smarter than their source material. The micro-genre reached a high point with last year's It Follows, which wore its influences so blatantly on its sleeve that it served as both an homage and a critique of the walk-and-stalk sin-hunter movies of the 1980s.

The Benefits of Globalization
Even as the American market has produced many strong films, international entries have often overtaken them in innovation, pushing the form in innovative ways. Britain's Under the Skin dipped in psychological horror, introducing an impressive female antihero. Australia's The Babadook blended folk tales and creepy-kid horror to make one of the best haunted house films in recent memory. Two of the best creature-features of the new millennium have come from Norway (Trollhunter) and South Korea (The Host). The new French Extreme trend — exemplified by Martyrs, Inside, and High Tension — turned the violence of the torture era into high art. And a pair of international films have spun terrific coming-of-age tales out of horror tropes, with the U.K.'s The Girl With All the Gifts doing for zombies what France's Raw did for cannibals. Thanks to the internet, consumers now have access to a global market of horror films to choose from, keeping any one kind of horror — slasher or otherwise — from establishing a hegemonic hold on the genre once more.