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F**k Wes Craven. Yeah, I said it—it’s time that genre fans get off their knees and stop weeping for the “great director” he once was. Newsflash: he was never great. Hell, in a career expanding for over three decades, he’s only created two notable hits: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM. Granted, both changed the face of horror as we know it (and I’m about as huge a Freddy fanboy as can be), but in between these two giants? Zilch (otherwise known as DEADLY FRIEND).
What about the famed John Carpenter? While he’s significantly better than Craven, creating both my favorite horror film of all time—THE THING—and the iconic Michael Myers, even I have to accept that there are weak films in the line-up (GHOSTS OF MARS, anyone?), even if, at his worst, he still manages to create tension like no other director.
Let’s hop across the pond and talk about Dario Argento. I don’t care whose heart I break with this statement: the man does not have talent anymore. His heralded films were created over two decades ago, his output becoming increasingly insignificant (JENIFER, are you kidding me?) over the years. Here’s another dose of reality: Very few of his championed films were actually that great. SUSPIRIA a masterpiece? Maybe in terms of cinematography and murder sequences, but as with most of his films, it’s virtually plotless, using a dream-like narrative as a way to dodge cohesive storytelling.
Why are these directors are still considered top dog despite the fact that their best films came out decades ago? At a certain point, nostalgia has to be trumped by consistency, and these directors (particularly Craven) are as about consistent as heart palpitations.
But what about the new wave of horror filmmakers like Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja? When faced with the problem of consistency, they too falter. Roth’s work ranges from splendid (his THANKSGIVING trailer) to abysmal (CABIN FEVER), and while I enjoyed Aja’s remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, his first work, the ubiquitously praised HIGH TENSION, was one of the most boring horror movies I’ve ever seen, filled with pointless violence and an ending that insulted my intelligence.
My issue with this is two-fold. First, there are many other more low-profile horror directors who almost always put out quality work yet are rarely cited. Stuart Gordon has had a recent string of knock-outs (KING OF THE ANTS, EDMOND, STUCK) to match his old classics, Jaume Balagueró is a real up-and-comer (see [REC], [REC] 2, Fango FrightFest’s FRAGILE), and underground director Brad Anderson has made some great, dark films (SESSION 9, THE MACHINIST, TRANSSIBERIAN), yet all of these directors are hardly ever mentioned in the realm of horror greats.
My second issue (question) is why it’s so difficult to keep making good horror, and why we accept the mediocrity of many of these supposed auteurs of the genre. Compare the track records of famed horror directors with generally great ones. Carpenter vs. Scorsese. Now some will say this is an unfair comparison, and to an extent it is a little cheap, but think about it. Carpenter is considered one of the best in the genre, yet his track record is far spottier than Scorsese’s, who has made many great films (though, oddly enough, faltered with his only horror flick). Think Spielberg. Think Kubrick. Think Hitchcock. While no one’s perfect, their classics far outweigh their missteps, but the same cannot be said of “great” genre directors.
I think that’s a problem uniquely inherent to horror—we have no Spielberg, no shining light who can produce hit after hit after hit, and we still call those who continually strike out “masters” of the craft. Would you be considered a master swordsman if you only won two out of every 10 fights? Hell no. Maybe it says something about the difficulty of crafting good horror (I do think it’s quite possibly the toughest genre to make a great film in), but I feel it also plays a role in why we still have not garnered great mainstream acceptance. The greatest mainstream films of our genre have been, for the most part, one-hit wonders. THE SHINING. THE EXORCIST. ALIEN. PSYCHO. Sure, we can create fairly successful franchises, but it doesn’t take long for us to run them into the ground like a falling meteorite.
In fact, I think the best contributor to the horror genre may be the late Rod Serling—even the worst TWILIGHT ZONE episodes are better than 90 percent of all the stories out there, and the breadth of tales he wrote is absolutely astounding. But still, after the TWILIGHT ZONE finished, the man burnt out like so many cigarettes he smoked at the beginning of the show.
Maybe that’s a part of why it’s so difficult for those in the genre to consistently create high quality work—great horror requires such a burst of creative energy and elements that it’s truly hard to replicate. It’s not a problem unique to films or TV either—Mary Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN and then couldn’t top it (though she also died very young). While Poe wrote some classic short stories, many of them deal with the same subjects, and only a few are truly renowned. Stephen King has a massive output, but only a few of his books have been labeled bonafide classics. Can we really expect constant greatness? No, but we can expect things to be consistently good, which few of those involved in horror do.
Horror directors need to step it up and stop resting on their laurels. I don’t care if you were great 30 years ago, have you done anything lately worth watching? If the answer is no, you’re part of the problem of why horror is still the “black sheep” of all the genres, and why, when people tell me they don’t like horror movies, I can understand why. There’s not a single filmmaker I can think of who I could tell them to check out because “nearly all of their work is good.”
But maybe I should cut horror directors some slack—maybe they’re trying their hardest and it’s only every once in a while the fates align to create a macabre masterpiece. Maybe they just get beat down by studios, by finances, by life, by a dearth of good scripts and the crushing pressure of living up to fans. Maybe we can’t expect more than one or two great films from one person. Maybe it’s all excused.
Then again, I sat through CURSED. What the f**k, Craven.
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