What happens when we lose a Wes Craven? Who will take the place of a Sam Raimi or a Dario Argento? Is there a talent bank of horror maestros waiting around somewhere, their penchant for terror untapped and underutilized? It’s an intriguing question, especially for those of us who worship at the vault of evil’s baroque doors. As we move into the next decade of the new millennium, it looks like there are less and less genius genre filmmakers around. Go back 30 years and you can argue over the impressive oeuvre of creepshow kingpins like George Romero, John Carpenter, and Lucio Fulci. Fast forward to 2010 and…the void is frightening - more frightening than some of the macabre titles coming out of the sloppy cinematic machine known as Hollywood.
Granted, we have lost some of the mavericks through categorical attrition. While one assumes he would go back tomorrow and deliver another devastating operatic bio-dread masterpiece as he did with The Fly, David Cronenberg has found much more success (and consistent work) as a manufacturer of more mainstream fare. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s love of all things splatter got sidetracked with a stint in Middle Earth - and with his return there more than likely, we won’t be seeing his gore-laden laughfests anytime soon. Indeed, it seems that many of the new experts of eerie are walking a fine line between their roots and career reality. Many want to champion the films they loved as fans. The problem is, finding an available outlet for such shivers.
Take Guillermo Del Toro, for example. There is no bigger horror geek in all of cinema. This is a man who can name check obscure foreign classic, standard ‘50s schlock, and a library of links to seminal ‘70s series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the ABC Movie of the Week. Yet he’s best known for combining fear with the fanciful, using his adaptations of the comic book character Hellboy and his allegorical war stories (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) to explore as much of the dark half as professionally possible. Only first films Cronos and Mimic argue for what he can do playing the straight up scare game. Hopefully, the James Cameron produced, HP Lovecraft inspired At the Mountains of Madness will bring him back to the fright fold for a while.
Or what about Alexandre Aja? Listen to the commentary track on any one of his films and you’ll hear an acknowledged horror nerd. Along with pal and collaborator Grégory Levasseur, he has parlayed his preference for old school shock into expert horror homages like High Tension and interesting combo creations like Mirrors. Oddly enough, he seems to have been lured away from the meaningful and directly into the commercial, tackling the interesting remake of The Hills Have Eyes and the oddball gross out gratuity of Piranha 3D. Unfortunately, is looks like he will abandon horror all together for his next project - an adaptation of the manga Space Adventure Cobra.
Perhaps the best example of someone still slumming outside the realm they really excel in is Marcus Nispel. After almost a decade making music videos for artist such as C&C Music Factory, Janet Jackson, No Doubt, and Mariah Carey, the German-born director got a chance to move into film thanks to Michael Bay and his classic redux factory Platinum Dunes. Looking for someone to take the reins of their proposed Texas Chainsaw Massacre update, newcomer Nispel got the nod. While many in Messageboard Nation went hysterical over the prospect of some flashy MTV-inspired hack reinterpreting their favorite power tool project, Nispel actually delivered one of the best horror remakes ever. He did the same for his far more serious (and nasty) reinvention of Friday the 13th.
So where is he now? Where is the man who, arguably, should have helmed the Nightmare on Elm Street makeover and be first on the list for the proposed Hellraiser reboot? Why, he’s tackling the character Conan the Barbarian, what he call his “dream job.” Indeed, this is the sad thing about today’s potential horror mavens. Apparently, they aren’t really 100% interested in forwarding the art of fear. Some, like Nispel and Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) use the genre as a stepping stone to “bigger and better” things. Others, like Del Toro and Aja, seem hemmed in by an industry that has the scary movie pegged as a teen scream single weekend dice roll. Should the gamble pay off, they will plow the field for more frights. Should it underperform…well, there’s always the RomCom and the animated/family film category to further destabilize.
Eli Roth creates Cabin Fever and the post-modern masterwork Hostel and he’s tagged as a terrifying torture porn expert. Of course, now it doesn’t really matter as he’s too busy paling around with Quentin Tarantino to take his possible maestro position seriously. Rob Zombie would kill to be the next Bava or Deodato and yet he is so locked into his rock and roll revisionist mindset that his most successful film - the disturbing Devil’s Rejects - is more brilliant ‘70s drive-in exploitation recreation than actual all out nightmare. Sure, James Wan and Darren Lynn Bousman parlayed their time creating and catering to the Saw films to forward their individual agendas, but how many in the macabre fanbase were eager to see their follow-ups (Dead Silence and Repo: The Genetic Opera, respectively).
With names like Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet, and Hatchet II), Jaume Balagueró (REC, REC2, and the little seen Fragile), and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) percolating beneath the surface and a string of proposed projects all waiting for holiday-oriented release dates - or worse, 3D conversion - horror is not going away any time soon. Oh course, this still doesn’t answer the bigger question - why? Why are there no real maestros left…or at the very least, stepping up to be noticed? The answer, of course, is technology. Today, any genre lover with a camcorder and a gallon or two of red-tinted Kayro syrup can call themselves a scary movie director. As long as they can rape the legacy of the zombie, vampire, serial killer, or ghost and get some of their buddies to play the part, they can throw together a terror turd and fling it at the direct to DVD audience like an angry chimp in a monkey house.
Even worse, very few of these filmmakers want a legitimate career making fright films for the masses. They are almost all using the genre as a quick fix calling card, a resume builder toward the previously alluded to “bigger and better” things. Four decades ago, horror was considered a good way in as well - but it was also supported for its own inherent value. Today, thanks to a glut of garbage in the marketplace and a revolving door interchangeability in the perception of what makes a professional, few are opting for a life of terror. Sure, maybe one or two films, but there is this dream graphic novel adaptation /biopic they’ve always been interested in pursuing…
Obviously, the lack of new horror maestros stems from a cruel combination of categorical overkill, limited screen space, rollercoaster market placement, and an exhausting of the genre itself. If every new scarefest was The Exorcist in both effectiveness and critical acclaim, there would be artists lining up to recreate its classicism. But where are the names who want to make horror their sole business? Of course, the clever could argue that all of the past masters also abandoned the category (Music of the Heart, Knightriders, For the Love of the Game, Starman...just to name a few) to test their talents and comfort zone. But they always seemed to gravitate back to the genre that made them legend. Perhaps it’s too soon in the career arc to write off some of these wannabes as less than meaningful maestros. As we wait, however, the void continues to grow…and grow…