The Last Exorcism, Independent Horror, and You
It’s been more than 11 years since The Blair Witch Project brought a new kind of independent horror film to a new generation of viewers. I remember the hype that surrounded that film and I strongly remember that I, a much younger horror fan at the time, lapped it up like a plate of nachos. I also have memories of the film ending, the theater lights coming on, and being able to hear plenty of people around me saying something like “Wow, that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen!”
This weekend, I sat and watched The Last Exorcism – the latest do-it-yourself horror film to rise from humble beginnings and to be showcased on multiplex screens – and again found myself feeling the same kind of excitement that arose from Blair Witch. I’ve already reviewed the film and, in short, I found myself fascinated by the film’s portrayal of religion and the powerful performances by Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell that kept it rolling). But as the film ended, I heard the same disgusted reactions from people around me.
As I came home and looked at reactions to the film online, I found hordes of disappointed viewers who were condemning the film and anyone who would dare to like it. Cinemascore, a firm that tracks response from viewers as they exit the film, reports that The Last Exorcism received a D grade on average from those polled. D? Think about that! A film that is respected by critics (71% at Rotten Tomatoes) and loved by horror fans (If you want proof, I can point you to plenty of great blogs) is a full letter-grade worse than that 10 page paper you did in college. You know, the one where you wrote 2 good pages and added 8 pages of filler. (OK, maybe you never did that, but I did. And apparently, that crappy paper was that much better than The Last Exorcism.)
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this reaction to an indie horror since Blair Witch. In 2004 there was Open Water – 72% according to critics at RT, “I can’t believe that movie even got made” according to the girl who sat behind me. In 2005 there was Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek – a tame 52% at RT, a flaming “The worst movie I’ve ever seen; anyone who says that’s a good movie knows absolutely nothing about cinema” according to a theater manager. Of course, last year there was Paranormal Activity, which won over 82% of critics and made a bigger profit than any movie ever, which has polarized viewers for almost 11 months now. Though not independently produced, 2008’s Cloverfield is worth mentioning, too. It follows the same ideas set up by many of these films, and it too won respect from critics (76%) and audiences on its way to breaking box office records. I’ve heard a minority opinion backlash on this one for its style, but it seems that the bigger budget and special effects have helped it avoid the supremely negative response that the other films received. What is it about these “homemade horrors” that divides audiences so?
One of the major culprits has to be the state of movie advertising. In the horror genre, you can’t make a trailer or TV spot that’s about plot and get mainstream audiences interested. People don’t want to hear the plot, they want to see a preview of what the movie intends to do to freak them out. In the case of The Last Exorcism, that meant a few shots in the previews and ads that don’t appear in the film. This is a condemnable offense according to some, and I can kind of see why they’re frustrated by what they deem to be “false advertising”. Personally I do my best to avoid previews – a few positive words from a source/critic I trust are enough to sell me – and don’t put much stock in trailers. These are essentially a test run in my eyes, and I don’t view anything inside them as a promise.
In my eyes, the bigger problem is the reputation of horror films that exists in mainstream society. The people who go to films like these – and the people who rent, buy, or “acquire” any of the hundreds of independent horror films made each year – don’t usually know what they’re getting into. Far too often, they expect nothing more than a bunch of cheap thrills, some stupid characters to laugh at, and a lot of blood and gore. Where do they get this idea? I’m not going to point any fingers, but there are plenty of horror fans – and occasionally horror filmmakers (*cough*WES CRAVEN*cough*) – that paint a broad picture of horror films that fits those stereotypes. Most horror fans under thirty were trained by watching films like Friday the 13th (and its sequels) in the ’80s and the satire of them, Scream, in the ’90s – films that one could argue cheapen the horror genre, despite their entertainment value.
Now I’m certainly not here to say that people who like these films are wrong, or that these independent horror films are inherently “better” than a mindless slasher film. A large percentage of independent horror films never get recognition because they simply aren’t good enough to earn recognition. Plus, I’m one of those people who likes these mindless or satirical films, too.
What I do believe is that it’s unfair to look at films like The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity in the same light as these films. These films, and some of their independent brothers, are conceived in a different mindset, and it worries me that audiences aren’t willing to open their minds to that. There have been a lot of good horror movies that have lost their chance to find an audience because they can’t fit into what the mainstream audiences believe horror movies are. There are hundreds of independent films fighting to find an audience – fantastic examples like Gregg Holtgrewe’s Dawning and Elisabeth Fies’s The Commune come to mind – which deserve a chance to live up to their creators’ fantastic visions.
I don’t expect audiences to mindlessly love an independent horror film because it shows up and is different from what they expected. I do, however, wish viewers would be more willing to shed their preconceived opinions of what to expect from the horror genre. There are some intelligent, fascinating, and maybe even scary films out there. If you let the right ones in, they just might surprise you.
This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find The Mike as TheMike31 on Flickchart and at his blog, From Midnight With Love. If you’re interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.