B-Movies Extended: The Film Critics of the Future… Today!

Professor Witney Seibold predicts what future film critics will say about the most popular genres of our time.

On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (episode KRTH 101), here in the glorious and magnanimous pages of CraveOnline, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I opined at great length about the recent Texas Chainsaw 3D, which both he and I were very positive on. I have since learned that he and I were in the minority on this film; many critics have lambasted the slasher’s tone as being either too jokey to be truly scary, or too gory to be genuinely fun. I still argue that the film is indeed genuinely fun, and I will quote myself in this regard: it’s refreshing to see a horror film that is this low-concept.

Many recent mainstream films, as I argued on the podcast, seem to be a bit too high-concept for their own good these days. To be a bit general on the point: too many blockbusters take usual dramatic conceits that they know the audiences are familiar with, and “tweak” them to make them seem “fresh” or “edgy.” It’s rare that a film can take usual conceits and reiterate them in such a way that they’re just straightforwardly fun again. This is why Bibbs and I are always so obnoxiously positive on last year’s Premium Rush, which we both included on our Top 10 lists. It was also why we were positive on Texas Chainsaw 3D. These are movies that aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, nor deck it out with fancy paints and spangles. These are movies that are content to make a really nice wheel. We know what’s going to happen, there is nothing necessarily grand or ambitious in the storytelling or the filmmaking, but it does what it does well, and there’s something to be commended for this low-fi approach.

This is especially pertinent when dealing with slasher movies, as repetition of well-known clichés and stereotypes is one of the more charming features of the genre. Much of the genre’s appeal comes from its pointed creative banality.

What got us off on this tangent, though, was a sort-of compare/contrast spitballing Bibbs and I did on the podcast. We compared this 2013 Texas Chainsaw to the two previous features film to bear the title, released in 2003 and 2006 respectively. Those two films, released by Platinum Dunes (Michael Bay’s studio known for “gritting-up” well known horror movies), were not so much of the slasher tradition (oft-supernatural masked killer stalked and kills bland sexy teenagers), but were most certainly fore-runners in the well-publicized trend of so-called “torture porn” (films that would merely depict simple and brutal acts of bodily mutilation, usually at the hands of a non-supernatural human being with unknown motives) which infected the horror genre for so many years. The common cultural critical points on the topic of torture porn were mentioned by Bibbs: the 1990s were a time of peace and unusual wealth, and the horror movies were cute and self-referential flicks like Scream, which first started to openly point out the clichés in horror situation and, perhaps tellingly, pointed out that knowledge of horror conventions wouldn’t save you in a horror situation. After 2001, though, wars began and real-life torture situations became part of the public political discourse. As such, many horror films turned toward the more brutal biological mechanics of physical torture. Hence the new subgenre of torture porn.

At the time, many critics and pundits speculated as to the origins of this dark and brutal (and now mercifully ended) trend; why were so many young people eager to see such extreme acts of violence, usually presented without convincing drama or subtext to make them truly frightening? Why were filmmakers so eager to jettison more sophisticated depictions of fear or interesting (if clichéd) premises in order to focus on pathological detail? The debate, you may recall, was pretty heated. In 2013, with the subgenre pretty much moribund, we can now look at it with wiser eyes, and agree that it was all a political reaction to the war-like activities that occurred in this country in the early ‘00s, and that this country was starting overseas in subsequent years. It’s even been posited by certain critics that the president of the U.S. has a direct influence on the music and movies that come out during their administration.

As a critic, I am constantly on the watch for the cultural scent given off by certain genres and trends in filmmaking; it’s part of my job (if I’m in a brainy mood) to analyze a film within its cultural context, and perhaps determine if its greatness (or suckiness) will stand the test of time, no matter how much I (or audiences) enjoy it or hate it right at the moment of its release. Time is, after all, the ultimate arbiter of a film’s success. Did a film influence filmmaking? One will only be able to tell a decade (or more) later.

I wonder how some of the current film trends will be seen in 10-15 years’ time. The current trend in horror movies, as you have no doubt noticed, is the low-budget, jump-scare-heavy found-footage subgenre. 2007’s Paranormal Activity was not the first to employ the idea or the aesthetic of “found footage,” but it certainly spearheaded over a dozen imitations and sequels of haunted house pictures told exclusively from supposedly real-life on-site cameras (security cameras and the like). My current analysis of this subgenre pertains to technology, and how video cameras have become so cheap, easy to access, and ubiquitous, that living a life entirely on camera is not only normal, but expected; if you don’t live your life in public, connected to a digital device, then you are behind the times. The subgenre also posits that no matter how well connected you are, the monsters can still get you. In 10 or 15 years, it can perhaps be assumed that camera technology will only continue to proliferate (although perhaps with a lowered technological acceleration), and this brief blip in horror will be seen as a quaint expression of technofear. These digital devices entered the cultural landscape pretty quickly, and we embraced them and feared them simultaneously. When kids born today – who will grow up with devices today’s filmmakers didn’t have access to until adulthood – these movies may be seen as laughable. If, however, privacy is further and further infringed upon, and the future presents us with an eventual cultural break in public online living, these movies may be seen as prescient.

The biggest money-earners of 2012 were mostly superhero movies, and superheroes have proved to be immensely bankable as film stars ever since 2002’s Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s film, despite being of dubious quality, was popular enough to codify a very specific kind of action film. Not just superhero movies, but superhero movies that were based on well-known comic book properties, and were possessed of a crisp, digital aesthetic that was borrowed directly from comic book pages. Comic book movies, from Fantastic Four to The Avengers, now seemed to be ripped straight from the pages in terms of their look and feel. A generation of comic-book-reading fans have, if box office receipts are any indicator, been enjoying this approach immensely. It’s as if the filmmakers are finally paying attention to what made the original comic books so appealing (i.e. the very specific looks and dramatic beats and character simplicity from the comics), rather than trying to make an original “movie version” of the characters people love, which had been the approach up until then (see X-Men). I wonder how the world will see this trend of superhero movies in a decade’s time. What hangs in the zeitgeist that creates such a lust for superheroes? Is the collapsed economy and complex political climate driving people to embrace colorful fantasy heroes of their youth? Has this been growing for years? Have comic book fans been quietly growing in numbers for years, and only in 2002 did the movies come around to their tastes? I know there has been an increased tolerance for arrested adolescence in recent years, and that certainly has something to do with this; adults seem to care as much about Iron Man as their 9-year-old children.

Eventually, though, the wave must break. All trends must end, and superhero movies will, one day, no longer by the driving box office force they are today. I suspect many of the planned superhero flicks will be successes, and The Avengers II will do just fine (although I have serious doubts about Guardians of the Galaxy), but at some point, the world will have a high-profile and big-budget superhero flop on its hands as a clear indicator of the end (and I’m taking bets as to which film that will be). How will the superhero trend be perceived? Cultural adolescence? A love of broad fantasy in the face of human chaos? These simple comic book stories, perhaps, tap into a need to regress to a familiar childhood myth. They may prove to serve as a kind of simplified version of a previously sophisticated culture. The common cultural stories used to be about music, or pop novels. For the last few years, they all involve superpowers and re-told origin stories. I cannot say for sure today, though. Only once the trend has been brought to a close, and I have some chronological context will I be able to give a proper analysis of what it all meant.

As in all things, time will heal all wounds. Only time will tell. And movies will evolve in every possible direction. I’m kind of excited to see where we go, even if the trends aren’t necessarily to my liking. 

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.