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Period Piecing Together the Puzzle of How Different Eras Affect Horror Films

“‘In Too Deep’ is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting. Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock. Christy, get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole…”
          -Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

Setting the tone for a horror film is never an easy feat. It’s a constant battle that directors are negotiating with the audience. With the slew of horror remakes that are consuming audiences lately, with titles like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and nearly a dozen more having gone under the remake treatment, it’s hard to not compare the respective decades in which the originals and these remakes saw production. As a growing rift begins to form between the so-called “golden age” of horror and where we’re at now, perhaps we should place more of an emphasis on the time period in which horror films are set. While the bulk of the aforementioned remakes merely focus on copious amounts of gore and nudity as opposed to changes or updates in response to time period, embracing a certain decade can sometimes be the missing ingredient in turning a flop into a phenomenal piece of horror.

For instance, it might be worth beginning this discussion by examining one of the more recent examples involving one of horror’s most beloved lifebloods, Friday the 13th. There was much of an outcry from the online horror community when it was revealed that Nick Antosca’s (Hannibal) script for Platinum Dunes’ upcoming Friday the 13th remake would not end up being used. Nick Antosca’s screenplay is a much needed shot of adrenaline to the franchise in a number of ways, but one of the most significant ones is that his script is set in the summer of 1988.

Antosca’s script wears its ‘80s-ness on its sleeve and never tries to hide the fact, whether it’s through flagrant sex and drug use, a rocking ‘80s soundtrack, or digressions on Patrick Swayze’s hotness factor. It’s impossible to know through script alone if this return to the ‘80s would have also meant aging the film stock accordingly to create a more authentic look for the time period, too. It’s exactly these sorts of extra touches though that can make setting your story in a specific era so powerful. While Antosca’s script is a very stylistic pairing of time period and genre, this juxtaposition between horror and decade has been going on for a while now, with this decision happening for various purposes to various degrees of efficiency.

Some of the most prevalent examples of horror films setting themselves in the past have done this not because of wanting to be stylistic, but merely due to the restrictions of reflecting history accurately. Films such as Bava’s Black Death, The Name of the Rose, the classic Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General, and even the recent A Field in England primarily see themselves set during the 1600s due to the prevalence of witchcraft at the time. It might be a little further along in history, but very much of the same approach is taken in the recent horror entries, The Burrowers and Bone Tomahawk. This pair of films finds themselves set in the late 1800s, worrying not about witches, but rather the looming threat of Native Americans at the time, drawing their horror from that. The same can be said for The Woman in Black, too, pushing the time period to an Edwardian era early 1900s, but still using the trappings of the era to do the heavy lifting of the horror. All of these films feature archaic, medieval setups that aid in the respective storytelling going on, but by and large this is just changing the time period of horror for the sake of history. The main perk here is the trading of modern serial killers and franchise-fueling monsters for the horrors of yesteryear.

This sort of mentality would continue, although see some sophistication, by the number of horror films that have been using times of war as an excuse to be set in a different time period. Admittedly, we’ve seen the creation of some deeply elegant pieces of horror as a result of this. Both of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth see themselves set in 1939 and 1944 respectively, drawing from the Spanish Civil War. The same thing is done in the brutal Ravenous, set in 1939 against the Mexican-American War. Even Alejandro Amenábar’s beautiful, The Others, takes place in the 1950s and sees itself working around the aftermath of World War II. Likewise, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge marks a departure for the series as it’s set in the middle of WWII during 1941, using the tumultuous time in its favor as well. It’s nice to see these pictures mixing things up, using atypical wells to draw their horror from, but this is still largely a fancy history lesson instead of these time periods leading to any experimentation in their use. Nothing groundbreaking is going on here, and while some different stories are being told, the genre is hardly seeing revitalization from horror going back in time.

Much to the film’s credit, Puppet Master III’s setting does relate to the chronology of its franchise and the lore in which it’s built, rather than purely pulling from the climate of its time period. In the film’s defense, this isn’t a decision to just do “killer puppets meet Nazis,” but rather the previous films establish that puppet maker, Andre Toulon, began his creations during Nazi times. With the first two Puppet Master films mostly concluding the story they were telling, it makes sense for the next film to tackle some new ground, such as the origin story of Toulon and his puppets. The fact that this happens to coincide with being a period piece that the horror gets to play with is just icing on the cadaver. The same approach is taken with the third film in the Ginger Snaps series, Ginger Snaps Back, as well as Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, both of which transport their series to the 1800s. All of these films manage to incorporate their foreign time periods to not only fit the larger chronology of their franchises, but also use them for the sake of setting their own story. These are still typical horror films for the most part, but what is beginning to happen here is the use of moving a struggling franchise into a different time period as a way of bringing its corpse back to life.

Clearly many horror films have been playing with different time periods to take horror series back to the past, but what’s almost been just as popular is the decision to propel a franchise into the future and see what the fresh era brings forth. This decision almost felt inevitable for most series, with titles like Leprechaun 4: In Space, Critters 4, and Jason X all going the futuristic route. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, just one that has to be handled with a lot of finesse (as opposed to camp, which is the major currency that these films choose to trade on). Another thing holding back these future films is that they are unable to try to replicate the film style and sensibilities of the time period, with the future obviously not having happened yet. Instead the pictures must turn to film clichés of the future (there’s an unsurprising amount of lightsaber appearances in these movies), which can sometimes end up conjuring an opposite, negative effect. Just like the earlier films here are steeped in historical accuracy, these ones are practically using historical fallacy to build their backdrops. All of these films indulge in wild, fantastical versions of tomorrow.

As horror was beginning to experiment around with this, there was also the completely parallel situation of remaking horror films due to the new opportunities that the current era would provide for the premise. While the damaging amount of remakes to classic films was touched on earlier, sometimes this sort of cultural re-appropriation can be advantageous to the property. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a pivotal piece of science fiction/horror that will always hold a place on the mantel of the classics. But in spite of the works’ pedigree, the picture has nearly seen a remake every decade with four currently existing at this point in time (but will likely continue to grow). Rather than these updates on the story all pulling from the same decade, each one has appropriately seen itself moving on with the rest of the world, finding a new societal boogeyman to don the role of the villain each time.

It’s kind of remarkable to look at all of these remakes as pseudo time capsules for America, bouncing between the pictures’ true enemy being McCarthyism, the Cold War, the “Big Brother-esque” world we live in now, or even AIDS (as is the case in the 1993 version, Body Snatchers). The premise is so simple that it lends itself to these broad transformations every time. It should be telling then that while some of the earlier attempts at revitalizing Body Snatchers saw success, the later versions are floundering because we’re trying to force a societal pressure onto our aliens. We’re trying to force a Boogeyman into existence in a world controlled by franchises as opposed to these films just happening because they are saying what is needing to be said, albeit through a heavily veiled metaphor. Moving forward from this, using your current time period as a parable for the times became a particularly popular strategy for the following films, even if the results would turn out to be deeply hollow most of the time.

The early 2000s was a fascinating time for horror largely because of how tech crazy we had grown as a culture. Soon there were constant horror films that were taking delight in mining material from e-mail, webcams, instant messaging, and the connectedness of the Internet in general. This was a largely unsuccessful—albeit fun—time for horror, as premises saw more and more forced tech aspects in their construction. Horror films such as FeardotCom and Cry_Wolf were in constant demand during this time, with even legends like Michael Myers falling prey to the craze in 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection. The sequel, which was one of the worst offenders of the era, saw its plot focusing on a reality show set in the old Myers house, with webcams filming everything and broadcasting the chaos online. Granted, these films weren’t choosing to set themselves in this unusual, dated time period but rather resorting to it because it’s when they were being made. There was no hindsight to fall back on. To see a horror film now choose to set itself in the early 2000s and cleverly use its DNA to its own advantage would be a much more interesting—potentially great—project.

A lot of the horror films here have been mixing things up with different time periods as a result of the limitations of history. This has proven to have its own advantages over forcing yourself to tell a modern horror story, but there are some directors that are truly running with this concept and using time as a stylistic aid, too. American Psycho and House of the Devil are two films set during the 1980s. Both of these act as impeccable period pieces to the point that you might not even realize that American Psycho is set in the past. A much more stylistic incorporation of the time period is going on here, with Mary Harron’s film acting as a great hodgepodge of Brett Easton Ellis iconography in general, all of which is soaking in the ‘80s. Ti West’s House of the Devil is intentionally set in the ‘80s in order to pull from the Satanist trend that was prominent at the time, versus now. Even still, the score, art design, and his approach to filmmaking here reflect an ‘80s sensibility that adds to an already strong product.

These sorts of projects inevitably come together a lot better than films that are simply turning themselves into period pieces for historic purposes alone. This degree of synergy creates an all-encompassing feeling in the films that just scream the respective time period that they’re set in. Every frame of the picture is reflecting and using the era that it’s based in to say something (and it’s what Antosca’s Friday the 13th script was attempting). The same tactic is not only done, but taken even further, in the following pictures that also play with time periods.

Director J. A. Bayona’s foreign horror film, The Orphanage, finds itself set in 1975, but chooses to do so explicitly as a means of capturing the feel of ‘70s Spanish cinema. The history of the time period is secondary to Bayona, with instead the artifice of the decade (and the region) being the larger influence on him and his film. Beyond the Black Rainbow has a similar goal in mind by deciding to take place in the 1980s as a means of better illustrating the film’s intention of riffing on ‘80s sci-fi’s aesthetic. It might be a controversial opinion, but arguably even Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness qualifies here. The film deals with Ash ending up in the Middle Ages, but then uses that time period as a means of justifying the Harryhausen-esque style that the film frequently indulges in. A stylistic through line carries through Army of Darkness and removing the time period or the accompanying style would leave either half feeling hollow. The recent The Final Girls would also technically qualify here too, with it taking place in the ‘80s (or more accurately, an ‘80s movie), even if it might straddle two time periods. In spite of this, the ‘80s material is crazy exact and all stemming from director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s deep love for ‘80s horror, making the different time period fundamental.

With all of these examples being taken into consideration, let’s return to the early example of Nick Antosca’s aborted Platinum Dunes Friday the 13th script, examining where it fits in with all of this. With the Friday the 13th series stagnating in recent years and it feeling like several remakes are being turned to in order to reset the property properly, perhaps what needs to be done lies not in changing the Jason Voorhes character, his backstory, or drastically altering the series’ DNA, but instead returning the franchise to its roots in time and embracing the era that gave birth to the genre in the first place.

Unmistakably Antosca brings a lot of love for this respective era into his script, but the film’s set in the ‘80s mostly so it’s able to become the new de facto sequel of the original Friday the 13th. This is a technique that’s very similar to what Bryan Singer did with Superman Returns and what Neill Blomkamp attempts to do with his new Alien film, which sees the new picture being set within the old franchise’s chronology. Here the new film is free to respect some of the earlier pictures’ canon and then retcon the rest of the series as it sees fit. In spite of its similarities, it’s worth mentioning that Superman Returns was not set in the ‘80s, even though it might have made more sense for the film and act as a better representation of the movie’s tone. Antosca goes all in though.

Of course, his draft still gains strength by its lack of cell phones, technology, and a heavily influenced ‘80s soundtrack that helps elevate the vibe that the film is pushing out. All of this might help his script better tap into that vintage slasher feeling of the ‘80s more effectively (going as far as 3-D also being the plan for the now-dead script), but mostly this time period shift is so the film is able to tap into the franchise’s chronology and course correct it. As a result, this largely looks like the synthesis of everything that all of these films have been going for, with this property using the reverence of the ‘80s, paired with the chronology of the Friday the 13th legacy, and the stylistic flourishes of the time period. It might not have been a perfect product, but it would have been one that’s infinitely more interesting than the last few Jason outings, and one that might have set things back on track. At the least, maybe it would have helped in the creation of a more accepting environment for period pieces in horror.

Being able to respect the past effectively is obviously important, especially when it comes to horror cinema, but it’s also significant to still look towards the future and where things are heading. Of course where things are heading might end up being an indulgence of the old fashioned, but to keep your mind open to all directions will only do you favors. Horror is an evolving genre that is growing and learning more every day like an unstoppable virus, but by at least understanding its relationship with time periods a little better we can help make it even more viral.



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COMMENTS

2 Comments
  • Michael

    Interesting. (long article)
    Whilst I agree particular periods can benefit a style of horror,
    I believe creating films that are period neutral and more focused on the story and the characters helps to create a better film.
    Everything else is inevitably gimmicky.
    (not saying you can’t have a particular period – just to be careful it’s presence doesn’t out weight the story or characters)

    After-thought:
    Think about the period neutral reasons which gave 80’s horror films their inherent feeling.
    Isolation (no twitter feeds), carefree attitudes (less perceived responsibility in society) and a certain naivety (less in-your-face over-the-top meta bullshit) etc

    PS
    take all of this with a grain of salt.
    People should be able to make films however they want.

  • TheDarkShape

    The real strength of Antosca’s draft is that I didn’t want anyone to die. He has *a lot* of characters, but they’re all likable.

    It’s also interesting that F13 3-D took the same approach as HALLOWEEN RETURNS, in wiping away the other films and becoming a “real” sequel. I felt F13 pulled this off considerably better, and not just because it’s set in the 80s (as opposed to RETURNS, which moved Carpenter’s film to “ten years ago”).

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