Sadly, I think a lack of imagination has meant a serious drop in standards and attitudes in "horror" films.
I do love old horror/fantasy films (Terence Fisher's expression was “adult fairly tales”) but want to be uplifted – film should be an emotional experience, but not one that makes you want to slash your wrists. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the films covered and praised in podcasts and on line (Night of the Demon, The Devil Rides Out, The Wicker Man etc) are retrospective, and more than thirty years old.
Just to establish where I'm coming from, can I say that I really liked Witchfinder General, Hellraiser and Candyman, all of which were gruesome films. One of my favourite horror films is Brian DePalma's Carrie, because it's psychological horror. What distinguishes all of these from lesser films is character and plot. I actually read a review of Carrie on IMDB where the (amateur) reviewer rubbished it because there wasn't enough gore or graphic deaths. He obviously completely missed the point that the horror of the film was that Carrie's deranged mother turned out to be right. To my mind, that twist was much more chilling than any heads being chopped off or people being skewered.
I didn't enjoy The Evil Dead or My Little Eye because of this concentration on violence, I’ve completely avoided The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all those kind of “slasher” films, and I particularly dislike Quentin Tarantino because he seems to be trying to make violence seem "cool" – exactly the opposite of Witchfinder General, which showed how it could brutalise good men.
A quick history. The slasher film probably started in the 1970s with Halloween and DePalma’s Dressed to Kill – both entertaining films, although you could write a whole book just about DePalma’s attitude to violence against women.
It could well be that Friday 13th in 1980 was inspired by Halloween but, as often, the imagination was lacking. Not long after that we had The Evil Dead (1981) which, in my opinion, started a very unpleasant trend – asking us to laugh at characters being slashed up or mangled. The decline continued with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. That one was supernatural horror that involved the mad murderer inhabiting dreams, so there was potential to exploit the "fear of the unknown" aspect that worked so well in older films. So the idea was potentially really scary, but Wes Craven took the easy option by concentrating on blood and guts, and the result was a film with not much atmosphere and no real scares. Unfortunately it led on to a whole series of exploitation films that went for gore instead of fear.
I think we came to a point around 1980 where audiences, and some directors, stopped understanding the difference between violence and fear. I’ve heard the arguments about Grand Guignol being a strand of horror where you have to show what’s happening rather than just imply it, but surely everything should have limits. For me, any film, including horror films, has to be primarily about character and plot. If the director just uses it as an excuse for a series of gory deaths then there’s plenty missing from the film.
It's been pointed out that the duo of Freddie Kruger and Michael Myers in their numerous films have become a bit of a joke, almost like Abbott and Costello, who ended up meeting all the Universal monsters in the old days. This is another problem with the modern films, that a lot of them want to be funny, but combine this with gore and brutality. You can have comedy suspense, like Bob Hope’s old film The Cat and the Canary, but my feeling is that comedy horror – where you’re being explicit about the horrible ways that people can die – is impossible. If you are asking audiences to laugh at people dying in gruesome ways, what does that say about film-makers and the audiences? Harking back again, the concept was explored in Michael Powell’s clever and unsettling film Peeping Tom, and that got such a bad reception that it ended his career.
I wrote a review of The Descent on IMDB that I titled “Encapsulates everything wrong with the modern horror film”. I found it a particularly unpleasant film that started with a genuinely intriguing road accident but then rapidly descended into darkness and incoherent violence. At least the dim lighting meant we didn’t have to watch the characters being violently mutilated in close-up, but the plot stopped making sense about fifteen minutes in, and if there was any character development at all, then I missed it. Of course, we’ve now got “torture porn” in films like Saw and all its sequels, and there’s no limit to how far some film makers will go to shock and, I would say, revolt their audiences. I was starting to think that the trend was over and then I saw a film called The Children on late night TV. This was a virtually plotless saga of some unlikeable characters trapped in an environment where their children killed them in gruesome ways, with no coherent character development - again, apparently just an excuse to present extreme violence in the guise of entertainment.
I'm not proposing that we should ban or censor violent films, just asking film-makers to use a bit more imagination.
To end on a more positive note, can I say that I do see a way forward for horror films. There have been a few really good ones in recent years, Stir of Echoes and, in the same year, Final Destination was quite inventive. Sam Raimi’s The Gift was surprisingly restrained, and very good for that. The best of the lot all seem to have been ghost stories: The Others was a nice little film; The Sixth Sense was the best I’d seen for years, a Spanish film called The Orphanage was brilliantly creepy, as were the original Paranormal Activity and Sinister. If the filmmakers can follow that direction without succumbing to the compulsion to make everything into a franchise (with endless repetition), the future for “scary films” could be much brighter.