Last night I watched Shark Night (David R. Ellis, director, written by William Hayes and Jesse Studenberg).
I’ve been fascinated by the evolution of the modern schlock horror movie. What do you do if you’re a purveyor of traditional schlock? You want to follow the rules. You want the chaste blonde heroine who has a suitably girlish and non-threatening body. You want a white boy who doesn’t quite get the blonde girl, but since he’s the only guy left at the end of the movie, they’ll probably get together and help keep The Tribe alive. You want a product, a story that demands little of the viewer’s mind. You want expendable actors who later get into carpentry and perhaps gay porn, and especially expendable actresses who can be counted on to get naked and then stop acting and settle down.
But these days? Good special effects are too cheap, and they’re everywhere. Youth culture is too linked, too on-line, and it’s too easy to write a script with a zillion references to gaming and little buzzwords found on Reddit. Everyone, even the people who act in awful movies like Shark Night, is someone.
You might want to see Beth, the typical horror movie promiscuous girl, get naked, but she’s played by Katherine McPhee, who placed second in American Idol and can’t afford to get naked because she probably is aiming for a slot on Entertainment Weekly.
You might sit back and wait to see Malik, the expendable black guy, get eaten (he does indeed get eaten), but the actor who plays him (Sinqua Walls) is far too likeable and made me faintly hope that he might live and get to marry his Hispanic girlfriend (also eaten).
You might want to see the bad guy (Dennis Crim) kill everyone and still get the blonde girl. You might want to see the corrupt Sherrif (Donal Logue!!) kill everyone and head out to do Leno. Nothing works if your actors don’t match your material.
This is the problem with Shark Night. The actors were excellent, the effects were good, the setting (shot in Lake Caddo in the Ark-LA-Tex area) was beautiful, and the writing was excellent. But it was just about some rednecks setting sharks lose in a salt-water lake as a means of making a reality show. It wasn’t about anything, when it could have been something really special. A whole team of people were waiting to see this movie through to a place of brilliance, but the producers just wanted a peace of dung that would comfortably stand beside all the dreck that’s come before.
But there’s a chance for something different. Horror fiction is probably dead. It’s degenerated into desperate fandom. It’s fallen victim to collectors and small presses selling crap for fifty bucks a copy, and the writing – what a book is about, to be honest and obvious – has fallen victim to whatever hack has a lot of twitter followers. But the digital medium – what movies have streamed into – is stronger than ever and has more venues than ever. Horror movies might be what saves horror.
Get in touch with your favourite director and demand something different from him or her. It’s possible if you stand up and say something.
Edit: This movie had no gore. The camera turned away whenever a shark went in for the kill. And no nudity. It did the typical shaming-the-easy-girl and save-the-chaste-blonde-girl routine as always, but it tried to do without without nudity.