by Ross Hunter
It’s easy to be dismissive when it comes to horror films. The same predictable plots are churned out again and again, with the only difference being that the action occurs in mildly different settings: suburban houses, woodland cabins and fairgrounds among the most popular. The latest attempt to hit British cinemas follows the same formula. It has the kind of faux-eerie name that verges on parody: The Forest (2016). And it’s exactly the type of film you’d expect: a somewhat creepy premise that descends into cheap jump-scares and an amalgamation of done-to-death horror tropes.
So, instead of reviewing that film I thought I’d try and draw people’s attention to another film that attempts to explain why on earth films like The Forest are made, and why millions go to watch them. Fear Itself (2015) directed by Charlie Lyne is only the second feature-length film to be released on BBC iPlayer (the first was Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake). Yet, much like Curtis’s film, this platform has allowed Lyne the creative freedom to create a thought-provoking and utterly atypical movie.
Made up almost entirely of existing footage from other horror movies Lyne meshes together clips from films as chronologically diverse as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to It Follows (2014) all accompanied by the unnerving, confessional narration provided by Amy E. Watson. I’ve seen it classified as a documentary-essay-film which, despite the catchiness of such a title, doesn’t really do it justice. It’s made up of incisive film criticism, astute psychological searching and has a fictional trauma narrative thrown in for good measure. Lyne hasn’t let fears about how to market this film invade his process, and in a climate where Hollywood blockbusters seem to latch onto our basest fears (London Has Fallen) this is no bad thing. It resists classification and is all the richer for it.
Any fan of horror movies should watch this film. Perhaps they won’t be completely convinced by the fictional story of the narrator, who analyses the films on-screen as a way of working-through her own trauma, but this doesn’t really matter. Lyne’s observations about why we watch horror movies (and what they say about us) are acute, knowledgeable and endlessly intriguing regardless of how they are delivered.
Cinema has always attempted to scare us: stories of the earliest cinema-goers leaping out of their seats fleeing a projection of an on-coming train may make us laugh now, but what’s the difference between their fear and the fear many of us feel upon watching horror movies? At least those early patrons of the Lumieres films could blame ignorance for their terror. We have no such excuse.
Lyne shows that our fear of monsters, murderers and axe-wielding maniacs is not rooted in our primal fear of the unknown. Rather, these things scare us because we know that these are ideas, acts and atrocities either committed or invented by the human mind. This film proposes that horror films don’t desensitise us but instead engrain our fears even deeper. And yet we still watch them. Some of us may even crave the anxieties they implant in us.
So, if you feel like going to see The Forest this weekend then don’t bother. Stay at home, turn the lights off and watch Fear Itself. You might just understand why you wanted to be scared in the first place.