Bret Easton Ellis: Modern Mainstream Horror Is Mostly ‘Bland’ and ‘Inoffensive’

"When a horror movie goes way too far into backstory... it really minimizes the horror," Ellis said.
Georgina Campbell in "Barbarian"
Georgina Campbell in "Barbarian"
20th Century Studios

“American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis is horrified by the state of modern horror movies.

The novelist detailed on his eponymous podcast “The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast” (via Variety) exactly how horror lost its momentum after the gritty 1970s films. In fact, it’s the veil of mystery to the supernatural occurrences that, for Ellis, made scary films even scarier.

“Especially in the ‘70s, horror movies did not have backstories or answers to them explaining the horror,” Ellis said. “Why is Regan possessed by a devil in ‘The Exorcist?’ We don’t know. Why does the shark cruise Amity [in ‘Jaws’]? You don’t know. Where did Carrie White get her powers? I don’t know.”

The “Smiley Face Killers” screenwriter continued, “You could go on and on with the mystery of these movies, and what made them so much more frightening was that they weren’t explained. I often find now when a horror movie goes way too far into backstory, in terms of explaining why these people do what they do, or why this monster does what it does, it really minimizes the horror.”

Ellis noted that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is a “great example” of keeping the lore close to the vest…that is, until the “bonkers” franchise follow-ups.

“We just do not know what that family is. We get hints of what’s happened to them, but we do not get an explanation at all as to what created Leatherface,” Ellis said. “For some reason, I find that particularly scary in ways that aren’t present in other movies in the ‘Chainsaw’ franchise. The sequels explicitly detailed why things happened, and the backstories are usually just completely bonkers.”

Ellis pointed to the “cyclical” iterations of the horror genre, with the 1970s films having an “allure of being a reflection of a discordant household” that felt “reassuring” to those struggling with real-life grievances.

“I go back to what [former Miramax CEO] Bill Block said about how there will always be a need for people to confront that darkness and to see those images, and to be either repelled or compelled by them,” Ellis added. “So I don’t know if it’s ever going to go away, it’s just whether it’s going to be in the corporate mainstream, which really doesn’t seem to want much of anything to do with anything like that except the most bland, inoffensive stuff. I’m hoping that there will be a shift, but there’s so much content out there I think you can pretty much find whatever you’re looking for.”

Ellis continued, “Yes, we’re going through this now, and we push back on that, and then we’re going to have a grittier, less ideological consciousness [in horror]. We won’t have to worry so much about certain tropes and just get back to aesthetics and scares.”

One recent film that piqued his interest? “Barbarian,” a meta #MeToo thriller now streaming on HBO Max.

“I thought it had a great, slow buildup that had that epic shock in the middle of it, and then it becomes this totally different movie,” Ellis said. “We’re very intrigued on how these two movies are going to merge and inform us as to why this thing has happened…I was hoping for a slightly more pessimistic ending, because it seemed that ‘Barbarian’ was heading in that way. It seemed like a kind of throwback to ‘70s horror, and I loved the outlandishness of the monster. It was not afraid to look completely silly or dumb, and that was scary and I liked that it wasn’t CGI. It was a very scary, real, tactile, analog thing.”

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