Of all the cheap tactics and clichés of the horror movie, there’s a special place of honour for the cat scare. That’s whenever a suspenseful moment is punctuated by the sudden shriek of a feline interloper who poses no actual threat to our heroes (unless it’s the zombie furball in Pet Sematary, or maybe Garfield on a lasagna-and-Jäger bender).
Besides being a perennial of the horror movie, the cat scare has also become a standby of the horror-movie spoof. A Halloween episode of Community set a new benchmark when it included five cat scares in a span of 20 seconds.
Of course, true horror fans love cat scares, just like they love every other trope that the genre should’ve exhausted in the decades since Bela Lugosi first put on a Dracula cape. Every kind of movie has its formulas, but in no other genre does familiarity breed the same affection. If horror cinema epitomizes—as the late critic and York prof Robin Wood famously theorized—Freud’s notions about “the return of the repressed,” then its devotees are monomaniacal in their eagerness to see the same sights, scenarios, and shocks over and over again. It could be a city ravaged by zombies. Or it could be a family whose home contains an evil supernatural presence, just like the clan in The Conjuring. (James Wan’s new thriller, which follows on the heels of The Purge, is a surprise hit about another family under siege.) Another new release, The Conspiracy, takes a more roughhewn tack with its creepy tale of documentary filmmakers who keep their cameras running amid mounting mayhem.
Viewers may even find it more comforting to indulge in thrills and chills when they come packaged in such easily recognizable forms—the terrors of the real world tend to be less predictable. But this poses a considerable challenge to filmmakers who want to deviate from the norm. The trick of knowing which conventions to break and which ones to maintain gets tougher all the time. Having reached a peak of squalor and savagery in the 1970s, the horror genre has become frustratingly conservative in more recent years. Not only has the marketplace become glutted with pointless remakes of cherished classics and foreign faves, but we’ve also got third-generation descendants of hits that were rehashes in the first place—what was Paranormal Activity if not The Blair Witch Project with steadier cameras?
But as well as sharing similar titles, The Conjuring and The Conspiracy both demonstrate the desire to balance a fidelity to horror-flick tradition with other imperatives. The Malaysian-Australian director of the former, James Wan, helped launch the genre’s torture-porn cycle with 2004’s Saw, though at the time, it seemed less like a mould-breaker than the umpteenth diabolical-serial-killer riff in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. With the success of Insidious in 2011, Wan also reminded Hollywood that low-budget thrillers can often be far more profitable than bloated tentpole pics. (An Insidious sequel is out in September.)
With The Conjuring, Wan clearly emulates the classier examples of ’70s chillers, most prominently, The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. To aid his mission, he enlists a strong cast of actors (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, and Ron Livingston) and situates them in often stunningly elegant creep-outs. While the gambit pays off in scenes that do for old creaky doors what Community did for cat scares, the appealing retro vibe becomes something of a stranglehold. Like so many recent examples by fanboy filmmakers reared on Dario Argento DVDs, The Conjuring becomes a horror movie that only refers to other horror movies. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing—it just leaves little room for the shock of the new.
The Conspiracy—a made-in-Toronto film that’s earned too little notice here despite strong receptions at genre-movie fests—can sometimes feel similarly derivative. Yet writer-director Christopher MacBride’s effort is more attuned to real-world anxieties than other post–Blair Witch purveyors of shaky-cam spookiness, like Grave Encounters and V/H/S. Through its camera-wielding heroes’ revelations about the possible existence of an all-powerful secret society, the film taps into our feelings of helplessness in the midst of global economic disparity and political instability.
Given all the things they have to worry about on a daily basis, maybe viewers can be forgiven for preferring a less avidly discomfiting kind of scary movie. Still, it’d be nice if more movies used a different pet for its cheapest scares. What’s wrong with an antsy ferret?