There is no film genre that arouses generational differences more than horror. Each generation assumes that their taste in horror is wider and better than the preceding generation's taste — and furthermore, that the taste of the subsequent generation of fans has become degenerate and decadent.
Flashback to the late 1970s. "The best horror films use suggestion, they inspire your imagination, they don't show everything. Off-screen events, shadows, sounds — the masters, from Murnau to Jacques Tourneur and Polanski knew it!" I heard and read this bit of received, assumed wisdom so many times from my 'elders', that I — and my entire generation of cinephiles — knew it was time to revolt against it. Yes, of course, Cat People (1942), The Innocents (1961), Repulsion (1965) and so many others are classics, incontestably great films. But do they offer the 'last word' in screen horror for all time?
Of course not. So it was time for a 'changing of the guards', both on the screen and in criticism. The 1980s were the decade of what Philip Brophy neologistically called 'horrality' — horror and material 'textuality' combined. That meant it was the time for showing, no longer suggesting. The graphic 'gore' of Italian horror films, of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and of 'slasher' thrillers, reclaimed its spectacular, subterranean history. Borders of taste were pushed, redefined. Cinema investigated the literal, the visceral, the blunt presentation of trauma and death — and this, too, led to a new kind of imaginary, unconscious, phantasmagoric horror.
The genre went through other big changes after 'my generation' claimed it. There was the 'postmodern horror' of the self-conscious Scream movies in the 1990s, and the so-called 'torture porn' of the 2000s. I confess: I had steadily lost most of my interest in this cinematic form by about 2005. When I recently saw the internationally successful Australian film The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) — the kind of small, energetic, skilful movie I would usually be predisposed to like and defend — it irritated more than delighted me. Have I become just another cranky, out-of-touch cinephile who grumbles that the true Golden Age of horror cinema happened when I was 20 years old — when those heads exploded in Cronenberg's Scanners (1981)?
Let's backtrack to 1980 and start over. That's when I wrote one of my first long, serious essays — on "Fantasy and Horror in Australian Cinema", in fact — and fell under the spell of a dazzling book of textual theory: Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. He brilliantly argues that fantasy narratives are classically based on a hesitation between two kinds of explanation or interpretation of events: a rational and a supernatural explanation. From Edgar Allan Poe to Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), the theory holds good.
But, starting in the 1980s, horror movies began exploring a deliberate margin of incoherence, scrambling Todorov's classical template. From Scanners to Lynch's Twin Peaks, a sudden, surprise inversion of the poles of good and evil was usually enough to put our hesitation into a vertiginous, undecidable spin.
By the time of The Babadook, this vertigo has become a type of opportunism. The film sets up at least three explanations for its horror: rational-psychological (it's all in the mother's head); supernatural (there really is a bad spirit); and something in-between (dead Dad in the basement needs to be grieved). It keeps hopping from one level to the other, depending on which effect it needs: shock, pathos, 'art film' resonance. But this is (for me, at least) too much hesitation, too much equivocation; there is no centre to the movie, only endless 'switchings'.
It's like in Peter Strickland's celebrated Berberian Sound Studio (2012), where the director's desire to tarry in a space between giallo and a Peter Tscherkassky avant-garde deconstruction leads to another opportunistic spinning wheel: the distinction between the real and surreal becomes no longer hesitant, merely indifferent.