- (noun) – Extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion.
- (verb) – Promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its importance or benefits.
Ah, hype. It’s a motherfucker. It seems to come from nowhere, usually starting with a group of people, or perhaps just one, which is all it takes to get the ball rolling. What soon becomes an act of first discovery leads to a small cult following, which leads to propaganda, which leads to mass brainwashing on a global scale, which leads to Roddy Piper demanding Keith David put on those goddamned sunglasses so he can filter all the bullshit and see the world for what it really is.
As cynical as I am (and boy howdy, am I ever), it is very hard not to fall victim to that dreaded “h” word. When you can sort through all the genre films that come out in one calendar year and count on one hand the ones that are actually worth seeing, let alone great, it’s difficult not to become disillusioned. And it’s even more difficult for your ears not to prick up when buzz starts rolling in. How do you hear phrases like “genuinely scary” or “instant classic" (a phrase I abhor) and not become immediately enthusiastic and excited?
Internet has changed everything, for better and for worse. I am of the age where, though I completely adore my Internet life, I can also remember what life was like before it. Back then, if you wanted to know about the next installments of Phantasm or Halloween, you only had Fangoria Magazine (unless said installment starred Jamie Lee Curtis – then Entertainment Weekly suddenly cared). And all you were allowed to know about their productions was what Fangoria allowed you to know – a quote here, description of a scene there, and topped off with a publicity still that, nine times out of ten, wasn’t even indicative of a scene in the film. For a long, long time, that is all we had. In fact, when I was a tyke still unaware of Fangoria’s existence, the very first time I knew of the coming of Halloween: H20 (I was completely obsessed with that boogeyman in my youth) was a teaser trailer in front of Scream 2. Not even euphoria could represent what I had felt. It was like meeting a superhero, or winning the lottery. A franchise that had been dormant for three years, and seemed all but dead after the abysmal Curse of Michael Myers, was suddenly back with a vengeance – and not only that, it hailed the return of Laurie Fucking Strode!
I was so excited that I literally left the theater to use a payphone in the lobby so I could call a fellow Halloween-loving friend and attempt to recall every beat in the trailer. I felt like a celebrity, as if I had been the first person in the world to experience such groundbreaking news, and that it was MY privilege to alert the masses that it was coming. And for months after that, I waited impatiently for movie posters to appear in the theater’s lobby, to confirm that what I had seen was not just a dream, but a reality. And I would stare at that poster and marvel at The Shape’s mask and know it was coming soon…
That – to me – was magical. To be taken completely by surprise, with what was nothing but exemplary news, still lives on in my mind as one of the happiest moments I ever experienced. And here I am, nearly 15 years later, and the idea behind what I am saying – undying devotion for what is essentially Halloween 7 – sounds completely ludicrous. Though Halloween: H20 is still one of the best sequels in the series, it’s certainly not great. But fifteen years of perspective and maturity will do that to a person.
Here’s the point: how we find out about developments of projects – whether they be part of franchise cannon, or a coming adaptation of a book we have always loved, or even simply something that sounds promising coming from a bunch of people we consider to be filmmaking giants – has been changed by this magical Al Gore-inspired thing called Internet. We no longer discover via trailers or movie posters that things for which we’re jonesing are coming soon. No, now we find out in Internet headlines, and they are usually married to that specific journalist’s smarmy opinion on the current news, or that director’s last film. We find out matter-of-factly, with little fanfare, in black and white. We find out so early the projects themselves don’t even have titles. We soon come to know every excruciating detail, from first announcement, to who is writing, to who is re-writing, to who is cast, to which actor/actress is acting like a total asshole/cunt on set (with audio!), to which director is experiencing what battles with which studio. Trailer premiers are forecast and later released online on specific dates. Teasers trailers for full trailers are also a thing. Early reviews are available via film festivals or special screenings, or even leaked studio copies of unfinished products that do not at all represent the finished films. And that goes for every film. But the good ones? Oh, boy.
"YOU will love this."
"YOU'VE never seen anything like it."
"YOUR new favorite film."
Over and over we are told with near-offensive hyperbole that we are about to witness something transcendent.
So by the time the damn film is released, we’re expecting nothing short of living art. And how often does that really happen?
There is no denying great films are released every year, but the way in which we discover them has changed.
That’s where hype comes in.
For roughly sixteen months prior to its full nationwide release, I could not read a story on Paranormal Activity without seeing the words “truly scary” or “the scariest movie in decades.” In fact, it was so “scary” that the trailer hardly contained footage from the actual film, but instead showed night vision footage of viewing audiences cowering in fear and hiding behind their gigantic, flat-brimmed baseball hats. Distant memories of The Blair Witch Project, the last to come along in such a way that truly scared the hell out of its audiences, floated in the back of many minds. It had seemed very much that Paranormal Activity was the next step. And I couldn’t have been more excited.
Then I saw the film.
While I will not take away the craft and thought that went into it, and while I will give director Oren Peli and producer Jason Blum credit for going with a less-is-more approach and making what turned out to be a pretty quality film, I had to ask myself: Where was that fear I was promised? Where was that cold sweat on my back, or the tremble in my knees? Hell, where was my slightly increased heartbeat?
It simply wasn’t there. It was nowhere to be found.
I tried to keep myself wrapped up in the hype and go along with what I was being told. Following our advanced screening, I told anyone who would listen: “See Paranormal Activity! It’s one of the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in theaters!” Which, while seemingly a glowing recommendation, is the worst kind of truth: one by default. Because I’ve seen an awful lot of horror in theaters over the years, kids. And only once before had I been left shell shocked – the first Blair Witch Project. If that was to be number one, then something had to take second place. So what would it be? Well, considering most of the horror I’d gone to see in theaters was garbage – stuff like Darkness Falls, Jeepers Creepers, etc. – Paranormal Activity was scarier simply because it had no real competition. And believe me, the chasm between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity was wide, and ever widening in the days and weeks following my having seen the latter.
Paranormal Activity wasn’t the first movie ever to be over-hyped, and it shan’t be the last. A slew of other semi-new films from the last five years prove that.
For instance, remember Trick-r-Treat? Remember how it was supposed to be released sometime in 2006? (Maybe you don’t.) Well, the anticipated release date came…and went…and no one saw hide nor hair of the thing. And then word spread that Warner Bros. had shelved it, citing they didn’t know how to promote such a thing to a wide audience. They suddenly didn’t have faith in the anthology format and were trying to determine a proper marketing strategy. Year after year people who knew the film existed waited for a release announcement, and nothing came. And in that time, well-meaning sites like Dread Central and Shock Till You Drop, both of whom had seen the film, bemoaned its lack of release. Because, you see, it was one of the best horror films they’d ever seen. It demanded to be viewed with a large audience. It was “a better Halloween[-related] film” than John Carpenter’s film of the same name.
Well, once it was finally determined that the film would be making its debut on home video, courtesy of Warner Bros.’ now-defunct direct-to-video line Warner Premiere, all eyes were on its 2009 release date. I know mine were. And on that day I snapped it up, brought it home, excitedly hit play…and 90 minutes later, found myself seriously underwhelmed.
Look, I’ve revisited Trick-r-Treat several times since then (in October, as I’m sure most other repeat watchers do), and it’s certainly fun, well told, and clever. It’s not at all bad, and I enjoy watching it. But again…one of the greatest horror films ever? Scary?
I wish I could stop here. I wish these two titles were my only examples. But sadly, the list keeps going.
Hailed as one of the best of its release year, Attack the Block dropped on video following a wave of accolades, and what I saw was a bunch of street hoods in unintelligible British accents fighting off a swarm of Cousin Its.
The most recent to drop was V/H/S, a film Rolling Stone Magazine called “the scariest of the year.” A clever combination of the found footage concept utilized in the anthology format certainly made it stand above the rest, but what we ended up with was a very mixed effort, whose strongest stories book-ended a film made up otherwise of very pedestrian and straight-to-video-level garbage. Even the segment from Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Inkeepers), whom I like very much as a director, ended with an “oh…” I wish I could say that Radio Silence’s final segment was worth the price of admission alone, but fifteen minutes of greatness do not make up for the previous ninety minutes of lame scares, obnoxious characters, and completely shoe-horned-in nudity.
Honestly, the list goes on and on. (Don't even get me started on House of 1,000 Corpses.)
Here’s the thing about hype: it’s the flu, or the common cold. Try as you might to avoid it, unless you live like E.G. Marshall in Creepshow, who maintains residence in a hermetically sealed apartment to keep himself free from germs, you are not immune. Neither you nor I can avoid letting preconceived notions of horror films seep into our subconscious. We’ll never truly defeat the idea of hype and allow ourselves to go into something with low expectations. But there are things we can try to help soften the blow of the next disappointment.
Do what I do: Don’t watch trailers. Don’t read reviews. Don’t read the coverage. If a TV spot comes on while you’re watching the tube, flip to the next channel for a second. By now you’ll have developed a keen sense on when a project is worth following or not. Is the premise intriguing? Do you like the talent involved? Then leave it at that. Wait for the release. See it expecting the worst.
If I had seen Paranormal Activity or Trick-r-Treat free of Internet baggage, I would have liked them a lot more. V/H/S, too, would have played better for me if I had thought it was just a direct-to-video effort. (Nothing could have saved Attack the Block – a lot of people were drinking the Cool Aid on that one.)
As previously mentioned, it’s bad enough a small fraction of the horror released is worth watching. It’s even worse when it gets crammed down our throats by the same few sites on a daily basis until we can’t take it anymore. While I know some of this constant fellating of grassroots horror comes from the natural urge to boast that few have had the privilege to bear witness to something the world has yet to, I also know that most of it comes from a genuine place. We are, after all, horror fans, and we deserve the right to be excited about something coming down the pike that may possibly prove to be different, original, and scary.
But I also think we deserve to make up our own minds.