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Is CGI degrading the quality of modern-day horror films?

Updated on June 7, 2011

The Thrill is Gone

Horror films do not have the lasting psychological effect they once did, and this writer, for one, blames the advent of computer generated imagery, or CGI, in many- if not most- modern-day thrillers. Special effects, orchestrated on a computer screen, offer a universe of possibility to the filmmaker in today’s oversaturated film industry. Studios can dream big, and pay big, in large part due to the wonders of computer enhanced effects, which have been steadily improving since the days of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). But what CGI will never offer the horror film world is the element of belief; the feeling that what you are watching CAN ACTUALLY HAPPEN TO YOU. Films like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962), and Alfred Hitchcock’s, “Psycho” (1960), continue to terrify audiences today because they arouse a deeper psychological response that no special effects, no matter how gory and explicit, are capable of producing. CGI in films can certainly offer an enhanced visual experience, but it is seldom effective and ‘realistic’ enough to reach audiences at their core. CGI-packed movies, specifically in the horror genre, lack the staying power of the horror film classics because they rely mainly on a “shock” thrill, otherwise known as “shock value”, and invest little time into the nagging psychological element that is so well developed in “Baby Jane” or just about anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

It is easy to blame the greater film industry for simply producing so many horror films that the market cannot help but be oversaturated and, by default, lacking in solid and original storytelling. These days, all it takes is a couple of big-ticket names and a decent title to get studios on board for a film. Nevertheless, and despite the other problems within the film industry, the argument here remains that CGI in horror films is quickly degrading the very foundation on which horror films were once made: to be hauntingly real. After all, isn’t the scariest part of any horror movie when you read: “Based on True Events” at the bottom of the screen? One recent example of a film that eventually wrote its own demise was 2010’s “Insidious”. The anticlimax of seeing a computer-generated, red-faced, Darth Maul look-alike, whose prerogative was to infiltrate the soulless body of ten year old, Dalton (??), acts as a metaphor for most ‘new-age’ horror flicks. Filmmakers seem to be distancing themselves further and further from reality as computer generated effects continue to ‘perfect’ themselves.

I, for one, suggest that filmmakers take a reflective look back into the past, back when horror films could be identified with, and back when they were unnerving on a psychological and cognitive level, and not solely on a physical or visceral level. Computer generated imagery in horror films may be on the rise, but its effects are losing their novelty, and the films that rely on it are losing their audiences. Shock value, excess carnage and gore, and outer-worldly beings are all products of modern-day computer enhancement. These effects do not require audiences to think, and they certainly do not command the audiences’ undivided attention. Special effects will never be an appropriate substitute for proper storytelling and character development. It is unfortunate that the once psychologically-driven stories, that were so relatable across generations, are now an endangered species, quickly being replaced by absurdity and unreality, made possible by the advent of CGI in horror films.

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