The Hollywood horror film is vanishing, victim of its own excesses
There is good news from Hollywood. After several years of stepped-up gore and violence, horror movies are on the wane. The goblins, ghouls, maniacs, bogeymen, and Halloween howlers appear to be giving up the ghost at last.
They haven't quite vanished yet. Variety, the show-business newspaper, lists a few shockers among the top moneymakers of recent weeks, indicating that moviegoers are still willing to patronize them. And more are due for release in the near future, carrying such titles as ''Swamp Thing'' and ''Amityville: the Possession.''
But these may represent the lingering residue of a trend whose time has passed. Among filmmakers and many fans, horror has become old hat. While suspenseful and supernatural themes are still considered fair game in themselves , the recently thriving breed of knife-wielding massacre-movie is definitely on the way out.
Confirming this new direction in Hollywood thinking, the very term ''horror movie'' has become suspect. The advance word on Paul Schrader's latest picture, ''Cat People,'' describes it as ''an erotic suspense story interwoven with a contemporary love theme.'' From that, you'd never guess it was a remake of a 1940s horror classic.
Similarly, the promotors of John Carpenter's next film, a remake of ''The Thing,'' call it a ''blend'' of different elements, including science fiction and fantasy - in the vein of ''Alien,'' perhaps, which was sold as sci-fi rather than horror. A spokesman for this summer's ''Creepshow,'' made by horror specialists George A. Romero and Stephen King, insists that graphic gore is held to a minimum. Special ''color filters'' have even been used to tone down the shock effects of some scenes. Clearly, the makers of such ''class'' productions want to put a lot of distance between themselves and the unrelieved mayhem that has lately passed for horrific entertainment.
This new attitude stems from recent excesses in the horror-movie industry. Chicago film reviewer Roger Ebert has called attention to the increasingly common practice of putting the audience in the place of the killer through ''subjective'' camera techniques, encouraging viewers to identify with the villain rather than the victim. Even fans of scary and supernatural films have been outraged by the blatantly anti-female attitude that's common in today's exploitation movies. Also offensive has been the trend toward more and more graphic shock effects.
Analyzing the situation in American Film magazine, film sociologist Robert E. Kapsis suggests that practical reasons are also behind the current ''fade to black'' in the horror business. The overseas market for horror films has diminished. American newspapers and magazines are exercising more control in deciding what movie ads they will display, and some are drawing the line at ultraviolent fare. The rating system has also tightened up on horrifics, wielding its dreaded ''X'' more freely -- reducing the potential audience for such films, or leading producers to cut their most sensational material in order to receive a milder ''R.''
What's more, television networks have become hesitant about buying shockers that require extensive cutting. Movies from ''Carrie'' to ''Halloween'' have been substantially trimmed before reaching the home screen, and there are signs that other pictures (with equal gore and less advance popularity) aren't getting there at all. Debra Hill, the producer of ''Halloween,'' reportedly reached a compromise with NBC over cutting, after pointing out that many made-for-TV films contain more in the way of violence, sex, et al. But the super-popular ''Halloween'' is a special case; indeed, it sparked the recent horror boom that is just now dwindling. Less-talked-about pictures may pose more problems than they're worth for network censors. And without good prospects on television, it's hard to get any movie off the drawing board these days.
Ironically, the movies have thrived on horror, of one kind or another, since they began. Such classics as ''Nosferatu'' and ''The Lodger'' date back to silent days, and were made by great masters of the medium. Later, the original ''Dracula'' and ''Frankenstein'' films were hugely popular, generating their own cinematic myths and spawning long strings of sequels that still haven't died out. Dark, brooding film noir was a staple during the 1940s, evoking the blackest of moods and the nastiest of characters with a minimum of violence, and rarely a shred of what would be called gore today.
Such pictures are still shown constantly on late-night TV and in revival movie theaters like the Thalia in New York (which is now running an impressive film noir series) with notable success, though few would deserve more than a PG rating.
The descent of recent thrillers into an abyss of gore reflects two separate phenomena. First is the increasing permissiveness of the movies, tempting producers to outdo one another in concocting scenes that will generate notoriety and quick box-office value, if not respect or enduring appeal.
Second, and not so self-evident, is the sad decline of the B-movie tradition. Just a few decades ago, Hollywood prided itself on churning out respectable and inexpensive quickies, which often showed more flair and less pretense than their big-budget cousins. Today, as some Hollywood moguls capitulate to the challenge of cable TV and other threats to the movie business, most ''B'' pictures are made as sops to a teen-age audience that's allegedly as undiscriminating as it is mobile and affluent. Hence the proliferation of thrills as cheap in spirit as they are in budget and imagination.
In addition, critics have played a part in the lowering of movie standards. Instead of drawing the line at obviously crude productions, some have developed a kind of reverse snobbery, rooting out dubious virtues in unlikely places. In a recent issue of Film Comment magazine, published by the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center, a group of 1981 ''ten best'' lists includes such mediocrities as ''Alligator'' and ''The Fun House,'' ''The Howling'' and ''The Hand'' -- a stance that may lead to spirited arguments among specialists but is hardly conducive to raising the level of American cinema.
As film-scholar Kapsis points out in his American Film article, the recent arrival of horror-movie spoofs like ''Saturday the 14th'' may signal the last gasp of the horror boom, just as ''Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'' showed that audiences of the '40s were no longer intimidated by monsters. Shockers are sure to rise again someday, just as Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster always have. But it looks like we're in for a respite from the cheapest and sleaziest variety -- the likes of ''Friday the 13th'' and its progeny - and that will be a welcome vacation.