MUELLER: The horrible state of horror movies

This past weekend, I made my usual retreat to the movie theater to see “Paranormal Activity 4,” the latest in the ridiculously cheap but even more ridiculously profitable horror movie franchise. It was a showing early in the afternoon, so the crowd was sparse, consisting of a confused elderly couple (they left early) and myself.

I don’t know why the aged pair bailed before the film’s final act. Maybe it was for the same reason I was fidgeting in my seat for much of the running time: boredom.

Each scare was set up the same way, each startling revelation was greeted with a yawn and vaguely amused eyebrow raise, and all the characters had a mound of strawberry Jell-O where their brains should’ve been. Needless to say, it’s the worst in the series so far (plans for part five and a Latino-themed spin-off are already in the works).

The tragic part about all of this, though, is that despite its snooze-inducing scares and brain-dead characters, “Paranormal Activty 4” – which should’ve been called “Para-four-mal Activity” in this humble editor’s opinion – is probably the best horror movie I’ve seen all year.

I say this with a heavy heart, but it’s true, and it speaks to a larger problem: Mainstream horror movies just aren’t very good right now. The past two months have offered “The Possession,” “House at the End of the Street” and “The Apparition.” In other words, a bad movie, a bad movie and a really, really bad movie. The rest of the year hasn’t provided much better, including bombs like “Silent House,” “Chernobyl Diaries” and “The Devil Inside.”

The only outlier is “Sinister,” which I haven’t seen yet, but I also haven’t heard that it’s setting the world on fire.

So what’s wrong? What happened to the horror? Why do we scream in frustration and anger during horror movies instead of fear and excitement?

For one, the audience’s expectations have changed. Before the late ’80s, horror movies were often smart, intelligent and chill-inducing films. They could scare audiences out of their wits while still managing to be technically well made and sometimes even providing some interesting cultural, political or social ideas to chew on.

Nowadays, audiences just want to jump, and that’s limited horror movies’ goals and aspirations. Acting is bottom of the barrel in many cases, direction is often lazy and uninspired, and the writing of both characters and dialogue can seem like somebody had one too many lead paint smoothies.

Part of the reason for the changing expectations is that the audience itself seems to have changed. Teenagers are the main audience now, and not to sound like a grumpy old man, but teenagers don’t quite have the same intellectual or production standards for movies. As a result, jump scares rule the day with tired plots the second-in-command.

The audience shouldn’t take all the blame, though (and I’m not just saying that because I am a part of the audience). The horror movie genre has a terrible case of sequel-itis, probably more so than any other genre. Every mildly successful horror movie now merits a franchise – or so studios think – draining the original film of its interesting ideas and good scares.

“Paranormal Activity” started as a fresh concept, but five years later it has worn out its welcome. “Saw” was intriguing and inventive in the beginning, but by the time they reached the seventh film, the only idea the writers had was more flashbacks. “Wrong Turn,” a forgotten horror flick from 2003, has even gotten four sequels (direct-to-DVD, but still). And I’m not even going to get started on all the remakes.

Even if it’s not a remake, sequel or “reimagining” – Hollywood’s new sexy word for remake – the horror genre runs in trends. When one horror movie has a good idea, it gets recreated to the point of oblivion in the hopes of cashing in on the trend. In the ’90s, the slasher film was king. In the past decade, we’ve already seen the genre move from Japanese remakes to torture porn to the found-footage era we’re currently – and sadly – stuck in.

This isn’t a new thing per se. Back when “Jaws” terrified audiences and created the Hollywood summer blockbuster, it was followed by lackluster knock-offs like “Piranha,” “Alligator” and “Orca.” Yes, that last one is about a killer killer whale. Think an R-rated “Free Willy.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say the horror movie genre is dead or that there are no good horror movies; you just have to look outside of the U.S. to find them. Europe has been producing some of the best horror movies I’ve seen, including “Inside,” “The Orphanage” and “The Descent.” They’re truly spine-chilling and definitely worth seeing before America inevitably remakes – and ruins – them.

In case you’re lazy and subtitles cause you to disgruntledly harrumph, the horror comedy is probably the only consistently entertaining horror genre made in America. Films such as “Cabin in the Woods” and “Piranha 3-D” cause more laughs than scares, but at least the laughs are intentional.

Sadly, though, the only scary thing about horror movies right now is the idea of having to watch more of them.