The Horror of It All

October 16, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Not surprisingly, this is the time of the year when horror movies are the most popular. It would be an understatement to say today's crop aren't what they used to be. Without being overly judgmental, let me state that 2000-era horror isn't as creepy or scary as what was out there 10, 20, or 25 years ago.

Horror films have been around for as long as movies have. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are two of the best-known silent films, and Universal's classic monster movies from the '30s have lost little of their popularity over the decades. After Universal's creature features devolved into self-parodies, Hammer took up the mantle and re-invigorated the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Mummy. In the late 1970s, a new breed of horror movie - the so-called "slasher" film - was born, and this kind of feature dominated the genre for the next ten years.

Now, we have reached a point where generic horror falls into one of two categories.

The first would have been unthinkable two decades ago: a PG-13 niche. PG-13 for a horror movie? It makes sense from a marketing standpoint - find a way to get all those pre-teens and teenagers into theaters - but not from a creative standpoint. How can anyone justify watering down a horror movie and still having anything worthwhile left over? It's also worth noting that a lot of these PG-13 efforts are re-makes of Asian horror movies, thereby making a statement about Hollywood's ongoing artistic bankruptcy.

The second is an orgy of sadism and self-referential mockery. We have Scream (a good film in its own right) to thank for the second part of the equation. No longer is it acceptable just to pour on the gore and violence. Now, there has to be a comedic side to things. As for the other part... there has always been an element of sadism in slasher movies, but there used to be something to offset it: a sense of horror (hence, the genre name) about what's happening. In Halloween, the viewer's sympathies are with Laurie Strode, and every killing raises the level of terror. In recent horror movies, with cardboard characters not even the most sensitive movie-goer could care about, the point is the killings. This is sadistic voyeurism. This is what nearly every horror movie is about that isn't a teen-friendly remake of an Asian ghost story.

I paint with broad strokes, of course. There are still good horror movies out there, but they can become difficult to identify. Often, they aren't well marketed. Consider The Descent, probably 2006's most taut horror film. No one saw it. It came, it saw, it tanked. Yet crap like Hostel and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Remake Prequel continues to pull in audiences. Common sense indicates that because people are paying for these movies, they must want to see them. Therefore, more will be produced.

What elements are necessary for a good horror film? Fans can argue about this for days and nights, but I think there are four:
(1) An adult sensibility. This doesn't mean there has to be a lot blood and gore, although such things are allowed. It means the movie must be made for an audience mature enough to absorb what's happening. Mass murders, even in movies, should not be laughed off.
(2) Building tension. If you don't think this is necessary to a successful horror movie, re-watch Halloween and pay careful attention to the scene late in the movie when Laurie is trying to get into the house as Michale unhurriedly approaches her from across the street.
(3) Atmosphere. This has to be carefully developed so it suffuses everything. A horror film without atmosphere is like a love story without romance or a film noir done in garish hues.
(4) A sympathetic lead character. Without her or (less frequently) him, who really cares? The murders become an excerise in creative butchery and an opportunity for the special effects department to show off. Consider the Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the first movie, our heroine was played by Heather Langenkamp, and we wanted her to live. In the second movie, the film's focus shifted to Freddy. He became the lead character. Does anyone (other than Nightmare fans) remember the supposed "hero" of this sequel? That's one reason (among others) why the original Nightmare is a classic and its follow-up is pretty much forgotten in mainstream circles.

Notice that my list does not include "scares." Those shock instances, also referred to as "boo!" moments, are often used as crutches by directors whose material is not strong enough. That's not to say that good horror films don't contain "boo!" moments, but they're extraneous. Actually, one could make an argument that "boo!" moments are counterproductive, since they release tension and one of the goals of a horror film is to keep this quality building until the last scene.

Most horror movies do not scare me. A lot of them, in fact, bore me. Inventive methods of dismemberment don't do anything. I'm okay with using a knife or a chainsaw. They'll do the job just as well. The last movie to give me the chills was probably The Blair Witch Project. Over the years, the film's success as a horror movie has been debated, but I still think it's one of the creepiest movies I have ever seen. Since then, there hasn't been a lot to cheer about in the genre. Even some of the movies I have liked aren't ones I want to revisit every Halloween.