The gods bless my wife.
For most of the last year, I’ve watched almost nothing but horror movies. She, for her wifely part, has watched them with me, rarely complaining. We’ve watched big budget franchise movies and no-budget groaners. We’ve watched American, Chilean, English, French, Irish, Italian, Japanese, and Scandinavian horror. Slashers, aliens, monsters, zombies and assorted madmen, we’ve watched them in bunches, and I’ve come to a conclusion:
They don’t scare me.
Watching the news scares me. The world situation scares me. Driving LBJ at 5:00 pm scares me. The fact that Roland Emmerich is still allowed to make more movies scares me.
Horror movies don’t.
After hours and hours, I’ve noticed that horror movies, especially the newer ones, reduce down into a few common elements, rearranged as the story dictates:
- One or more people of extremely questionable judgment.
- Female nudity of varying amounts and/or a sex scene.
- Graphic violence.
For over two decades this formula has left us screaming at movie screens and TVs, “Don’t open that door!”, “Don’t split up!”, and for god’s sake, “Don’t have sex with that beautiful naked woman that just appeared out of nowhere even though you are a hopeless dork – oh, and in a locked bunker.” Now, I’m not above a little suspension of disbelief – you need a healthy amount to watch almost any movie – but in a majority of horror films these days, that suspension is so abused that it says, “Fuck it” and quits on you.
It’s been almost 30 years since Friday the 13th helped introduce us to this venerable formula, but just like Jason, it needs to be put down with extreme prejudice. The modern morality play where the virginal, clear-eyed heroine won the day against the dangerous or supernatural antagonist is tired and painfully predictable. While it seemed to work out well for the audiences of the late 80’s and early 90’s, today’s audiences – exposed to a myriad of grotesqueries and horrors on the internet – are fairly immune to whatever “horrors” movie makers think we want to see. In response, movie makers seem to think the only way to jar audiences is to ramp up the violence, which, to me, explains the current trend towards “torture porn.”
But that’s not horror.
Or I guess it could be… a lot in the same way that a Quarter Pounder could be considered healthy and nutritious sustenance: in reality, it’s a poor imitation.
Horror films should touch us in a bad way: it’s the stranger at the bus stop late at night that sidles up to us and runs its fingers along our thigh and whispers disturbingly in our ear before ripping our heart out. Instead, today’s horror films leap out at us with garish make-up, day-glo green polka-dots, and Neon signs over their head proclaiming, “I’m scary!”
Horror films should be like campfire stories. It’s something that draws us in, engages us, and then grabs onto something universal… and squeezes. It should be something that pulls us from our ordinary world into a fantastical darkness but one also so personal that we cannot help but be shaken by it.
Horror films should be very human, something that manipulates our deepest fears, the ones that sit down in the basement of our brains like a deranged employee that cannot accept that it has been replaced by higher reasoning functions. It should work on an archetypal level that speaks to us on a primal level.
It should induce fear.
Snipped tendons make me cringe and evisceration can make me pretty queasy, but does it really scare me? No. Why? Because the vast majority of the time when I’m watching a horror film, the characters are so poorly developed, I don’t care about them – or worse, I’m hoping they die in the most painful way possible. This is yet another product of the “standard” horror film. It seems that screenwriters and directors are content to focus more on creative kills than on creating characters that we find interesting or sympathetic enough to want to see survive the carnage . Instead, we sit there in the dark, identifying victims by their sins, and then sussing out who the survivor will be.
No one should be safe.
Death should be a real probability for everyone in the film, but give us characters that we would want to see live. In addition to making a better story, it preys on the fear of something happening to someone you care about.
See the trend.
One could even go so far as to say that the better-crafted a story is, the more fear you can make. So, Hollywood, stop feeding me the same worn-out crap you’ve been serving up for the last couple of decades. Stop insulting my intelligence with bad scripts full of bad characters. Go Merchant-Ivory on me. Develop some characters, make me like them and then subject them to bodily harm. Hell, you can even put them in a manor on the English countryside if you want. Just do something that you didn’t do to me all last year.