I’m not going to go on a rant about how horrible horror movies are these days–I’m not that old. More importantly, no era is impervious to criticism–for every Halloween there are 50 Kingdom of the Spiders.
That said, it seems that recent horror movies have glommed onto certain ideas about how to scare audiences, and those ideas are failing miserably. The Unborn, A Haunting in Connecticut, One Missed Call…the list of suck just goes on and on.
I think the underlying problem is that the writers and directors of these films have confused “scary” and “startled.” Being startled happens when something occurs on-screen that surprises you: someone appears in a mirror or behind a door, a dark shape moves across the background accompanied by a loud blurt from the soundtrack, or a human-like figure is shown with unusual attributes.
I’m going to geek out for like a paragraph or so. Children go through three different stages in terms of fear. From ages 3-8, kids are frightened of unrealistic, fanciful stimuli, such as monsters, mutants, or supernatural creatures; in other words, things that do not typically appear in the world. From ages 9-12 (of course, these ages are approximate and are not steadfast for everyone), children are scared of more realistic stimuli in the form of bad things (murder, abduction) that could happen to them or loved ones. Children ages 13 and over scared of more abstract stimuli, typically on the psychological level. They’re scared of physical harm as well, but overall their concerns have spread to include people everywhere. In short, the progression goes from discomfort of the initial image to a deeper fear of something bad happening to anyone, including strangers.
Looking at these recent films, it’s easy to see that they’re only accessing that first level of fear, which is normally restricted to young children. Those disturbing images of malformed victims don’t frighten adults–they startle adults. But, the more those images are on the screen, the more time our brains have to work on figuring out why this individual doesn’t look like others. The most logical conclusion (which is also most-easily reached) is that the image is fake. And, suddenly, the movie isn’t scary, just annoying and insulting.
So here are my random thoughts for scary movie filmmakers(albeit incomplete and jumbled) on how to fix the horror genre:
1) Develop tension. Seriously, it’s actually not that hard. Create a character that’s moderately likable (hell, sometimes it doesn’t even take that) and build some tension. Give us viewers some information that the characters do not have. Let us see the person lurking in the background (as opposed to a loud musical screech as a shadow rushes by in the background). Take your time. Slowly pan the camera around slowly. Let us see that something in the room has changed. Subtly give us a clue instead of beating us over the head with the obvious.
2) Enough with the mirrors. We get it–the character looks down to wash her face, she looks back up and OMG THERE’S A PERSON IN THE MIRROR!!!11!!1!!1! Yeah, you’re not even trying anymore. At least, if you do it, have the guts to play with the audience a little bit (like in the underrated Orphan).
3) Technology still exists. At some point, a meeting was held with all of the horror movie producers and directors to address the fact that it’s not 1999 anymore and everyone now has cell phones (including potential victims in the films). Unfortunately, the meeting lasted only 12 seconds, which was just enough time for someone to blurt out, “Yeah, sure, but what if they lost service?” and for everyone else to agree on the genius fix. Seriously, the “no service” solution has to be the laziest script remedy since amnesia. Unless you’re in the middle of Montana with a Zach Morris cell phone, you can get service. Period. You’re being ridiculous and you’re embarrassing yourself. Find a way to adjust.
4) Nicholas Cage sucks. Nothing to do with horror movies. I’m just saying.
5) Enough with the CGI. Did you learn any lessons from The Haunting?Â When you use CGI, it doesn’t look real. Period. And, if you start out the horror movie with CGI, most directors use the effects more and more as the movie continues, often building to some sort of epic tornado of suck, like if Carlos Mencia and Tyler Perry were hanging out at Nickelback concert. So, while the CGI effects were a bit bothersome, they become so annoying that you end up resenting the movie.
6) Kids aren’t scary. With very exceptions, kids are not scary. Giving them a bowl cut and slapping on some mascara doesn’t make them scary any more than having an old lady swearing in a movie makes it funny.
There are plenty more, but this should get you started. Work on it, Hollywood.