Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When was the last time you were truly scared at a movie? And I’m not talking about false "boo's" like a cat running across the screen when you’re expecting Freddy Kruger to show up. We all jump at those moments, but they’re cheap scares. Not much in the last five years? Or ten? Probably because these days, it's awfully hard to scare us properly. Why is that? I just saw THE RITE and found it virtually scare-free.

Anthony Hopkins certainly deserves better than a warmed over EXORCIST retread. And he's been in some truly frightening films, none more so than THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). There, as Hannibal Lecter, he played a truly frightening character, one that gave the whole nation goosebumps. Seems like a long, long time ago.

Is it that there are too many real villains out there these days? The Jared Loughners of the world, the tyrants ruling in the Middle East, the snickering bankers cashing in their bonus checks while the recession rumbles on for everyone else, maybe those miscreants eclipse any Hollywood made-up baddies too easily. I think it goes deeper than that though. I think films today have gotten their horror priorities all mixed up. And because of that, they no longer know how to keep us on the edge of our seats.
For starters, there is simply way too much product coming out of Hollywood tagged as ‘horror’ and more often than not, it's sure to disappoint. The market has become so saturated with scare fare that most of it is vanilla, pedestrian even, churned out like bland sausage from a grinder. If the films aren't cookie-cutter, they strain credulity trying to be unique in concept. It may have seemed like a novel idea, but making God the villain in LEGION (2010) unleashing his arc angels on a sinful earth, was a dumb and ungodly choice. Are we out of troublemakers? God is all that's left?

And too often gore-fests still rule the day when it comes to modern horror. The thinking seems to be that if you can' t get someone to close their eyes by scaring them, at least you can get them to do so being gross. Folks like Eli Roth and Michael Bay may have some talent as filmmakers but what they've done to horror has less to do with ratcheting up tension and more to do with hatcheting cast members. The bloody excesses of Roth's HOSTEL series and the torture porn remakes that Bay has done to 70’s horror classics like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE unfortunately seem more sociopathic than artistic.

The influence of YouTube has not been particularly good for the modern horror film either. Sure, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) had their moments but they were more interesting in concept than as sustained nail biters. They tried so hard to be real that ultimately they became boring as not a whole helluva lot happened on screen. And any true moments of terror were unfortunately squelched by their nauseating camera work. Horror movies should not be that stomach churning. Not from excessive gore. Certainly not from jittery camera work.

I believe that there are three simple features that any truly worthy horror movie has to have, and those qualities are too often forgotten by today's movie maestros. First, and foremost, a horror movie needs an empathetic hero. Someone you can feel for and relate to. A real person with true vulnerability.  In the 1975 classic JAWS, the Roy Scheider character is a tough New York cop transplanted to Amity Island. Yet there, in this vacation paradise, he's afraid of the water, wary of the baleful fisherman Quint and even fearful of crossing the sleazy mayor. If he were just another tough cop, say a Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris type, not afraid of anything let alone one measly shark, the film wouldn’t work. It works because Scheider's Chief Brody may be a cop, but he's scared shitless. He's playing us, the audience, feeling all the same terror that we do. Empathy rules here, not gore. 

The second thing that has to happen in a great horror story, and this may be the most critical thing of all, is that the hero has to act smart. Amazing how many horror movies forget this. But think about it, how does the audience respond immediately when someone acts stupid on screen? They scream, “Hey, you idiot, don’t go in that house alone at night. The monster's in there!” When people act like fools in a horror movie, we automatically lose empathy for them and figure they deserve  what they get. This led to hilarious, albeit  unintended, consequences in the FRIDAY THE 13th and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchises in the eighties. The audience ended up rooting for Jason and Freddy because their teenage foils were simply too stupid to care for!

One of the best examples of where the hero’s intelligence really drew us in masterfully was in 1979's ALIEN. Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley is smart throughout and we love her for it, cheering her the whole way. She was the one who didn’t want to let the search party back into the ship with an alien life form attached to John Hurt’s face. Smart. She was the one who didn’t trust Ian Holm from the get-go. Really smart. And at the end she not only saves the world from the monster, but she saves the only other creature left on the board as well, the innocent pet cat. Smart. And sweet!

The third quality needed in a great horror movie is a villain who’s sin is partly our own. Perhaps it goes back to Eve’s conspiring for that apple with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but the better bad guy is the one the good guy has helped create. In horror movies, the hero’s sin should summon the monster. It does so in THE RING (2002) when Naomi Watts’ character puts her career over family and thus her neglected son watches the dreaded videotape without her permission. In FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), Michael Douglas thinks he can get away with cheating on his wife without realizing his sexual greed has called up a golden curled monster who will not be ignored. And in THE SHINING (1980), Jack Nicholson’s dislike of his son allows the demons at the Overlook Hotel to play on his darker thoughts. This might be why so many modern horror movies fall down. Most victims in these things are simply too innocent to deserve the trouble they get into. What was the sin of the students traveling across Europe in HOSTEL (2005)? Wanting a cheap room? Hardly worthy of the bloodletting they would eventually get.

THE RITE missed the mark on all three of these necessary items. What was the lead character’s empathetic story? He becomes a priest to escape the family mortuary business. Yawn. Then he refuses to believe a young Italian woman is possessed by the devil even though she spits up 4-inch nails and knows all about his previous life. He's an idiot. And the devil here is simply too big a villain, ruining countless innocents in the movie that have nothing to do with the priest's sins.

Luckily, some modern filmmakers know what they're doing. 2009's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, from Sweden, and it's American remake in 2010, LET ME IN, were exceptional examples of modern horror done right. They were vampire tales, rendered extraordinary by it's hero and villain both being children. These two movies created exquisite tension through the empathy and intelligence of their two lost youths, left adrift in an adult world far more monstrous than they were.  

So tell me, what horror movie really rocked you?  Please post your thoughts here. I'd love to hear your story. And I'll bet we all can relate.


  1. Would 'No Country for Old Men' count? My house mate and I saw that one evening when the movie we wanted to see was sold out.(and I can't even remember what that movie was!) I had read a couple of good reviews on No Country, so we went to that instead. Neither one of us slept well that night! Smart people, like you mentioned, with human foibles we could identify in ourselves. And the villain, he was just really scary! The hair thing made him just weird enough to make it even more disturbing, I thought. What did you think?

  2. BECCI, that's a brilliant thought! One could definitely consider NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to be a horror movie. Kind of a horror western in a way, isn't it? Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) makes for quite the monster with his dogged and unrelenting pursuit, as well as his odd looks & manner. (He's kind of a first cousin to The Terminator or Jason Voorhees.) And of course what summons this monster is the sin of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The sin being Moss' greed.

    Horror can be so much more than the typical spookfest with obvious monsters like THE CREATURE WITH THE BLACK LAGOON. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, from a child (THE OMEN) to a dog (CUJO) to nosy neighbors (ROSEMARY'S BABY) to a seemingly harmless inkeeper (PSYCHO). Sometimes the monster is also 'the hero' as in BLACK SWAN. Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) thinks she's surrounded by demons out to destroy her - her mother, her director, her rival. But in reality, she herself is the beast.

    Alfred Hitchcock always believed that man himself was the greatest of monsters. So did Robert Louis Stevenson. And Mary Shelley. Rod Serling too. Thus the monster movie milieu should widen to include films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. In that context, the horror genre has delivered some spectacular films lately, as you, your house mate and I can attest.

  3. Very well said! The most effective horror/thriller movies are 1) those that scare the life out of you more because of what you THOUGHT you saw, and 2) those that influenced behavior when they first came out. Three good examples of this more subtle, yet terrifying approach are:

    PSYCHO: considered the first slasher film by many, made 60’s theater-goers think twice about stepping in that shower

    JAWS: the first summer blockbuster, affected how fast 70’s vacationers decided to get in the ocean...if at all

    HALLOWEEN: a slasher descendent of PSYCHO, influenced many subsequent 80’s films by allowing the chaste heroine to live, and convinced many babysitters of the time to leave the boyfriends at home

    Brilliant filmmaking. Legendary results. These are the scares we remember so well decades later. And, think about how well we ALL know the musical scores - they are unforgettable. Minimum gore resulted in the maximum effect. A lesson unfortunately lost on a lot of lesser, long-forgotten films that followed.

  4. Well said, Fan With No Name! Less is more. And good music does more than any bucket of blood. Indeed those three classics you listed were seminal films that many have imitated but few have equaled.

    Thanks so much for posting. Hope you continue to follow The Establishing Shot. And please do continue to post your excellent thoughts.

  5. Only PSYCHO scared the bejesus out of me. Nothing, not even the best of the rest, can compare.

  6. I'm a big horror fan and I actually agree with you. Horror is just like any art. You have to sift through all the muck until you find something magical. The only problem being that horror is so cheap to produce, there is so much more of it and it seems to already have a built in fan base. We all love to be scared. That being said, and I'm surprised it wasn't brought up but, the Stephen King penned, Darabont directed adaptation of The Mist. It follows your criteria to a T.
    We have David Drayton (Tom Jane) getting locked in a convenience store with his son as the world outside is being displaced. It isn't the creatures outside that we fear, it's the humans in the store, almost immediately splitting into groups. It isn't a slasher, ghost, or ghoul we are afraid of, it's the religious zealot Ms. Carmody (Marcia Gayharden) that is out for blood.
    One could argue the ending and I won't get into because of spoilers but, I found The Mist to be a chilling film.

    Some other good recent horror: Eden Lake, 28 Days Later, The Descent, (although quite gory) Inside, Hard Candy, Trick r Treat (great anthology piece), and (Fincher's) Zodiac. Although, I've always said the scariest film I've ever seen was Jesus Camp.
    Sorry for the long list, I'm passionate about my horror.

  7. Twin Features, you are spot on. THE MIST was a terrific film, unceremoniously dumped by its studio and egregiously overlooked by me here on the blog. I probably should have listed some of the better horror movies of the last decade as well, rather than just reach back to the 70's for classics like JAWS and ALIEN. If I had, then I definitely would have mentioned such quality entries as 28 DAYS LATER, HARD CANDY and perhaps the best of the lot, THE DESCENT. (I liked the British ending better, but the American ending is still pretty haunting.) ZODIAC is one of my favorite films of the last decade, and seems to be more of a thriller or procedural to me, but one could argue its place in the horror genre.

    Quite simply there is way too much horror coming out of Hollywood these days and it's done for all the reasons you mentioned. And scary movies almost always turn a profit, no matter whether they're good or bad. I just wish that the people making them appreciated the difference more often.