Thursday, June 5, 2014


Harvey Stephens as Damien in the 1976 classic THE OMEN, a film I wish more horror would emulate.
It seems that a new horror movie comes out almost every weekend. (I should know, I’m the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner.) And if they’re not in theaters, they’re available on VOD. But so many of them fail to thrill or chill. Why is that? And how come there is such a glut in the horror market these days?

Quite simply, horror is very often cheap to make and thus, producers can turn a profit quickly. Also, the horror audience wants to be scared and they’ll loyally venture into the theaters hoping for that to occur. Even if it doesn’t, the producers have the opening weekend grosses and those margins keep the cycle spinning. Finally, a lot of ticket-buying patrons don’t demand all that much from the genre unfortunately. They’re happy with sloppy films, uninspired bloodletting and the umpteenth sequel in a SAW or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise. They should demand more from the horror product.

Like all good films, scary ones need terrific stories. And that means avoiding some of the more egregious blunders that too many filmmakers stuff into their entries. Here are the 10 I find the most unfortunate:
One of the unfortunate victims swathed in gore galore from HOSTEL: PART 2 (2007).
There’s too much blood
For every bloodletting success like SAW and HOSTEL there are those classics that didn’t show much blood or guts to get their point across. Revisit THE OMEN from 1976 and you’ll discover a lot of horrific deaths, but very little blood accompanying them. Less is more, as often is the case, and blood more often than not makes onscreen deaths seem gratuitous. It also is gross to watch. Horror movies need to be scary, but not so stomach churning.

The good guys are idiots
A funny thing happened in the 80’s. Horror movies started getting populated with oblivious teenagers who failed to create empathy with an audience and we started cheering for the Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers of the cinematic world. Yes, people are going to die in horror, but they need to be more than the next sacrifice on the blotter. As in any movie, we want characters that we can care about.
Another ghost is up to some dirty tricks in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012).
The monsters are too familiar
Zombies, vampires and ghosts are great. But what else ya’ got?

Fake scares betray true ones
In this day and age, most horror fans aren’t going to fall for the pretend scares where you think the bogeyman is going to jump out of the shadows and it’s just the family cat. And then having the killer emerge five seconds after we’ve stopped laughing at the fake scare has become an overused cliché. Honesty goes a long way in horror. Filmmakers need to earn our screams more legitimately.

Animals are sacrificed too readily
Speaking of cats, horror makers need to stop killing off animals so abundantly, particularly, the family pets. You don’t have to be a pet owner to know that dogs and cats are lovable creatures and don’t deserve the easy demises they so often face at the imaginations of some cynical filmmaker. And it’s very difficult for an audience to care for a family onscreen that blithely goes on after the murder (yes, murder!) of their beloved furry family member.

Women are too often treated like meat
#YesAllWomen applies to the horror genre too. Hearing a woman scream onscreen is expected in a horror movie, just like a sharp knife or a drooling fiend. But do so many of those sharp knives and drooling fiend have to slaughter women in situations where they’re naked or sexualized? It’s misogynistic and it’s wrong.
Vincent Price dressed up as Shylock from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE in 1973's THEATER OF BLOOD.
The stories lack sophistication
Monster attacks people. People fight back. End of story. Too often this is as dimensional as horror gets. And yet look at things like THE OMEN which was all about the book of Revelations, or Vincent Price thrillers that quoted Exodus and Shakespeare. Heck, SEVEN was about the most abhorrent sins as deemed by religious leaders from the 14th century. Not every horror movie has to have a doctorate, but it would be nice if they were more cultured than just the pitch of ‘a maniac is on the loose.’

The sets get more attention than the story
Did the production values of the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE leave a lot to be desired? Sure, but their reboots in the last decade spent more moolah on the look of the film than the feel of the film, much to their detriment.

Nighttime has become a crutch
Of course being afraid of the dark is universal, but it gets overdone in film. Dark corridors, shadows at every turn, monsters emerging from the blackness – all good. But scaring up thrills in the day, that’s really something. Steven Spielberg did it in JAWS. So did M. Night Shyamalan in THE SIXTH SENSE. More filmmakers should try stretching what can be scary.
Oh, what THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT started with its 'found footage' style in 1999.
Too many characters carry cameras
‘Found footage’ is a sub-genre that has given a whole new way to present horror but if the characters are busy documenting everything that’s happening to them in a horror movie, aren’t they unworthy of our empathy if they keep filming when all hell breaks loose?

Maybe it’s because long-form stories can go deeper, or because TV is more of a writer’s medium, but the small screen is trumping the big screen when it comes to the great horror these days. NBC’s HANNIBAL has shown that a familiar character can be rebooted with frightening freshness. Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL has better acting and mood than most any cinema venture. And where does Vera Farmiga really get to shine, in BATES MOTEL or THE CONJURING? I loved the latter, but the former is Emmy worthy work.
Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates in A & E Television's BATES MOTEL.
Horror will always find an audience, but TV is proving that viewers aren’t just interested in quick thrills. They will sit for thoughtful, character-driven tales of terror. And if filmmakers approached the genre in a similar fashion, and ixnayed the overdone genre clichés listed here, then horror could truly be in a new ‘golden age’ on both fronts. Here’s hoping.

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