Fansnoria, Pt. 2

Horror movies. There is something about them that's hard not to love, even if many of us only experience them through the tiny openings that shine through as we attempt to cover our eyes with our hands in fear.

When I was a little kid I really didn't like scary movies that much. I'd tend to find excuses to leave the room whenever the suspense ramped up. I think part of it was not wanting to see other people getting hurt -- because at a certain age whatever I saw on the TV screen was in my mind essentially real, and it was hard for my mind to process.

But as I grew older, I began to recognize the thrill of it all. The excitement of willingly putting yourself in a situation where you knew someone was trying to get under your skin and make your pulse race.
Because horror, when done right – is a visceral experience.
Regardless of the plot or characters, if you're drawn into a storyline to the point where you're able to suspend your disbelief, watching a good horror film is in many ways experiencing the intended fear firsthand. You jump in your seats, scream at shock moments, cringe at the gore, and recoil from the impressions of evil that the movies give you -- all from the safety of an upholstered chair, or a favorite couch.

The mix between the fear these concepts create and the knowledge you have that it’s all make believe on the screen creates a delicate balance of adrenaline and mental separation that enables you to experience fear without actually being in danger -- Which is part of what makes it so much fun.

But lately it seems as if the cinema has become overrun with titles and concepts to the point where everything starts to sound the same. Anyone you talk to will tell you (as our recent quiz pointed out) that there are a lot of bad horror movies to be found -- many of which are actually wildly successful in terms of box office returns and overall profits.
And that's a huge part of the problem.
Horror movies in general are really cheap to produce. The original Saw took a reported 18 days to make at an estimated cost of about $1.2 million (which is basically nothing, even for a horror film). Since that point, that movie alone has brought in well over $100 million dollars and spawned 5 box-office topping sequels (so far).

Despite being continually bashed by critics and movie fans alike, the Saw franchise is proof that there is an audience out there that enjoys the possibility of a story with enough twists, turns, shock, and gore – and is willing to risk being disappointed by your efforts in order to find it.
It’s essentially a license to print money.
Let’s say you're a small film studio -- like Freestyle Releasing out of Los Angeles. If you can find investors enough to help you make, market, and release a film like The Haunting of Molly Hartley with an estimated budget of $5 million dollars, and you even do enough box office and video sales to bring in say $19 in earnings (which is how much the studio earned with it's first release, An American Haunting), with the possibility of striking a Saw-sized jackpot always around the corner, why wouldn't you continue to greenlight scripts, even if they don't really seem all that great?
At the same time, you can't really get mad at a dog for barking.
Movie studios are created to make money, and horror movies are as close to a guaranteed payday as the industry can provide. In fact when you think about it, from the studios point of view -- there's really nothing wrong with the genre. The product continues to sell, the profits are fairly steady, and not only are there plenty of scripts available to make, but the re-make market has proven itself to be viable as well.

For example, one of the few horror movie titles I found myself interested in seeing lately was a flick called Quarantine. The commercials seemed interesting enough -- and even if the whole people trapped in a haunted house full of flesh-eating zombies concept has gotten a little played out lately, it's still the kind of thing that when done right can be entertaining.
Then I found out that Quarantine is actually
an Americanized remake of a Spanish film called [REC].
I'm not saying that Quarantine is a bad flick (because I haven't seen it) but because now it's clear it was made with the same thought process that turned Ringu into The Ring, Kairo into Pulse, and Seeing Ghosts into The Eye -- I probably won't be seeing it, at least not in a theater.

The point of all this is that despite what you and I might think about the state of horror movies overall, the industry has reached a level of financial success that more or less precludes the studios from worrying about the quality of the product.

Much like other niche genres -- there's sort of a built in audience for it that seems to have no problem paying for a movie that 2 hours later they might walk out of feeling disappointed with. Simply put, horror movie fans have gotten used to watching crappy horror films. A big part of this group is teenagers, but if you've been to a movie theater lately what you realize is that (at least here in the south) it's not necessarily limited to that demographic. When I saw the Rob Zombie Halloween remake in the theater (on opening night), there was a couple next to me with a young child on one side of them and a baby seat on the other.

And I could go on and on about how annoying it is to watch any film (much less a bloody horror film) with a screaming kid two seats away, but how about the kids having the chance to see that sort of film? Do they understand the context of it all? Can they somehow appreciate it?

Think about it for a second. Certainly it was a different day and age -- but as the other day’s quiz confirmed, many of us caught our first horror films because we snuck into them, or found a way to steal a glance at them on late-night cable. Part of the appeal, part of the scariness of horror films to me was this idea that at a certain age you weren't supposed to watch them. My parents and teachers would continually tell me that I was too young to handle it. That it would mess me up.

Is there a kid alive right now that hasn’t seen an R-rated movie?
When I first watched Friday the 13th, I was sneaking a look at it on cable. I was up past my bedtime, watching an R-Rated movie (which my parents had forbidden me to do until I was old enough) on my DAD's TV on a school night. In a lot of ways I was already terrified before the movie even started. Any sound I heard from the other room could be my father coming in to bust me. It was a forbidden thrill – something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. So once I got pulled into the story and shock of the film where every sound in the woods mattered, my heightened senses made everything worse. I couldn't scream when the movie was scary, but it wasn't as if I could just sit there and do nothing when the guy in the hockey mask started cutting the counselors of Camp Crystal Lake to pieces with a machete either.

But that wasn't even the worst part – which came the next day when I realized that part of my summer was going to be spent as a counselor at Camp Wekiva -- a place hidden deep in the central Florida woods that my parents were sending me to be alone at for 2 whole weeks.

In other words, context matters. Many of the more infamous silent killer movies (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) were made during a time when Serial Killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy being in the forefront of the evening newscasts. Religious thrillers such as The Omen and The Exorcist thrived at a time where the church was a much stronger influence on family lifestyles.

Not that filmmakers haven't given up on the idea of tapping into society’s fears for movie topics, but that as our society has become more diverse and fragmented, the list of ideas that scare us collectively seems to grow shorter and shorter -- leaving us with a market that has become glutted with forgettable, sometimes laughable titles.
  • One Missed Call -- about a cellphone voicemail message that could foretell your death if you listened to it.

  • Stay Alive -- about a videogame whose players die the same way their characters are killed in the game.

  • Dark Water -- where evil takes the form of a the water in cheap apartment building's sewage system.

  • The Shaft -- (I'm not making this up) about a high-rise building with a killer elevator in it
  • I don't know what's worse -- the thought that I'm supposed to
    be afraid of an elevator, or the fact that this film is a remake.
To me, what makes classic horror work is the way that it sticks with you. The way that seeing a certain monster wreak havoc tends to make the shadows a tree casts against your window at night bothersome. The same reason most people aren't stupid enough to wander around in any house where a murder was supposed to have taken place. The same reason I'm never buying my son a doll that looks even remotely like Chucky.
I’m not afraid of the movies I saw – I was afraid of what they made me think might happen in the world around me.
Going to summer camp when Friday the 13th was popular was always a little weird. Getting a phone call after watching The Ring was unnerving. Trick or treating at old man Gately's house after Halloween came out was completely out of the question.

Horror cuts into your vulnerabilities. It opens threads of uncertainty in your mind that you can't help but tug at, like a loose string on a sweater sleeve. You know you shouldn't be pulling it, but you can't really stop -- until the shirt on your back is falling apart and there's no going back.

Which is why I feel that the "torture porn" movement that seems so popular right now (Saw, Hostel, Turistas) is problematic.
Because there's a difference between being creeped out and feeling afraid.
A pit full of hypodermic needles that you have to dig through to find a key is a horrific idea. It's creepy on a base level. Just typing about it brings to mind the discomfort that a shot at the doctor's office brings, and that's only one syringe. But as much as the idea disturbs me, I don't really fear it. It's not something that wakes me up in the middle of the night, or an image that flashes into my head when I'm half asleep and hear a weird noise coming from the kitchen when I'm the only one home.
Because a pit full of needles isn't something I'm expecting to run into anytime soon.
So in the end the emotion I felt watching that scene was more like, "Man I'm sure glad that's not me in there."

In other words -- I'm not scared of things that I absolutely know aren't going to happen to me. I can’t find sympathetic emotional connections to people who put themselves in stupid situations on screen only to suffer consequences because of that decision.

Seriously, if someone tells you everyone who's stayed in this hotel room has died, and you still decide to stay in it, and you end up dying in a horrible, gory way -- how am I supposed to feel? You're the idiot that went in there! I can be disturbed by the imagery, but what happens more often than not (and you hear this in theaters a lot) is that I find myself laughing at the violence, the sheer over-the-top fakeness of it all, or the way other people in the theater and jumping and cringing at the same sight.

If I’m laughing at someone else’s pain, it means I’m not really afraid of it -- or sympathetic to them at all.

Think about that for a second -- Remember in Friday the 13th when you'd hear those echoed sounds that let you know Jason was somewhere near? Remember in Halloween when that single note on the piano just wouldn't stop, and you just knew someone was gonna get it? The Jaws theme when you couldn't see the shark itself, only shots of children's feet treading underwater?
It’s not supposed to be about waiting for the first victim to
die; it’s supposed to be about hoping that they won’t die at all.
Alfred Hitchcock used to talk all the time about the difference between suspense and horror. About the idea that if you have a movie scene where a bomb goes off and people die, it's disturbing -- but if you were to see a man put down a suitcase with a bomb inside at a bus stop and walks away, and then a mother and a child sit down at that same bus stop, and then the kid starts maybe even playing with the suitcase it's a totally different thing.
We’re not afraid of what happens as much as we’re afraid of what we worry is going to happen.
Horror movie fans don't want to feel sorry for characters in danger on the screen when they’re victimized by violence or evil. What we really want is to warn them, to help them avoid the danger. We project our thoughts to what might happen if that suitcase at the bus stop were to explode. We think furiously of how the mother and child could be warned. We look at every passerby as a possible savior. We know something they don't, and it drives us nuts at the most basic level not to be able to do or say anything about it. The fact that they can’t hear us gasping in suspense and walk seemingly unknowingly into the hands of the killer only adds to the suspense (or depending on the stupidity of the character, the bloodlust) that we feel.
Which is why when a movie simply tries to gross you out, all you can really do is react to the moment.
I'll admit to being kinda scared of being bitten by a shark. But I'm absolutely horrified at the idea of knowing a shark is heading towards the place where my son is swimming in the ocean and not having any way to warn or save him. Because when that happens, when I'm mentally isolated with the fears of consequences and guilt -- I'm suddenly locked into a tiny space in my mind where I'm not only afraid of what's going to happen, but I'm powerless to stop it as well.
Horror movies thrive on that kind of claustrophobia.
The fear that you've ended up in danger, and there's nowhere to run. No way to save yourself. It’s what makes killers like Jason and Michael Myers frightening, because there's no negotiating with them. No plea for mercy that will be heard or answered.
They're the lion, and you're the gazelle -- and once the lion separates you from the herd, all you can do is run.
Now imagine you're running inside an abandoned house. Imagine you're stuck in a hospital after hours. You're alone in the woods. You've woken up tied to a chair in the basement of the old house in the Texas countryside. Or take it another direction. You're in a room full of people, but you're the only one who's not yet a zombie. You're free to run, but if anyone of them gets a hold of you they'll all grab hold and attack. Even if you break free they'll follow.
They don't sleep. They don't stop. They just keep coming.
Once a film gets your mind racing to conclusions, you're open to shock. Once you're fully involved worrying about the killer chasing you from behind, you're totally vulnerable to the screeching cat darting out in front of you. It's a concept Hitchcock called The MacGuffin -- which is essentially a plot device that drives a story forward and draws the audience’s attention, but frequently has little to do with the actual plot itself.

Psycho starts out as a movie about a robbery. The camera focuses constantly on the money hidden in the folded newspaper, and Marion Crane’s actions to escape before anyone realizes what she's done. She drives far into the night, but eventually gets tired and pulls to the side of the road to sleep. The next morning a policeman wakes her, and is literally staring right at the newspaper. He sees her acting nervous, so he follows her for a while. She gets so ramped up worrying over the cop in the rear-view mirror that she eventually pulls into a motel to get some rest, where she meets innkeper Norman Bates -- who creeps her out (especially after a comment she made about his mother) to the point of deciding to give up on the whole thing and go back home to make amends with her boss that she stole from.
Just as soon as she takes a well-deserved shower..
What happens next is a scene out of movie history for several reasons, none of which have to do with the money that's hidden in her possessions. In fact, when Norman realizes what he's done and disposes of her body and car in a nearby swamp, he makes sure to put all her possessions in the car to sink with her -- including the newspaper only we are left to know about.
Her folly becomes her fate. And we are helpless to save her, or even tell anyone what we know.
Modern films focus on what happens in the shower. Modern films want you to be afraid of the knife, the man who wields it, and what he will do to you. Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake chose to focus on Norman Bates as a sexual deviant, a killer protecting the secret of his original murder from anyone who chose to come by -- a directorial move that eventually steals the energy out from under the film, and makes it more of a one-note good guy/bad guy tale.

Great horror films on the other hand ask you to worry about what goes on behind your back once you've tempted the fates. About the consequences that come when you've done something to deserve retribution. When you're not a good person. How can you stop that wheel from turning, especially when the deliverer of judgment is a ghost or some sort of un-killable shape? What if you were just goofing around, what if we've all done little bad things in the past that were on the same sort of innocent level as fooling around with a half-naked camp counselor in a cabin in the woods, or we see someone on a screen doing that and we sorta feel like cheering them on and celebrating that sort of debauchery only to see it answered with brutal, remorseless murder?
Good horror movies ask us what kind of people we are; what makes us so worthy of saving?
A question we know the answers to better than anyone else in the world. Because no one is completely without sin. Even if that sin is simply making an offhand comment about some hotel clerk’s overbearing mother.
You can stay in the shower as long as you want, but that sort of thing doesn’t just wash away..

[Listening To:  Chevelle"An Evening With El Diablo" ]


Mel said…
I love horror movies! And I'm one of the people that enjoys being tortured by the Saw series.

First scary movie: "Deadly Eyes" -- a movie about giant rats. Terrifying for a young child!

Great post today!
herculesrob said…
Great post! I cannot agree with you more. Actually, I just wrote a post exactly like yours. Anyway, this was a very detailed and well-researched entry and hopefully the horror genre can change for the better in the near future (though it doesn't seem like it will).
LadyShay said…
I've never really been in to the scary/gore/horror genre. I'm much more in to comedy and suspense. I wanted to see Quarantine so damned bad, I did, and I was highly disappointed.

Signs was scary for me, but that's because I'm anti-aliens.
Amanda said…
I think our fear is so ramped up that there's no room for suspense any more. What we're afraid of now on a daily basis, if the world has it's way, is what will happen to us. The classic horror that you love is based on community and we just don't operate that way any more. We don't introspect and wonder what we might have done to deserve anything, we blame and punish others for the speck of sawdust.
Not to be doom and gloom, I just think that what you say is right on, but horror tries to play to what we are afraid of and in a day when we're too scared to stand in front of the microwave when we're pregnant and put leashes or lo-jacks on our kids, we gotta amp up the gore and extreme imagery in order to compete with what we're told is just around the corner for us in the real world.
Satorical said…
Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
wigsf said…
As I read this, all I could think about was that movie Brainscan. A crappy horror sort of. Don't know why, I just did. Crappy movie, I don't recommend it.
Hex said…
Mel -- you know what's a great Giant Rats movie? Willard (the original, not the remake). It's so quietly evil.. just a great flick.

Herculesrob -- thanks for the kind words, and the post you wrote is great too! I do think every now and then a good horror movie can sneak through, but the market is so oversaturated right now, it might be hard to find, you know?

Shay -- Quaratine was bad? Oh man, I was hoping to catch it on DVD.

Amanda -- I totally see what you're saying. I just think there's ways to simplify the formula and still get results. Sometimes it's not what you show as much as it's what people worry you're gonna show.

Satorical -- Love it!!

wigsf -- Brainscan was one of those "kinda like Scream" flicks, right?

I swear, "Scream" was simultaneously the best and worst thing that ever happened to this genre.
Heff said…
Let me know when that decent modern day Horror Flick is released. I'll be waiting.
Hex said…
Heff -- four semi-recent films that were half-decent:

Joyride (seriously, I love this flick)
The Descent (surprisingly good)
Feast (more of a spoof than anything, but it's a wild fucking ride)
Slither (gross. gross. gross. but funny).

Still, none of these even pretend to live up to Hitchcock. You want a good suspense ride? Watch Rear Window.

I don't care how old it gets, that movie is incredible.
Heff said…
Thanks. I'll make note of those.
whatigotsofar said…
Brainscan was one of those "video game makes a kid a killer without him knowing" sort of movies.
epsicolian said…
Molly (Haley Bennett) is a 17 year old girl who has physically recovered from a stab wound inflicted by her mother her begin a new life after her trauma. That is the main topic for the movie Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008). Is she born to serve Devils? Cant wait to see the movie on a site I always use
Frank said…
Zombies will never get old. Never.