Of late, my love affair with horror movies has been on the rocks.
In the summer of 1998, I watched every horror movie I could get my hands on. I went through all the Friday the 13ths, all the Nightmare on Elm Streets, all the Halloweens. I saw Hills Have Eyes, The Shining, the Fright Nights, The Howlings, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Psycho, The Birds, The Amityville Horrors, the Exorcists, the Puppet Masters, the Subspecies, Castle Freak, and a LOT more I can’t even remember. I’m not telling you this for bragging rights, I’m telling you this because I want you to know HOW MUCH I love horror movies.
But recently, my love has soured.
They just don’t please me anymore–I’ve grown up, matured, and see the world differently: political corruption, panpidemics, ecological disasters, economic hardship, the aging of my friends and family, all are things that affect me directly and indirectly. I don’t watch FOX News and shit my pants every time they use the scary voice, but there are bigger things in the world than me and I’m aware of it. ‘Growing up,’ it’s called, and the darkness under the bed or in the closet isn’t scary anymore because there might be a monster in it, but because my fears have become larger, more abstract than just monsters. My fears have grown with me.
Horror movies, by and large, haven’t.
There’ve been a few in recent years that scare me, certainly. The Ring (US and Japanese version), a few Asian horror movies, El Orfanato, The Devil’s Backbone, The Audition, Pan’s Labyrinth (not overtly a horror movie but still has its moments) and a moment or two in the Silent Hill movie (which has nothing on the games for scares–or if you’re REALLY into frightening games, check out the Fatal Frame series, if you can find it), British submarine movie Below.
The point is, there are still good horror movies being made, it’s just a slog to find them sometimes. Especially since I have such a weird viewpoint of what makes a horror movie good. I don’t expect filmmakers to please me–I’m just one internet critic with a lot of time and a lot of opinions. But instead of seeing films and bitching about them, I’ve made my own little list of what takes a horror movie from something that makes you wonder if it’s a money laundering operation for the mob to something watchable. It”s a somewhat subjective list since I am very snobby about the horror movies I watch, but at least I know what I like.
1. Likeable, or at least compelling characters
Recently, I started watching ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,’ Don Coscarelli’s entry to Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. It opens on a woman driving on a secluded road, who crashes into another car. She gets out to check on the other person, and sees blood. Then we flash back to a date the woman went on with a man. The man is talking about economic hardships faced by children in other countries, (I think it was Thailand or India). The woman responded ‘Do I look like the kind of girl who cares about kids in 3rd world countries?’
I turned it off.
Being an entitled bitch doesn’t make her an interesting character, and we still don’t know what kind of person she is, so this is her introduction, not the scene in the car. I read the summary of the rest of the movie, and she has a lot of horrible shit happen to her, which makes me suspect that the whole movie is just a punishment fantasy.
Even if your character isn’t likable, they can still be compelling. And even if not, then having bad stuff happen to them should be HARD for you to write.
2. Understand your Limitations
If you want to make a huge effects-driven film with lots of monsters and elaborate sets and production pieces and it needs to take place in a series of four-star hotels, and your budget is somewhere around that of a used Honda, then guess what kind of movie you probably aren’t making.
Can it be done? Most Certainly. Necessity is the mother of invention, and more has been achieved cinematically in the last 35 years with less. Some of the biggest, most evocative horror movies were shot on a fairly low budget. Being creative, and flexible, makes things happen. I like watching a movie that isn’t afraid to make do with what they’ve got–Gothic, the film about scary things happening the night Shelley, Byron, Polidori and Shelley got together to write their horror stories, got a RIDICULOUS amount of mileage out of a ghilly suit and a rubber mask. It Can Be Done.
3. Broaden Your Worldview
Challenging yourself makes you a better person, which makes you a better artist, which makes your art better. If you grew up in an upper-middle class white neighborhood, then do something outside of your comfort zone. Go to a shitty flea market in a rough part of town. Hang around an ER waiting room and watch the people going in. Read non-fiction books dealing with social and political upheaval that take place in a country you’ve never been to. See documentaries, talk to people you have nothing in common with.
The point to this exercise is learning that what scares you probably isn’t what scares other people. True, vampires might pale in comparison to genocide in Rwanda, but understand that in the right context, a good metaphor can scare the shit out of people. There’s a reason District 9 was so good–it was about something real. I like movies that take me not just out of my life, but puts me somewhere else that’s interesting, that I want to explore more. Session 9, a new horror cult classic followed a HAZMAT crew as they removed asbestos from a haunted insane asylum. No bullshit, just some blue collar guys doing their jobs.
4. Learn From Others
Study the Masters–not just people you admire, but EVERYONE. If someone is a great filmmaker, find out why. Read books that AREN’T about film, see movies in languages you don’t speak.
I hear young filmmakers say things like ‘Why should I study someone that everyone else thinks is so great? I’m trying to do something new!’ Guess what, precious, people were doing this before you were born and some of them ACTUALLY knew what the hell they were doing. There is a wealth of human knowledge for the taking, all you have to do is want to learn.
In short, Welcome To Earth, it was here before you were born.
You’ll notice that nowhere in my list did I include guts, blood, torture porn, or teenagers in their underwear. That just isn’t what I’m looking for. Also, it’s stupid–horror movies in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were known for also functioning as softcore porn delivery devices, since real porn was kind of hard to get hold of. In this day and age, when you can get porn on your phone, it seems quaint to include gratuitous sex in movies. It says of the filmmakers ‘God! These people are paying to see our movie instead of jerking off for free at home! We have to include lots of sex scenes otherwise we’re wasting valuable wank time!’ The logic is lost on me.
Anyhoodle, there’ve been a few horror movies in recent years that really caught my eye and I thought were worth mentioning. I’ll be doing reviews of them as I can, starting with Session 9.
Every time I see a good horror movie I want more, I want to overdose on them as I did that one glorious summer–alas, there’s only enough to go around for a really good hit now and then.