Halloween is nearly upon us and for once I’m not railing against the studio system for a lack of horror in theaters. It seems five years of complaining has finally gotten through to them. Just kidding, they don’t listen to me. But October has been a pretty good year for horror in terms of movies actually being in theaters. In wide release this month we’ll have Sinister, Paranormal Activity 4, and Silent Hill: Revelation. Throw in a couple of limited release titles and this feels like at least quadruple the amount of horror films we normally get.
And even if you longed for more horror, you’d only have to turn on the TV.
Switch the set on, and it’s more horrific than ever! The Walking Dead! American Horror Story: Asylum! AMC’s programming of monster movies! Well heck, what possibly could I be mad at with this quantity?
Why, quality, of course.
I recently caught up to Sinister in theaters, I know, I’m a little late. But better late than never, right? There was a lot of good word about the film from AICN contributor C. Robert Cargill who joined the ranks of Drew McWeeny as Ain’t-It-Coolers who went from reviewing horror to seeing it on the screen. Congrats to Cargill – before I use his film as a jumping off point into this rant.
It is not important to note, but I will anyways, that the critique of Sinister to followwill more heavily target director and co-writer Scott Derrickson since a lot of what took me out the film was the actual scare techniques.
Part of my problem with that flick, and the titles I’ll mention shortly, is that they really overused cheap scare tactics, the stuff that’s guaranteed to trigger the hard-wiring of the human body. Jump scares and loud noises. No matter how hard or cold of a man you are, your body is programmed to respond to these stimuli.
Truly scary films will often have a few cheap scares but will mostly rely on tension and atmosphere to send a chill down your spine. Think about Insidious, which mostly relied on atmosphere, or The Exorcist or The Shining. Films that are scary without throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you in attempt to make your girlfriend jump. The first hour of Sinister could fit in with these films – all of the fear comes from the creepiness of the situation – nothing is jumping at you and the piano keys aren’t being pounded.
However, the latter half of the movie was plagued with cheaper type jump scares. Children’s faces randomly appeared in the scene. The score started hammering rather than accenting. Mr. Boogie flashed onto the screen. In perhaps the biggest and most obvious cheap scare of all, Mr. Boogie once more flashed onto the screen at the very end of the picture, completely removed from the narrative of the story. That scare exists for no other reason than to make people jump. It’s a cinematic sucker punch.
I don’t mean to rail on Sinister here, it’s just the most recent and fresh example, but Paranormal Activity is no stranger to this phenomenon. It lulls you to boredom with a lot of nothing and then just goes nuts with loud noises and things that get a reaction. Even the well received American Horror Story (Season 1) was not above this cheapness, especially in the early episodes. It seemed as if someone read a book on “How to make a Scary _______” and followed it to the letter. Jump scares. Crazy canted camera angles. Loud noises. Not spread out, but all thrown in your face as if to yell “ISN’T THIS SCARY?”
In talking about cheap scares one mustn’t forget that comedy Drag Me to Hell, a film devoid of any actual scares, but one crammed to the guts with vomit and loud noises out of nowhere.
The problem is not specifically jump scares or cheap scares, but with lazy scares. Any movie can creep you out by having loud or flashy things happen out of nowhere. There’s probably even a mathematical formula that could be deduced about lull times and perfect scare opportunities. But the problem is that these scares don’t offer anything. They get a physical reaction, but that’s it.
It’s like someone jumping out from behind a door at you – yes, you’re startled. Scared for a moment, but you don’t spend the rest of your day quivering. You’re not afraid that there is someone behind every door. The moment has passed. It’s forgotten about.
A truly scary film will stay with you. It doesn’t jump out at you, pat you on the back, and leave. No, it gets under your skin. It follows you home. It creeps you the fuck out. It makes you afraid to go in the water, to take a shower, to accept that hotel caretaker job. How many movies like that have you seen?
Not a ton – because most horror takes the easy way out.
If you want to scare someone, Hollywood, you must unsettle them on a deeper level. Horror, scary horror, is not about screaming “Boo!” It’s about whispering “Boo…,” quietly, and letting the audience sit and stew on what it is, what it means, and whether or not it’s sitting in the dark corner of their bedroom tonight.
The lack of truly scary movies is disappointing. I want to be unnerved and every time I’m just startled by a loud noise or a flash-cut of something creepy, I go past my boiling point because it’s just one more instance of a filmmaker taking the easy way out rather than putting in the work to maintain that atmosphere from start to finish.