I love all kinds of movies. Especially the really good ones.
But when given the choice between watching a movie in a theater packed with strangers or in my living room where there’s a maximum occupancy of five, I will almost certainly choose the latter now. Obviously the overwhelming majority of new releases don’t offer that option so I find myself in the theater a couple times per week both for work and for pleasure, and to be clear, I’m very much a fan of watching movies come to life on the big screen. My problem is specifically with the audience.
Between the talking, all the 911 calls and the loud smacking noises apparently required when masticating lobby chum, the theater experience has dipped in quality quite a bit in recent years. No big revelation there. Every week seems to bring a new debate about whether or not theaters should allow tweeting, juggling, or breast feeding during movies, but while I’ve gotten used to the distractions during most types of films there’s a sub-genre wholly dependent on atmosphere that’s suffering thanks to this new breed of sphincter-like filmgoer.
Watching scary horror movies in theaters just isn’t scary anymore.
I’m going to generalize a bit and draw a line between film goers and film lovers here.
The former will go to anything that’s been heavily advertised or “promises” to offer some thrills, while the latter know to avoid anything bearing the Happy Madison imprint or starring a Wayans brother. The goers will go to just about anything playing nearby and probably be a dick through at least part of it. The lovers will seek out the films they want to see and do their best to respect both the movie and the people sitting beside them. Of course there are a plenty of polite goers and rude lovers, but just accept the premise as a general truth so I can get to the point already.
That point is this. Horror movies, as evidenced by their heavily front-loaded box-office, often attract both the goers and the lovers. So like summer action flicks, romantic comedies, and movies about CGI-loving magicians, the potentially dickish audience members will represent a healthy percentage of the crowd. Unlike those other genres, horror can have a quieter, more serious side with films that create a terror-tinged ambiance through mood, character, and tone. Cue the aforementioned chatterboxes whose big mouths are sucking up those fragile scares like Luigi wielding a Poltergust 3000.
And that goes against everything we’ve come to love about seeing horror flicks with an audience.
A room filled with like-minded people, all excited and wanting to be terrified. Just as a good comedy can send waves of laughter rolling through a theater, a well-played jump-scare can result in people screaming and gasping in unison. It’s a shared experience that grows from one person to the next leading to group exhilaration and a collective sigh of relief until the next time a cat leaps from the shadows or a killer appears in a just-closed medicine cabinet mirror.
Not all horror movies are out to frighten you in such bold and obvious ways like, say, the forced jump scare master class and loud noise convention Drag Me To Hell. Some are more interested in the gore (Evil Dead), others focus on character and/or story (Carrie), and still others simply want to take audiences on an entertaining ride (You’re Next). The energy and excitement flowing through an audience during the types of films above can actually enhance the experience, and in some circumstances they can make even a bad movie a lot of fun.
But others choose a tougher road far apart from the cheap scares, and therein lies the issue. The Changeling. The Orphanage. The Conjuring. Other movies starting with The. They build their cinematic haunted houses brick by terrifyingly quiet brick. They increase the tension and craft an atmosphere that wraps its ghostly arms around us leaving our own hands gripping the armrests in dread and anticipation. They leave us knowing that something terrible is on its way, that the characters we’ve grown attached to are probably in serious trouble, that the phantasmagorical shit is about to hit the fan. The silence is deafening with its deadly promise.
And then someone a few rows behind you yells “Boo!” Or belches. Someone laughs, someone else aims an ineffective “shhhh!” in their direction, and the film’s carefully built tension has been utterly and completely deflated. That’s how fragile a horror atmosphere can be.
You could argue that there’s a common cycle in movies of increasing suspense, easing back with a joke or a reveal, and then ramping it back up again for maximum effect, but shouldn’t that be the film’s call to make instead of Buster Dickweed’s over there?
My first screening of The Conjuring was in a packed theater, and on multiple occasions laughter and whispered comments floated through an otherwise quiet auditorium. Others pretended to scare their friends during a couple tense scenes with a “Boo” of their own. Are they doing it in part because they themselves are scared? Possibly, but that knowledge is no replacement for what’s been lost. It’s one thing for this to happen in a creature feature or a Platinum Dunes retread where it annoys or energizes without damaging the film at all, but when a movie’s greatest strength is its disquietingly calm atmosphere, the audience can be the worst thing for it.
The possessed girl threatening obscene things with a crucifix doesn’t need your laugh track.
Of course I understand the futility of making this argument at all, let alone using a monster box office hit like The Conjuring as a supporting example. Audiences have been very, very good to it in the best way possible, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for James Wan’s (and the genre’s) $260M+ success. Clearly everyone’s happy with the experience. But it’s equally true that the film is far more terrifying now, eight weeks in and playing to mostly empty auditoriums, then it was opening weekend surrounded by people jostling, whispering, and chewing the whole damned time.
Now just imagine how chilling it will be in a few months when you’re watching it on Blu-ray or DVD, with the lights off, in your own home where the occasional odd noise still makes your neck hair rise, where you have to walk up a dark stairway to go to bed, and where you wonder how that doll got in the corner…