I have seen a lot more great horror movie trailers than actual great horror movies. We’ve all been there – for weeks, sometimes months in advance we see these creepy trailers and think, “okay, this is going to be the one.” And then movie night comes and…plah….it falls flat. It’s a darn shame too because for us horror movie lovers we really want to be scared. The film producers start with the best marketing advantage of all…a willing consumer who wants the movie to be the “best” horror film they have ever seen. We want it to be good, we want to be scared, hell we want to go home and have to sleep with the lights blazing away, the bedroom door locked and our closet door barricaded. Instead 99 out of 100 times they squander our good will and our movie experience leaves us feeling cheated. We’re not looking for an Oscar performance here, but explain to me why the guys who make those trailers…can’t actually make the film? I sometimes think the marketing folks are better than the filmmakers. I’ve been in love with the horror genre since I was a kid and in my analysis I believe there are three reasons why horror movies fail us.
1. Wasted money…it’s what we can’t see
Look if you’re making Star Wars then it’s all about the special effects. In horror, however, special effects can lend to the scare factor, but can never replace the scare factor. Case in point, is any of the “handi-cam” films in production. My favorite, Paranormal Activity, is a perfect example. It scared the hell out of me and there wasn’t a single special effect I couldn’t recreate with a bag of flour. The bad movies so often rely on special effects and prosthetics, that they forget you need an actual story line. Remember that creepy chick in the Grudge? Some make-up and a bed sheet was all it took to keep me awake all night. It amazes me how many big budget movie makers just don’t get it. Almost every great (by which I mean scary) horror film seems to have been produce on less than a half million dollar budget. Scary is so often about what we don’t see. It’s most often about what we fill in with our own minds… “damn how long was she at that basement door scratching out ‘help me’ on that wood door?” I’m not suggesting “no” special effects – The Ring, Darkness Falls had some good ones – I’m just saying that they can’t replace a great script.
2. Dismemberment is not scary
“Oh look she got stabbed!” “Oh they chopped off his arm!”…Yawn, yawn and yawn. I’m certain there was time when dismemberment and stabbing was frightening to an audience. Today it is not. Halloween was a great slasher film, as was Friday the 13th, but it wasn’t the dismemberment that made it scary…it was being chased, it was wondering where the guy was hiding, it was that damn crazy mother at the end of the movie. We are inoculated to gore. It may ruin our appetites if done in a new way – like the Human Centipede – but just stabbing and head chopping is not scary. It can be of course, but only if it does it in a way that really connects us to the event. Saving Private Ryan was not a horror film (in the classic sense), but that scene where the GI is pinned beneath the Nazi and the knife is being pushed in…that was the most disturbing knife scene I have ever seen. The end of the Strangers is another great example – of course I would never have left the room with the shotgun – but still I could put myself in their place and the cutting seemed all too real and the killers oh so psychotic.
3. Off the rails into the field of WTF?!
A number of horror movies start off great and then go off the rails (or jump the shark if you prefer) right into the field of WTF. It’s as if someone had a great idea and then completely lost their mind after the first fifteen or thirty minutes. Insidious is the most recent film that comes to mind. I was really enjoying the movie…and then…what!? That entire scene in which we enter the “other place” just got plain silly. It finished fairly decent but by then they had lost me. I just can’t understand how this even happens. Isn’t someone in charge of continuity? Don’t they actually watch the final version before release? An older film (although it was remade) is another fine example. The first ten minutes of the original “When a Stranger Calls” is probably the best ten minutes in the history of Psycho Films. After the opening however, the movie takes a turn and honestly I can’t recall what the hell happens. Sometimes the turn is really great (the Last Exorcism) but most times it just doesn’t work and it is disappointing as hell. Horror is about build up and pacing and it seems like the Land of WTF exists because a film maker with fifteen minutes worth of good ideas makes a two hour movie.
This is why Indie films turn out horror blockbusters (Halloween, Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch) and the big studio productions fall flat. The Indie’s rely on creativity and interesting scripts instead of special effects. They focus on creating a mood and a story that resonates with the audience – new ideas instead of rehashed stories. Indie artists seem to understand that scary is as much about what the viewer can put into it as the filmmaker. What the audience brings to the film is always going to be scarier than any special effects..just give us the correct canvas, a connection to the story, a decent script and we’ll scare ourselves long after those final credits.
Oh and if you’ve never got a chance to watch my own -zero budget horror film – check it out at my website – http://www.nightmirrors.com– you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hug yourself…well maybe not but it’s better than Insidious LOL.