Like the endless search for the perfect fitting bra, I am forever looking for a movie which actually scares me. I don’t mean ones that make me feel physically ill or make me think, like Irreversible or Funny Games. I mean fun, keeping me up at night, jumping at shadows, disturbing my peace of mind filmography. To my sadness, promising movies repeatedly disappoint me, evoking apathy and frustration. Here is my list of why movies don’t scare me, and the movies that got it right.
4. The Jump Scare is Overused and Unnecessary: There is literally a well-viewed Youtube montage of film characters opening medicine cabinets, then closing them to see someone/thing behind them.
It’s been used so much, that horror genre now lampshades itself by having a character open a medicine cabinet, close it, and have nothing there except music which builds and peters out. Or it will be a ‘fake’ scare; it’s just the heroine’s boyfriend or something! Phew!
- Why it doesn’t scare me: It’s overused, I’m expecting it, and it’s cheap.
- How it could be done better: There’s a scene in the 2008 film The Strangers which has a jump scare that works. The main character, played by Liz Taylor, is farting around her kitchen, getting a glass of water, and listening to the radio as she waits for her boyfriend to come back from an errand. Then, while she in focus in the foreground, we see, out of focus and in the background, a masked man silently walk into the room. He stands there for a few seconds, then drifts back into the shadows, never in focus, and without the main character ever knowing he was there. This scene has no building music, and no ‘jump’ sound. It is silent, subtle, and fucking terrifying.
Why are ‘jump scares’ still being used? Do we still have people slipping on banana peels with a goofy sound effect in comedies? No, because it was overdone, and we outgrew it as a culture. Let’s move on in the horror genre as well.
3. The Unexplained is more frightening then the Explainable: I recently watched Sinister, a movie that came out in 2012. It started with an interesting enough premise: An author of true crime novels stumbles across snuff films that were probably shot by the serial killer he’s writing about. OK, creepy, vague, mysterious. Then they go and ruin it, first with ‘creepy children’ (see below) and then by over explaining. The main character Skypes with a ‘Professor of the Occult’, who literally explains all that’s happening: It’s a child-soul-eating demon who’s caused all of these deaths, of course! This takes all guessing, all mystery, out of the film. Worst of all, by doing this, filmmakers are being very patronizing. We, as the audience, need everything spelled out for us?
- Why is Doesn’t Scare Me: I assure you, even the simplest of minds can scare itself more with its imagination, than when everything is laid out for it. The unknown, the unexplained: That is frightening. The filmmaker’s job should be to unsettle you, and plant a seed of fear that your imagination can grow.
- How it Could be Done Better: Do not ever have some thrown in professor of ______ tell me what’s going on. The 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies played with this trope, but did it right. The main character, played by Richard Gere, does visit a professor of the unknown. But the professor pretty much says: The unexplained is the unexplained. He uses an allegory of how a man standing at the top of a building could see more than the people on the street, and how maybe there are creatures in the universe who know more than us. But it’s not exposition, it’s food for thought. At the end of the movie, is everything laid out in black and white for the viewer? No, the mystery is kept. The whole atmosphere of the movie is unsettling, and it stays that way, because it doesn’t allow the viewer to become comfortable with the monster. It allows the imagination to run wild.
2. Children are not Creepy. As a species, we’ve biologically evolved to find children to look, sound, and behave in a way we’ve titled cute. For some reason, horror movies have decided children can be best used as creepy undead/harbingers of doom. It’s not creepy. It’s a child actor. No matter how good of an actor they are (and they usually aren’t very) I’m looking at a round, chubby face with large eyes which nature has coded me to protect.
- Why it Doesn’t Scare Me: Because I just watched it, I’m going to use Sinister as an example again. The child actors with their bagged eyes and grey skin are not scary. They’re not. Actually, they’re kind of cute, and I think I’d like to draw pictures with them and make them a PB & J sandwich.
- How it Could be Done Better: Well, we’ve all had our nightmares of Samara.
It’s the Japanese, man. It’s not just that they get creepy children right. In terms of horror and unsettling atmospheres, I think Japan, Korea, and China have Westerners beat by a mile. Samara’s a cute little child. But she’s based off her Japanese counterpart, and with the hair obscuring her face, her jerky movements (not to mention that her powers and reasons are never completely explained, see above) Samara’s nightmare fuel on every level, and the viewer forgets that she is a child. Because she is terrifying, and children are not terrifying.
1. Don’t Show the Goddamned Monster: Remember Alien? The movie was made in 1979, and people are still terrified of it, despite the advancements we’ve had in effects and puppetry. Alien is frightening for a number of reasons: it’s well directed, and the majority of the movie is building an atmosphere of unease. I think, however, it’s also because we never get a good look at the alien. We see bits and parts, and our imaginations fill in the rest.
Remember Signs? It had all the potential to be a frightening movie, but then this:
Wow, that looks—lame. It was a lot scarier when I just saw its hands coming under the door, or reaching through a fire shaft to grab the latest Culkin clone. Now—now I just hate you, Mel Gibson and M. Night Shyamalan.
And, sorry, but I’m going to use Sinister yet again as an example. Throughout the film, we get blurry peeks at the boogie man, who is apparently also a child-eating god (HERE LET ME WRITE NOTES ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS ‘CAUSE YOU STUPID). It’s kind of creepy, until the end, when he appears:
It’s so obviously CGI/make-up, that any redeemable traits this movie may have had are gone. It’s like going on a pleasant enough date, only for it to end with the other person laying a huge fart on your face. It doesn’t matter how much fun I had up until that point; you farted on my face.
- Why it Doesn’t Scare Me: I don’t care if you have cutting edge computer graphics or special effects make-up, whatever you do, it will not hold up to the test of time. As stated above, let the movie-goer use their imagination. Your mind can always fill in blanks to make vague movies ten time more scary than a director/production team ever could, because the individual’s mind knows what scares that particular person the most, and you, fair director, do not.
- How it Could be Done Better: OK, so I said above that nothing stands the test of time, but I wasn’t completely honest. For me, this guy is the exception:
It’s been 20 years since Jurassic Park came out, and the scene where the T-Rex destroys the Jeep the kids are in is still a heart-racer. And while this goes against my Don’t Show the Fucking Monster idea, it worked here. Why? Well, first of all, Steven Spielberg, and all the budget that comes along with him. That includes the best robotics and puppetry that had existed in the world in 1993. And also, the cleverness of using the rain and the dark to obscure your effects a bit. The boogie man from Sinister is shot in a well-lit hallway at the end of the film, we can see every detail of him and so he looks like shit. So, unless you are Steven Spielberg, (in which case why are you reading this?) or Jim Henson, (and it’d be quite a feat if you are,) do not show the fucking monster.
The running theme here is, stop underestimating the audience. We have critical thinking skills and our minds can come up with theories, conclusions, and scare the crap out of us faster than you can say ‘Castor Oil’.