On silver screens, real scares scarce

The horror genre of film is rife with classic cinema. But somewhere along the way it lost some steam. I’m not going to call myself an expert on horror movies, or movies in general. Far from it. But I do consider myself a “movie buff” and I can’t help but notice a decline in the horror genre. And I’m not alone in this. Go on any forum for any film website dealing with this issue and you’ll find comments that can be basically summed up like this: the horror genre isn’t what it used to be. It’s been soaked with remake/sequels and unoriginal ideas for a good decade now. Most notably, the movies just aren’t scary anymore.

That begs the question: what makes a horror movie “scary?” In this day and age, filmmakers seem to believe the answer to that question is gore: Lots and lots of blood and gore. In the right hands, this can be executed pretty well. But in the wrong hands, it just becomes exploitative, ridiculous and not scary. A perfect example of both cases are the “Hostel” films. The first “Hostel” was a great piece of horror. Sure, it’s a “torture porn” flick and a good portion of the movie involve drugs and sex. But when the actual horror hits, it hits hard. There’s a hint of suspense and mystery surrounding the film that makes the actual gore all that more intense. “Hostel: Part II” on the other hand is definitely brutal, but pointlessly so. It ruins the mystique of the first film by aggressively throwing everything in our face. It’s disgustingly violent, and gives a side story describing the motives of some of the torturers. I think the first film did a good job of hinting at the “Elite Hunting Club” while never fully revealing them. It’s like Michael Myers, a figure that works better as a “shape” rather than a fleshed out character.

This is where Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” films failed. On paper, giving a backstory to Michael Myers sounds good, but in its execution, at least in Zombie’s hands, it failed miserably. There was no more suspense, no more mystery. In Zombie’s world, Myers was a kid in a hell hole of a redneck household with a tendency for mutilating small animals. What’s scary about that? In John Carpenter’s original film, we don’t even see his mom and dad’s faces. But we get the idea that they’re respectable parents. I think a kid with a good homelife who still feels the need to kill someone is far scarier than a kid with a troubled upbringing, because we don’t expect it.

So to answer the question of what makes a good horror movie, the answer can change based on the execution. But judging by the examples I gave, I think there has to be a sense of mystery/suspense surrounding a horror film, even one as brutal as “Hostel,” for it to be truly frightening. Perhaps this is why audiences love the “Parnormal Activity” series so much. These ghost movies use the found-footage technique seen in movies like “Cloverfield” so there’s never too much being revealed at a time. While that can get slightly frustrating after three movies, it’s still respectable. These movies aren’t out to gross us out. They test us with jump scares and subtle spooks, and they do it well.

When you look at the amount of good horror movies today compared to the bad, the difference is quite noticeable. There’s a select few truly good horror films these days. But all of those bad movies make the good ones stand out even more. “28 Days Later” and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake stand out as the definite zombie films today. Even though the latter film is a remake, it has its own style that separates it from the original. Director Zack Snyder knew what he wanted with that movie. With remakes, they can truly be good if the creators don’t try copying everything. There has to be a fusion of old and new ideas for a remake to work. The problem is that there’s too many being made, especially within the horror genre.

Other notable modern horror films are the original “Saw” (a pretty unique idea that, like most horror franchises, got beat to death in a stampede of sequels), “The Descent,” “The Crazies,” “The Strangers” (which legitimately gave me chills) and the Swedish film “Let The Right One In,” which was remade in America as “Let Me In.” These are movies you should consider if you’re looking for Halloween movies. Or you can dip into the classics like “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Shining.” The list goes on.