I was never able to walk down the Halloween aisle in a Walmart or even enter a costume store when I was younger; to this day it still causes me extreme discomfort. I am the kind of man who watches scary shows and has traumatic nightmares for weeks after. Like some sort of masochist, I go back and keep watching things that scare me. But films I watch now don’t seem to scare me as much as older horror films. It could be the overreliance on CGI monsters, handsome or beautiful actors who would never in their right mind venture into a cabin in the woods, or it could be that nobody wants to try anything new.
Perhaps I am a cynic, but the field of horror movies has gone incredibly dry to such an extent that it feels like they figured out everything that worked back in the ‘80s and have stopped trying to come up with anything new since then. For every good horror movie, you’ll find twenty horror movies that can’t hold up a candle to the core tenets of the genre. Protagonists are hard to like or sympathize with, and because of this we have no fear of the monster. What was once a genre that relied heavily on the emphasis of a musical score is now a genre that suffers from the bloat of bad thrash rock. The worst culprits are films that try to keep us scared the entire time, not seeming to realize we need room to breathe.
I don’t need or intend to hold films like “The Evil Dead” up on a pedestal, because in truth the film is not the end-all-be-all of horror. The story is simple, the set is stark, and the sequels increasingly spiral down into what is no longer horror (though still enjoyable) popcorn films. “The Evil Dead” did, however, make excellent use of experimental camera techniques, likeable protagonists, useful sound design, and it was clearly a labor of love. Bruce Campbell’s character, Ashley “Ash” Williams, would probably be considered a very dull character if the film did not work to make us sympathize with him as a protagonist. The primary antagonist is his sister, Cheryl, who tagged along and is the first to become a possessed zombie called a “deadite.” Cheryl’s goal is to kill Ash, his girlfriend Linda, his roommate Scotty, and Scotty’s girlfriend Shelly. We feel sympathy for Ash because his sister is a victim, and soon after is his girlfriend and his roommate’s girlfriend and then the roommate himself. He becomes isolated. What was once a weekend trip with simple goals, such as “have sex with Linda” becomes a dreadful burden. He does not jump immediately down the “murder everyone” rabbit hole which is all too common in modern horror films.
The fewer people Ash has to rely on, the more we sympathize with him. He is not a hero, and he doesn’t want to be a hero, but he is attempting to be heroic out of self-preservation. Ash is put into a situation of increasing and unending dread, and this is where the horror comes from. There are some gross-out shots throughout the movie, but they are not so overdone that we can confuse the piece with “torture porn,” although it comes close at times. “The Evil Dead” scares me, so why can’t any of the three dozen horror films I watched over the summer give me anything better than a jump scare?
I’m not even talking about “Sy-Fy Original Movies,” which are legitimately just visual crack with all the subtlety of a jackhammer and all the shame of being caught masturbating. They have an excuse; they’re usually made by incoming directors and film students on a budget of a million dollars. Their only goal is to break even and fill a time slot, which they almost always do. Just because they have an excuse doesn’t mean they should go out of their way to make a bad film, but I am willing to give college graduates more leeway with their budget and skill than I am a proper Hollywood studio. Films such as “Mansquito” and “Snakehead Terror” get a pass, especially considering they were willing to try some unique looking creatures.
On the subject of monsters, this is certainly an area in need of improvement. We’ve gone far too long without proper cenobite rip-offs, scary yet subtle ghosts or mutants that are at least as irradiated as “The Toxic Avenger” that it’s almost as though there are no sights left for Hollywood to show us. Vampires range the spectrum from classy gentleman to man-bat without a lot of wiggle room for Nosferatu or classic Strigoi. Werewolves are now just wolves unless someone is trying their hand at the original style, and then they’re very hirsute men. Zombies are everywhere, though a bit too tongue-in-cheek when it comes to unique designs. Demons aren’t as intriguing and no one seems willing to change away from traditional Christian demons, or branch even close to the strangeness of “Rawhead Rex” or “Pumpkinhead.” Too much CGI has made Freddy Kreuger’s fear appeal diminish as there is no longer any chance at seeing something that’s actually there on the screen, as opposed to completely put in during the editing process. Jason seems to exist without any concern for his mother, the true villain of the original. Gimmicks like found footage have run their course too.
Consider “Ghostwatch,” a 1992 gem, banned in the U.K. after one viewing. Based around the concept of found footage, a reality show, and making interesting use of editing, “Ghostwatch” was a terrifying piece to watch when I first saw it a year ago. The ghost, a thing called “Pipes,” was anything but subtle in its actions, but its appearance was well done. The faux-documentary team would replay the footage of the scene where Pipes was being active, yet each time the scene would be slightly different. Pipes would be there in full when you first see it, but the second time you see it ten minutes later, Pipes is harder to see. When you see it a final time for analysis, you can see a lamp might have just been casting a shadow where the man was standing. You doubt your own perceptions and the red herrings thrown at you help you confirm that it must all be faked found footage put on the program. When all hell breaks loose and things start to get destructive, there is genuine fear because what you have rationalized away was really there. “Ghostwatch” convinces you there is nothing, and you believe it beyond a reasonable doubt. And then it tells you that you are wrong.
But for every “See No Evil,” “The Stuff,” “Bruiser,” “Squirm,” “Ghost Ship,” “Haunting in Connecticut” and “Living Dead” beyond the originals or the remakes of the originals, Rob Zombie slasher porn, sequel to a once solid stand-alone piece, or movie featuring an antagonist who I could whip together in my shed with papier-mâché and a stuffed animal; there is a surprisingly good movie. A surprising example is the 2010 remake of “The Crazies,” which is for all intents and purposes a zombie movie. The premise was done to death, the setting wasn’t unique (another issue of zombies in the south), but the characters and the suspense were sterling. We watch the characters degrade overtime and when they compromise their integrity and begin butchering the butchers, you can see they feel bad about it. They just want to get out and get answers, but they know they won’t get any. It has visuals that are reminiscent of “The Rabhas Incident,” and the bulk of the fear comes from one of the nice and goofy protagonists getting infected and slowly succumbing to madness as the last grip on his sanity weeps for salvation. The use of slow scenes with unpleasant scraping sounds was also effective in setting the scene.
The issue is that not a lot of movies will make use of slow scenes with unpleasant sounds when it is more profitable to make slow scenes of teens undressing or slower scenes of teens undressing before being butchered to pieces with a machete. Creature design takes a backseat to getting actors who don’t know how to scream or look too healthy or intelligent to be caught by a shambling murderer or decide to go to the haunted camp on the anniversary of a murder. Writers don’t make an effort to have characters we can care for or that have more to them than a target on their back. Occasionally this mocked in horror comedies such as “Slither,” “Night of the Freaks,” “Cabin in the Woods” or “Tremors;” but if we are aware of the issues with the formula, why do we continue to see it?
I don’t get it anymore, though I’m not an expert on the subject. The scariest film I ever saw was “The Blob.” The original, not the 1980s remake that featured people melting, enough body horror to make me upchuck my internal organs, and the disgusting bathtub scene; the original 1958, Steve McQueen film with the tongue-in-cheek theme song, “Beware the Blob.” I have no idea why. I saw it when I was in high school. It had one scene in it, when the old man finds the blob and it slowly consumes his arm in Doctor Hallen’s office. The slow death is traumatic and it makes me nauseous just thinking about it. The way the blob moves toward a nurse and Hallen soon after does not help. There’s a quality to it, something that can’t be replicated with CGI. My fear is there because there is something on the screen, a physical entity, and it can move in a way that makes sense for what it is, but unfamiliar for us as humans to see. To most of my friends, “The Blob” is a comedic movie, and in most respects they are right. But isn’t it sad then, that a funny little B-movie like “The Blob” can give me a greater emotionally traumatic experience than any of the dozen horror movies Hollywood tries to push out each year?