I'd like to have a discussion with you, if you'd participate.
As a horror fan and writer, I'm constantly dissecting the genre in my own mind, trying to find what works, what doesn't work and why it does/does not work. As soon as I mention that I'm a monster fan, I immediately get responses like "Oh! Have you seen [insert scary movie]? I loved that movie! It was soooooo scary." Or, "Oh, have you seen [insert other scary movie]? I didn't like it. It wasn't scary enough."
So I'm struck with this question: In order for a scary movie (or book) to be considered "good" in your opinion, does it have to actually scare you? I mean like scare you--a visceral reaction of actual terror.
I ask this because...well...most scary movies don't scare me. Case in point: Fright Night.
People, I LOVE this movie. Love the heck out of it and I watch it all the time, studying the beats, savoring the camera-work, thrilling at Roddy McDowell and William Ragsdale's bromance. But at no time in my life--or in my childhood--did this movie ever give me nightmares. It's just not a "scary" movie.
But I think it's a masterpiece of the horror genre. Is that odd?
I think Comedy is, perhaps, the only other genre that people deem "good" or "bad" based on its knee jerk reaction. You walk into a comedy expecting to laugh. If you don't, you generally leave saying it sucked. Not so much with fantasy. I rarely hear someone say, "You know, I went to see this fantasy movie, but I didn't see enough unicorns for my taste. I didn't like it." We seem to judge drama, sci-fi, thrillers, etc, based on a myriad of qualities: story, characters, pacing, writing, acting, etc. But with comedy--or, for our purposes, horror--I see so many people judging it based solely on its ability or inability to physically SCARE you.
I think, though, that there is an inherent flaw in that line of thinking. And I think it's why we have so much garbage in the horror genre. Because studios hurl one straight-to-DVD flick after another at us, all in an effort to scare us. So what do they do? They load their movies down with a veritable "greatest hits" of scary scenes from cinema history. We've seen a thousand shower murder scenes, but there is only one Psycho. How many thousands of movies begin with "group of good-looking kids go out into the woods..." Filmmakers pile gore upon gore in order to shock us, to repulse us. But those things aren't "scary". They're just gross. But, because we have a visceral reaction to that grossness, I think we sometimes mistake that for "being scared". We're like addicts, looking for a new fix--but we're not addressing why we like scary movies.
All of my favorite "scary movies" do not actually scare me. What brought it home for me was that, the other day, me, my wife, and our kids were over at my parents' house eating lunch. Dad's got this fancy new doo-dad on his TV whereby he can stream instant video off of Netflix. Naturally, my first inclination is to pop in Creature From the Black Lagoon. A brilliant movie and totally ahead of its time. I sat down with my oldest daughter (she's six), and we cuddled up in the recliner and watched the whole thing.
My mom passes through at one point and says "Oh, I remember watching this when I was a kid. Even then I didn't think it was scary. It's so hokey." She even snickered as the Creature made his triumphant entrance!! Sacrilege, I say! :p I proceeded to tell her that the Creature's appeal has nothing to do with his capacity to illicit fear. But, like most people (not a horror fan, by the way), my mom echoed the sentiment that, if a labeled "scary" movie didn't bring about a fearful reaction, it didn't do its job and, therefore, was a failure.
Should the point of all horror be to make you squirm in your seat? Can horror be about more than simply "Shock! Gasp!"? I'd like to think so.
I think scary movies are only as effective as their quiet moments. I love Jaws. And when I think of Jaws, the very first things I think about are Roy Scheider sitting at the dinner table with his little boy. Or the crew of the Orca singing and telling stories in the cabin of the boat. Those beats in the film that have nothing to do with the monster or things jumping out at you from closets or blood and death. Those moments when the characters are talking about inconsequential things. If THOSE things aren't working--if they don't hold up as genuinely GOOD scenes, long after whatever knee-jerk fear you may have felt at the sight of the monster has faded--then the scares are empty and no matter how much blood you sling across the camera, it's not going to resonate.
So help me out here. Give me your thoughts. Does a horror movie have to be "scary" to work?