Monday, September 3, 2012

Must "Scary Movies" Be Scary?

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?


Kat Heckenbach said...

I don't enjoy being scared. I don't at all like having nightmares.

But most movies that claim to be horror are really, as you said, just gore. Graphic images meant to gross people out. That is SO not my thing. Those are the movies that give me literal nightmares--not because they're "scary" (I know it's all fake), but because the images lock inside my brain and dance around my head when I'm sleeping.

True scary is something that plays on the deepest parts of you, asleep or awake. Wanna know what movie I found truly scary? The Good Son. As a mom, the idea of my child being a killer, of having to sacrifice my own flesh and blood to protect others--that is scary. Or the idea of my children being at all hurt, by anyone or anything, that is scary.

All that said, I like creepy movies. To me, a good horror movie is one that makes me creeped out--makes me look over my shoulder and feel the hairs on my neck stand up. There can be not one ounce of gore--but if I'm feeling nervous while watching the movie, then I consider it a good horror flick :).

Greg Mitchell said...

Ah, true, I hear you about you find scary or creepy--but how does that affect replay value? If you've seen a film so many times that those cats jumping out of closets no longer scare you, does the movie lose its value? Or is it still good? And if it IS good, is it good based on your memory of when it scared you the first time, or is there something deeper about the movie--beyond a physical reaction--that draws you to it?


Thanks for posting, Kat!

Kessie said...

The remark about the calm moments--does that mean that we are only afraid for the characters if we sympathize with them in some way? That--GASP--character empathy is important in horror, too?? Say it ain't so!

Sarcasm aside, I think you're on to something. You watch a lot more horror than I do, mainly because I have nightmare issues like Kat does. But I do love a good psychological thriller, and I think that's the same as horror, just without the blood.

I think for me, Signs and The Village were the pinnacle of storytelling, freak-out, and tension. Signs would not have been as effective if it wasn't about a family grieving for the death of the mother, and the story of a pastor who had lost his faith. That story, against the backdrop of encroaching hostile aliens, is what gives the story its emotional resonance. And it has some jump scenes that make me twitch every time.

The Village was more of the thoughtful, inner sort of horror--we've met the monsters and they are us.

If think if more horror was written like a psychological thriller, and just had a bit of gore as window dressing, it might scare more people. But that's just my opinion, because I'm not well-versed in the genre. I just know what scares me. :-)

G.L. Francis said...

I think horror, like humor, depends heavily on personal perspective and taste. The only thing gore books and movies can really play on is the fear of pain, death and/or mutilation. It's a formulaic approach, but it touches the same inner button of fascination that makes us look at car wrecks as we drive by mangled metal and flashing lights. (Will we see blood? Severed limbs?)

Horror is more than bodily destruction, much more than that. It's the slippage of reality into something far enough beyond experience that there's little or no footing, anchor, or mechanism for understanding and coping. It's interior evil, madness, and nightmare externalized.
To me, Poe was great with suspense coupled with the uncanny, but Lovecraft was a master of atmosphere and externalized nightmare.

From that perspective, a monster movie isn't what creeps me out even though I might be startled by the filmmaker's artistry. (And a lot of folks equate being startled with being scared — makes their hearts go pitty-pat faster.) It doesn't linger in my mind enough to cause nightmares when I sleep.

Shelley's Frankenstein produced a Creature of ineffable tragedy even though, in her era, the idea of little-understood science giving life to dead flesh was both frightening and blasphemous. Koontz's Frankenstein examines the same, but by grounding it in sciences better understood in our era, his series becomes a truly horrifying vision of science in the hands of a genius madman. Humanity itself is threatened, but many of the creatures Frankenstein creates are just as threatened as the humans: by Frankenstein, by humans hunting them, and by other creatures spontaneously mutating out of the mad doctor's control. But in movies, the replay value of the original Frankenstein flick isn't in its scary factor. It's in enjoying the old art of B&W films and the performances of the actors. (And I still love Young Frankenstein — horror turned into humor as only Mel Brooks and his kick a** cast could!)

Likewise with the old Dracula movies, including Nosferatu — the B&W artistry, the performances. The versions most chilling to me were more modern — one with Frank Langella and one with Jack Palance as Dracula. And as campy as it was, Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman had some incredibly chilling moments.

Movies & books that lingered enough to give me chills and nightmares afterward (and I still re-read/replayed): The Shining (book & movie); Raven (Charles Grant); In the Mood (Charles Grant — IMO, the most chilling one of his Millennium Quartet); Lives of the Monster Dogs (Kirsten Bakis); Frankenstein (Koontz's version); Mastery (don't recall the author's name right now — the book was a horror award winner, back in the 1980s I think); Sleepy Hollow (the movie).

Personal taste — it doesn't always fit neatly in a box or a formula.

Greg Mitchell said...

Great comments, and I totally agree with you on all points--especially about being startled compared to being truly scared.

caledre said...

Yeah total agreement, Greg.

There have only been a handful of movies that have actually scared me, and I don't even count them among my favorites. The Exorcist still scares me. But I only watch it once every few years.

The horror movies I go back to time and time again (like Creature From The Black Lagoon - love it) I go to because the story is compelling.

Gore movies, eh....there's admittedly some unease when watching them for the first time, but I find they have almost zero replay value.

The Gill-Man said...

Like you, the vast majority of the "scary" films that I love...don't scare me in the slightest. I would argue that, first off, horror is subjective. So much of what terrifies one person doesn't remotely bother another. One of my best friends has a phobia of clowns, but they don't bother me in the slightest. What scares one person doesn't scare all people, so how can we truly quantify if a film is "successful" in this endeavor?

The fear element alone doesn't make or break a film for me. I would argue that a films PRIMARY objective, no matter what genre, is to entertain. In this regard, if it has a good story, engaging characters and other such elements, then it can be viewed as a success. For that matter, I've watched plenty of "so bad their hilarious" horror in that regard these flicks are also successful.

So no, a horror film doesn't have to scare you to be good. In fact, I can honestly say I've seen some truly BAD movies that have had one or two moments that gave me the creeps, so the opposite holds true as well!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Oh, my, clowns! Yes--scary. I. Can. Not. Watch. IT. *shivers*

And old dolls. Especially ventriloquist dummies. Creeeeeepy.

Greg Mitchell said...

Ha, ha, Kat, I think that totally proves Gil-Man's point. Though in real life, I hate clowns, I LOVE the movie "It". I think it's a warm, nostalgiac look at the bonds of friendship and simpler joys of childhood. I find "IT" incredibly heartwarming and moving. When the two middle aged guys have rediscovered their old bike and ride it around the driveway--it totally puts me in the best mood.

Pennywise is the shizel, fo sho.