So, I recently watched Veronica on Netflix, the supposed movie “so scary, people can’t make it through more than halfway.” While I still enjoyed the film and it’s retro vibe, I found myself disappointed in the lack of things that were generally scary enough to motivate me or anyone else to want to turn the movie off. Now, I am a considerable horror fan (I avoid the word “buff” because it often invites the gatekeepers) and have watched tons upon tons of horror films, so it’s definitely possible I am just jaded by all the scares I’ve endured. However, I’ve noticed a trend in horror films that is generally bothering me and just sucks the horror out entirely.
Horror movies need something to actively produce the fear felt by the audience: a source for the screams and chills that keep us entertained. Some horror movies rely on emotions and moods, such as paranoia or general tension. Others give us an environment to be afraid of, like a desolate waste or a haunted house. Some even just rely on the imagination of the viewer. However, the vast majority have an actual physical being (or beings) that drum up the scares, some sort of killer or monster that is ready to strike at any moment and keep the characters in a constant state of danger. This creature is the center-piece of the story, the beacon by which the audience is guided down a river of fear and distress. Unfortunately, it is also this character that can cause your entire film to fall flat, namely in the design and art direction that goes into making a monster.
In come the Body-Painted Weirdos.
Modern horror films, both mainstream and low-budget seem to be relying on the same trend when designing their creature or ghost or demon:
- Take any random person that fits gender of monster/ghost/demon
- apply heavy body-paint and/or eye makeup
Don’t get me wrong, this can definitely be an effective way to have a spooky creature in a movie, but it requires the aid of other things to make it feel more threatening. Things like prosthetic features, digital effects, camera tricks, casting a contortionist or professional body actor, etc. The problem is many of these films rely on simply the sudden appearance or looming presence of some 6’5” dude in body paint to be terrifying enough to shock the audience into wetting themselves.
The truth is just that we’ve moved beyond a slow moving person being scary. That worked for Jason, it worked for Michael Meyers, but we’ve moved far past that. People watch those early slasher flicks now because they’re classics, but rarely because they are seeking any actual scares. Granted, when those movies first hit the scene, they were terrifying, but they were defining a genre, so that’s natural.
This is being to sound awfully complainy. Not really the angle I wanted, so let’s cut to the chase: There’s a LOT more that can be done to drum up scares beyond just some dude who looks like he came from a weird rave.
Just a few examples off the top of my head:
- The SyFy series “Channel Zero” – While working with a TV budget (and I’m assuming fairly small, since it’s a show based on internet horror stories), all three seasons of Channel Zero manage to rank up scares by creating some just generally eerie creatures and happenings. Using mainly practical effects and lighting, this show makes things feel visceral and even awkward at times. They don’t rely on jump scares to get the job done. You spend less time screaming and more time squirming and asking “what the peanut butter fudge is happening?” It sticks with you and that’s just generally good horror.
- The Paranormal Activity series – Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know. While very divisive in the horror community, the Paranormal films (at least the first three) managed to drum in scares by leaving much of the horror in the minds of the viewer. It played on our natural fears of the unknown and ability to imagine violence. I just think about the first movie and the amount of stuff that happened literally out of view of the camera. We could hear the characters screaming and moving about, but we were left to decide what was happening all on our own. It’s a horror that exists inside you, and that’s damn creepy.
- Get Out – Not to jump on the bandwagon here (seeing as how this is now Academy Award Winning “Get Out”) but let’s talk about how you go about making normal people scary. It’s far beyond just having them look slightly off or having them loom. It’s about building the character. A few years back, everyone I knew was RAVING about how terrifying the Strangers was, and while I get that realism can be scary, it just felt like another “this person wants to hurt you oooooo” type of horror film, a la slashers and torture porn. The problem I’ve found is that when a character is normal or looks too close to normal and has very little in the ways of actual CHARACTER, it’s just boring. The only thing we have to be afraid of is that this person is morally bankrupt, and I’m sorry that’s just a general villain. That’s as scary as a Die Hard baddie, or and evil person in a Disney flick. You can do a lot more to develop horror in your fellow man by developing that fellow man to some degree, something this film does very well.
- Mama – This movie somehow manages to do all three of the above things in an amazing fashion. Creepy visuals, a villain with depth and haunting mystery. Generally shocking moments and, yes, jump scares combine to make a just very eerie film.
- Short films like “Bedfellows” and “Lights Out” – Faces, man. Making a face look completely alien and strange can do a lot to add an eerie appeal to your film. This does not just end at “LOOK AT ALL THIS EYE SHADOW!” or “mouth? What mouth?”
- Sleepaway Camp – Admittedly, that ending haunted me the first time…. that face and that noise, fam….
So, that’s my feeling on this. We need to step away from pale children with heavy mascara crawling up the stares or a dude in a dark purple ski suit popping out of someone’s fridge. Filmmakers need to take the time to focus on creatively designing a creature that will burn itself into the brain of the viewer. Make something that looks horrifying and terrible. Something that stares into our soul and challenges us to sleep again. Something deadly, nightmarish and maddening.
Like that thing behind you right now.