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Oh, The Horror
by Thom Williams

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The horror genre's credibility has been stretched this thin...

The horror genre's credibility has been stretched this thin...
Being Halloween and all, I thought that I should at least tip my cap towards the genre that embraces the 'holiday' (read business invention to sell crap that no one needs). Christmas, at least, is about family coming together and being kind to your fellow man, where as Halloween is about eating garbage and buying or making an outfit that you'll wear once a year like some stuck up rich girl (unless you're weird or live in New Orleans). Halloween also offers an excuse for women to dress like prostitutes (not that I'm complaining about this aspect). As jaded as I am about Halloween I'm even more jaded about 'horror' movies.

In short, horror movies have degenerated to being little more than torture porn. I heard this phrase from a friend and he could not remember where he first heard it, but I could think of nothing that more accurately describes the modern horror genre. Even a critically acclaimed movie such as Audition (1999) fails to generate genuine fear so much as a physical sensation brought on by physical empathy with the character being tortured; similar to porn, only a bad feeling as opposed to a good feeling.

Consider that which is most terrifying: the unknown. Every horror franchise Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, Halloween, Hellraiser, Saw, Hostel, Resident Evil, Alien, Predator started by preying on the unknown. Like a man trying to make love to a woman, the audience was given precious little information.

Sticking to the movies that I've seen and enjoyed only to be subjected to disappointment by their sequels, it's easier to track the failings of horror by viewing a concept that once was found but now is lost like the Alien franchise or Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, the greatest horror movie of all time The Thing is being threatened with a possible sequel or, worse, a remake. The Thing is a perfect movie with a brilliant cast; there's no reason to remake it other than to make money they hope. If there's any justice it will tank horribly.

Anyway, Alien was a genuinely terrifying movie. The audience never saw the alien itself, partially by design and partially because the suit didn't look too great. Giving Ridley Scott the benefit of the doubt, the alien was more terrifying because you never really saw it. The same could be said about the shark in Jaws. If the darn robot shark had worked correctly, likely Jaws would not be the success in terror that it
Jim Cameron knew we knew what Ripley knew.

Jim Cameron knew we knew what Ripley knew.

But back to the Alien franchise. The second film of the series, Aliens, was arguably a better movie than Alien, albeit not as horror-oriented as its predecessor, largely because Jim Cameron was smart enough to start his sequel without expecting the audience to have amnesia. That is, Ripley was present for the events of the first movie just as the majority of the audience was present; we knew what she knew even if no one else in Aliens believed her until the fit had hit the shan.

Alien 3, on the other hand, made the mistake of starting over from stage one (aside from the colossal blunder of killing both Hicks and Newt off camera). It tried to bump the same gooses and have the same basic monster jump out of the same basic closets; If Alien 3 had not been preceded by two films that illustrated so well what the alien was capable of, it would've been fine. It's not a bad movie in and of itself; the audience is just so familiar with the alien that we really aren't impressed with the acid for blood thing anymore.

Alien Resurrection, Alien Versus Predator (and Predator 2 for that matter) tried to put the cat back into the bag too, but also fall prey to another classic blunder: In an effort to make the antagonist seem overwhelming they have the protagonists act in a manner contradictory to survival. In short, our 'heroes' are freaking stupid, themselves straw men (or women) to be knocked over by the big bad creature. This has become excessively the case in horror films so much so that it was pointed out and spoofed in the original Scream (decent film) but subsequently forgotten in future installments of the same franchise. This led to the Scary Movie spoof-flicks which, when you think about it, is like spoofing Cursed (a movie that is, intentionally or unintentionally, a self-parody of werewolf movies, also by Wes Craven).

So sequels are half of horror's problem. You can jump out from behind a corner and scare someone, but if you immediately go back around the corner and jump out again, the effect likely isn't going to be the same.

Another problem is stupid characters specifically, characters that behave as if they have no sense of self preservation which is usually the most telling sign of lazy writing.

The last problem is a little harder to explain. Basically it's a lack of realism. Yes, I know, realism discussed in light of the fact that I have tabbed The Thing as the greatest horror flick of all time, a movie about a shape-shifting
Other than THIS everything is very much real...

Other than THIS everything is very much real...
monster that essentially digests living things and spits out duplicate copies complete with memories and behavior. But I'm not talking about realism from the standpoint of the world we know, I'm talking about realism within the fictional world. I'm not just talking about consistency either. Allow me to elaborate.

Saw, a movie that left a ball-sweat-like taste in my mouth, posits that two characters are chained up in a public (albeit abandoned) restroom with the villain pretending to be a dead guy on the floor of the bathroom for the entire length of the movie. Forgetting about all the logistical complications this creates throughout the film, you're telling me that the two characters never once noticed the 'dead' guy move, breath, or fart? Jesus, I can't watch TV for more than a couple of hours without having to take a piss. And, last time I checked, there is only so long you can pretend to not breath (having tried to film people playing dead people this is much harder than anyone would think).

I Know What You Did Last Summer, a movie that smelled like dried ketchup wedged into a homeless man's unwashed ass-crack, likewise pulls the same silly stunt when Jennifer Love Hewitt hears clicking from the trunk of her car only to discover that the clicking is crabs climbing all over ice packed David from Rosanne (dead BTW). She freaks out and runs away (like all fools in horror/thriller movies flee from the evidence proving they're not crazy) and returns perhaps an hour or so later with her buddies. Only now (dum-dum-dum) there is no body and her friends think maybe she imagined it. So in one hour the villain removed the dead body and all the ice leaving no evidence behind whatsoever. No water. No smell. No shit?

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a horror movie the pretends to exist in a real world - this is its fear factor - but it stretches reality to the point of breaking unlike, say, Silence of the Lambs or Seven (more a horror movie than almost any other that covets the title). The Thing pretends to exist in a real world as well with the exception being the beast itself. Everything that follows is a reasonable possibility once you accept the one "what if".

I suppose that one might argue that horror is simply a microcosm of the entire film industry, but I disagree. I think that somewhere along the way horror stopped being scary and started getting gory, the difference being that one makes you feel wrong all over while you are watching it, the other makes you feel wrong long after the lights come up.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Thom Williams:

To Bear the Arms Right

Bang for the Buck

Be All You Can Be

Hell Lost

Mean Teen Wrecking Machine

All Columns

Thom Williams
Thom is both a maker and lover of films. He loves, and makes, films of all kinds. He is often as surprised by what he likes as by what he creates himself; Thom entered film school with a distaste for silent, black and white, and foreign films, yet left having made one of each. He likes what he likes and make no apologies for his opinions.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Thom Williams by clicking here.

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