I have a ridiculously large video collection that spans almost every genre. As we’ve run out of things to watch for the moment, my wife and I have started turning to older film series that either we haven’t seen together or we haven’t seen in a long time. We started watching the entire run of James Bond movies, in order and then moved on to the whole Mr. Moto series from the late 1930s. Afterwards, and this is where it starts to matter, we decided to start working our way through the classic Universal Monsters films, most of which my wife has never seen.
And that brings me to my point. I used to love horror films but today, they largely leave me cold. Oh sure, I love the original Dracula and Wolfman flicks for their nostalgia factor, I can point to a lot of horror movies over the years that are still a lot of fun to watch, but none of them can scare me. None are really, well… horrible. And maybe I’ve outgrown actually being scared by these movies the way I was as a kid, although I’d love to have it happen. So much of what is called horror these days is really nothing but gore. It’s cheap scares and buckets of blood thrown at the screen, designed not really to terrify but to disgust.
I really don’t want to be disgusted, I want to be scared. I mean a serious, long-term, psychological scare. You remember the kind, where you watch a movie and it doesn’t just remain with you until the end of the credits, it’s there on the way home, it’s there when you’re walking through a dark hallway, it’s there when you get into bed and hide under the covers. Hell, the really good ones can last days or weeks, where you find yourself in a place and in the back of your head you think “what if…” But those aren’t the movies they make today, and granted, I’m a lot older now and a lot more rational today than I was at the time that scary movies affected me that way. I know I look at these films quite differently now than I once did, in fact, I know I’m quite critical of the logic behind a lot of these monsters than I once was. I really can’t ever totally suspend my disbelief and go with whatever silly premise they throw up on the screen, I have to think it through and decide if it’s reasonable enough to follow.
Also, I’ve thought about it enough to realize that I have a particular taste in these kinds of movies. I want people to survive. I want the humans to win in the end. I want the monsters to be defeated. I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. Being human, I have a vested interest in survival, either my own or the characters I’m supposed to be focused on on-screen. In far too many modern movies, these things don’t happen. Especially in horror films, the “heroes” either barely escape with their lives or don’t escape at all. In far too many, the bad guys are victorious. In an unfortunately large percentage, the “heroes” are real dicks that I want to die, leaving me with nobody to root for. Any of these things will immediately garner a bad rating from me, these are not the films I want to watch.
I just wanted to revisit some of the classic movie monsters, or at least the classic movie horror archetypes and see what’s really there.
Vampires: Let’s be honest here, neither Anne Rice’s vampires nor the sparkly variety by Stephanie Myers are worth considering at all so let’s toss those away. I’ve never really been impressed by the erotic nature of the vampire, only the idea of the dead feeding off the living. However, let’s be honest, traditional vampires come with a whole host of serious problems. They burst into fire in sunlight. For some reason, crucifixes terrify them. Holy water operates like acid and a stake through the heart is pretty much a bad idea for anybody. In the modern world, where full-spectrum UV lights are relatively commonplace, being a vampire has got to be a pretty damned dangerous profession. The reality is, there is nothing fundamentally evil about vampires that couldn’t easily be handled today. They don’t have to kill to get their blood supply, they could use donated blood. Heck, I’m sure there are people out there who would volunteer to donate a pint here and there directly, no blood drives required. These people could be night clerks or work third shift, their aversion to sunlight would hardly be a detriment, maybe we could even develop SPF1000 sunscreen, they could easily be functional members of society and never hurt a soul. Sorry, just not scary.
Werewolves: Werewolves and the like display the horrors of the potential animal nature of man. You can throw in experiments gone wrong like The Fly. Limiting it to werewolves for a moment, they have just as many downsides as vampires, although clearly, their problems are hardly as commonplace in the modern world. Sure, they have an aversion to silver, but silver bullets just aren’t that common unless you try to attack the Lone Ranger. Wolfsbane? When’s the last time you knowingly came across some? It is, after all, highly toxic and probably not planted in public often. Come to think of it, where a vampire could easily overcome their particular problems, a werewolf only has an issue one or two nights a month anyhow and only while the full moon is up. How hard is it to restrain yourself somewhere for a couple of hours a month? It might even be a new business opportunity, renting hardened storage lockers by the day to lycanthropes. They lock you in at sunset, let you out at sunrise, they can even display the lockers as proof of the hardiness and security of their facility. When your monster is only a monster 1/30th of the time, it’s just not scary.
Human-Built Monsters: Be it Frankenstein’s monster or the latest genetically-manufactured horror, there might be good reason to be afraid of these human-built monstrocities and the very concept can indeed be adapted into just about any other “class” of monster movie. Human fictional-science could probably manage to build vampires and werewolves, generate massive hulking monsters or make zombies, so this can be a very catch-all category. Yet, the real point here is what happens when science goes wrong. It may be simple unintended consequences or it may be mad scientists bringing about horrors on purpose. This seems a likely candidate for a scary property, lots of people are worried about the things science can potentially create, from secret government programs to bio-terrorists, coming up with something that can cause massive destruction isn’t all that far-fetched. This might be scary, done right.
Atomic Menace: Everything from Godzilla to Cloverfield, these big monsters have been a staple of movies for decades, but are they really scary? Really, no. Let’s be honest, while things like Godzilla are undoubtedly cool, they’re absurdly unrealistic. Back in the day when people really didn’t understand the effects of radiation, having a lizard blow up to a million times it’s normal size probably seemed plausible, but today we know better. It just doesn’t happen. Then you take a movie like Cloverfield, which while it was conceptually interesting, in practice it was laughably ridiculous, they didn’t even have an on-screen suggestion where such a thing might come from, etc. I don’t think it’s really possible for 50-foot tall monsters to be all that scary.
Guys in Masks: Now I will be honest, this is a category that can go either way for me. If it’s done well, human villains hiding behind masks can be quite enjoyable to watch and quite scary as well. However, it’s often not done very well and these supposedly human baddies quickly turn into superhuman killing machines. Take Jason or Michael Myers for example. Both started off completely human. Both routinely got damage done to them that would kill ten normal men. Both survive those injuries, time and time again, with absolutely no medical attention. The only purpose of this kind of “monster” is to see how many interesting and innovative ways they can come up with to kill off hapless teenagers and to see just how goddamn stupid these teenagers can be. “There’s a mad killer in the woods, everyone, let’s go skinnydipping!” These films more often fall into the “gore” category that I detest so much, but have become so ludicrous that they are the widespread object of spoof and satire. I don’t know that anyone could make a really scary movie like this today, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Zombies: I am not a fan of zombies. In fact, I positively hate them. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of zombie movies and TV shows that I like, but that’s mostly in spite of the zombies, not because of them. My problem with them is quite simple, there’s only a very tiny window where the humans have any chance whatsoever in stopping the zombies, barring some godlike interference. Once you’re past that, and virtually all zombie movies happen outside of that window, humanity is dead, it’s only a matter of how long they can hold out. Oh sure, the humans can be smarter than the zombies, although let’s be honest, in lots of horror movies, the people are dumb as bricks, but it’s a matter of numbers. In order for the humans to take out a classic zombie, they have to perform a head shot or decapitation, nothing else will do. You can hack them in to little pieces and, for some entirely unexplained reason, the pieces will keep coming after you. Of course, you cut off the head and everything stops. Why did the arm keep moving after you separated it from the head, but you separate the head from the body and it all dies? Makes no sense. Anyhow, that’s the only way to kill one. However, a zombie just has to get a tooth into you anywhere, just needs to splatter an open wound with it’s puss, etc. It can get you anywhere and once it gets you, you change sides. You increase the numbers of the zombies but when you kill a zombie, it doesn’t wake up and rejoin the world of the living. Therefore, you have three possible camps in a zombie movie: the humans which can only remain human so long as they are not bitten; the walking dead, which get to claim all of the dead humans as their own; and the dead dead, which are of no use to anyone at all. Sure, the humans can breed but that’s a very slow process and, let’s be honest, it just makes the pregnant woman both an ineffective fighter and a big target for the shambling corpses. Sooner or later, most likely sooner, the humans are toast. Therefore, zombie movies aren’t all that scary and more often than not, they’re just not that good.
Aliens: To be honest, this is the only category that I think has dramatically improved in realism over the years and it’s one of the few with any degree of plausibility. When we look into the cosmos, with the billions of stars and billions of galaxies, it’s hard not to think there could be many, many other lifeforms out there. If any of them got to Earth, no matter how implausible that might be, what havoc could they wreak? However, this also brings up a rather interesting conundrum, if these aliens are smart enough to make it all the way to our planet, what point would there be in attacking us? Wouldn’t they be advanced enough not to need to start some shit? It isn’t like, once you have significant space technology, there aren’t enough resources to last a virtual eternity freely available in space. Probably, by the time you can traverse the vast distances between stars, you can terraform planets. We have an idea how to do it right now and we can hardly get off of this rock. Still, maybe some primitive alien species hitched a ride on the ship of an advanced species and they’re the one causing trouble. I suppose that this is one possible candidate for a modern-day horrible horror film.
In the end, while only two, perhaps three, of these “classes” really seem that applicable today, the human-built creation gone wrong and the alien, with possible honorable mention going to madmen in masks, I don’t know that any of them are really capable of giving me that long-term rush of fear that I really miss. When I walk out of the metaphorical theater, having seen the best of the best of these movies, will it stick with me? Will I still be afraid when I get home? Will I hesitate before walking down a dark hallway or alley? Will I bury myself under the covers at night, unable to get the thought, even though I know it was just a movie, out of my mind? Probably not. I fear those days are gone, not just for me, but likely for everyone. I cannot imagine modern movies actually providing that kind of long-term terror, probably because filmmakers are afraid of being sued for being too successful at their craft. It’s a shame, I wish such things were still made today.
So what about you? What kind of horror movies do you like and what movies, either specifically or by genre, have given you that really visceral, long-lasting scare? I’m always looking for new movies to watch!