Can We Have Good Horror?

classic-horror-artwork-black-and-whiteI 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.

It Was The Age of Atomic Mutation
It Was The Age of Atomic Mutation…

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!

21 thoughts on “Can We Have Good Horror?”

  1. I'm a horror fan with a similar experience as you describe in that none of the big-budget U.S. horror flicks seem to do much for me in terms of lasting scares. I've recognized that some of this may have to do with the garbage they churn out these days (e.g., Hostel) but that even more of it probably has to do with me not being the same person I was as a youth when I was regularly terrified by such films. Where I have had the most success is with smaller, independent films (e.g., Session 9) and especially foreign ones. Back when Asian horror was first appearing in the U.S. market, I picked up a few that worked quite well (e.g., Audition, A Tale of Two Sisters). I think the key is that I was unfamiliar with many of their horror conventions. As I often do with these things, I watched so many that I kind of burned myself out.

    1. There are actually some really good Japanese horror films that, unfortunately, got remade in the U.S. badly for a while, and even the Japanese ran them into the ground as film series. The more that I think about it, a lot of long-running horror movies are actually good in the first or second movie, but taken as a whole, are just absurd because they have to keep finding a way to keep the monster alive and as time goes on, it gets more and more unbelievable.

      Horror doesn't have to have huge amounts of money behind it to be good, it just has to be creative and not aimed at cheap scares and funding the fake-blood industry.

        1. Considering how little money gets spent on these films, some of the foreign films look amazing. It's funny when they talk about spending $5 million on a movie and in Hollywood, that's what they tip their valets. Movies like The Host, a 2006 movie from South Korea, are excellent and the acting is superb.

  2. Hi, I´m writing from Spain, although I´m chilean (please, bear with my English). I like your blog. I recently came out as an atheist after being agnostic for most of my life. I found your blog on Google and came back regularly (good work, by the way). On the Horror thing you commented, it´s been the same experience for me. I think it´s a burn out kind of situation, no doubt. I been a Horror fan since early childhood, both in movies and literature (also comics), so it´s inevitable that you kind of exhaust the posibilities after a whileboth in material and visceral reactions to that material (though you never stop looking for new things, that´s for sure) . You always have the classics and they are always fun to revisit, but new stuff – good new stuff – is hard to come by. And one is always grateful to find a undiscovered jewel (like Triangle, directed by Chris Smith and starring the lovely Melissa George. I recommend that one wholeheartedly). Funny you mention Session9, vjack, because that one is – I think – the last movie in the genre that really got under my skin. Great Stuff.

    1. I don't think it's just a thing of burning out. I can watch old horror movies made 30-40 years ago and they're still scary, although they don't have the long-lasting scare because I know what's going to happen, but with today's movies, they *NEVER* have that scare, it's just not in them, not the first time through, not the tenth. They're just not built to scare people, they're designed to make girls cling to their boyfriends so they can get lucky later on that night. It's just not the same genre, at least in the U.S., that it used to be.

      Great comment, thanks!

    2. Hi Pablo. Session 9 creeped me out very well too. It was one of those that I couldn't stop thinking about for a few days, and those are rare to find. I haven't heard of Triangle, so I'll have to check it out.

  3. I think that the problem is with film technology being too good. In the days when fake arms looked plastic, films had to have a more psychological terror – there were also far fewer on-screen killings. Now we can easily replicate all sorts of injuries and diseases, studios feel that they have to show them and we get desensitised.

    I think that the only decent films tend to show what man can do to man, and even then the Hostel type films make them into a carnival of gore.

    1. Excellent point, although now that we can do anything on screen that is photo-realistic, it should make things more believable, not less. I just don't think they're making the same kinds of movies that they used to, a movie that looked fake in the 50s, if remade today, ought to look amazing, but they change the movie to such a degree that no matter how good it looks, it just doesn't have the same kind of impact.

  4. Im a child of the 70´s and 80´s. My first experiences with heavy horror were The Exorcist and The Omen, when I was about 9 years old. Although those were severely censored tv late nite reruns (no crucifix masturbation, little vomit; no beheading, etc), being raise catholic, you can imagine how that turn out to be. Both made a tremendous impact: they scare the crap out of me. Naturally, they became staples in my horror diet for years – I can see the blurays from where im tiping this – and were the beginning of an obssesive search for everything Terror & Horror (all my life, I was the one to introduce horror movies to my friends. I became the official movie critic of my buddies. Im still am, actually). Then came Tobe Hopper with Salem's Lot and, man, that make an impresion too. I was seriously consider hanging garlic from the windows, no kidding (I was gullible to an extreme). I was also on the King train, no stops. But, I digress.

    i agree with xavierp. I think gore and gross shock has a function and a moment in Horror (Audition, for exemple) and when use wisely, is a tremendously efective tool. What I think movies lack today is the organic quality of yesterdays movies. There was a palpable kind of live in, dirty, raw quality in movies like Videodrome, Carrie, The Omen, The Exorcist and much of the 80´s horror movies – The Thing immediately comes to mind – that came from being filmed on film and also because their special effects were done the traditional way. Digital filmaking and CGI effects, on the other hand, instantly take you out of the experience somewhat (Public Enemies is a great movie in my book, but the digital video in a 30´s setting is completely jarring. Awful choice). You enter the theater knowing is gonna be an sterile, clinicaly clean excercise (most of the time excercise in mediocrity, on top of it all) and that take some mayor points out from the experience. If you put that fact with the – generally – desapointing quality of the product nowadays, is not a good recipe at all. Remember the first time you guys saw The Fly? I was blown away. That was an exhausting emotional experience. That was raw. Gross factor aside, that was a creature you could feel empathy for. Film and effect made the experience real, uncomfortable so. Gollums and cia. are all good and dandy, but you cant feel empathy for pixels in the same way.

    That was long, sorry.

    1. The problem comes when you look at the remakes of all of those movies. The remakes all suck. My wife and I caught the remake of The Omen on TV a week or so ago and were shocked at how awful it was. I really don't think the CGI has much to do with it. If you went back and took some of those classic horror films and replaced all the practical effects with modern CGI, they'd still be scary movies. It isn't the effects, it's the writing.

      1. The dumbing down effect. Absolutely. That´s cherry on top to what I said. And I would add to your point, by logical extension, the acting. You look at most of those classics we cherish and the acting is true to the material, It´s serious acting no matter how farfetched the concept (o how silly the result may be in terms of the movie itself). There is dramatic commitment to what is being told and the little humor you do find is organically born from the characters. There is no punch lines in Horror. You don´t find much of that today. With casts comprise mostly of young, vapid people and maybe one heavy hitter grounding things a bit.

        Look at a movie like Cabin in the Woods. I liked that movie for what it is, a postmodern deconstruction of the genre. I enjoy it quite a bit. But, it´s not true Horror in the sense that I embrace the term. Cabin in the Woods doesnt take itself seriously. "it´s all a game, it says, laugh with us, laugh at us". I don´t mind the mixture of comedy and horror – the Evil Dead series is close to sublime, The Reanimator is a silly joy – but at the same time I don´t considered that tipe of movie true Horror cinema. It´s not possible to build Horror mithology on laughs and dumbing down (or watering concepts down).

  5. You forgot ghosts/hauntings/spirits like Juon, the Ring, or the Shining. Those are the only movies that ever really scare me. I think it’s because you can’t physically fight back against them that makes them scary for me, and that it harkens back to the fear of the devil that was instilled in me as a small child. Do those do anything for you?

    1. Well, I was talking primarily about classic monster archetypes, those are a more modern creation and I did mention them in a comment. I think the original Ringu and Ju-On and One Missed Call movies were excellent, I had the One Missed Call ringtone on my phone for the longest time. Unfortunately, as all of those turned into long film series and each sequel lost a lot of what made it good, I could only consider the first, maybe the second ones worth watching, the rest… I have to pass.

    2. The Shining is one of my all-time favorites. In the J-Horror genre, I loved the original Dark Water. The U.S. remake was not worth watching, but the original really creeped me out.

      1. I always forget Dark Water. The English version with Jennifer Connelly was awful but the original Japanese was much better. In fact, I prefer the original Japanese versions, in the original Japanese language, of all of these films to the American remakes.

  6. as far as the "why do you want to be scared" i'm gonna rip off the great Anthony Hopkins if i may, he puts it so well.
    people like to get put in a controlled environment and have a scare so when they leave the theater or turn off the tv, they see that life is still good and that these things arn't in real life. Whats the first thing people do when they see a baby? BOO!

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