I’ve watched a bunch of movies lately, partly because I’ve been sick but I’ve also just slipped into one of those moods. I mostly wanted to ruminate on horror movies but I realize that the number of people interested in such a subject is probably 1/32 the number of people who actually read this site which means roughly -25 people. So before I start talking to less than nobody, I should point out a movie that does not involve teenagers being stabbed in the spleen with a crowbar or whatever. I’m talking about “An Unfinished Life” with Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez.
I realize I kind of have to sell this movie because for one thing it has J.Lo in it which I fully understand would turn some people off to it right away but if you can forget all the Jenny From the Block–Bennifer–”Gigli”–Tabloid stuff for a second you might recall that she first hit a lot of people’s radars with a fine performance in a pretty good movie called “Out of Sight.” So regardless of anything else she can, when she bothers to, actually act. For another thing it’s a very low-key, quiet sort of movie that I can best describe as old-fashioned. There’s not a lot of high intensity happening here, the performances don’t involve people channeling dead celebrities and the most action you get is a short scene of an old man kicking a domestic abuser around a bit. It’s not even your average emotional drama where they play the tearjerker card half a dozen times to get the wimmin folk to break out the hankies.
And yet, it’s absorbing and it’s subtly funny and a bit touching but most of all it’s entertaining and—how’s this for a shock—when it’s over you just might feel better than you did before you started watching. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll love it, I’m just saying you might want to give it a shot because you might be surprised, pleasantly, like I was.
Okay, now let’s talk about movies with axe murders.
The Decline of Horror
There was a time when I would have gone as far as to say I was a fan of horror movies. Somewhere between my youthful fear of pretty much everything and my adult cynicism for everything else I absorbed cheesy slasher flicks and serials with a pretty impressive appetite. Part of it is that I really like special effects. Of course my favorite special effects are more of the Sci-Fi variety with spaceships and robotic warmachines but SF movies are usually expensive and tend to be event pictures which really don’t get made that often. But I like make-up effects, too, and since latex suits and red corn syrup are cheap, lots of horror movies get made. Special effects geeks have to either get used to droughts of new material to pore over, learn to live with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal or learn to appreciate horror movies.
The other part is that I think scary stuff is fun. The psychology of horror fans has been discussed a lot since people started paying to get frightened and it usually comes down to something like “we’d rather do it voluntarily in a way we know isn’t truly dangerous” and/or “the adrenaline rush from fear is addicting in a similar way to the pain of eating spicy food.” Whatever it is that makes people like to be safely frightened, count me among their number.
But lately I’ve gotten tired of horror. More than tired really, I’ve gotten just about downright sick of it. And it isn’t that it started scaring me more or even that it started scaring me less (although that’s sort of true—I’ll make more sense in a minute) it’s that horror has changed in recent years. Horror isn’t horror anymore, movies that are billed as genre flicks are becoming almost exclusively murder pictures. And that’s the opposite of what I like about horror movies.
I think about it like this: Graphic gore doesn’t really bug me in movies. It’s all special effects. And like I said before, I like the special effects. The thing is, I want there to be at least a passing stab made at giving those effects some kind of context. I want them to be the climax of a building suspense. I want them to be shocking or frightening or something—anything except for what they’ve become which is numbing. I’m going to annoy some horror fans here and say that gore is not scary in and of itself. Gore without a sense of psychological fear is just… well, gross. And I’m going to take another stand and say that psychological fear wrought by putting some human villain behind the machete or scalpel or whatever is a different kind of horror than what I’m looking for.
Look, I know that people are sick and sadistic and twisted and capable of revoltingly unspeakable acts of cruelty against each other. I got it. If I need reminding, I can watch the nine o’clock news. So thanks but no thanks when it comes to movies whose only idea of what might be scary is some dude with a pitchfork or an axe. That’s not really all that scary, it’s just depressing. It’s also about as uncreative as you can get. As clear as I am on how stupidly evil people can be, I know everyone else is, too, including Mr. Screenwriter. So if that’s the best you can come up with: Spare me. Spare us.
Give me some supernatural terror. Give me Jason. Give me Freddy or zombies or ghosts or vampires or something. Come up with something new. Make a twist on something old. Bring me a giant mutant termite or a living doll or a rampaging possessed washing machine, anything. Let those things spatter fake blood all over your set and give you a reason to cast decapitated molds of your actor’s heads, but I can’t stand to watch another pointless murder shown without any hint of subtlety or even fun (quick hint: extra sadism does not equal fun) just to put another point on the make-up guys’ resume. Seriously. Count me out.
If you want to have a human killer, it’s called a mystery. Give me some suspense. Make me guess. Show me a character I can root for who is trying to figure out who it is or why they do it so they can stop it from happening. Don’t toss in some fourth-rate teen idol on the way to a career making bad Japanese soap commercials as a hapless stooge just running away for 45 minutes. If you want to do real horror then do it right, come up with a monster. Give me some camp, a little cheese and a few laughs. Make it fun and then turn off the lights and give me a creepy score as the pajama-clad heroine goes the wrong way up a flight of stairs.
Or do it good and give me some fiction I can sink my teeth into. Move me to the edge of my seat like in Alien. If you can’t write it well enough to suspend my disbelief then head back to community college and pick up your accounting degree ’cause this just ain’t your bag, man. Write me something scary, not something sad. Not something sick. I’m tired of it.
Okay, deep breath. Rant off. I feel better. Now maybe I should go work on that possessed washing machine story. Someone’s gotta show these idiots how it’s done.