Thursday, October 28, 2010

What's Wrong with My Horror Films?!

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” ~Stephen King

Seriously. What’s wrong with my horror films? The short answer: everything. From the one-dimensional characters to the flimsy plot lines to the smattering of gore from good-looking people, horror has become horrifically awful. Unfortunately, in the day and age of the slasher/torture porn flicks and remakes, the bloodier and the skimpier the outfits, the better. Not to mention, these films are dirt cheap to produce, and they draw a ridiculous amount of people who flock stupidly to go watch the trash.
Even this guy is confused.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little too harsh. Sure, some horror films capture the meaning of what it takes to be a “horror film.” But what IS a horror film? A quick glance at the all-powerful Wikipedia, “horror films” are “unsettling movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, disgust and horror from viewers.” Well... emotions such as “fear” or “horror” don’t really hit me when watching these abundant splatter films, but I definitely have my disgust-o meter short-circuiting. You would think that audiences can waste only so much time at the theaters watching the latest bimbos getting chopped and disemboweled after a romantic romp in the woods with their now-dead boyfriends. However, this, dare I say “logical,” thought process is quite the opposite. In fact, American audiences can’t get enough of the latest gore-nogpraphy. So, maybe the question of “what’s wrong with my horror films?” should really be: “What’s up with people wasting money on slasher flicks?”

Hey, it's that cellphone you totes just forgot about
after you cut off your leg...
The easiest whipping-boy for slasher, gore-fest films would probably be the Saw franchise. Despite being critically panned by pundits and reviewers alike (the six films have the paltry average of a 30% rating from the critic site Rotten Tomatoes.), the splatterfilm franchise has raked (and hacked and slashed and drilled and mutilated) in a ridiculous amount of bloody cash. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the Saw franchise achieves a 72% approval rating from general audiences. That is “fresh” and “liked” by the general population. Sad. You want to know what’s sadder? Over $300 million has been spent by American movie-goers since the first Saw film was released on October 29, 2004. Tack on whatever the supposed “last Saw film” Saw 7/Saw: The Final Chapter/Saw 3D (3D??? Really??? Sigh. Yet another excuse to make more money.) will make at the end of the month, and the franchise could have Americans shelling out over $400 million on this horror porn series. Worldwide, the six flicks have amassed over $700 million. Oh, and did I mention that it took less than $50 million to make all six of these movies? Well, now I did. Yes, folks, these films are cheaply made, blockbusters, and full of gore and sexy beings. Or in other words, the perfect recipe for the modern-day slasher.

With terror being replaced by shock and fear being replaced with excessive violence, what exactly is frightening or horrifying about the modern day slasher? It seems that directors of this genre rely too much on the “ewwwww, that’s her intestines spewing on the floor” factor than “oh my GOSH! WHAT IS GOING ON?!” suspense-building, terror-ride horror films should possess. When explaining what exactly makes up “horror,” spook writer, Stephen King, writes in Danse Macabre:

“Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible', the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.”
That's what's acutally
behind the door.

This feeling of “what’s behind the closed door” is the driving force of the fear. It creates a currently unknown concept of, wait for it... wait for it... SUSPENSE! A horror film doesn’t have to be a bloody, disgusting mess, contrary to contemporary belief. This belief is following the misguided concept that the more skin shown and the more blood splattered across the screen will evoke some sort of notion of fear. This horribly horrifyingly horrific ideology cannot be more horrifically wrong. And suspense is not created when stupid people walk... so... very... slowly... down... a... dark... lit... hall... Seriously. It’s not scary. We get it. They’re probably going to get stabbed, slashed, or gutted in some twisted way. But, in the end, it just leaves us with a disturbing image of death. We don’t feel fear. We don’t feel suspense. Non of these tense emotions are present within these tediously revolting scenes. As H.P. Lovecraft put it, “. . . the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The unknown. Perhaps the mythical. Perhaps the undesirable, but definitely something that sets us on edge. This is the major factor that is absent from todays gornos: the sinking, despondent dread of the unknown.

As a film audience or any audience for that matter, we like to know what comes next. Let’s be honest, we all uncontrollably flipped to the last pages of the seventh Harry Potter novel just to make sure Harry and the gang was still alive and angsty. We hate the unknown, no, no, we despise the unknown. We love to be in the driver’s seat at all times, and when we go to a movie that keeps us in the dark, it drives us insane. This agitation is stemmed from that driving force of the unknown fear. It makes us jumpy. It makes us give that nervous little chuckle to break the unbearable tension. It makes us scream. A prime of example of how suspense was used properly and not-so-properly is the (disappointing) film Cloverfield. The time leading up to the revealing of the monster, Clover, was pretty unnerving. The audience was left to conjure up horrible images of what it could be or what it would look like. However... once that thing was revealed, it kind of ruined the movie. It wasn’t that terrifying, as it tramples all over New York City leaving a wake of destruction. The “ten-foot-tall bug” was revealed. And we sighed a deep sigh of relief. That’s not so bad. At least it wasn’t a “100-foot-tall bug.”

So, filmmakers of the horror genre can’t win. I must quote Stephen King again, as he writes (from Danse Macabre), “The artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time but sooner or later. . .you have to open the door and reveal what’s behind it.” And what’s “behind the door” is usually not so terrifying. However, regardless of the disappointment, the filmmaker or horror writer had us scared. In fact, the creator had us shaking with fear. That fear was the fear of the unknown.

However, in the end, horror films aren’t going to change any time soon from the slash and hack ‘em up style they currently are. Busty broads are still going to get sliced and diced, and dudes with eight packs on their eight packs are still going to be disemboweled and slashed. You see, if terror doesn’t work on audiences, creators will go for the shock value, disgusting aspect of “horror.” And, we, like the stupid humans we are, love to be disgusted. We have a sick fascination of the torment and the death of others, even though those concepts are foreign to us, and... unknown. But, you see, dear reader, we can deal with disgust. We see the eye-ball being plucked from the heroines’ eye socket; we witness the throat of an innocent victim being slashed, and we feel queasy and may even lose our lunches. But it’s over. We can deal with it. It’s not so bad.

But that unnerving tension, that daunting, demoralizing dread... it leaves us more than queasy, it leaves us uneasy. And that uneasiness is that fear. The fear of the unknown.

And that, dear reader, is what’s lacking in today’s horror. That unsettling, disquieting flutter of fear. That emotion that makes us twitch at the tapping at the window. That emotion that makes us pull the covers over our head when we hear a bump in the night. That discomforting feeling that everything is just slightly askew. That, my friends, is the fear of the unknown. And that needs to return to horror.


Peter S


  1. Makes you long for the good old days with directors like Alfred Hitchcock. The difference is, good old Hitchcock would go ahead and leave the door closed at the end. (the birds)

  2. I love horror films too. This is a great blog. Saw films are one of my favorites. If you have time take a look at my horror blog at BugabooFlick


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