Fear on Film — Halloween Meets Hollywood

by | Oct 28th, 2008 | 8:00AM | Filed under: Uncategorized

There have been millions of words written on why we watch horror movies; some suggest that it’s a way of tackling our darkest fears in a safe, controlled environment; some suggest that it’s a workout for our normally-untested adrenaline glands and the other human components that process our response to panic and terror; some suggest that scary movies work on such an immediate gut level they offer a nice change from brainier, more complex dramas or comedies. But the real reason why we watch horror films (and 69% of people polled in Redbox’s Halloween survey said they do, in fact, like scary movies, while 67% said they’re going to make sure to watch a scary movie this Halloween) may be a lot simpler; namely, they’re fun, and when they’re well-made, they’re great examples of how film making works. When we sit down to watch any  movie, we’re signing up for a few hours of artificially-induced emotional experience … and when a scary film creeps us out, that means it’s working.

Big Screen, Big Scares

Ruins Pop psychiatrists tell us that horror films are how society expresses its worries and terrors. The ’60s and ’70s gave us social horror flicks like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Village of the Dammed — each of which spun out of popular anxiety over parenting and marriage in the post-war world. (And they hold up; The Exorcist was picked as the best scary film of all time in the Redbox survey.) It’s interesting that this year, as we’re creeped out by the idea of global warming and news of lethal tainted greens, we’ve had two separate films where plants are trying to kill us, The Ruins and The Happening. (As much as I like the film version of The Ruins, it has to be said that Scott Smith’s original novel is one of the best (and worst) horror novels of the past 20 years, easily on par with the best of Stephen King’s work in the ’70s.) Neither film offers solutions, of course — they’re horror films, not position papers — but they each take our general anxiety about the state of the natural world and, for a few hours, turn it into something very specific and very scary.

StrangersCreepy Killers

French director Jean-Luc Goddard famously said that all you need for a film is "a girl and a gun." In horror film making, it could be said all you need is a girl and a knife. In the Redbox Halloween survey, when asked which scary movie villain scares them the most, the majority of the voters didn’t name monsters like the shark in Jaws or supernatural creatures like Chucky from Child’s Play but instead gave the nod to old-school masked maniacs like Jason from Friday the 13th and Michael Myers from Halloween. (Jason and Michael earned a fifth of all votes cast between them; the survey named Nightmare on Elm Street baddie Freddy Kruger as the most frightening villain, and for all his dream-invading abilities, it’s worth pointing out there’s a lot of the slasher in Freddy as well.) There’s a lot to be said for the primal simplicity of the old-fashioned slasher film — check out Jamie Lee Curtis’s 1980′s effort Prom Night if you don’t believe me, a movie that manages to be both cheesier and scarier than its recent remake — and it’s interesting that as the kids who grew up on ’80s slasher flicks become grown-ups, they’re making their own new spins on those classic films, like in this year’s low-tech, high-anxiety squirm-fest The Strangers, where Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler get three unexpected, unwelcome guests in the late hours of the night. …

Scary Monsters

30daysofnight Finally, Halloween reminds us that people like monsters; there’s always at least one vampire at any Halloween costume party you go to, and Hollywood knows that audiences are always hungry for a little bloodsucking at the box office. The big-budget adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling novel Twilight is set to hit theater screens in November, and this year’s The Lost Boys: The Tribe is a sequel to the 1987 teen-vamp flick The Lost Boys, although some would suggest the scariest thing in the whole sequel is Corey Feldman returning to play vampire hunter Edgar Frog. Another recent vampire film, 30 Days of Night, puts a group of blood-hungry fiends in a small Alaska town where the darkness of the arctic circle gives them free reign to feed and kill — and while the movie borrows shamelessly from horror films like The Thing and Dawn of the Dead, it’s still a creepy new twist on the vampire story. Horror movies scare us year-round, but they’re always a little more fun at Halloween: Let us know below what classic personal-favorite fright-fest you’re going to watch to get in the mood for a holiday of ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night …

James’ Top Five Horror Films:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The mood and tone of this black-and-white classic are scary, spooky — and ultimately heartbreaking.

The Thing (1982) One of the best monster movies ever made, with brilliant creature effects and nail-biting tension.

Funny Games (1997; re-made 2008) Whether you watch the original or the English-language shot-for-shot re-make, Michael Haneke’s spin on the ‘strangers in the house’ horror film isn’t just scary to watch; it also asks why you’re watching it. …

Dawn of the Dead, (2004) Another re-make, but a brilliant one … and, in its first 10 minutes, a brilliantly scary zombie-filled version of the confusion and fear we all felt on the morning of 9-11. …

Near Dark (1987) This cult vampire movie doesn’t even mention the word ‘vampire’ in its script; it may not be perfect all the way through, but there’s one scene in it that always, always scares me silly no matter how many times I watch it. …

2 Responses to “Fear on Film — Halloween Meets Hollywood”

  1. Gregg Newby
    Posted on October 28, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I’m reading THE RUINS right now and, yes, it is a masterpiece. What makes it so scary is not the external situation facing the characters, because, let’s face it, killer vines is really a rather hokey premise. What make it so good is how the characters respond to their environment. They, not the vines, are the real monsters here.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted on October 29, 2008 at 7:48 am

    I think you’ve nailed it pretty well – especially what you said about Funny Games. I did finish that movie and think to myself “why on earth did I watch that all the way through” – it was so well made, but so unpleasant to watch – yet I still remained captivated.
    Thanks for this blog, it was an interesting read, and I think you made some good points. You named quite a few horror movies I’ll be watching this Friday!!
    The only one I can think of that you didn’t mention is REC. Although the style of Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Diary Of The Dead etc is starting to get a little mundane now, this film brings it back to the realm of originality. It almost scared me as much as The Witches did when I was 7 – and they already have an English speaking remake coming out (“Quarenteened”) already.
    Anywayz, thanks again for the blog, I found it an interesting read, and appreciated some valid suggestions that horror critics seem to neglect.