Saturday, October 6, 2012
Horror on Celluloid – Do audiences still scream?
The best horror films are the ones that keep you looking under your bed for the next few
The Ring did that for me. So did I Know What You Did Last Summer. Two very
different films, illustrating that horror is more rich and varied a genre than mainstream
Hollywood might make us believe. Summer was aimed squarely at a teenaged
demographic, Ring probably at a wider audience. Both films had an artistry to them
that got the message across like a scalpel to the marrow. Both depended heavily on
atmosphere and used it skillfully.
As a teen slasher/whodunit suspense yarn, Summer depended largely on sudden shock
and skillfully timed surprise attacks. But, unlike the tired and overused slasher fare, it
was also a dark morality play and mystery rolled into one. A group of teens who had
accidentally run a man down on a dark, lonely highway and, fearing conviction and ruin
over drunk driving charges, choose to cover up the crime. Their consciences are still
haunting them as circumstances bring them together again a year later, as though they’re
trapped in a nightmare of their own making. Someone on a dark mission of revenge
is picking them off one by one. They can’t go to the law, so they have to ascertain the
killer’s identity on their own. The dark, dreary setting of a small New England fishing
town forms the ideal back-drop for a creepy suspense story, the dark, hooded figure of a
hook-wielding killer in a dark slicker skulking in every shadow like the grim reaper.
Though it has the taste of 1950’s urban legend, (the basis of mindless and horrendously
over-used Friday the 13th -type 80’s slasher tripe) Summer is a shadowy maze containing
enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, with suspense and fear and artful chase
scenes taking the place of mindless gore and brutish violence. It comes to a delightfully
open-ended finish that keeps us dangling. The closing scene is priceless. (Sadly, it led to
a sequel that didn’t do it justice. That’s Hollywood.)
Ring is far less conventional and deliciously bizarre. A ghost story centered around a
murdered little girl drowned and left in a dark well, it uses the strange idea of a cursed
piece of film that kills anyone who watches it within a certain period of time after seeing
it. (While an obvious device, this one had me checking off the days on my calendar with
special interest.) It makes use of shock scenes only minimally and is more an odyssey
into escalating madness, like a psychedelic ride down another long, dark well. Less a
morality play than a story of frail human protagonists up against an incomprehensible
aspect of otherworldly power, this one reflects the mindset of a non-western culture.
(The movie was based on a Japanese horror film.) Sadly, this one also withered through
banal sequels and imitators.
Other film makers cheat in making effective horror. The most obvious such trick being
the Blair Witch Project, which spawned a genre in itself. This new kind of cinematic
horror puts the audience in the film maker’s shoes, building slowly from the innocuous
beginning of making a video and escalating through one grainy, amateurish frame after
another. The horror builds and intensifies, drawing its power from the mockumentarian
feel of the movie, suspending disbelief by simulating the filtered reality of seeing the
world through a lens as that world slowly but surely dissolves into hell and madness.
This became a fad, spawning a slew of such fake video films. The most notable of which
is the Paranormal Activity film series. That one’s effective in bringing the horror into the
American middle-class home, tapping our inner child, remembering the late-night horror
of laying in bed and thinking you hear someone or something creeping up the stairs in
the darkness. Low budget and dull on its face…video monitors endlessly recording dark,
quiet nightly interiors…it generates a creepy atmosphere of suspense and impending
doom. Something unseen and purely evil is lurking in the dark, and it’s coming into the
bedroom. The film closes with a blood-curdling scream, the swift shock of a dead body
hurled into the camera, and a closing shot that achieves horror without elaborate special
effects. And yes, sadly, this one too has languished through sequel after sequel.
Film making is of course a business. And, like any other, it imitates whatever formula
has proven to work. But, that’s a self-defeating tactic when it comes to horror, which
depends for its effectiveness on the element of surprise. Formulized horror is almost a
contradiction in terms, yet that’s what Hollywood insists on sticking us with. Today’s
horror films are tired, repetitive forays into the realm of demonic possession. The thing
that scares Hollywood the most these days is something called originality.
My Dark Mocha Bites story Hellshift is a short shocker which I confess does utilize
visual elements of extremely visceral physical horror, reminiscent in some ways of big-
screen horror. In this one, I’ve tried to bring an alien, somewhat Lovecraftian horror into
the life of an everyman. A dull, overworked, frustrated corporate lackey finds himself
stalked by an inhuman, cosmic horror and fears he is losing his mind. As he stumbles
between the external horror of the thing stalking him and the internal horror of his own
subconscious, he’s the personification of an imploding, morally compromised society. I
was remembering the late, great Ray Bradbury’s popular Martian Chronicles in crafting
a more horrific vision of a human colony trying to re-create Earth on an alien planet and
finding the often invisible, shape-shifting natives less than cooperative.
So, the horror writer seeks to find his or her own voice, while the rest of us wait for
the next great innovation in the art of horror. We all pay our money and go the theater
prepared…hoping, perhaps… to be scared out of our wits. But, just be careful the
sequels don’t get you.
Hellshift is a new horror story available 10/8
Read more of Tom Olbert's fantastic writings in Long Haul and Along Came a Spider.