Sunday, March 25, 2012
Gore Vs. Fear
What does it take to make a modern day horror movie? Add one dash of hot chicks, a few cloves of victims, a teaspoon of serial killer, copious amounts of gore, stir and presto! A modern day horror film.
Since the turn of the century, horror films have taken a severe detour when it comes to how to scare people. Directors and writers alike have thrown aside the suspense in favour of blood, guts and gore. The question is why.
I’m not going to get into the argument of if horror films promote real life violence (simply because I don’t believe that they do – to quote Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) from Scream “Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative”), but I am going to look at suspense verses gore and what sets iconic movies like Silence Of The Lambs and Halloween apart from that of Saw and Paranormal Activity.
Suspense is what makes horror, well, horrifying. Whether it be something as simple as the score (Come on, how many of you would be pissing yourselves if you were in the ocean and someone started humming the ‘Jaws’ theme?) or shadows, suspense is the reason that old school horror, like that of Psycho, will remain timeless.
Most films today seem to forget this and focus more on how many people can they dissect in ninety minutes and how many fake limbs are needed. The days of caring about the story and the characters are long gone.
Let’s take a quick look at Saw. I was impressed by the first film because the concept was original and there was a storyline and believable characters. They combined both gore and suspense well, and didn’t treat the audience as simpletons. But as the sequels emerged so did a frightening factor: Blood, guts and gore. The Saw series is no longer scary but stomach churning. Suspense no longer exists except for a sudden burst of dramatic music when something jumps out at our ‘victims’. I walked out of Saw IV because I couldn’t stomach what I was watching.
So why does it seem that horror of late wants to disgust us rather then scare us? Simple. We’re desensitised by everything we witness on the news and in the media so a film has to go above and beyond that to get a reaction from its core audience. So if that means flinging a rib cage at the screen, then so be it.
Paranormal Activity was a huge success because the creators took a step back from the blood and gore and stuck with suspense. They went the opposite way to the Saw series and were rewarded by it. Now, I have to admit, I was bored to tears with Paranormal Activity and found myself fast forwarding 98% of the movie because I couldn’t connect with the characters. I didn’t feel for the characters, I didn’t find the story that interesting and when the ‘surprise’ at the end happened, I just sat there and said to my friends, “Wait. Was that it?”
Paranormal Activity followed the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project. Low budget with an original concept loaded to the brim with suspense and lack of blood. The only difference for me was The Blair Witch Project had likable characters and for years was passed off as something that really happened. Some people to this day still believe that. It was suspenseful, it generated a lot of buzz from the film industry, and above all, it didn’t rely on gore to scare. It relied on story telling and believable characters. When Heather, Josh and Mike felt fear and were terrified, so was the audience. It was scary because it was deemed to be real. We were suckered into the story.
When an audience becomes part of the terrifying story then fear will follow.
When Halloween hit cinema in 1978, theatre goers would cover their ears because the music was too scary. John Carpenter’s theme music still scares audiences today. In fact, it’s the only thing that will wake me from a dead sleep. But it wasn’t just the music that causes Halloween to rank at number 2 in the top 10 of scariest films (Empire magazine November 2010). It was the use of low lighting, blue light, shadows, great story telling and surprise, surprise, lack of blood. Michael Myers terrified audiences through out the world by blending in. He would materialise from the shadows as the score grew louder. The only indication that he was there was his ragged breathing. And when he was unmasked by Laurie during a final struggle, audiences read more fear into his revealed face then intended. To quote director and writer John Carpenter, “The place went ape shit.”
Michael Myers is a horror movie juggernaut. Along with Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees and Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, Michael has terrorised audiences for over thirty years. Something about that movie struck a cord with audiences the world over. For my mother, who saw it at the drive-in in ’78, it was Michael’s mask. Whenever she closed her eyes, she could see it materialise out of the darkness. For others, it’s the infamous closet sequence where our heroine, Laurie, is trapped and Michael is breaking down the door, literally, to get to her. Or perhaps it’s Dr. Loomis’ speech about how ‘pure evil’ Michael is. But for me, it will always be that menacing score. No film today has been able to match it. Although Scream was sneaky and had Halloween playing in the background at the party ergo the same music was used for both pictures.
I want to take a moment to look at movies that promote genuine fear. Not some man in mask, but real fears. Buried, whist I personally wouldn’t consider it a horror, plays on the real fear of being buried alive as well as claustrophobia. Python and Anaconda delivered on our fear of snakes. Alligator taught us not to flush pets down the toilet, and as for Jaws, well, I know people that still won’t go in the ocean.
But the difference between Jaws and something like Deep Blue Sea is the suspense. In Deep Blue Sea we are introduced to the sharks in a similar fashion to Jaws in that the story begins with an attack, however unlike Jaws, this attack is not fatal. (Fun fact, the number plate that is pulled from the sharks mouth at the beginning is the same number plate pulled from the tiger shark in Jaws). The makos in Deep Blue Sea are shown more regularly then the Great White in Jaws and therefore subconsciously desensitising us from everything that is about to take place. Not to mention that the CGI work was terrible and I have never encountered a 45 foot mako (the largest on record is 13 feet) which deducts points from the story for believability.
I didn’t jump once when the makos made their appearance, but when Jaws popped his head up out of the water to say hi to Chief Brody, you bet I jumped. I also agreed that they were going to need a bigger boat.
From what I’ve seen of movies such as Shark Night 3D, it’s going to be a senseless blood bath. As a lover of sharks, it’s heart breaking to see something like this depicting these animals as cold-blooded killers. Yes, there are fatalities that are the result of shark attacks, but I assure you something like Shark Night 3D is in no way as believable as what happened in Jaws. From the trailer alone I can see that Shark Night 3D is a gore-fest, with no real thought behind the scares. It’s a group of kids (aren’t they all) isolated and used as shark bait. There’s no real thought behind it. It’s just like every other shark film that’s been made since 1975 with the exception of The Reef in 2010.
So why don’t modern film makers take a look at the past and try to recreate what happen in classics? I’m not talking about remaking a classic (that’s a whole other argument) but learning from it. Use shadows, use lighting, use music to create your mood. Have people that are believable and a storyline to match.
As movie goers evolve so does cinema. Unfortunately, when it comes to the views of horror, people assume that more blood is better. Would you rather witness a man being torn limb from limb or a well thought out stalking chase with a final showdown that will result in a bloody aftermath? I’m not suggesting that future horrors suspend their use of blood and gore. I’m suggesting that they tone it down. Take a note from classics from the past. Focus more effort on your story and your characters and you will be rewarded.