Friday, September 07, 2007

Oh, the Horror!

I'm not sure that I've ever mentioned this here before, but I watch a lot of horror movies. Most of them, like most of just about anything, are awful. Quite a lot of them are hilariously awful, which tends to be why we watch them. But occasionally you'll see a horror film that isn't quite laughable, but clearly misses everything that makes horror movies effective. There are a number of key things that filmmakers need to understand about horror movies before they start writing and directing their own, things that a hideously large number of modern horror movie directors simply fail to grasp.

Guess which movie I saw this weekend. So, here are, in my estimation, the most important things you need to know before you start making a horror movie.

1. Gore is not a substitute for suspense. I think this bears repeating and repeating and repeating to every horror filmmaker in Hollywood right now. Don't get me wrong, I liked "Saw" and "Saw II" (haven't seen the third yet). But I didn't enjoy those movies for the gore; I cringed at the gore (especially in the second one. I liked them because they had good plots with a clear understanding of suspense and of the audience's expectations. A lot of the horror movie fans who go on to create their own, whether for the big screen or for the Blockbuster shelf, remember being shocked by spurts of blood or hearing their girlfriends scream at dismembered limbs and sudden stabbings; what they often fail to understand is that the shock isn't how much blood there is, but in the atmosphere leading up to the gore. Gore is little more than window dressing; it's almost entirely unnecessary for a good scare. What you need for a good jump moment is music, setting, and other elements that create a sense of apprehension which leads naturally to a sudden climax. Blood might be involved in that climax, but it's not satisfying alone. It's the difference between recreational sex and artificial insemination: the point isn't the fluid, it's about everything leading up to it.

2. Sympathetic killers are scary. Monsters are scary. Sympathetic monsters are goofy. Now, when I say "monster," I'm not necessarily talking about something like Godzilla, but Godzilla works well as an example. While it's hard to really think of Godzilla as a horror character, it's easy to see why he could be scary. He's big, he's angry, he kills indiscriminately, he's relatively difficult to stop, and so on. Who remembers Godzooky, the animated baby Godzilla? The only scary thing about Godzooky is that someone thought it was a good idea. When you give Godzilla a kid sidekick, when you humanize him and make him sympathetic, you remove what's scary about him.

Different things can make a character monstrous. Some characters, like Godzilla, are monstrous because they're threatening and inhuman: Jason Voorhees is a mute, faceless engine of death; Michael Myers is similarly silent, slow, and completely imperturbable; Freddy Krueger is a wisecracking child molester who comes at you in your sleep. These characters frighten you because you imagine yourself in their victims' position, being chased by an unstoppable murderer. Some characters are monstrous because they're compelling and seductive: Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant, charming psychiatrist who conducts meticulous cannibalistic murders; Dexter Morgan is a funny, witty antihero with an artificial sense of morals; Dracula is a sexy, sophisticated immortal prince with superpowers. The compelling monsters scare you because you imagine yourself in their position, you live vicariously through them, you can't quite bring yourself to condemn them entirely; they scare you by making you see the monster in yourself.

This isn't to say that sympathetic killers can't be scary, but it's a different kind of scare. You get more of a "that could happen to anyone" scare, a realization of how easy it is to be pushed to doing terrible things. But a sympathetic killer isn't a monster, and the dynamic is very different because of that.

Mixing sympathy with monstrousness is like topping cheesecake with ketchup: the things are great separately, but together both are ruined. You can't turn a sympathetic character into a threatening monster because you've already identified with the character; they no longer seem threatening. You can't turn them into a compelling monster because there's no moral anxiety, just dissonance because you no longer identify with the character the way you did. Trying to go from monster to sympathetic character is equally fraught with failure. Moviemakers need to be aware of which character they're promoting, which one is the most interesting, which one the audience is identifying with, and write the story accordingly.

3. If you're going to give the killer a moral code, stick with it. The slasher genre has always had a fairly strict moral undercurrent, which was made explicit in "Scream." The audience knows that the couple who goes off to have sex is going to get mercilessly slaughtered, and that the pure-as-snow virgin heroine will live to see the credits. Especially since "Scream," you can't make a slasher movie without acknowledging this; your killer either has to follow some moralistic pattern, or has to completely eschew it and kill indiscriminately. The problem with the former is that you risk losing some suspense value to predictability and cliché. The problem with the latter is that you risk losing suspense value because the audience can't anticipate when a kill is coming.

There are, of course, ways around this. You can circumvent the "slasher morals" by establishing a different moral code, like in "Saw." You can make your hero/heroine not quite so pure as the standard. What I'd like to see some director do is follow the "slasher morals" with the first kill, setting the audience up for the standard, then shock the audience with the sudden murder of one of the morally pure characters, and continue from there ignoring the slasher morals entirely.

What you can't do is follow the morals sometimes, and kill indiscriminately other times. It's sloppy, and it makes your killer look inconsistent. When you've set up that your killer only goes after, say, the morally impure and the people who are mean to him, you can't then have him killing his friends and killing people who never committed any immoral acts on-screen. The killer's motives should generally be clear.

4. Setting is part of the scare. I addressed this briefly earlier, but it's worth repeating. Crafting an effective scare, even just an effective jump moment, requires more than just the characters. You need music appropriate to the mood and you need an atmosphere that promotes uneasiness. Too many horror filmmakers seem to lack basic understanding of how lighting, music, and setting come together to create an effective scare. It's the reason that someone shouting "boo" at you in your well-lit living room is less effective than someone doing the same thing in the woods under a full moon.

Similarly, your setting should be clear and distinctive. The audience should have some idea of where and when the action is taking place. A confused audience is not a scared audience.

5. I think this may be the most important: Effective horror movies play on preexisting fears. This is another place where it pays to know your audience, and to anticipate their reactions. Slasher movies tend to target teenagers and adults, and these groups come to the theaters with certain anxieties. Smart filmmakers know this and use it to great effect. The reason that the "Friday the 13th" movies are effective is because they play on the adults' fears of sending their kids off to camp; and they play on the teenagers' fears of an unfamiliar environment like camp, and their fear of being caught and facing consequences for engaging in "immoral" activities--sex, drugs, drinking, etc. That last bit there, naturally, is common to most slashers: the fear of being caught. The "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies play on parents' fears of child molesters and of their children suffering the consequences of their mistakes; they play on kids' fear of "that creepy guy at school," lingering fears of nightmares and the Boogeyman, and the fear that they aren't safe even in their own bed.

And the brilliance of the original "Halloween" is that it takes the mundane, the familiar, the completely safe and makes it scary. It plays off a couple of common urban legend themes--escaped mental patient, 'in this town there was a guy who once killed his sister'--and of course picks up the "getting caught" fears of the slasher morals. It plays off of common fears of Halloween, not just the "crazies come out on Halloween," but it's the natural extension of the "razor blade in the apple" myth: there are people who will exploit Halloween to get at your kids. And then it sets all this in a very normal suburb, effectively getting the audience to feel that fright isn't reserved for creepy hotels and summer camp, but it can follow you home. Top it off with a killer who is always calm, always silent, and displays no apparent superhuman abilities--a mundane, normal sort of murderer--who wears a spray-painted William Shatner mask. Familiar setting, familiar face, and familiar fears all come together to make a very effective scary movie.

And it's on nearly every one of these criteria that the new "Halloween" fails. The gore was excessive by the fifth time Michael hit the bully with the log, and never let up (and yet wasn't particularly realistic either. The effect when he slit the redneck boyfriend's throat looked like it came straight out of 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street").

We start the film with a long segment exploring Michael Myers' childhood and how he became a mass murderer, with a family which could have come out of the "Big Book of Serial Killer Stereotypes" and a terrible experience at school. He clearly only kills people who are mean to him, either directly (the bully, the redneck boyfriend) or indirectly (the sister and her boyfriend who have sex instead of taking him trick-or-treating). It seems (in my unprofessional opinion) that he suffers from fugue states or some sort of dissociative personality disorder, since he clearly has no memory of what he's done while masked, and since he seems to recognize that killing is wrong when unmasked. Despite this, the psychiatrist says that he has no morals, or something to that effect.

We cut forward an unclear number of years, and completely foul up the setting. The movie started in the apparent '70s, but when it moves forward it's no longer clear when it should be. The ages of the characters would suggest the '80s, maybe early '90s at the latest, the cars and fashions would suggest modern day, the old-style Illinois license plates put us back in the '90s at the latest, the trucker's style and mannerisms (and porn) all set us back in the '70s, but the cell phones place us back in modern day, and the psychiatrist's rotary phone places us back in the mid-'60s. Not to mention that all the houses that we bounce between in the "modern" setting are completely interchangeable. We're told that it's Halloween, but where are the trick-or-treaters? There's no one on the streets, there's no one waiting at their front doors with candy (able to hear the screams of young girls and the wail of police sirens)...if not for the two lonely kids in costume, the movie could have been called "The Night of September 23rd" or some equally arbitrary date.

Back to our erstwhile slasher, the awkward, geeky little boy has grown into a 7-foot-tall, 300-pound grunting superhuman monster. He breaks his thick chains with no apparent effort, and broke my suspension of disbelief along with them. He then proceeds to go on a murderous rampage through the asylum, even killing the friendly janitor who protected him. At this point we've completely undermined the moral code we set up in the beginning, and we've tried to turn our sympathetic victim of circumstance into an inhuman hulk. The resultant effect is inconsistent and utterly laughable.

I applaud the filmmakers for the casting and characterization decisions with Laurie, who is both less prudish and more attractive than Jamie Lee Curtis's version. Unfortunately, we sacrifice quite a bit of realism here with an over-the-top quasi-lesbian relationship with all of her friends, which increasingly looks and sounds like "how a creepy 40-year-old man thinks/wishes teenage girls act."

Michael, upon returning to his hometown (apparently? I thought the sheriff said he moved Laurie to a different town), decides to pick up a moral code again and starts killing the fornicators, except that he also kills Laurie's adoptive parents, so he continues this inconsistent streak. Somehow, despite being superhumanly immense, he is able to repeatedly sneak up on people and enter houses undetected.

After several instances of him stabbing young girls and watching them crawl away, he goes after Laurie, who apparently shares the Myers family's superhuman durability. Eventually we get to the reprisal of the "falling off the balcony" scene from the first film, and Laurie shoots someone in the Myers mask in the face. Also, there's a running subplot about the psychiatrist's book that never goes anywhere.

And then we cap it off with an inexplicit twist ending that was revealed back in "Halloween II," and was stated more-or-less explicitly two or three times in this film besides. If you couldn't figure out who Laurie was by the time Michael showed her the picture of them together, then congratulations: you're an idiot.

It's a muddled mess of a movie. I'm glad it made changes to the original, but it seems like every one of those changes moved it toward cliché rather than away. The whole point of the original "Halloween" was to make the mundane frightening; this new version has no such overriding theme, and instead tries to make caricatures frightening through a liberal application of fake blood and real boobs. It doesn't feel like a remake of "Halloween" so much as a cheap knock-off, sold in Mexico with a sloppy paint job and brittle plastic.

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