Ask me: what makes a good horror movie, Vince inquires...

>> Friday, October 15, 2010

You may recall that Vince had asked:

What is it about the horror genre that draws you to it? I read some books classified as horror, but find almost all horror movies either too graphic, too stupid, or both. What makes a good horror movie, in your opinion?


...which we ended up splitting into two parts because it was such a big question. The answer to the first question, what draws me to horror, appeared here. Now to take a shot at the second part: what makes a good horror movie?

Wow. I hate to pull a Potter Stewart, but I might have to for some of the reasons alluded to in the previous post: horror is more of a tone than a genre, although it's also a genre. Which means that there are good horror (tone) movies that aren't billed as such and good horror (genre) movies that may not be particularly horrific (plus bad movies of both types, but the question was about what makes a good horror movie).

There are even movies that don't work as what they are but as something else. The example that readily comes to mind is Clint Eastwood's notorious second shot at directing a feature, 1973's "Western" High Plains Drifter. Now, this is a movie that I don't want to say too much about, because it's a movie with a lovely twist that is handled elegantly even if you see it coming, and I'd rather not spoil it for those who haven't seen it and might. But what I will say is this: as a Western, which is ostensibly what HPD is, it's an awful, amoral, ugly movie with little or no redeeming value, while as a horror movie (which is what it really is), it's a fucking masterpiece. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory, but the first part of the previous claim ties into the second: the amorality is horrific and leads to horrific consequence, but the twist to the whole thing puts the amorality into a much different and (at the risk of giving away the game) inhuman light; for those who've seen the movie, consider that the most notorious and condemned scene in the movie is far more fucked up than you thought it was when you thought it was merely misogynistic and tacky when you consider it in terms of the confirmatory reveal in the final scene and last shot of the film.

But maybe that's a digression and doesn't address the question: what makes a good horror movie. If it's scariness, Zombieland isn't a horror movie at all, notwithstanding the fact that the setting is a zombie apocalypse and the characters are constantly running from and/or shooting at hordes of slavering walking dead who want nothing more than to eat them. If it's gore, the 1963 Robert Wise version of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting (avoid the 1999 remake, it has STDs) isn't really a horror movie, either, despite being hands-down the best ghost story movie ever made and fucking scary as hell during its middle act.

One might go back to the first of those points and say, "Well, okay, a horror movie has to be horrifying, and I'll concede Zombieland is a road movie with some 'horror' references or elements, but it isn't a 'horror movie' per se at all." But then what does one do with the comedic Vincent Price vehicle The Abominable Doctor Phibes? I don't see any way to get around calling a twisted revenge story about a hideously disfigured madman (played by Price, a horror icon) spree-killing his way through a succession of English medical professionals a horror story in several senses--but the movie isn't really "scary", handling the subject with the gleefully mad and surreal tone of and old pre-Code comic book, the kind of thing Bill Gaines loved publishing until he showed up in front of Congress stoned and ultimately had to convert his comics company to a magazine company to avoid censorship (happily inventing MAD Magazine in the process, so the universe somehow came out ahead in spite of everything). Phibes, anyway, isn't frightening so much as it's perversely charming--and it's almost definitely a horror film in probably anybody's potterstewartian considerations.

It probably doesn't help, either, that what makes a good horror movie may be what makes a good movie movie (or vice versa), and that it's hard to find bright-line rules to help us thread our way through. Not even about things that might seem intuitively obvious: e.g. you mention in your original question that you find a lot of horror movies "stupid," and one wants to jump in and reply, "Aha! A good horror movie is smart, just like any good movie!" But then one recalls that Sam Raimi's Army Of Darkness is gleefully stupid and fucking brilliant about it, too, much as the best work of The Three Stooges was (and Army wears its Stooges influences on its sleeve like a rack of medals). Although that might not be the kind of dumbness you're talking about; at that point, though, I think what's really happening is we're invoking Sturgeon's Law (or Second Law or Revelation, if you so prefer): ninety percent of horror films are crap, much as ninety percent of science fiction movies or ninety percent of romantic comedies or ninety percent of everything is crap.

The best thing at this stage might be to throw some recommendations out there, for whatever they're worth. Given the criteria set out by way of movies you didn't like or couldn't watch, I'll see if I can mention a few that aren't graphic or stupid or both that you might consider renting over the Halloween season or watching on TCM if they're showing.

I already mentioned Robert Wise's black-and-white version of The Haunting. It is, as I said, the gold standard of haunted house movies: smart, atmospheric, scary, with no gore and good faith to the best elements of Jackson's original novel (which, speaking of, is a gold standard of ghost stories, being one of the greatest ghost stories ever penned, having one of the best opening paragraphs in contemporary American lit, and is absolutely worth a read if you've somehow dodged it). In addition to the film's middle act being utterly frightening while showing very little (much is accomplished with the use of sound), the movie does an excellent job of picking up the book's sexual subtext and running with it in a way that manages to be subtle and obvious at the same time. (While we're on that, this is one of the perverse and stupid things about the 1999 remake: the 1963 movie dances around the repressed lesbian relationship at the center of the story partly because it has to--made in 1963, right? One might think a contemporary remake would be able to do more with that theme--perhaps even erring in making too much of it--and yet, instead, the remake drops it altogether and substitutes an unconvincing straight romance subplot. What the fuck?)

A more recent ghost story I've been pushing on friends lately and that I absolutely can not recommend strongly enough is the 2008 Australian pseudodocumentary Lake Mungo. (In grabbing that IMDB link, I'm distressed to discover somebody appears to be developing a 2011 remake--fucking hell, Lionsgate should've just distributed the one that was already made instead of shunting it directly to DVD when they got the American distro rights, cocksuckers.) There is a very small amount of what might be considered graphic material--the image of a drowned teenage girl pulled from the bottom of a lake appears briefly--but the core of the film follows an Australian family trying to cope with the death of their teenage daughter when various increasingly creepy events intrude, leading to several earned twists that retrospectively feel inevitable, not coincidental (there's an additional sad twist at the beginning of the credits sequence, so watch the whole thing). The movie is slowly paced, but in an appropriate way, and small events that are creepy and chilling give way to the provocative and poignant. As I say, this is one I just cannot recommend enough; Lionsgate initially sold it on DVD as part of a boxed set full of crap, and in doing so put it in a garish, off-putting box featuring an almost-completely misleading description on the back, but it is available separately now (I recently picked it up, in fact, having initially watched it through... well... anyway, let's just emphasize I have bought a copy, thank you) and I assume it can be rented from somebody.

One of the premiere stylists of low-budget RKO horror through the 1940s was Jacques Tourneur, and any of his films are worth a look, but in particular make sure you catch 1942's Cat People when it shows up on TCM this month if you have cable (and dollars-to-doughnuts, it will show up this month on TCM). Here's an example, by the way, of how the crass and stupid can be turned into the smart and sublime when turned over to the right people. RKO essentially told their go-to horror-and-suspense producer Val Lewton that Universal had a smash hit with The Wolf-Man and so RKO needed their own people-who-turn-into-animals picture and the title they'd brainstormed was "Cat People." So, stuck with the title and the demand he make some kind of movie called that, Lewton (who was just a brilliant producer--a literary man aspiring to be RKO's David Selznick whose response to being "stuck" making cheap genre pics was to treat every one of them like he was making the greatest film ever made) turned the project over to DeWitt Bodeen and Torneur. The result was that instead of getting the "people who turn into cats like Lon Chaney turns into a dog" movie they presumably were asking for, RKO got an atmospheric, psychological, romantic, creepy picture about a love triangle involving a beautiful but sexually repressed immigrant, her loving but confused husband, and his obvious-to-everyone-but-him soulmate coworker. It's marvelous.

Years later, Tourneur would turn a classic M.R. James horror story about a murderous sorcerer (PDF link) into the blackly funny Night Of The Demon. The movie was damaged by the studio's insistence that a movie called Night Of The Demon had to have a demon in it--Torneur had to go back and shoot and insert footage of a kind of goofy-looking puppet into the movie, but don't let that deter you: it's a great film, and the core of it is more of Torneur's use of light and shadow to hint at more than what you actually see.

Speaking of Tourneur reminds one of the legendary Freddie Francis; I'll float a token recommendation of Francis' 1963 Hammer feature Paranoiac, because while the script is kind of tedious and predictable, visually the movie is beautiful, and Francis milks some chills and thrills out of the visuals. Also, you know, Oliver Reed is in it, and Oliver Reed was one of those actors who could make almost anything watchable (with the exception of Gladiator, though it's worth noting Reed decided he'd rather die than appear in the movie--a wish thwarted by the wonders of modern cinematic technology--currrrrrses!).

I feel like I'm recommending a lot of really old movies, with the exception of Lake Mungo; I think it's because I'm studiously trying to avoid recommending movies featuring gore. I may be overthinking that. At any rate, I hope it's a starting point if you're looking for thematically-apt movies for the Halloween month (speaking of which, as I've said before, Halloween is great--but it's also a slasher film, and pretty bloody... still...). So how about further recommendations, gang? Also, any thoughts, discussion, etc.? What do you think makes a great horror movie? Examples of favorites, great or not?




3 comments:

Konstantin B. Friday, October 15, 2010 at 3:16:00 PM EDT  

I don't usually go for horror, and haven't seen one in ages, but the ones that had the most effect on me were the orignal Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien, and The Thing.

Seth Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 1:33:00 AM EDT  

Lake Mungo is available for streaming on Netflix. I think I may watch it this weekend.

Simran Possessed Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 4:30:00 AM EST  

Young generation generally like horror movies. But they always search anew innovative idea.

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