After spending the evening watching horror movies on Netflix streaming I'm in the mood to make a bitch list.
So here's a list of things that bug me in horror movies, or at least lessen my scares. Some of them are elements that otherwise make awful films enjoyable though.
1. Recognizable Stars
Any horror movie is automatically less scary if I recognize any of the actors in it. More deductions if I recognize them from something decidedly not-horror such as TV comedy or reality TV show. Paris Hilton in 'House Of Wax'? No comment on her acting but I just couldn't buy into her presence in the movie as anyone other than herself.
This isn't to say movies with known stars will suck, all the classic horror stars are a joy to watch... but Vincent Price never really scared me, except maybe that first time I saw him in 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes'. Also, there the occasional moment where a badly placed has-been 'star' will lend an extra dose of sadness to the proceedings and help with the general air of tragedy. This is why stuff like Night Gallery and those Amicus anthology movies are much less likely to give me frights... they're like the Love Boat of horror. I think that, for me, this has to do with wanting a large dose of mystery in horror movies... not Agatha Christie brand tales of murder, but the unknown... the strange and outre... the weird... and it's easier for me to buy into that with visual strangers.
Of course this doesn't apply if the actor is famous but I have no previous knowledge of them... such as the first time I watched 'The Haunting'.
2. Superfluous Sex
This makes me sound like a prude, but I just find that sex scenes let the air out of my horror tires faster than I can say 'Double Impalement'... and by that I mean sex scenes that seem obviously inserted in the movie just to add a titillation factor. The same for nudity that doesn't seem natural in context. It's just distracting and usually kind of insulting ('Hey, we know you horror geeks like topless women, so here are a bunch of them').
Of course this doesn't apply if the sex is somehow making an important point about the characters or setting up a specific mood for the horror to play off of... or if sex itself is a source of horror... as with 'Society', 'They Came From Within' and 'Possession'.
Add superfluous romance here as well. Just because there male and female characters does not mean they have to pair off... and characters shouldn't have to be in love to justify them caring about what happens to each other.
I guess all I'm saying is that I like horror films to remain focused on horror.
3. Good Lighting
By this I mean typical modern Hollywood lighting where deep shadows are banished and all the actors always have their faces evenly lit. Technically competent, artistically barren. Kind of like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
I think horror usually requires some element of mystery... and visually that means keeping some elements in shadows (and out of focus, or off screen altogether). This kind of ties in to why I generally think black and white works better for horror as well.
Again, exceptions to this are examples where the bright lighting was purposefully used to amp up the suggestion that the horrors were present even with the lights on... as in 'The Shining'.
4. Overzealous Soundtracks
In general I pretty much prefer movies to not have music. I don't need or want those audio clues telling me how I'm supposed to be reacting to whats on the screen. Having 'creepy music' play while a heroine is exploring an old dark house is one step above a laugh track. The same goes for those annoying 'scare sounds' when the cat jumps out of the laundry hamper or whatever. Taking out the non-diagetic sounds leaves the viewer without an emotional net... makes the experience more personal and amps up the investment.
That said, a well-placed bit of music or creepy sound effect can really push up the atmosphere or tension... but it's a spice not the whole meal.
5. Showing too much
I can't think of any horror film that I think would have been improved by showing more of the monster or more gore. Extra deductions if the FX or gore are obviously CGI.
I'm not queasy about gore but most of the time I'm solidly in the less-is-more camp. My favorite horrors tend to imply and suggest rather than paint the screen red.
Would 'The Haunting' have been scarier is there was some sort of Casper peering around the corners? Again, I think it's about maintaining that element of mystery. Showing the monster and having lots of violence/blood release the tension, they don't build it.
There are folks who hated 'The Blair Witch Project' for not showing some sort of spooky witch at the end... but I think that just would have been dumb.
Not to say that gore doesn't have its place. I think 'Night Of The Living Dead' absolutely needs those glimpses of zombies chowing down on human flesh. Just having some character describe that scene would not have sufficed. One it's shown though, that's enough for me... it's much more effective for me to imagine Barbra's being eaten alive by her brother on the front porch than to see it spelled out graphically.
6. Fan Service/Formula
Again, I think mystery is very important for setting up atmosphere and scares. The more a viewer is uncertain about what is coming the more on edge he's going to be. The innocent girl shouldn't be guaranteed survival, kids should not be off limits for horrible deaths, Pinhead should not show up in every 'Hellraiser' movie. 'Fans' might expect certain elements but usually those elements, used slavishly, will weaken the scares.
This includes all the 'homage' stuff and in-jokes and whatnots that are often included in films that otherwise don't have much going for them... I'm thinking movies like 'Cabin Fever' and 'Hatchet'. If I catch a movie self-consciously kissing the ass of 'horror fans' it just takes me right out of the mood.
7. Faux Gritty
By this I mean the attempt, more often in recent films, to hose down the set with filth and goo to somehow make it seem like a nasty place. Sometimes messy works, like with 'Seven' and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' but often the dirt feels out of place or even silly... like the dirt itself is supposed to be scary. It isn't, unless it has some wider context. In 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' it's symbolic of the decadent mental chaos of the Sawyer family. A lot of the time it feels like the set designer is has no real motive behind it except a simplistic dirt = bad... and also, I'm guessing, ultra-dirty is a whole lot easier than ultra-clean. Either way, if the grit seems artificial or pointless then I find it distracting.
8. Blandly Attractive Underwear Models
Movies are more likely to affect me if I can relate to the characters and the actors playing them. If all the actors are 20-somethings who are carefully groomed and exercised... no big noses or goofy teeth... I'm not going to find much common ground with them. They don't look or dress or act like anyone I know. Some of that is bad writing and wardrobe... but it's really the endless parade of attractive yet uninteresting faces that disrupt my horror immersion. At least have some variety of age and personal hygiene... and that doesn't mean just dropping in one comedy fat kid who get's butchered on his way to a late night snack.
This prejudice also covers characters who live in improbably and pointlessly palacial houses or drive bright and shiny brand new cars despite being 20-somethings and having no visual means of support.
9. Dream/Nightmare Narratives
Most of the time dreams and nightmares in horror movies seem like just an excuse to throw a lot of FX up on the screen without bothering to think them through... so it's worse when the entire movie is a dream/nightmare.
I'm thinking stuff like 'Jacob's Ladder'... which I liked. But for every one that works there are a shed load of lesser makes that are just big visual acid trips with no rhyme or reason beyond "he's dead and this is all taking place in hell" or "it's all just dream"... an excuse for wacky visual and no real theme or plot. Without some sort of solid ground to stand on it all becomes ethereal and I just won't give a crap what happens because 5 minutes later the guy's dog will be alive again or his wife won't have those bat-wings or whatever. I'm not even sure why 'Jacob's Ladder' doesn't fail for me here... but somehow it doesn't. Maybe because it reigns in the crazy and keeps it focused, it feels like there is firm reality in there somewhere... unlike something like 'The Cell' that just goes for broke on visual nonsense that has no real coherent symbolism or relevance.
10. Pulling Punches
I want my horrors to be... horrible. I need to know that no character has a free pass to the end credits and that when the nasty stuff happens it will indeed be nasty. This necessarily mean showing more gore, like I said earlier I'm a 'less is more' type of guy.
I'm not talking about dropping squirming babies into wood chippers... unless the movie is called 'Maternity Ward Woodchipper Massacre'... in which case some babies better get mulched.
I'm also not saying that all my horrors need to be bleak and/or shocking. I'm fine if no characters at all are killed... as long as it doesn't feel like the story was cheated.
Mostly I'm thinking of films that hype themselves with garish and gruesome titles or setups... that upon viewing pull a bait-n-switch and go all sorts of nowhere with that initial promise. 'Hostel' my usual poster-child for this.
Eli Roth's yammering, the posters, the hype for it... all pumped up how transgressive and extreme 'Hostel' would be... but it turned out to be pretty damn mild... especially compared to stuff like 'Inside', 'Martyrs' and 'A Serbian Film'. Even 'The Human Centipede' has a more horrific imagination going for it, despite not really showing much of anything. 'Hostel', to me, felt like it backed out of its chosen rabbit hole rather than following it all the way down to wherever it led.
I understand that there are marketing concerns... that a fair number of people like happy endings and don't want to see anything too depressing or awful. They want the little kids and the fairy princess to make it to the end of the movie. That's fine. I'm just saying that if you are going to make something with that audience in mind don't call it 'Blood Orgy Of The Flesh-Eating Necrophiles'.
And... a pet peeve for all movies of whatever sort:
11. Fake Eating
I get so annoyed watching actors use gimmicky little techniques to pretend they're eating food when they obviously are not. I'm not sure why it bugs me so much but it does.
Either they're pushing the food around their plate on a road to nowhere or they're sleight of hand tossing invisible bits into their mouths and mock-chewing them. Everyone has seen what REAL eating looks like... so stop it with this nonsense. Either put the table chat scene post dinner or have the actors actually putting food in their mouths and actually chewing it... put a bucket on the floor next to the ones who don't want to swallow.