What with all the late Sherman Hemsley Acid Gong Prog Rock news this week, nobody bothered on Facebook -- now the paper of record- hadn't you heard? -- to mention the passing of Chad Everett. RIP Mr. Everett, late of Medical Center, James Michener's Centennial, and countless TV appearances. Seriously, this guy was TV in the '70s. Here's an episode of Medical Center that I'm going to watch this weekend in remembrance.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Medical Center: Adults Only.
And by scary, I mean they provoke a genuine physical
response – shivers, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, tension and
Scary movies shock us out of our normal viewing and
entertainment patterns. Terror, shock, surprise, creepiness, spookiness,
outright horror – the emotions associated with good horror films poke holes in
our safe reality, and bring us a little closer to, if not understanding, at
least the barest contacting of death, loss, violence, the other side. The very
physical jump at a lurching cat hiding in a closet, or the clenching of your
partner as the protagonist walks slowly, tentatively into a dark room, these
sensations are real and yet not real, dangerous and yet not at all dangerous.
In 1999, the Blair Witch Project became a massive sensation,
genuinely scary in its faux verite. The
“handicam horror” genre persists in the Paranormal Activity series, with its
scares wrought from tedium. Those movies are like watching paint dry on a
board, but every 30 minutes someone whacks you in the face with it.
Entertaining for some, mind-numbing for the rest (although the bleak long shots
of the pool cleaner in Paranormal Activity 2 had something almost Atom
Egoyan-esque about them in their oddly frightening banality and slow suburban
But at some point, hinted at in 2001 with the bleak,
superbly crafted and suggestively scary Session 9, confirmed by our adaptation
of The Ring in 2002, it was OK to make a movie that was, simply, scary. A
thoughtful, adult, sophisticated, well-crafted, scary movie.
I’m trying to pinpoint when it happened – when horror movies
started being genuinely scary again. And
clearly I’m making an assumption that there was The Great Bleak Period when
horror movies weren’t scary at all. I’m open to discussion on this point, but
let’s at least agree with my primary point – there’s a new breed of horror
movie, and its toolset is austere, bare-bones and uncomplicated.
In movies like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, James Wan and Leigh
Whanell’s Insidious, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the recent Hammer re-entry
The Woman In Black, with these movies, and others like them, we’re getting
scared again. And not through torture or gore effects or CGI. Through sound
design, impeccable pacing, minimal make-up (relatively), great casting, movies
are getting scary again.
Previously in recent memory of modern horror (I’m thinking
generally post-‘90s, post-Clive Barker, post-Stephen King), there was that flood
of remakes where everything was bigger and glossier and more Michael Bay-y (God
save you if you actually try to watch / enjoy that remake of Friday the 13th,
a series generally only noted for its quantity of installments and consistent
terribleness in the first place – seriously, none of those movies are good. At least
Halloween and the first Nightmare on Elm Street are legitimately good movies).
There was, arguably, that strain of torture movies,
initiated sort-of by Saw but really bookended by the Hostel movies on one end
and, appropriately, The Human Centipede movies on the other. And there have
always been major studio horror movies that almost universally reek of
compromise and bloated effects budgets – see the bland The Devil’s Advocate, the
slightly underrated The Mothman Prophecies, or the unremittingly awful The
Wolfman. Not to mention an endless stream of made-for-cable/DVD/On Demand
monster pics (likely picked up at film markets), barely watchable independents
that didn’t get bought, slasher films, whatever-on-earth Charles Band and Full
Moon were putting out anymore… Horror was everywhere, but, as with anything
else, much of it… well, it sucked.
In Wan and Whanell’s Insidious, for me one of the purest
examples of the New Scary, the setting and family are all too predictable. But
the scares come slowly at first, until we’re faced with the red faced and
utterly terrifying demon, created with simple makeup EFX. This thing evokes
something dark and wrong in our collective memory, demonic, satanic,
cloven-hoofed, a child’s deepest nightmare. It’s like something out of an old
woodcut drawing, made real without CGI or other trickery (the strings of which,
it’s almost always too easy to see).
And the ghosts? They might as well be real people under a
white sheet with eye holes cut out. But by that point, we’ve given ourselves
over to the scary.
In Ti West’s The Innkeepers, two adrift losers work the
night shift at a hotel that’s about to close down. Their bored ennui is the
most palpable emotion for the first third of the movie, but details accrue, and
soon we’ve got a pretty immaculate portrait of people lost in indecision.
Meanwhile, something in the basement seems to have it in for the girl, while
the boy rattles away on his ghost hunting website, ostensibly trying to record
phenomena that will scratch the itch left by an early ghostly haunting. Once
again, the monsters are more human than one would expect, mostly stage blood and
mascara, but the overall tension and terror is real. Kelly McGillis continues a
short run of brilliant mystical older ladies in Glass Eye Pix movies (starting
with Stakeland) in this as well, offering both a rationale for the haunting and
a bridge to the spirit world for the main character.
In The Descent, sure, we had ooga-booga bat monsters, but
the bulk of the film’s terror quotient was the rapidly encroaching smaller
spaces our protagonists found themselves in. The claustrophobia is palpable,
such that, after watching The Descent again recently, the merest idea of
watching the ultra-claustrophobic Ryan Reynolds film “Buried” – which takes
place entirely inside a coffin and is, by all reports, far inferior to films
like The Descent – seems impossible.
But it’s simple effects that provide the greatest terrors in
films like this. And by simple, I mean not relying on expensive computer
effects or gore prosthetics, but on directorial ingenuity and intelligent
framing, on perfectly created tension and smartly crafted sound design.
For more movies like this, see Bill Paxton’s underrated and
psychologically creepy Frailty, the Guillermo Del Toro-produced The Orphanage,
the woefully unseen Session 9, Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, Jaime
Balaguera’s [Rec] series. I’ll post more as I think of them or as people add
them in the comments. What scares you? - Nick Tangborn