Tuesday, July 17, 2012


So few horror movies are genuinely scary.

And by scary, I mean they provoke a genuine physical response – shivers, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, tension and release.

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 desolation.)

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


  1. Comments are open, please. Would love to hear what scares the poop out of you (unless it's medical, that's gross.)

  2. 28 Days Later's effects scared me a lot, I haven't seen most of these, thanks. But the movie that scared me the most was Grey Gardens. I'd just had a miserable fighty visit with my mother and the idea of us having to live together in squalor and ill health horrified me. My companions told me afterwards I was white-faced. Me and Mum are fine now, but I will never watch anything connected to that film, ever.