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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A View of What Scares Us

This poster was everywhere in Paris in April.
I recently watched what is the latest in thing in Horror--a Joss Whedon special--The Cabin in the Woods.  This mash-up fright flick is basically a tongue-in-cheek look at slasher flicks of the past.  Not designed to scare you as much as make you think that Joss Whedon is ingenious and funny and just a little wise.  I'll give him funny, since there are as many funny lines in it as an episode of Home Improvement (though the movie is three times as long as a Tim Taylor episode), but if Whedon wants to mix comedy and horror, he should rent The Frighteners and take lots of notes.  I would have to substitute clever for ingenious, since the plot could be considered ingenious but the clipped, quick theatrical version of the film is just too short to handle the possibilities of such a plot.  As for wisdom, there isn't any.  Not even a hint of profundity.  It manages to project a few brief, ironic moments, as when partiers ignore a victim being brutalized on TV monitors overlooking the crowd.  It is not that this group of people watch violence like the crowds at the Coliseum.  They in fact cannot even become interested in the violence, much like movie-goers today.  And so the movie ends in horrific bloodshed with little to no suspense.
  Which left me wondering why we had just watched it.  I was expecting it to be what we old people (as in non-teenagers) would call a scary movie.  No, I did not expect to scream and shake in my seat.  But I can still find a movie now and then that leaves me disturbed, a bit hesitant to walk through the house in the dark, and unable to fall asleep without listening to the sounds of the house once the living have taken refuge under the covers.  Cabin in the Woods did none of that for me.  The most suspenseful moment was one of the oldest shticks in the film-makers bag-of-magic-shticks; that moment when you say don't go down in the basement.  Beyond this, there is nothing to make your heart pound.  Sure, there are zombies stalking the characters, and even an explosion of our worst nightmares let loose upon the screen that is more or less designed to make us say "oh-fill-in-the-blank-expletive".  But it never reaches scary.
Peter Jackson's 1996The Frighteners
  Perhaps Whedon would defend his film by declaring it was never meant to be scary.  I can buy that.  It would make more sense.  I wouldn't argue with him.  This is more about my own expectations and how this movie failed to meet them.  Maybe I should have read more reviews before I saw it.  Maybe I just shouldn't be so picky.
  But what exactly then does a movie need to be scary?  That's the question over which this movie left me wondering.  It is a question that has vexed me for some time as I work to construct a plot for a future novel of mine as well.  I mean, let's face it, the scariest things in life are never in the movies we call scary.  Where, for example, are the horror classics April the 15th, and The Mortgage from Hell.  Guys with chainsaws chasing you?  They can't compare to the bureaucratic horror of an insurance company's convoluted medical policies.
  Honestly, one of the scariest moments I ever saw in a movie was in a Jamie Lee Curtis movie called Mother's Boys.  The movie wasn't scary, but in one scene, a little toddler is running across a room in his fuzzy sleeper, with a large glass of water held out in front of him.  Right away, any parent worth their salt feels their heartbeat quicken, their forehead feels flush, and they want to shout "stop running in the house!"  Why?  Because we know those cute little sleepers have plastic feet that stick out too far, and they are slippery, and this kid is gonna...oh yeah, in slow motion, we watch him pitch forward, eyes wide, hands still holding onto that glass...and he falls face first into the glass, which shatters.  It is one of the most traumatic and scary moments I've ever seen.  I knew as soon as he started running it would happen.  I still don't know how they filmed that scene, but I'm disturbed that they did.  It was truly horrifying.
  So what movies have really scared us?  The Exorcist is often cited as the scariest movie ever filmed.  And it is, for someone who does not know the power of Jesus that is available to believers.  A simple movie about mountain climbing scares people who are afraid of heights.  Many things scare us on personal levels, and these cannot be objectively evaluated.  Bumblebees don't scare most people, they are slow, passive, and even sort of cute.  But if you've ever had one get caught in your bangs, you tend to have a troubling view of them.
The Skull in our display.  (And a shameless plug for our books.)
  Skulls don't scare me.  We were in the Paris Catacombs with millions of them and they never bothered me.  I find them fascinating, since we all have one.  In fact, we all have one that we will never get to see.  I just think that's weird.  But during a book festival, when we had a fairly realistic skull sitting on the table, a surprising number of people shied away from it, asking if it was real as they recoiled from it as if its jaw might suddenly open wide as it prepared to eat them.  I was actually shocked to see their reactions.  One lady, her eyes as big as the empty sockets on the skull, her head shaking back and forth like a bobble-head skeleton, answered my question "do you like ghost stories?" with the simple answer "no, no, no, no, no..."  Okay, so skeletons scare her.  Maybe one of them fell on her in a science lab once.  I dunno.
Julie Harris learns what it means to be afraid in 1963's The Haunting
  For good old-fashioned scary I would suggest you look for The Haunting or its British cousin The Legend of Hell House.  Both of these movies do a great job of examining the iconic haunted house story, with actual examinations of them as their plots.  Burnt Offerings and The Changeling do a nice job of scaring the audience.  Any time a movie has multiple moments when you say "stop going into that room!" it is worthy of inclusion on these types of lists.  For a more recent movie, I suggest Identity, which plays with the slasher formula much better than Cabin in the Woods, and leaves us not only afraid of a killer, but afraid of a mind that has gone very, very wrong.  You are forced to consider what it means to lose your mind-- a horror that Gogol examined in The Diary of a Madman.  The mind is a far more terrifying place than the world around us.  Even worse is the darkness of man's heart.  Something I examine in the short story What Scares Henry Payne.  (Another shameless plug!)
  And most people will agree that the scariest parts of any movie are the parts that are never seen.  It is why so many old movies are still respected.  Were the censors aware that they were creating more suspense and terror by not allowing things to be shown?
  So what is it that really scares you?  What movies have captured this feeling best?  Room With No View would love to know!


  1. Great stuff, Jason, though I have to admit to having enjoyed Cabin In the Woods, but I did go in knowing it was more tongue in cheek than true horror. That being said, I found My Little Eye, a somewhat similar film, to be a better made version of the genre.

  2. Eeeehhhh, Cabin in the Woods (which I absolutely love) is not only a comedy/horror, but it's also genre-savvy, self-referential, and if not profound, at least an interesting reflection of what horror films are to us. It's more The Truman Show than a monster of the month flick. It's what happens when those monsters are let loose on the producers. What makes it stand out is that it's more than the sum of its parts, more than just comedy + scary + gore. That's my take.