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April 4, 2004

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What Happened to Scary Movies?

Everyone has pet peeves where film clichés are concerned.  With me, it drives me nuts when some guy gets shot and the bullet lifts him off his feet.  I started out in Physics back in my university days, but even without that, it doesn't take much effort to see how ridiculous that is.  Newton's Third Law of Motion says that for every action there is an opposite and equal re-action.  That's how rockets work in a vacuum.  The burning gases that come pouring out of the rocket push backwards against the rocket.

The same thing happens when you fire a bullet.  The bullet pushes backwards against the gun with the exact same force as it then carries to the target.  In order for a bullet to lift someone off their feet, the guy firing the bullet would be thrown off his feet too.  That's just the way life is.  Then too, imagine what would really happen if a tiny bullet hit someone with enough force to lift him off his feet.  It would take his head off!  (I would love to know what was the first time a movie showed someone getting hurled off his feet by a bullet.  My guess is it was probably in the '70s, maybe a Dirty Harry movie.  If anyone has an idea, email it to us and I'll mention it in a later editorial.  Lucky you.)  More sinisterly, a few years ago I ran across one of those serial western books -- probably one of the Trailsman series --  which had a scene where the bad guy is lifted off his feet by a bullet.  In the old days, that would never have happened.  And so Sauron spreads his evil shadow over the unsuspecting hobbits...

Anyway, this was by way of lead-in to my main topic which is this: What happened to the good old scary movie?  (This does relate -- give me time.)

You may have noticed, as I certainly have, that something has happened to so called "horror" movies over the past twenty years.  The scary horror movie has gradually been replaced with the "action" horror movie -- which would be fine if we called them "action movies", but we don't. 

Don't know what I'm talking about?  Well, take for example several recent remakes of famous horror movies: The Haunting, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I'm thinking of the remake set in an army base, not the Kaufman directed remake), Thirteen Ghosts.  Each one was, shall we say, testosterone enhanced over the much more sedate, much more frightening original -- lots of running about, shouting and screaming, fighting, often there's shooting.  I first really noticed this while watching the remake of The Haunting.  About the time shy, introverted Eleanor starts wielding a fireplace poker like a light sabre against a huge animated statue of a bird...I knew something was seriously wrong with the modern "horror" movie.  Fast paced it might be.  Exciting maybe.  Even suspenseful.  But scary?  I don't think so.

Perhaps the infamous remake of Psycho provides the clearest example of what I'm talking about.  Here we had a film which even used the original script and the original storyboards from Hitchcock's masterpiece.  And, admittedly, it remained pretty faithful most of the time -- but how about that climax in the fruit cellar?  In the original, the heroine turns around to find herself faced with the knife-wielding maniac dressed as his mother and she does the sensible -- the realistic -- thing: she screams.  In the remake, what does she do?  She shifts into Jean-Claude Van Damme mode and kung fu's Norman Bates!  Now, I know full well why director Gus Van Sant made this change.  He obviously felt the original was sexist; felt in this day and age the heroine should be able to protect herself.  Fine.  But in the original Psycho, the male hero didn't rush in and kung fu Norman Bates, did he?  He grabbed Norman, rather awkwardly, and desperately wrestled him to the ground.  If Gus Van Sant wanted the heroine to save herself, she could have grabbed a flower pot and bashed Norman in the head.  That I would have believed.

Aw, there, I said it.  This whole thing has to do with belief.  With plausibility.  As any horror writer will tell you, the way to write good horror is to make all the surrounding stuff as plausible as possible.  If we don't believe in the reality, we won't believe it when that reality is threatened.  It won't be scary.

In such "horror" movies as Event Horizon, Predator, Virus, Resident Evil, Deep Rising and a zillion others, everything is so amped up it ceases to be believable.  I'm not saying these movies aren't a lot of fun (although Event Horizon I could have lived without).  I really enjoy fast paced action movies.  But I also used to enjoy being scared at the movies.  And that doesn't happen very often anymore.

I think we can trace the death of the scary movie to James Cameron's Aliens (1986) -- the sequel to Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien (1979).  If you think about it (and most people don't), Alien and Aliens are virtually the same movie.  Plot point by plot point, they are nearly identical.  (Replace the cat with the kid, the double-crossing android with the double-crossing companyman, the claustrophobia-inducing spaceship with the claustrophobia-inducing planetary habitat, the nuclear self-destruct device with the overloading nuclear reactor, the alien getting flushed out into space with...the alien getting flushed out into space.)  And yet, they are worlds apart in tone.  Scott's Alien was basically a really scary "haunted house" story, except Casper bursts out of your chest and rips your head off.  It moved at a sedate pace, with people creeping about in dark corridors, relentlessly building the tension.  It scared the shit out of us.  Then, only a few years later, along came Cameron's sequel Aliens, and horror has never been the same.

Aliens was practically the same movie except it was told as an action movie, with a bunch of muscle-bound marines armed to the teeth and fighting an army of aliens.  It was incredibly well done and very, very influential -- and we have been paying the price ever since.  Aliens showed that you didn't have to make a movie scary if you could make it fast paced.  People would still say it was scary just as I'm sure many of you are thinking, what are you blathering about, Blair?  Aliens was terrifying!  But it wasn't scary the same way Alien was scary.  Aliens was scary the way a rollercoaster ride is scary.  It was not so much about fear as it was about thrills.

Now you can see how the subject of people being lifted off their feet by bullets relates.  That is but one of several modern clichés all of which work against the believability needed to create a truly scary movie.  Another similar cliché is when the hero is thrown twenty feet, impacts against a wall, and promptly picks himself up and rushes back into the fray.  Look at some of the things that happen to Mark Wahlberg in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes -- then tell me a real human could survive a pounding like that! And contrast this with the original Planet of the Apes.  Even though the original wasn't really a "horror" movie, it was certainly scary, and a whole lot scarier than Tim Burton's remake -- because it was more believable.

I think another culprit to be blamed for the death of scary movies was TV.  The first time I saw the modern "Matrix style" fight scenes which are all the rage today, it was in the TV series Hercules.  Then came the spin-off Xena, then Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it's spin-off, Angel.  All of these introduced a hyper-kinetic fighting style, borrowed from Hong Kong action films, where the hero flies through the air, defying the laws of physics, through the use of invisible wires and hidden springboards.  But in these cases, it was meant to be funny!  Somewhere along the way, the humour was lost and now we see the same unbelievable fighting style cropping up in otherwise serious movies.  (And I'm not just talking about horror movies, either.  Check out a thriller like Murder at 1600 with Wesley Snipes or Breakdown with Kurt Russell and tell me normal guys could do the sort of things those guys do.)  The result is about as convincing as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Indeed, critics often refer to these as "comic booky", not because they are based on comic books (which they sometimes are) but because they are about as plausible as a comic book.  Of course, the mega-hit Matrix and its two sequels pretty much put the nail in the coffin.

I also have to wonder how much video games have contributed to the death of scary movies.  Starting with the three-dimensional "first-person shooter" Doom, then progressing to games like Duke Nukem, Hexen and, of course, Quake, an entire teenage generation has been reared on video games, a generation which is just about now reaching the age where they are taking control of the reins in Hollywood.  Some movies, like Resident Evil, are actually based on video games.  But it is equally possible that those games are having an impact in more subtle ways. 

Where so called "first-person shooters" are concerned, there are two ways to play.  When I used to play Quake, I used what might be called "Scooby-Doo mode".  I crept through the game's dark corridors with my heart pounding in my chest, peering fearfully around corners, my nerves strung tight like guitar strings.  And when a monster jumped out of the darkness?  Invariably, I shrieked shrilly and ran.  Eventually, having determined that the monster had stopped chasing me, I would fearfully tiptoe back to do reluctant battle.  Needless to say, it took me a long time to get through each level.  And I loved every minute of it.  I loved being terrified every time I heard the distinctive hissing of a Skrag.  I rejoiced the first time I discovered it really was possible to kill a Shambler.  And when those Fiends sprang at me with their huge, red claws?  "Sh-sh-sh-shaaaagiiiie!"

I was surprised, then, when I discovered that many (probably most) Quake players didn't play that way.  Most of them played against a clock, rushing from room to room, gunning down monsters so fast you hardly had time to identify them before they were cut in half with the nailgun.  All the while, the background music was crashing away, turning the whole experience into, well, an action movie.  Played in Scooby-Doo mode, Quake is a truly frightening experience.  Played against a clock, it is very frenetic, very loud, and very exciting.  But it isn't very scary.

It could be that the filmmakers making those modern action horror movies are simply trying to recapture the thrill they got playing video games.  Alternatively, it could be they think that's what kids today want.  And it probably is what they want.  But I kind of miss the old fashioned creepshow.  I miss the days when zombies lurched slowly out of the shadows, arms outstretched, taking their time because the heroine was frozen with horror, one hand to her mouth, unable to move, barely able to scream.  In the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, so I hear, the zombies are real fast.  And Sarah Polley is real tough with a machine gun.

Me, I'm going to pass.  I'll rent The Blair Witch Project instead.  And I'll sleep with the light on...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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