April 4, 2004
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
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",
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
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
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
Got a response? Email