The Problem With Horror Films Pt.1
Horror is a beautiful genre of film, it’s just a shame that 99% of the time, the films within said genre are beyond awful. The films give endless adrenaline and can create the most intense atmosphere possible, or alternatively they can show us 500 people we don’t care about dying. These posts will cover my personal problems with the genre, and display what films do it correctly. While not everyone will agree with me, you need to understand that I am always right, or alternatively, discuss it below because opinions are fun! Hence, we begin!
Part One: Character.
This is so extremely basic, I cannot fathom how this goes wrong almost across the board. When I am sitting in a theatre with 150 other people, I am not scared of your horror film villain. When I am sitting at home, alone, lights off, dark room, I am not scared of your horror film villain. Unless your horror villain stands on planet earth, I am not scared of him, because as much as I get immersed in a horror film, they don’t want to kill me. If you use 3D and throw an axe through the screen, a) I’m not an idiot and b) You’re an idiot. Why do horror films focus so intensely on the villains? Yes, Villains are icons (take Freddy Kreuger as the greatest example), but they don’t make the film scary, neither does an extremely twisted murder, or ten people dying in 90 minutes.
What makes a film scary is the sense of danger we have for the protagonists, the fear we have for them of the villain. If the protagonists are bastards, Satan re-incarnate will mean nothing. If you name a horror movie character, you can name the victim. There has to be a Nancy Thompson to every Krueger, a Crane to every Bates. The Thing is scary not because it’s a beast of amazing power, it’s scary because MacReady is a fantastic and realistic character. I cannot express this enough, and that is why old horror films with awful special effects can still be scary, it’s the idea of someone we love dying, it’s not the elaborate and brutal death.
The biggest offender here is also one of the most successful, as subjective as that is, the Saw franchise. The original Saw film is amazing, the protagonists are flawed, but they are realistic (moments of bad acting aside), and generally they are good people who made mistakes. On the opposite side, we have a very fragile antagonist, Jigsaw. We aren’t told everything in this film, it’s not an open book, it’s got plot holes, but even with the twist known and after mutliple repeats, I get a lot more down about the ending than Saw VII, which is a lot more elaborate, because every single person in that film is a horrible person on every level, they are the worst kind of people, there is nobody to root for. In fact, let us make a handy little list.
Saw: Scares – 8/10. Likable characters: Everyone. Except Jigsaw.
Saw II: Scares – 2/10. Likable characters: None, everyone in the ‘trap’ were convicts for really severe crimes, except the boy, who was whiney.
Saw III: Scares – 3/10. Likable characters: Jigsaw is far more likable than any protagonist in this film.
Saw IV: Scares – 6/10. Likable characters: Yeah, Rigg is surprisingly likable, and traps are used as tests and character development as opposed to just set-pieces for horror. Similar to the first film, we’ve got a characters journey… With a few more flaws.
Saw V: Scares – 1/10 Likable characters: A big ensemble without a single developed character. Smart decision.
Saw IV: Scares – 7/10 Likable characters: Say what you will, but William Easton was a darn interesting character. This isn’t a well made film, but it’s stepped up its game for sure.
Saw VII: Scares – Negative10/infinity. Likable Characters: Not even the behind the scenes people were likable this time.
These numbers are based on personal experience, and purely on the scare factor. They are not ratings of the films (because by all means, the only actually good film is Saw). I’ll take time to clarify, scare ratings are based on general atmosphere and mood. You don’t necessarily need to scream or turn away from the screen, it’s just the general emotional response. A 10/10 would be unbearable to watch, an 8/10 is general fear and intensity and a 0/10 is watching My Little Pony. Likewise, most franchises have these fluctuations because they rely on the villain, Nightmare on Elm Street 1,3 and 7 were intense, the others were laughable (though, to be fair, the writers knew this by the time they started filling it with punchlines).
Nancy Thompson is the perfect protagonist.
She is smart, she is insightful, she is innocent, she fights back. Nancy has rational actions, and she has to change her ways to beat Freddy. Nancy is not defenseless because she can figure this all out, and that’s what works, she is not fodder, she is a realistic character with hope, and if you cannot get behind her you are not human. Freddy Krueger is the perfect complement to this because he is not rational, he defy’s logic and yet it is suggested he can be defeated. On the other end of the spectrum, I will say, without a doubt in my mind, that Friday the 13th Part 2 onwards is not scary. Jason Voorhes withstands infinite attack, all his victims are dumb. As I’ve said before, there is a place for these mindless films, but these are not horror. There is nothing scary, unless your threshold for horror is minimal, there is nothing scary about these films. Murdering random unrealistic characters is essentially the evolution of the “jump scare”. It will shock you, but it’s not memorable, it’s not difficult to make and it’s not actually scary.
To be fair, who I find a good protagonist is very different to who you find a good protagonist, and you may find Friday The 13th Part 2 (and onwards) extremely scary because the protagonists resonate with you, and that’s fine, but many horror films forget to resonate with anybody. In fact, just watch any remakes and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Some of the characters in those films deserve to die, and the others don’t register as human because they’re so poorly written.
I’m sure I’ve preached this point enough, so I’ll close up by saying having a well developed character separates a horror film from being surprise-scary to actually being genuinely scary. This is basic, yet 95% of the time we don’t get this. I don’t mind trashy horror films, they can be fun, but they aren’t horror films, they’re just minor adrenaline rushes and reasons to shout at the screen while laughing with friends, but to me, that’s not what horror should be about.
Geek Rant over.