“What are you afraid of?” Fear is a huge part of our lives, it shapes us into the people that we become. From heights to spiders to crowds and darkness, it is the age old emotion that is unique for each person. Fear is built into our psyche. It forms over the centuries, growing with each new experience. It is our response to danger, giving us that rush of adrenaline to either flee or fight. The horror genre is described as films that give us the fear of the unknown. This “unknown” can include everything that anyone has ever thought of. It’s not hard to describe our fears, but it’s hard to describe why do we fear one thing over another?
Hundreds of horror movies are made each year and like any genre, some are good some are bad. I believe, however, that the horror genre suffers more from bad films than any other genre. We all go to the theater, sit in the nice comfortable chair and if you’re like me I tend to go to a late showing just to get into the spirit. We sit in the dark with ample anticipation, like a child on Christmas day waiting for our parents to say those magic words so we can open our presents. Awaiting that moment, when the lights dim and the trailers begin to roll and we are all ready.
At the end, the credits begin to roll and we are left disappointed. As we leave the theater we begin to come to the realization that we chose a movie that was neither good nor bad, it was just simply there. There are the films we love and there are films that are just downright awful and some that are so bad they’re good. What about the films that get lost in the middle, those that are just so close to being good or even great films, yet they never make it. This is the basis for my writing today. What separates The Exorcist from Exorcist: The Beginning? What separates the good from the mediocre?
We can all see and pick out what makes a bad horror movie. It stands out like a tourist in a sea of locals. From the writing to the way a scene is presented. I can generally see a bad movie coming a mile away. It is something that we may not be able to describe but we know it when we see it. How do you differentiate between a good or bad movie and an okay movie? This I think is the hardest to explain and harder to realize. All too often we’re faced with so many that the line between good and bad becomes blurred. This could be from general experiences or just what we are conditioned to anticipate in the movies we watch. For me, I have experienced many horror movies that have just been on the cusp of great and end up falling short. This brings us to the question, “What makes a great horror movie?”
This of course is my opinion, I have seen many movies and there are so many that go unheard of. What makes a movie just mediocre? I believe that it’s the subtleties that truly distinguish the good from the bad. This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are numerous things that can save or destroy a film but I find those small and unique moments are where a film can really shine. I offer up three films that I feel perfectly highlight when a film falls behind the line of greatness. Some of you will disagree with me and I encourage this, I look forward to healthy discussions.
When coming up with these three films, the first film I knew had to be It Follows directed by David Robert Mitchell. This was a film that was touted as the “scariest in years” and in some cases the “scariest movie ever.” With anticipation at an all-time high I sat down, ready to be frightened. Sadly, I left feeling unfulfilled on these statements. This wasn’t because the movie or its scares were bad, but something was missing. In the time since I’d seen the film, I started reading and watching reviews and explanations about it. I wanted to try and understand what I was missing or what did I not catch the first time. I found that many people adore and love It Follows, I wanted to love it, but I couldn’t. As I said, It Follows and the other films on my list are not bad films. The acting is great, the music is fantastic and the plot is interesting and unique. An unstoppable, unrelenting, force that seeks to murder you and there’s nothing to stop it. It’s a perfect setup for a horror film with the monster being inventive and diabolical. This leads me to one of the first problems I have with the film, the monster. The monster we are told can be anybody, can look like anyone in order to get close to its victims. This, however, does not happen at all except in two scenes. The monster chooses to disguise itself as people that are so out of place it rips us out of the scene because we know if we saw it, we’d never even come close to it. Why wouldn’t it choose to look like someone close in order to get them? The argument has been made that the monster enjoys scaring its victims and enjoys toying with them. This does not seem to fit in with the story, due to the fact that it’s stated that all “It” cares about is killing its victims. On top of this, when a character is attacked by the monster, it does not try to scare them or anything to torment them. It simply appears as someone such as their mother, knocks on the door and attacks them as soon as they open it. Along with this the monster is supposed to be only focused on its victims but then it attacks those around it when it clearly can’t be injured. It shouldn’t care about anything else but getting its victims, yet it doesn’t. This is only exacerbated by idiotic decisions made by the characters, especially in the finale at the pool.
My other big problem with this film is that it’s so blunt with its message that I feel it beats us over the head with it. The film’s message is about human sexuality and about how we treat sex in our modern era. In my opinion, this is about the 60’s “free love” world view that this generation has taken and polluted into this idea that love is free without love. It is about a sexually transmitted mark that signals a demon to come after the victim. In order to save yourself you have to pass it on by having sex. This ultimately does not save them it just prolongs their life. The message is fine and an interesting one, however, the message should not be something we the viewers are bludgeoned by. It should never take away from what a movie is supposed to do, entertain. It’s a fine line to straddle, because if the message or satirical nature of the film alienates the audience and takes them out of it. This was the most disappointing of the three movies, not because it’s the worst one but because it had so much potential that it just never made it.
Imagine a place where people travel to and commit suicide, what if this place could force you to kill yourself. This is the location for the 2016 film The Forest directed by Jason Zada. It’s a fantastic premise and a worthy place to explore in a horror film. It’s actually more shocking that this was never capitalized on earlier. A dark twisted forest has been a perfect setting for numerous horror films from the Friday the 13th series to The Evil Dead. The film stars Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame, who is good in her role. There is a lot to work with here and yet the film still just falls short.
One of the problems I found with the film and this happens in too many movies, there are moments that are perfect for something to scare us and then there is nothing. Tension is a crucial aspect to a solid horror film and when it’s done correctly it can be far superior to the eventual payoff. This is a fine line though, drag the tension on for too long you can lose the audience or if you don’t build it up enough you can lose that crucial reaction from the audience. In The Forest, far too often the tension is ramped up and continues to go forever. It bypasses the moments that should have been the payoff and it loses all the benefits that the tension built. There is a scene in the hallway of a hotel that is ripe with tension and yet there are three or four moments where the camera and our own imagination have us ready for the big moment then, nothing. When the big moment finally arrives it brings nothing more than a whimper rather than a scream. The other problem is when the big moment ends up being something innocuous it leaves us feeling betrayed. It would be one thing if this was just a one off scene but it’s not, it happens several times over. In the end, there are several moments that are good and the cinematography is haunting and beautiful. The story, however, and its big reveal at the end simply do not stand up to its initial concept. While I initially did not have high hopes for this film I am a film buff, I had to experience it. I walked out and again I just felt meh about it, disappointed yet again.
We’ve all gotten excited for a new film that has everything going for it; a stellar cast, a proven director, a premise that is striking and speaks to you. For me one of those films is the 2014 release Deliver Us from Evil directed by Scott Derrickson. It had everything going for it, however, instead of something missing it had too much. Scott Derrickson directed a great movie that really shouldn’t have been a horror movie. It had a great cast, minus the fact that Joel McHale was far too comical, but the plot and story really deserved to have the horror angle removed. Deliver Us from Evil is a great movie that should have been more in the vein of Se7en, instead of The Exorcist. This is the same problem that the 2003 film Identity, directed by James Mangold, suffered from. In fact, the supernatural nature of the film detracted from it instead of added to it.
Deliver Us from Evil in the end, fell flat on its face despite all the good things it had going for it. The film has a solid cast lead by Eric Bana and the story resonated with me. The story of a New York City cop that is plagued by horrific visions from a past case is a great set up for a great thriller. While it may be a tried and true plot that has served most thrillers well, it needs nothing extra. In fact, the supernatural started taking away from the overall great story. This creepy demonic element could have added to it but it was unnecessary. Deliver Us from Evil could have simply been an effective character study into the life of a New York City detective. It would have been a great film, however, it felt the need to add a demon to the mix.
When I look back on the film I find myself just more disheartened by the film. Deliver Us from Evil is marketed and made to appeal to the horror community, filled with substandard horror fare. This is still a solid thriller where its problem lie with it trying to branch out and capitalize on another genres market. If you watch the film and just forget about all the demons, well demon, you will have a much time with this thriller instead of horror movie.
Every time a new horror film is released many people like me become excited, we all have high hopes. I wish all horror films would be phenomenal, I always want them to be amazing, sadly this is not always the case. There are those shining moments where a film stands out and rises above all the others. Unlike any other genre of film, we horror fans are not passive filmgoers. While others may simply watch action or romantic films, we horror fanatics are not just simple observers. We study, we analyze, and we are always trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Every film, bad or good is a chance to assess what frightens us. We’re always looking for that next rush, hoping the next film is the one we have all been waiting for.
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