What are Horror Movies Missing?
Loyal readers probably realized that I have been watching many horror movies lately. Barring Ju-on: The Curse, a direct-to-video movie, I found none of them to be scary. Now that I thought about it a little, I think Alfred Hitchcock, known for Psycho and The Birds, could shed some light on this with his doctrine of “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” I think where many horror movies really went wrong was by showing too much on screen and not leaving enough to the viewer’s imagination.
Recently, I saw and reviewed Alpha Girls. I copied and pasted my review onto Alpha Girls’ IMDb page only for it to be the most epically downvoted review on the site, but that’s another issue altogether. Alpha Girls followed Morgan (Falon Joslyn), a transfer student at an unnamed Philadelphia university rushing for the Alpha Beta sorority. Alpha Beta alumni are known to have become among the world’s most influential people, but Morgan finds out this power comes with a sinister price.
The movie went wrong almost right at the beginning. The first thing to happen is a human sacrifice flashback that occurred in 1896. I was expecting the human sacrifice to be the movie’s main surprise, but it was laid out right in front of me at the beginning. As a result, there was no room for the movie to surprise me in anyway. Sure, the movie had its fair share of blood (did I mention the movie involved cannibal zombies?). However, (at least to me) blood is gross, not scary. It didn’t help that my eyes were inevitably drawn to the victim’s jiggling (and soon to be bared) breasts, thus giving the scene more the feel of a porno than that of a horror film.
As I said multiple times before on this blog, I think the best horror movies are the ones made on more modest budgets. I don’t even know if Alpha Girls can qualify as that as it had the capacity to afford all the movie’s (surprisingly good) special effects on top of Ron Jeremy’s and Schooly-D’s (don’t ask) paychecks.
Besides the opening scene, Alpha Girls fell into the same trap that many indie films do, and that is it showed a very undying love for itself. In the aftermath of Veronica’s (Nikki Bell) murder, the girls are cleaning the room up in what basically felt like a tribute to Southwork’s cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” as made famous by The Animals as opposed to something meant to advance the story. The movie’s use of a soundtrack that just wouldn’t end overwhelmed many scenes and felt absolutely nothing short of narcissistic as did scenes like the “girls day out” when the pledges were out and about in Philadelphia.
The movie’s acting talent did little to help things, though there was little they could do as the dialogue was generally very stiff and unnatural. As the release date of the movie drew near, writers/directors Tony Trov and Johnny Zito rebilled Alpha Girls as a “Horror/Comedy Film About Satanic Sorority Sisters” from “Satanic Sorority Slasher” when they watched it after editing and it became clear there was no way audiences would be able to take the movie seriously. I would’ve bought it if more of the movie’s humor was intentional a la Zombieland (2009) or Dead Snow (2009).
I will spare you comparing Alpha Girls to Ju-on: The Grudge as the latter, while I wasn’t totally in love with it, was undoubtedly a better movie in just about every way. Where The Grudge failed where The Curse succeeded was the fact that director Shimizu Takashi decided to show a lot more on screen as a result of having a lot more money to work with, as opposed to letting scenes drag on until they became really uncomfortable at which he hits the viewer with the scare.
However, The Grudge had one really good scene, and that was when Hitomi (Ito Misaki) came home, already freaked out by the events at her office. She lay in bed not having any clue what to expect. Surprisingly, Ito’s acting had improved quite a bit from You’re Under Arrest!, which was made the same year, and thus allowed for the viewer to empathize with her.
The “anticipation” doctrine was used most effectively in The Curse. The reason there was actually completely because of the (lack of) budget Shimizu Takashi had to work with. Thus, he was unable to explicitly show a lot on screen.
The main highlight of that movie was the scene in which Mizuho (Kuriyama Chiaki) was alone in the teachers’ office. That scene was very well constructed so, like the scene in The Grudge, you are every bit as uncomfortable as Mizuho is. It dragged on for just long enough to make the scene unsettling before showing the surprise.
The Curse has one thing in common with many of my favorite movies, and that is the fact that it is a movie where you are likely to notice something new every time you see it (it’s one of few movies I actually recommend seeing more than once). It was a movie that really performed the art of subtlety when creating horror.
I think with the advent of budgets and special effects technology, horror movie directors really lost sight of the idea of taking advantage of the audience’s psychology. Instead, they opt to show as much on screen as they can. In fact, this is precisely something people fault George Lucas with when he went back and added CG special effects to the original Star Wars trilogy. It almost feels like modern filmmakers are actually doubting the intelligence of modern filmgoing audiences. I almost suspect if modern people were to watch the original The Haunting (1963), they would actually get bored, despite that I thought it was the single scariest movie I have ever seen.