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Old 11-02-2011, 09:32 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Problems With Horror Movies...

TL;DR:
Horror movies are ruined by stupid things, like stupid endings and following the same stupid formula, and showing us too much and making the movie itself seem stupid.

***

My friends and I, in searching for competently made and genuinely terrifying horror films, had a discussion about what the "problem" with the majority of horror movies was which ruined them.

After a long while of trying to put our finger on it, I ventured to say that the three major problems with them are the ending, the attempted adherence to common three act structure, and showing too much. Ultimately, we all agreed, and I'd like to hear what you all think.

First, The Ending:

How many times have you heard someone rave about a movie as having truly terrifying moments, and then immediately adding, "but I didn't care for the ending," "the ending sucked," or something of the sort? For me, that's been the way most acquaintances and friends have described the movies they viewed.

Some common examples in recent years for this have included Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and Drag Me To Hell. Not to say that any of these are feats of brilliance in and off themselves, but the common thread that seems to run between them is that people found them creepy, then had the movie ruined by an unfulfilling ending.

The problem I see with this is the creators attempts to tie up the package in a tidy little bow, and resolve the conflict somewhat. Which, by the end of the movie usually leaves me thinking, "Oh, well. The protagonists survived (or have died) and the story's over. Woo. Whatever," or, in worse cases, "Oh, the evil is still there, and it's going after another couple. I don't give a shit."

How can we be frightened of something that's been tastefully taken care of and packaged into a neat little 90 minute box? It's not realistic, and it's not scary. It's disappointing. Which brings me to...

Three Act Structure:

This is so commonplace in film that it's pretty much industry standard and the only way most films will get produced. Writing workshops I've gone to and books I've purchased have all stressed the importance of writing for the screen in three act structure at all costs, lest your script be completely disregarded and tossed aside. I'll agree that it works well for Hollywood blockbusters and things of that nature, because it's safe. It's expected. Not so (in my opinion) for horror movies.

Essentially, for those who may not know, I'll briefly sum up three act structure.

Act One: Approximately the first 20-30 minutes of a film. This is when you're introduced to all of the characters, and the conflict is brought up. I like to think of it as a prologue of sorts, and it's an introduction that serves to have the audience know enough about characters and conflict to care about your story.

Act Two: The biggest act, and generally 45 minutes to an hour in duration. Sometimes longer, rarely shorter in features. This is the point when the protagonists are faced with challenges from the opposing force, be it supernatural or evil (in the case of horror movies) or just a conflict in general. They are faced with obstacles, (generally three, I've been told to write) one which is a serious introduction to the bad thing, the second in which the hero seems to be about to fail, and the third and final battle - in which the protagonist or antagonist will ultimately prevail. That's the climax.

Act Three: The shortest act. Essentially, this follows the climax and wraps the story up. If the protagonist wins, they go about their lives. If they lose, the opposing force basks in their glory before the credits roll. Occasionally, there's a final twist right before the credits, especially in horror movies if they're shooting for a sequel.

So why is this a problem? Because it's expected. We know they're not going to kill the protagonist in the first battle; there's too much movie left for that! We know that the second battle's near the half-way point, and the protagonist is going to survive, but they're probably going to lose a friend or lackey...or be hurt and predictably end up living, or there's going to be a twist where the "rules change". By the third battle, we know it's coming, and we know it's either going to be "Evil prevails" or "Good wins". We know it's the climax already, and we're running low on popcorn. It's tried and true, and we already essentially know the format like the back of our hand - if not better, if we're not especially predisposed to looking at the back of our hand. We're not shocked, we're not stunned, we're not impressed. Period. The pacing is logical and formulaic. It's almost insulting.

The monsters may be different, but it's the same story over and over again. It's the same build-up. The same important points hit on at the same exact time. It's the sameness which takes away from the terror, and it's hard to be afraid of what you know.

Showing Too Much:

The last point before I shut up and let you all take over. This is one of the ones that really irks me, and that's when the filmmakers show too much.

How many great premises have you seen that completely have the (intended) entertainment value sucked out of them by cheesy monsters? I actually remember a friend talking about a horror movie. He said, "The bad guy was creepy for a while. Then they showed his goat legs, and it ruined the whole thing for me. It was ridiculous."

In film, they typically tell screenwriters and directors to "show, don't tell," and that makes sense, as film is a visual medium. It is kind of infuriating a lot of the time to happen upon a movie in which 90% of the exposition is delivered through dialogue.

It does, however, feel to me like a lot of horror filmmakers took that to heart way too literally. You don't have to show the evil for us to know it's there. We don't have to see the demon full on. Sometimes, the scariest things are in our periphery. It's what COULD be there that's scary. It's the unknown that's scary. When you're out alone at night cutting through the cemetery and see movement out of the corner of your eye, that's what makes you speed up your walk. That's what makes you conjure all of the horrifying images of what it could be. That's the nature of fear (in my opinion, again) and that's what scares people.

What do you guys think?
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Old 11-02-2011, 11:13 PM   #2 (permalink)
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American mainstream horror certainly hasn't hit too many home runs in the last 10-years or so. Many of the movies in the early half were pretty crap, Thirteen Ghosts, The Haunting, Fear Dot Com, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween: Resurrection, Jason X, etc. Jeepers Creepers does deserve an honorable mention though because it was at least a pretty original concept, and the incest undercurrent made it pretty creepy, or Eli Roth's debut, Cabin Fever.

A few movies did manage to at least gain some notoriety and decent press, the 2003 Americanizing of The Ring did at least prove that a decent horror movie could still be made with a PG-13 rating, same with 2004's The Grudge, which really opened the mainstream audience up to the Japanese horror scene. Saw also really did make the October releases relevant again, if only to be crippled after the 4th one and it went off into the realm of ridiculousness. Rob Zombie should also at least be commended for giving us The Devil's Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses, which weren't great, but at least they were ambitious attempts by a novice filmmaker, even if he did later shoot himself in the foot after attempting to do a worthy remake of Halloween.

The indie and international scene has really where it's been for the last decade or so. 2002 saw the release of Session 9 by director Brad Anderson, which was a pretty good psychological thriller/ horror film. I also thought Paranormal Activity was a decent enough "found footage" film, which benefited largely from the use of a fucking tripod. It had a pretty decent cast, was made on a modest budget, and most importantly knocked Saw 6 on its ass in the box office. Cloverfield should also get a nod for at least having a pretty interesting and engaging marketing campaign, and got a lot of people into theaters at a time when most people don't go to the movies.

The international market though has really owned the scene though, for at least scary horror movies that don't rely too much on the formula you described. The French should get a special nod for Them (2006) and Martyrs (2008), the latter of which is like if you took all the Saw and Hostel movies, mashed them together, and up the brutality a few notches. It is quite possibly the only movie I will insist on being super stoned if I was to watch it again. We also have Guillermo del Toro to thank for 2001's classic ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, which really had a lot of imagery and things to say on the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's. Hell even The Human Centipede deserves a mention for at least making the mainstream aware of the European horror scene, and just how twisted those movies can get.

Of course, the medium in which horror has become the most formulaic is in the video games industry. The horror game changed forever in 2005 with the release of Resident Evil 4. The over-the-shoulder, action shooter gameplay became the normalcy for games that would once have been considered a survival horror. The Resident Evil series probably isn't ever going to go back, and it's hard to tell with Silent Hill's upcoming game Downpour, then again I haven't played any of the games since 2008's Homecoming, and that was pretty combat-y. Then of course the horror games of late have been games like The Dead Space series, Alan Wake, etc. which have fully embraced and perfected what Resident Evil 4 brought forth almost 7-years ago. I mean hell, this game has been released at least 4 times now, first on the Gamecube in 2005, then on the PS2 in either late '05 or early '06, then it wound up on the Wii and PC in 2007, and then an HD release this year, with plans for an iOS port. I mean this has been the quintessential horror game of the last decade, it completely changed the face of horror in video games. The only two games that I can think of has been the Condemned series which was also released in 2005, but focused on a relentless atmosphere and first-person melee combat, while really trying to show off the 7th generation consoles' graphical capabilities. The other game was 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent which brought horror back to it's puzzle and survival roots. I know Frictional games' other series Penumbra should be mentioned for bringing this back to horror gaming in 2007, but the games really weren't all that great, at least not when compared to Amnesia, which doesn't have that obnoxious combat system.

So yeah... totally didn't mean for that post to go on as much as I did, but I guess I just have a lot to say on the subject.
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Old 11-02-2011, 11:26 PM   #3 (permalink)
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I'll try to post something more substantial later, but I wanted to ask you two horror buffs... have you seen "The Woman", and what do you think about it and its place in the Horror genre?
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Old 11-02-2011, 11:39 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Can't say that I have, I'm just looking at it on Wikipedia, is it the one that was released this year? Or is it an earlier release? I might have to check, although I would hardly consider myself a horror buff, just an enthusiast with some good movie connections.

There is one horror movie that I was really looking forward to and that was the Guillermo del Toro directed, James Cameron produced, and Universal funded adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, the first ever major film studio full adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft work. Guillermo del Toro's crew had been working on the designs and effects of the aliens, and it was his dream project, so it wasn't going to be some rush cash in. Everything looked like it was ready to go, but then Universal scrapped the movie, but del Toro didn't want to budge on the R-Rating, which would not allow the teenage horror movie going crowd the opportunity to see it. Also the fact that there was no "happy ending" or love interest sub-plot, really made it hard for Universal to take a chance on a movie (after already doing so a few times prior with The Wolfman, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army).
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Old 11-02-2011, 11:44 PM   #5 (permalink)
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I think it was released this year. It was weird, to say the least. But refreshingly so. Uncomfortable at a lot of points. That kind of horror movie. Not the outright sew a mouth to a butt hole tactic or anything, but I gotta say.. the movie stuck with me. You should watch it.

I'm not really all that much of a critic of movies, so I'd like to hear what other people think about it. But I enjoyed it. Not in the way you "enjoy" a movie... but in the way that you watch it and go "now there's a movie the general public would probably never get".
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Old 11-03-2011, 12:07 AM   #6 (permalink)
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I personally like very few horror movies for this reason. I mean movies like The Shining, and Seven are a rarity, but there ARE intelligent horror movies out there.

Ever see Audition?
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Old 11-03-2011, 12:15 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I dunno, who ever watches a horror movie for "plot" anyway?

i also hardly ever watch any conventional horror blockbusters, preferring off the beaten path movies of yore like German expressionism and psychological horror like Der Todesking (a film which mostly explores the mechanism of suicide)
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Old 11-03-2011, 12:21 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Il Duce View Post
I dunno, who ever watches a horror movie for "plot" anyway?

i also hardly ever watch any conventional horror blockbusters, preferring off the beaten path movies of yore like German expressionism and psychological horror like Der Todesking (a film which mostly explores the mechanism of suicide)
You have a very valid point, I mean for many people, watching a horror movie is a once a year occasion. Movie execs take advantage of the October Friday night opener crowd, who might only see one horror film a year. This would explain why the Saw franchise got to go on for 7 years in a row, getting more and more ridiculous, until finally dying not with a bang but a whimper last year in glorious 3D. 2009 offered some slight relief with Paranormal Activity, which then got turned into the same cycle as the very series it killed.
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Old 11-03-2011, 07:54 PM   #9 (permalink)
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The main problem with Horror films is that they are probably the easiest films to make on the smallest budgets possible and reach viewers more easily. It is difficult to make many other genre films on such low budgets that most Horror films operate at so Horror films are both full of absolute tripe and absolute brilliance more so than other genre.

You can make a Horror film for £45 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_(film) and STILL get detractors picking the bones out of it which is absolutely ridiculous but because film is a visual medium first and foremost, it is judged much more quickly than other mediums, yet is much more complicated than an album or a book in that it has to marry all those elements (Visual, Audio and Narrative) into a cohesive whole. This is both it's strength and it's weakness.

Horror films are like the abandoned pup of the litter for the majority of movie watchers and critics which is a huge faux pas in my eyes because many of Horror film innovations that are forced upon them due to time and budget restrictions have become mainstream industry staples - Operatic zooms, use of lighting, soundtrack ambience, make up techniques, marketing and socio - political subtext.

I agree entirely that many Horror films suffer from 'third act syndrome' but then so do 75% of non genre films to me and to single out Horror films for this is unjustified (but understandable considering the amount of trash in the genre).

The amount of film 'nous' in Horror is so undervalued with films like Suspiria (use of colour and sound), Halloween (use of widescreen), The Haunting (use of suggestion), Nosferatu (use of lighting), Duel (use of menace), The Shining (use of steadicam), Bride Of Frankenstein (use of subversion) and Society (use of class distinction) to name a few, are great examples of the most maligned but ultimately; rewarding films made.

I would much rather watch a Horror film made on a shoestring budget than many films with huge budgets with cliched outcomes and approach.
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Old 11-04-2011, 11:00 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by ThePhanastasio View Post
TL;DR:
Horror movies are ruined by stupid things, like stupid endings and following the same stupid formula, and showing us too much and making the movie itself seem stupid.
Thing is, you could say this about any film marketed at a specific genre's audience. Westerns of all kinds, films about cops who don't play by the rules, boy-meets-girl romantic comedies, family-oriented melodramas, screwball comedies...so many different kinds of movies are derivative of others of its ilk in terms of structure, content, character arcs and so on.

What you have to ask yourself is if the genre films your watching's telling an interesting story that's worth your attention, and not necessarily how original it is. For example, I didn't like Avatar much but loved the Dead Pool - both films are derivative of different genres, but one told a story I enjoyed more than the other.

Insidious was awful, Paranormal Activity boring as hell and Drag Me To Hell was only alright, so I'd advise against using those as measuring sticks for the whole horror genre, as there are far better examples of it out there. Maybe you're simply not a horror person (it's far from my favourite genre personally), but it's worth looking out for them.

Yes, the horror genre attracts bad writing, acting and direction like moths to a flame, but so do sports dramas, rom-coms, action movies and so on - writing off all the genre based on a few crap films from it is unfair really.

Last edited by Bulldog; 11-04-2011 at 11:34 AM.
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