There’s a scene in the new remake of Evil Dead where a cast of twenty-somethings are huddled in a doomed, remote cabin in the woods discussing their slowly worsening situation. One of them has clearly become violent and has even attacked them They argue about leaving, about staying, about what’s happening to them…etc, etc, etc.
In short, it’s nothing close to scary.
Or frightening. And especially not horrific. It’s boring. This is for several reasons: we’ve seen this type of in-fighting in a hundred other horror movies, the mood has been downgraded from scary to mundane, and we, the audience, are not being held in a suspenseful way until the next scare happens. It’s just plain, old arguing.
Today’s horror movie directors all suffer from the same malady. They’ve seen entirely too many 1980′s slasher flicks that feature a monster/killer that slowly kills his way through a cadre of hot actors in (sometimes) clever ways. There’s no drama, no tone, or anything else that keeps people hovering on the edge of their seats. The 80′s films clearly forgot everything the good horror movies of the 70′s taught them–that normal people in terrible, unknown situations makes for good suspense.
Then came the early horror games of the late 80′s and 90′s. Silent Hill, Sweet Home, Resident Evil, Clock Tower…and so on. They were a breath of fresh air for the game industry and they satisfied a craving that horror fans had been nourishing since movies like The Exorcist and The Changeling. But what was happening within these games that clearly wasn’t happening in the movies?
There was frightening atmosphere and mood.
Game designers learned early on that the best monster was the one you couldn’t see. It could be just around the corner…or not. Maybe it was human, maybe something altogether not of this world. Either way, it was out there, somewhere… This type of psychological build up, coupled with sound design that horror movies usually lack, clearly set horror gaming in a tier all by itself–and this is during the 1990′s! Now, with a couple decades of improvement under its belt, the gaming industry is still dominating the horror genre.
While horror movies still do well at the box office–like the recent Evil Dead, Paranormal Activity series, and Insidious–games like Slender: The Arrival, Penumbra, and Deadly Premonition continue the tradition of actually scaring us.
So what cues can the film industry take away from the game industry? It comes down to the three M’s…
Mood. Making a good horror movie is more about setting us up for the scare, rather than the scare itself. Look at the setting of your movie. Is it frightening? Is it dark? What are the circumstances for the protagonist being there? A truly good horror movie isn’t about sex, clever punch lines, or privileged kids partying it up. Ask most anyone what the scariest movie of all time is and most say The Exorcist. This is despite nobody dying until the end of the movie, and forty minutes of human drama without a scare of any kind. But William Friedkin knew how to set us up for the scare, how to introduce a deeply held fear, and how to slowly build a mood of impending terror that pays off in a huge way by the end of the movie. Frightening atmosphere and mood almost always trump any monster. And who doesn’t think the town of Silent Hill is much scarier that the environs surrounding Camp Crystal Lake?
Music. What compels horror filmmakers to put pop/rock music in their films? Wouldn’t the tractor trailer truck scene in Pet Sematary be much scarier without The Ramones blaring in the background? Games have learned to rely on dark ambient music to set the tone of their story–bleak ambient scores layered with sounds that, in the context of the game, disorients the viewer and makes us fear the unknown. When you’re wandering through a pitch black, dilapidated house what is scarier, the sound of a chainsaw or a small child crying somewhere in a distant room? Some filmmakers have grasped this concept (nods to Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch), but most need to fire up Dead Space and take a trip through the U.S.S. Ishimura to figure it out.
Monster. The all time master of horror H. P. Lovecraft once stated, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” Not dream invading maniacs, not mask wearing serial killers, not vampires or werewolves. The unknown. When a viewer has no idea of “what’s out there” the imagination goes to work–and our imaginations can think of things far worse that any filmmaker. Don’t believe me? Just watch some of the numerous YouTube videos of gamers playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent and watch them scream like school girls at nothing more than shadows and fleeting glimpses of something moving in the darkness.
So what have we learned? We are not without hope. It’s still possible for films and games to scare us–we just need to move away from the 80′s horror movie formula that has dominated American films for entirely too long. We must move on. After all, we have already remade every major horror movie from that decade.
And we don’t want a remake of The Exorcist, right?
This article was first posted on April 14, 2013