I see dead people; must be horror

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2008 11:17pm
  • Life

“Jaws”? Yes. “Jurassic Park”? No.

Along the lines of what the Supreme Court justice said, horror may be hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

In my mind, a horror movie requires two elements. A conflict, which in our movies means a threat, and horror or terror. Horror AND terror would be nice, but as a horror movie fan, I learned to lower my expectations.

I finally found that Stephen King quote I like: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

And there you go.

After the threat and presence of horror/terror, the opinion that matters most about what is and isn’t a horror movie is yours. There’s so much crossover — the days of anything taking place in space must be sci fi is long, long gone, for instance — and so many different styles and tones. The one who’s plunking down the cold, hard currency to see these films is you, so yes, your opinion matters.

So, according to the gospel of Scream Queen, “Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven” might be pigeonholed as dramas, thrillers or mysteries, but at their twisted little hearts, they are horror movies. Even without benefit of the bad guys returning from the grave or the endowment of demonic powers or scantily clad teenage blonds. “Jaws,” yep, but “Jurrasic Park” is a science thriller. The difference is tone.

In both, you got your creature, or creatures, five deaths (I’m counting Ben the fisherman before the timeframe in which “Jaws” takes place), the grand finale showdown. “Jaws” has that killer, threatening score — what other instrumental piece do you know of that’s instantly recognizable with just two notes? — that throws gas on the fear fire while “Jurassic’s” score is just very pretty. But while there’s one creature in “Jaws,” “Jurassic” is filthy with creatures.

But “Jaws” is darker, and “Jurassic” has to be an actioneer throughout or it doesn’t work. A kid dies in “Jaws” as well as a core character (I’m counting Quint). The core cast escapes, mostly unscathed, in “Jurassic,” which also doesn’t have Robert Shaw’s chilling soliloquy or a creature that’s devoid of personality or emotion, and the creep factor ticks up because there are lots of Bruce the sharks out there in real life. You’re unlikely to become dino buffalo wings.

So “Jaws,” creature feature. “Jurassic Park,” action/adventure.

“The Sixth Sense,” yes, but “Signs” and “The Village,” nope.

Speaking of M. Night Shyamalan’s nonhorror horror movies, I just recently got around to seeing “The Happening” (2008), which was recently released on DVD. Honestly, if Night wants to make an actual horror movie, well, pee or get off the pot. His writing and directing are starting to make “The Sixth Sense” look like an accident.

Let’s take a look at “The Happening,” shall we, because I think I know what happened.

The real tell is one of the many interviews with Shyamalan included on the DVD. There’s one scene of real horror in the movie — can’t talk about it without giving it away — that was edited to remove gore because Shyamalan thought it crossed the line and was “too dark.” What?! That was “too dark” for an R-rated horror movie? Please. That bit as shot is shown in that interview, so you can judge for yourselves. Don’t get me wrong, the scene is effective, but that visual would have made it more so.

And since the premise of the film requires you to suspend disbelief to the extent of cryogenically frozen, it needed all the extra help it could get.

One of the two real problems in “The Happening,” I think, is the disconnect in most of the suicide scenes. Most of them seem distant, leaving the viewer standing outside and peering in a window. There’s just not enough reaction or interaction in most of these scenes to fully draw in the audience to produce a reaction of horror.

I don’t give a lot away in the next paragraph, but if you’re one of those people, like me, who want to know as little as possible about a movie before you see it, stop reading now.

Too many death scenes are “over there.” The gunshots and screaming that take place off camera (actually, there’s a lot screaming throughout the film over deaths that take place off-camera), the deaths that take place with minimal portions shown on film, the distant shot of a wreck and subsequent suicide, the looking out a window to someone dying in the distance. There’s also the cell-phone footage (and that scene was also edited shorter) and the one in which we only see the reaction of a loved one of the suicidee.

I’m not saying all those scenes were ineffective, some of them certainly are, but you gotta be more in-your-face than the view-from-afar thing to engage the viewer — and to keep the deaths from becoming kinda comical.

*****SPOILER ALERT******

The other problem I see with “The Happening” involves the ending. These last sentences are the end of this entry, so please stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.

Like I said, I watched the “interviews” with Shyamalan and cohorts on “The Happening” DVD, and I kept hearing the words “dark,” “scary” and “horror.” Except for the “gotcha” moment at the end of the film (which really isn’t a gotcha; you probably were expecting it), the looong ending preceding it was too schmaltzy. Now, if the little girl or the wife had died, THEN you got yourself a horror movie.

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