Friday, March 22, 2013

Don't Show the Monster!

In my previous post I ranked 1979's Alien as the second scariest movie of all time.  There are about a thousand reasons why but I'm going to focus on only one.  We never get a clear shot of the alien.  The Nostromo is dark; the corridors are narrow but there are also wide areas, all wreathed in shadow.  Each and every time we see the alien it's never well-defined.  We get a vague sense of what it looks like but director Ridley Scott knew better than to show us the whole package.  There's a reason for that. 
The imagination is much more powerful than any rubber costume, even one created by master Hollywood craftsmen.  It is much more effective to suggest the creature's appearance than to actually have it stand in the open.  Because as soon as we see it, no matter how horrific it looks, we can deal with it.  Ridley Scott knew it.  And so did Shirley Jackson twenty years earlier. 
In her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, she never shows us what's in the house.  Oh, there's definitely something in there.  But what it is she keeps to herself.  We hear slow, heavy footsteps in the hallway outside Eleanor's room.  Those footsteps stop outside her door.  Then something bangs on the door like it wants in.  But Jackson never shows us what's doing the banging.  The two female protagonists clutch each other as the banging on the door speeds up and gets louder.  A moment later the banging stops.  A moment after that the two women are relieved to hear one of the men in their group asking them if they're okay in there.  This moment was captured in spectacular fashion in the movie version, The Haunting (1963).  In a later scene as the group tries to flee the house, a wood door starts to bend inward as something on the other side tries to get to them.  It's a terrifying moment, because wood doesn't bend like that.  So what the hell is making it happen?  We never see it.  They wisely never open the door.  They do what anybody would do in that situation:  They get the fuck out of Dodge.  Their survival instinct overpowers their curiosity and so we never do learn what's haunting Hill House.  It's precisely why the story is so effective in both the book and movie versions.  (Except the 1999 remake.  Despite having a semi-decent cast led by Liam Neeson, the movie sucked.) 
Spielberg accomplished the same thing, albiet unintentionally, in Jaws (1975).  Since the mechanical shark never worked properly we get to see very little of it.  A fin here, a quick headhot there.  It was Spielberg's intention to follow the novel as closely as possible, but the shark appears in the novel way more than it does in the movie.  Hell, the shark is mentioned in the first sentence of the novel:  "The great fish moved silently through the water..."  Peter Benchley apparantly did not subscribe to Jackson's less-is-more approach.  But because the mechanical shark kept breaking down Spielberg was forced to find ways to suggest its presence and appearance rather than show us.  Major kudos to John Williams for that.  Today it would not be an issue.  They would just CGI the shit out of it and the shark would be in ever scene.  And the movie would not be half as effective as it was.  For proof, watch Deep Blue Sea (1999). 
There are many more examples.  After his teleportation experiment goes horrifically wrong, main character David Hedison spends the second half of the movie with a towel over his head in the original version of The Fly (1958).  Eventually his wife pulls the towel away but for most of the time his head is hidden from us.  Audiences probably guessed why but the reveal takes so long they were probably squirming in their seats for some time. 
In X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Ray Milland develops eyedrops that allow him to see outside the human visual spectrum.  They give him x-ray vision and he can see ultraviolet rays.  But the more he uses the eyedrops the more he sees.  And he starts to see...things.  Things no one else can see.  Are they real or is he losing his mind?  He takes to wearing dark sunglasses and he wears them in every scene thereafter.  And that's when the squirm factor comes in.  Because what, exactly, is going on behind those shades?  In the final shot of the movie the glasses come off.  I won't ruin it for you but it's pretty creepy. 
These authors and filmmakers got it exactly right.  These stories are frightening because most, if not all, of the monsters are never shown.  Let the audience's imagination do your work for you.  It sounds lazy but it's quite the opposite.  It takes a lot of skill and self-control not to describe something too vividly.  It's an approach I tried to use in my third novel, Dark Annie.  When it becomes available you can tell me whether or not I succeeded.     

Monday, March 18, 2013

10 Scariest Movies of All Time

Let's get this out of the way:  This list is totally subjective.  I picked movies that scared me.  It's a generational thing to an extent.  The original Dracula (1931) was pretty damned scary for its time and most of it still is.  But today's teenager will probably not find much to be frightened about in Bela Lugosi's chilling performance.  Likewise, Dracula's inspiration, the silent-era Nosferatu (1922) probably had audience members shrieking at the time.  But the current horror generation?  Not likely.  Certainly not when they've been brought up on the 25 Saw and Hostel movies and all that other garbage torture-porn.  (A single exception:  The original Saw was awesome.  It's the sequels that suck.)  I had a teen recommend to me the movie Insidious as "the scariest thing I've ever seen."  With that kind of endorsement how could I refuse?  It was okay.  It certainly had its moments.  Scariest movie ever made?  Please.  It's not even in my top 20, let alone the top 10 which we'll be getting to in a moment. 
This list was very difficult to make.  There are literally hundreds of quality horror movies that have been made over the decades.  How could I possibly whittle that down to 10?  I went with my gut.  I didn't go back and sit through marathons of horror movies.  I stuck with the ones that made an impression on me and still do.  These are the movies I can recall at a moment's notice if the need arises.  (That happens more often than you might think.)  That's where this list comes from.
I've agonized over some of the movies that just missed the cut.  We're talking high-quality, shit-your-pants horror.  But there was something about them, some key factor, that seemed to place them just out of reach of the top 10.  Some were made-for-television movies that had to contend with network censors, like Duel (1971) and 'Salem's Lot (1979).  Others were not quite horror movies but had a very horrorish feel to them, like Jaws (1975), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Aliens (1986).  Some were very creepy but not enough for me to identify them as true horror movies.  Pitch Black (2000) and Se7en (1995) fell into this category.  Others were pure horror but fell just short of making the list, like The Omen (1976), Susperia (1977), Them! (1954) and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982). 
So with all that out of the way, let's get to the meat.  Enjoy!
10)  The Gravedancers (2006):  I know, I know, you've never heard of this one.  You owe it to yourself to go out and find it.  A group of old college friends gets together when one of their own passes away.  A night of drunken "remembrances" ends with them dancing in a cemetery.  Bad move.  Some of the grave's owners don't take kindly to being danced upon.  Mild disturbances escalate to all-out horror as these friends try to survive an ancient curse.  I jumped several times watching this and get chills just thinking about some of the scenes.  (Plus the two female leads are pretty hot, always a plus.)  Watch this one with the lights off.  I dare you.
9)  Pet Sematary (1989):  Based on one of King's scariest novels, this could have been a mess but it wasn't.  Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are hardly A-list actors.  Frankly, Denise should have stuck with Star Trek: The Next Generation when she had the chance.  But it does feature a star performance by the legendary Fred Gwynn ("The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis.").  And the kid playing Gage Creed is convincingly twisted post-resurrection and at the same time sympathetic.  "No fair."  Oh, and the end is awesome!
8)  Paranormal Activity (2007):  This movie was made for about $50.  It stars no one you've ever heard of (and, likely, never will) and it was shot at the director's house because they could not afford to build a set.  I am the furthest thing from a fan of the "found footage" movies (I can't stand The Blair Witch Project and blame it for most of the similar-format shitty movies that have followed) but I dig this one.  I jumped out of my skin about a dozen times.  This should be shown in film schools so aspiring directors can see how to make an effective movie without a budget of $200 million. 
7)  Night of the Living Dead (1968):  This is another movie that was made for nothing.  The special effects are almost non-existent, the make-up isn't terribly convincing and, again, it stars no one you've ever heard of.  Doesn't matter.  This is the stuff of which nightmares are made.  Not every writer/director can claim they invented an entire genre, but George A. Romero can.  Every zombie flick made since 1968 has "borrowed" (putting it nicely) or outright stolen from this movie.  Fans of The Walking Dead can thank Mr. Romero they have such a quality show to watch.  "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" indeed.   
6)  Halloween (1978):  It was a toss-up between this and Psycho and this won.  I'll explain.  Hitchcock created the slasher flick with Psycho (1960) but the genre didn't catch on.  It's certainly Halloween's spiritual godfather but it just doesn't have the oomph Carpenter instilled in his no-budget masterpiece.  (I also don't credit the abominable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in any incarnation.  I loathe all of them equally.  Yes, even  the one with Matthew McConaughey.)  Carpenter took a very simple formula and managed to scare the bejeezus out of everyone.  The formula was so successful it spawned Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street and a shitload more, but don't hold that against this movie.  Also, don't hold the sequels against it, either.  They got progressively worse as they went on, although nothing can match the unrelenting shittiness of Halloween III.  (One bit of good news, though:  Rob Zombie's remake from 2007 was actually quite good.)  I have nothing critical to say about this movie, not even all the cars in "Haddonfield, IL" having California licence plates.  :)
5)  The Mist (2007):  Good God, this movie is fucking scary.  Based on a Stephen King novella, Frank Darabont (director of such awesomeness as The Shawshank Redepmtion and The Green Mile) took half the cast of The Walking Dead (seriously, watch it again) and delivered a flawless masterpiece of terror.  King's central theme in the novel was the inhuman monsters outside the grocery store where the characters are holed up vs. the very human monsters inside the store.  Darabont knocked this one out of the park.  Oh, and this movie has the single ballsiest ending I've ever seen.  It isn't just heartbreaking.  It's soul-crushing. 
4)  The Innocents (1961):  I bet you don't know about this one.  You should.  It's based on the Henry James story "The Turn of the Screw" and it just might be the best ghost story ever written.  Deborah Kerr is the new nanny to Miles and Flora, who haven't quite gotten over the death of their previous nanny and the estate's groundskeeper.  ("Look at her, Flora!  Look at her!")  This is bone-chilling stuff and you owe it to yourself to see it.   
3)  The Shining (1980):  Yes, another Stephen King story.  Am I starting to sense a pattern here?  Don't worry, this is the last one on this list.  Nicholson should have won an Academy Award for this one, and Shelley Duvall is even better than he is in this.  But far and away the best and scarist character in the movie is the Overlook Hotel itself.  All hotels are inherantly creepy but none come anywhere near the Overlook when it comes to pure creepiness.  Seriously, those corridors are endless, the public areas are cavernous and that hedgemaze is just plain fucked up.  King is very public with his dislike of this movie.  This is the one time I'm gonna side with the director over the author.  This movie fucking rocks from start to finish.        
2)  Alien (1979):  Ridley Scott's masterpiece, and that's saying something.  The story is simplicity itself.  It's basically a haunted house in space.  Seriously, look at the Nostromo. It's Dr. Frankenstein's castle with giant engines. This might be the most gothic horror movie ever made.    Thirty-four years later the horror genre, specifically that of the sci fi persuasion, is still trying to catch up to this.  That says a lot.  Oh, and you can thank this movie for every fictional female badass you know.  They all took their cues from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.  (I'm looking at you, Sarah Connor.)
1)  The Exorcist (1973):  Was there any doubt?  This movie goes straight for the throat and never lets go.  I'm not gonna go into everything that makes this movie so scary or so great; if I have to do that there's no hope for you, anyway.  Needless to say, if you somehow haven't seen it yet, do so immediately.  Preferably around high noon with all the lights in the house turned on.  And good luck sleeping after that.
There you have it.  That's my list.  What's yours?