Monday, September 6, 2010

September Q & A: Old vs. new movies and what's good in horror

Today’s question comes from my friend Sofia, who asks, “Please explain your like for the movies you prefer. In other words, why do you enjoy watching movies which are older than you and have little to no fear factor in this day?”

Well, that’s certainly not a leading question at all. Anyway, for those of you that aren’t Sofia, the main backstory for this is our disagreement over the film Orphan. She felt it was one of the scariest horror movies she’s ever seen, I felt it was a piece of garbage. I thought we agreed to disagree, but going by this question I may have just started tuning her out, which I feel should amount to the same. Since I don’t think I did a proper review, I disliked Orphan in large part because it was yet another lousy killer kid movie in which there’s a character that’s actively trying to kill everyone around them and acting incredibly suspicious at all times, one and only one adult notices this, and when she tries to warn others everyone immediately jumps down her throat for having the nerve to accuse such a sweet angel. Sofia also thought the big twist ending was great, while I felt it was merely endemic of the movie’s complete lack of balls. *SPOILER WARNING* The evil little girl the family adopts turns out to actually be a short adult in disguise, which to me removes a great deal of the potential creepiness when she tries to seduce the dad immediately after we find out. Also, I may be remembering this wrong, but I recall it being a largely bloodless affair, which can be fine when a movie’s succeeding on its other merits, but not when I’m trying to find any justification for watching it.

Of course, the main thrust of the question is about my tastes in general, and I do freely admit that quite a lot of my favorite movies, horror or otherwise, were made before I was born. It seems obvious to me that judging a movie based on what year it came out is completely arbitrary and ridiculous, but I’ve actually had a few friends make fun of me for watching movies made before I was born. Even ignoring the consideration that virtually every critic and cinephile views the 60s and 70s as a golden age of film, all anyone would have to do is consider all the movies they love from their own childhood (I was born in 1980, so my childhood would include such films as Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Little Shop of Horrors, Airplane!, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Little Mermaid, the Back to the Future trilogy, and the like, but you can substitute your own first decade of life), and then realize that by their own argument they should then be making fun of someone ten years younger than them that likes those very same movies. Quality knows no decade, my friends.

All that said, it is true that film has definitely changed stylistically over the years, and I will freely admit that I think a lot of the changes that have occurred over my lifetime have been pretty bad ones. I just ranted about my hatred of shaky cam and quick cutting in my Expendables review last week, which is something that’s gone from being amazing and innovative in Saving Private Ryan to being so overused and poorly used that it’s made countless modern action movies occasionally impossible to watch. Another innovation that I’m only half sold on is the use of CG, which started in very limited regards in the 70s and 80s, but didn’t become refined enough that we could get new kinds of movies with them until Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. When done well, CG can create new worlds for us to enjoy, like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Dark City. When done poorly, we’ll get incredibly wooden acting because of actors not having any environmental clues to work with (see the Star Wars prequels), or we’ll get monsters or robots or whatever that not only look like they were made on a computer, but don’t seem to actually be properly interacting with the environment around them. It completely takes you out of the moment when you see stuff like that. And don’t even get me started on how CG has ruined the time-honored tradition of the car chase.

While CG isn’t a huge problem with modern horror movies (aside from monster movies and the awful CG blood that cheap horror movies sometimes use -- hey guys, red corn syrup doesn’t cost much and it’ll make your movie stop looking so damn cheap), the horror movie did fall on very hard times after the 80s, and while it’s gotten better over the past decade (after the genre was on life support throughout the 90s), it’s still nowhere near as healthy as it was back in the 70s and 80s. First, we have the overwhelming spate of horror remakes*, where we get music video directors making absolute garbage and knowing the quality of their work doesn’t matter at all because the films will make several times their costs just on name value. Then we have all the PG-13 horror movies that are cold-bloodedly designed by the studios to be as tame and inoffensive as possible to capture as wide an audience as they can while laughing at the very thought of trying to make an actual good movie. There’s also all the miserable ironic slashers that came out in the wake of Scream’s popularity, but those thankfully mostly died out with the 90s.

So now that I’ve listed an army of things that I hate, what do I like? Well, there’s three main things that a horror movie can do for it to work for me. First, it can make me laugh hard and consistently, like Shaun of the Dead or Black Sheep do (though like most of the slacker zombie movies ripping off Shaun of the Dead don‘t). Second, it can be really ridiculously bloody, like Hatchet or Wrong Turn 2 (both of which are also pretty damn funny, it should be noted), though a horror movie does have to have more than just gore to it if I’m going to think it was an actual good movie (it also needs lots of nudity, yes). Third, and this is sadly the least frequent, it can be really tense and suspenseful, like The Descent or The House of the Devil. It’s the least frequent because it’s by far the most difficult to pull off, with most horror directors deciding instead that having someone jump in front of the camera while the music suddenly screams at the audience is a perfectly legitimate scare and they don’t have to try any harder than that. For a perfect example of just how hard it can be to base a horror movie around tension and suspense, one need take no further look than Orphan. *rimshot*

* I should note that I’m not one of those guys that automatically hates all remakes, but let’s be honest with ourselves here. The number of horror remakes we’ve gotten in the past decade that weren’t lousy can be counted on one hand.

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