They've got guts, where's the glory?

Essay: Today's fright films just aren't as chilling as the terror tales of yesteryear.

October 31, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What's so tough about making a good horror film?

In homes throughout the country tonight, people will pop movies into their VCRs and wait anxiously for fear to take hold. Chances are, they'll be disappointed.

Oh, sure, they'll probably be shocked or grossed out. They may even jump out of their seats; modern horror films are expert at goosing their audiences, and most throw enough blood around to at least make an impression.

But films that deliver genuine creeps, films that seep into our psyches and continue rattling our cages weeks later, are threatening to become things of the past. Cheap thrills are in; lasting impressions are rare.

Just look at what passes for a great horror film these days: Scream, a three-film franchise that's earned a few gazillion dollars for Miramax over the past five years, essentially parodies the whole horror film oeuvre. Sure, the movies were fun, and the first one injected some much-needed new blood into what had become a lethargic, by-the-numbers genre. But was Scream really creepy? Did it chill audiences to the bone, or just make them jump?

The fact is, Hollywood no longer can patch together a monster flick to rival 1931's Frankenstein. Kids today can't enjoy the same sort of fright their parents and grandparents experienced back in the 1950s, when matinees featuring Godzilla, The Thing or Tarantula were Saturday afternoon staples. And directors responsible for such relatively recent horror classics as The Exorcist and Halloween seem incapable of matching their earlier successes.

Certainly, it's not for lack of effort. Rarely a month goes by without a new horror film in theaters. Traditionally, things get even more hectic around Halloween; in the past two weeks, three movies designed to scare the wits out of audiences have been released: the Hughes Brothers' From Hell, a blood-soaked stab at the mythology surrounding Jack the Ripper; Bones, with Snoop Dogg as the vengeance-obsessed spirit of a 1970s street hood; and the haunted-house flick Thirteen Ghosts.

And audiences continue to flock to fright in droves. Although Bones scared up only $2.8 million at the box office over its first weekend, From Hell earned a healthy $14.5 Million, and Thirteen Ghosts topped that with $15.2 million.

But all three were lousy films. From Hell is all blood and guts and dark, foreboding art design, with nothing behind it. Bones is another film straight out of the let's-throw-everything-up-on-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks school, a movie that doesn't scare audiences as much as beat us over the head with a club. And Thirteen Ghosts was yet another remake of a William Castle-produced film from the 1950s and early 1960s that proved that bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to budgets and scope.

Money may be one reason today's horror films don't stack up well against their predecessors - there's too much of it. Nothing is more potentially horrific than the power of suggestion, and directors forced to work with small budgets become experts at implying horror rather than showing it. Think of Jacques Tourneur's original Cat People, from 1942, and Paul Schrader's overly ambitious 1982 remake. The former leaves dangling all sorts of questions about fear and sexuality and family ties. The latter just leaves the impression that Nastassja Kinski is a babe.

Today's horror films also suffer from an in-your-face mentality that favors sledgehammering the horrific elements into audiences, instead of using scalpels. While no one would advocate a return to the censorship of the old Production Code days, a little self-censorship by filmmakers would be welcome. Unrelenting blood and gore on the screen may make quite an impression, but it doesn't leave much of one. It's the difference between sneaking up behind someone and saying, "boo" and telling them a good ghost story. The former is forgotten within a few seconds; the latter remains in our heads for years.

Compare Todd Browning's 1931 Dracula with any of the Hammer Films from the 1960s featuring the infamous bloodsucker. Browning's genuinely creepy sets, understated lighting and the macabre performance of Bela Lugosi combine for a horrific experience that has been preying on audiences for 70 years. By contrast, the sex and violence of the Hammer films seem viscerally cool - and who remembers them a week after seeing them? And how much artistry does it take to spill a bunch of blood on screen?

Of course, movies reflect the eras in which they are made, and there's no disputing that we are a harder, more cynical, less easily frightened people than we once were. Perhaps filmmakers need to ratchet up the shock level to leave an impression. In hands as skilled as George Romero's in Night of the Living Dead, that mindset can result in a masterpiece. But in a hack's hands - and sadly, that's the level of competency of too many horror filmmakers - the results are obvious, uninspired and indistinguishable.

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