Monday, October 29, 2007

the horror! the horror!

Having spent the weekend cleaning my house with the television on, I have once again (sort-of) seen the Bravo "100 Scariest Movie Moments" and "30 Even Scarier Movie Moments." I have to say that whoever it is that they are polling is really, truly, deeply confused about what entails a scary movie moment. Here's how I see it: there are movies filled with scary moments, and there are movies filled with completely disgustingly gross moments. People, I think, are now confusing the two. At least, this is what I believe accounts for the movie "Hostel" coming in at numba-one on 30ESMM. I have not seen "Hostel," despite my love for ucky movies, because all things being equal, there are just some things I don't think I need to see. I have not seen "Wolf Creek," or "Old Boy," or "The Audition," or whatever the latest entry into the Completely Awful Sweepstakes is. I saw Saw-s I and II and profoundly wish that I had not.

Anyway. I was glad to see David Cronenberg well-represented. I was afraid it was going to be all Hitchcock, all the time. Don't get me wrong, I love Hitchcock thrillers, but I just never thought Vertigo was all that scary. I'm more of the "out of a clear blue sky whammo" school of thought on psychological horror. I'm not so completely art-school-ified that I go all "Cahiers du Cinema" on this issue...I am not here to agitate for the last 45 seconds of the Rififi heist scene as the height of tension in all of modern film. I did not find the original "Wicker Man" frightening at all. But I feel as though there's still some kind of place for true thrillers in the marketplace.

I also do not understand how the villains of films like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" became icons of frightening-ness. Did the sequel-makers actually see any of these films? Because Michael Myers was not supposed to be the scary thing in Halloween. The dread of being punished for what you did wrong, and what you knew was wrong when you did it, was the scary thing. It's scary because of the dread. It's scary because Laurie finds herself wondering what the heck she did wrong to deserve this kind of terror. She's the good student, she takes care of the children, she's living a life of rectitude...but somewhere, somehow, she must have done something wrong...if only she could figure out what. The message is: no one is innocent. No one is good enough. Evil might find you, for no good reason. That, my friends, is terrifying. (Of course, Halloween III is just scary because of the idiotic script.) Anyway, the mother was the killer in Friday the 13th, not Jason Voorhees, so I don't even know why the whole freaky-cat-in-a-hockey-mask thing had any legs at all. Then in ANOES, Freddy Krueger was not the scary thing -- having no control over the subconscious was the scary thing. Also, the parental lynch-mob was the scary thing. Freddy was punishing the parents who burned him alive -- the terror was inherent in the fact that the children were being punished for the sins of the previous generation, which had literally sacrificed a human being to get their flawlessly manicured lawns and conspicuously expensive cars. Seriously -- I saw these films. I remember seeing them. I remember the plot points. But I guess concepts don't make for such good sales and residuals in the costume division of Megaconglomerate Studios, Inc.

So: my scariest movie moments are apparently not especially scary, but, well, there it is. They say that psychological horror plays on the individual's particular fears -- "they", in my case, appear to be correct.
1) the moment in "The Shining" where Shelley Duvall suddenly figures out that her writer husband has been spending 12 hours a day writing different permutations of the same sentence over and over again
2) that moment in "The Exorcist" where the demon addresses Father Karras in his mother's voice and begs him to explain why he abandoned her
3) the moment in "Dead Ringers" when we realize just what exactly Beverley and Elliott are intending to do to Claire in a drug-addled haze ** editor's note: I realized that actually the horrifying moment is at the end, where everyone's all drug-addled and we see what it is that Beverley did to Elliott. The only horrifying thing about Claire is Genevieve Bujold's accent. **
4) the moment in "The Blair Witch Project" where the camera turns to that corner in the basement and sees Michael with his back to Heather...and the audience suddenly puts two and two together about what's about to happen, and then it's over! Whammo! Cut to black! Eek!
(note: I actually was thrilled when this film was finally finished because the cinema verite video made me motion-sick, so that may be why I had that ultra-Greek kind of catharsis at the end of this highly overrated film. But that moment -- boy, that was something.)
5) the "reveal" scene of what happened to Cleopatra at the end of "Freaks"
6) the "blood-testing" scene in John Carpenter's "The Thing"
7) the end of "Night of the Living Dead" upset me more than anything that happened anywhere else in the movie, go figure.
8) the last shot of "The Vanishing" (no, not...I repeat, NOT the lame-o remake...the original) gave me nightmares for a month.
9) Lars vonTrier's "The Element of Crime" was fairly horrifying to me for a variety of reasons.
10) Of all things, the torture-terror-dome in "Brazil" still freaks me out (those masks! Gives me the cauld grue).

All things being equal, if I really want to get scared to bits, I tend to read a book. I prefer the chiaroscuro of Lovecraftian horror to the crisp, hi-definition realism of, say, "Saw III." Anyway. Happy Halloween. Go watch a scary movie. Drink some hot cider, eat some popcorn, go wild.


Amateur Reader said...

I've told people, more than once, not to see "The Vanishing", the original.
Them: "Is it good?"
Me: "Yes, very good."
Them: "Is it gory?"
Me: "Not at all."
Them: "Should I see it?"
Me: "Oh no."

Kathryn said...

I found the original Wicker Man HI-larious.

As for the focus on the characters in that list of scary moments: I think there is a desire to contain the horror by making one character a villain rather than, as you so wisely point out, focusing on what the true horror is in any given film. And then, like an abused person replaying a script in a controlled environment, to dress up like said villain helps to contain the horror even more.

Stephen King said, in one of his more insightful moments, that horror is essentially conservative. Generally there is a resolution and return to the status quo at the end. Not so with the serial horror movie or the Nightmare series. Interesting.

Sparkling Squirrel said...

Thanks for the list. As someone who does not enjoy being scared, I will make sure my husband does not talk me into seeing any of these.

I found the conclusion to "Breaking the Waves" to be the most disturbing thing I've seen in a long long time. That it is perhaps intended to be an uplifting redeeming end makes it all the scarier.

Reading Shirley Jackson's short story "Louisa please come home" haunted me in 7th grade and is perhaps the scariest thing that I've read to date.

Creative Commons License
A Microscopic Cog in a Catastrophic Plan by Laura Lorson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at