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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How to Make a Really Good Scary Movie • by Pete Wood

It’s bad enough that they remade Archie comics into the dark and brooding Riverdale, where suddenly even Jughead isn’t any fun. They had to make horror movies too dark, too. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Horror movies are supposed to be dark.

Yeah, maybe. Unless they become so dark they stop being scary. Hear me out.

If I ran Hollywood, every aspiring horror filmmaker would have to watch two movies: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the original The Haunting.

The 1940s comedy team of Abbott and Costello showed how seamlessly a good movie can blend horror and comedy. In 1948 Universal Studios brought an all-star lineup in with Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman, and Glenn Strange, later the bartender on Gunsmoke, as Frankenstein. The plot ping-pongs between scary and funny effortlessly. The monsters play it straight and some nasty things happen, but just when you think you can’t watch anymore, Abbott and Costello start doing their shtick The comedy duo relied on the horror/comedy mix to good effect in Hold that Ghost, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

There is nothing funny about The Haunting [1963, directed by Robert Wise who also directed The Sound of Music]. Based on Shirley (“The Lottery”) Jackson’s classic novel, the Haunting of Hill House, it tells the story of a group of paranormal investigators who foolishly decide to spend a few days at the most haunted house in the world. Not even the New England estate’s two caretakers have the guts to spend the night. I’m not going to give away the plot, but the movie works more by suggestion than by explicitly showing things. How scary is the movie? Well, when I popped it into the VCR many years ago while home from college, I got so spooked during the title sequence and opening narration that I hopped in the car and drove thirty miles to hang out with my Dad and his friends. At four in the afternoon.

The senseless 1999 remake is so bad it highlights the greatness of the original. Subtlety and suggestion are thrown out the window in favor of hokey special effects, very visible ghosts, over-the-top acting, and an amped-up body count. Not even Liam Neeson and Bruce Dern can save this movie. (As a side note, would you stay in a house where Bruce Dern is the caretaker? Just sayin’…)

Things have gone horribly wrong since then with the movies. Horror movies have abandoned suggestion for graphic violence that borders on torture porn. Some filmmakers don’t see the benefit of humor at all.

Consider The Night Stalker. Richard Matheson (I am Legend, Hell House, and many episodes of The Twilight Zone)  wrote the screenplays for two of the highest-rated made-for-TV movies of all time. In the Night Stalker, (1972) a wise-cracking tabloid investigative reporter (Darren McGavin, the Dad in A Christmas Story) in Las Vegas can’t seem to convince anyone that a vampire is on the prowl. Darren McGavin repeated his role as Karl Kolchak in the superior sequel, The Night Strangler, (1973), where nobody believes that a monster is murdering women in Seattle. McGavin has impeccable comic timing and some serious acting chops in the scary scenes. Simon Oakland plays his long suffering editor, Tony Vinchenzo, and he and McGavin play off each other like they’re in a screwball comedy.

Chris Carter based The X Files on The Night Stalker. He adopted the monster-of-the-week format from the short-lived ‘70s TV show (also starring Oakland and McGavin), as well as the theme of government cover-ups. He also kept the humor. David Duchovny has some pretty good comic timing himself.

Some rocket scientist had the brilliant idea to remake The Night Stalker in 2005, but without the humor. Kolchak becomes a chronically depressed sourpuss with demons in his past. The reboot went off the air quickly as viewers preferred the original.

The first Stalker was scarier for the simple reason that the characters seemed real. We can relate to wise-cracking reporters who give their bosses ulcers. We can’t relate to the second Kolchak, a stoic loner looking for his wife’s killer. He never even cracks a smile. The first series felt like horror invading real life. The second series felt like, well, a TV series.

Okay, so maybe you think horror doesn’t need humor. Fair enough. Make it too graphic and it stops being scary.

His House is a 2020 horror movie that illustrates my point. Two refugees from South Sudan seek political asylum in London. They’ve just lost their daughter in a horrible boating accident as they fled Africa. There’s enough pathos and horror right there, but then director Remi Weekes just had to make it into a horror movie.

The couple start seeing things. Their home is haunted with that gooey ectoplasm that has dominated horror movies since Alien. Everything in their new house is wet and dripping and phlegm-like. Why? I don’t know. Third base. (A little Abbott and Costello reference there for y’all.)

Then the torture porn starts. I hate seeing people tortured. I hate seeing demons and monsters that love to torture and ooze all over the place at the same time and leave a mess that they never clean up.

What could have been a great drama with a peek into the lives of political refugees becomes a paint-by-numbers horror movie with too much gore, too much phlegm, and no damned humanity. I hated the main characters. I wanted to like them. Honest, I did, but somehow the movie got me to hate two political refugees from the Sudan. The haunted house is so contrived and over the top that everything seemed unreal, even the very real political nightmare that is South Sudan.

There is a genuinely terrifying scene in The Haunting where director Robert Wise shows nothing. No monster. No jump scares. No gore. No violence. Just darkness and narration, but it culminates in the scariest moment ever on film. See the movie and judge for yourself. You’ll know the scene when you see it.

For horror to be scary, it can’t be unrelenting. There have to be quiet moments where you can imagine the monster for yourself rather than gawking at CGI. Unrelenting horror isn’t scary. It’s a cartoon. Horror that comes after a good laugh or a quiet moment or anytime that you aren’t expecting it: now that is scary.

Don’t believe me? Watch The Night Stalker or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or try to sit through The Haunting by yourself, even in the middle of the afternoon on a bright sunny day.



Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them


~brb said...

Funny. I remember reading an interview with one of the Marx brothers -- I think it was Chico -- in which he said much the same thing about comedy. He said that was what the musical numbers in their films were for. If you just kept hitting the audience with gag after gag after gag, they got worn out. The musical numbers were there to give the audience a chance to rest, relax, and catch their breaths, before they got set up for the next gag.

Pete Wood said...

That's really interesting about the Marx Brothers.
Here's another thought. At the end of the first Mad Max, Max leaves a killer cuffed to a car that is about to explode in five minutes and tosses him a hack saw. He says he can hack through the cuffs in ten minutes or his leg in five. And walks away. Nothing is shown. All suggestion.
Saw took that premise and stretched it onto a series of movies. Mad Max is scarier, because it is shorter and seems more real. AND we don't see anything.

Robert said...

Horror (on the big or small screen) has become too much blood and ruptured bodies. Maybe humanity as a whole has become inured to the subtleties of building suspense through the closing of a door, candles plainly burning upright then slowly wavering, the look on persons face. Many want the horror to blast them like a fire hose. To make them want to wretch from twisting intestines. Shock and blood. It's easy, maybe not to the propmaster, to make the audience cringe at such sights. Somebody will tell somebody about this movie or that. "Man, they showed his skin peeling back, and then all his guts fell out and blood went everywhere. You got to see it." And that somebody does. The cycle perpetuates, each generation looking for an intense reaction that doesn't require them to not only look at the actors but the back and foreground. Horror, good horror is hard mental work on both the creator and the patron. The creator has to slowly dig deep into the audience's psyche and terrorize any sense of normalcy. Psycho did that for me. I must have been twelve-years-old, it was on channel 30 in St. Louis, Mo. Scared me so bad I made sure the door was locked when I took a shower and I took short showers for days; wet, wash, rinse, dry, and out - ten minutes tops. These new horror movies just don't do it for me, most don't anyway. Two have scared me, Bone Tomahawk with Kurt Russel and Patrick Wilson and Autopsy of Jane Doe with Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox. Jane Doe is one that demands you pay attention, and Tomahawk lulls you into an old-fashion western then hits you with the horror. Both have some gruesome scenes, they aren't for the timid, but it's not spilling guts and fire hoses pumping blood.

Pete Wood said...

Well said, Robert.
And thanks for the recommendations. I'll check those movies out.