"Spine-tingling!" "Toe-curling!" "Keeps you on the edge of your seat!"
Apparently, watching a scary movie, as opposed to any other genre, is a very physical spectator sport. In the spirit of Halloween and with only a few more months left in the year, I wanted to take a step back and look at some of 2006’s scary movie offerings. It actually proves to be a fairly solid sampling of what scary movies have to offer in general, from atmospheric thrillers to straight-up slashers. (Note: because I haven’t yet seen Saw II, I figured I wouldn’t understand anything in Saw III, so I haven’t seen that yet. The Saw storylines can get pretty intricate. Like Tolstoy.) In order from worst to best:
4) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – If you’ve already seen one of the Texas Chainsaw movies, then you know exactly what to expect when you hear they made a prequel. The movie does not offer one surprise or original idea. The filmmakers were so transparently lazy it’s almost insulting. Grainy footage! Handheld cameras! Crazy hillbillies! Doesn’t it just feel creepy? Not quite. Oh, and memo to horror filmmakers: gore does not equal scary.
3) Final Destination 3 – Horror movies often walk a fine line between scary and funny, often by going so over the top that we're laughing more at the filmmakers' audacious perversity than at the characters' misfortune. But FD3 has it all backwards. No film has made me feel older, and less funny, than the third (final?) installment in this trilogy. As Death once again comes up with creative ways to kill off a batch of teenagers (since they defied Death, he/she/it/whatever won’t stop until its mission is accomplished), I couldn’t help but feel the filmmakers were just soulless assholes. While many horror/slasher movies could use the originality shown in FD3’s death sequences (#4, are you listening?), the writers barely take the time to think of even one personality trait per character coming up with things such as: valley girl, jock, goth couple, etc. Then, the filmmakers take such uninhibited, sadistic glee in dispatching them (let’s watch these bimbos fry in a tanning bed for five minutes!) that any fun is offset by the self-conscious expectation that we’re supposed to laugh and cheer along. Ugh. I know, I know. Just hand me my walker now.
2) Hostel – This movie is what we would call “progress.” The director, Eli Roth, obviously knows his shit. He knows what’s been done before and is clearly trying to tweak old stereotypes and expectations. Yes, it’s too self-aware for its own good and also relies too much on gore. But, refreshingly, it at least tries to aim higher than just sliced Achilles heels and gouged eyes. It’s suspenseful, well-paced, and even fun. There is something hollow at its core, which I think is because there's no single villain in the movie. It's just Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and his buddies against a bunch of sadistic, generic Europeans. Still, it will be interesting to see what Roth does next, besides Hostel 2. And the gang of murderous kids bribed by candy? Awesome.
1) The Descent – Easily the best scary movie of 2006 (except for Little Man). This British import starring six unknown actresses may not have had the marketing hype of, say, The Grudge 2, but it surely deserved it. Six women decide to explore underground caves… and that’s as much as I’ll tell you. Yes, the symbolism of lithe young ladies trying to fit through really tight tunnels is rife for parody. But the film is so confident in its premise that it doesn’t even bother to introduce the creepy-crawly creatures that attack them until halfway through (okay, so I just told you a little more). Employing claustrophobia, smart editing, psychological mind games, complicated group dynamics, and some serious ass-kicking female characters (rare indeed in Hollywood horror movies, see #4-2 above), The Descent stands out among the rest. My only problem is that the decision to trim the truly creepy, ambiguous ending from the British run for the Americans' easy, lazy, cheap final scare (for more about The Descent, its influences and references, the Sun Times serves as a good primer).
So what do these movies say about the modern state of horror movies? Sequels and prequels usually suck and there’s more crap put out than good ones. But you could say that about movies in general, right? Every other genre has its so-bad-it's-good gems, but scary movies are consistently either genuinely great or hilariously God-awful. To paraphrase a quote, when they're good, they're great, and when they're bad, they're even better. It's fun to dig through the losers even as you search for the one that truly tingles your spine.