Making horror movies less scary

 

Backcountry, a horror-survival story about a young couple whose camping trip ends poorly, has opened to good reviews.  Manola Dargis of the NY Times says of the couple: “It’s diverting, unnerving fun watching their descent, at least for a while.”  She couldn’t be more right, although it’s  not just for awhile, it’s for the entire movie, and that is why people go to see horror movies.

Films like this would be genuinely terrifying if you could put truly imagine yourself in the shoes of the main characters, sharing their experience in an unmediated way. This would not be entertainment.  To make the horror palatable, writers and directors let you in on the secret beforehand, tacitly informing you of their awareness of your ambient anxiety.   Movies which stray from this awareness, think Hitchcock here, are rightly seen as more frightening.  Modern “hardcore”horror movies seem to me to rely on the viewers startle-reflex.  The insidious nature of Hitchcock is the intentionality with which he keeps you off-base.  You never expected to be frightened by an ever-increasing flock of birds perching on playground equipment did you?  Why would you?

But in Backcountry, as Dargis points out, you know from the moment the boyfriend refuses a map in the ranger’s office, that ill will befall the couple. In a sense that the couple deserves their misfortune.   When a bear finally attacks, you saw it coming, and at this point are watching to see how graphic the scene will be. It creates a mediocre meta-experience: not experiencing the horror itself (which would be too disturbing),  but instead the experiencing the drama as a correlate of level of DEPICTION of the horror.  How far will the director go? Films like this are considered successful if director goes slightly beyond what the audience expected. But expect it they must.  In filmic language this is done through details like an axe being left too far away to be of use in defense, or by a person accidentally cutting themself before swimming in shark-infested waters.

To me this is a stale pattern, and the solution is to cover subjects which are less inherently horrifying, but cover them in a way that is more realistic.  Less foreshadowing, fewer tropes, more randomness. Loss and lack of control.  The opportunities for this are endless – you could make a horror movie out of an unexpected divorce.   However some incidents, like Timothy Treadwell’s death audiotape in Herzog’s Grizzly Man, are just not for popular entertainment.

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