“Production values!” the pint-sized filmmaker in Super 8 declares, rallying his pre-teen crew to capture footage of a moving train or, you know, a girl. (His closest competitor at the upcoming film festival is a high school student.) His crew may look flummoxed – this is a running joke – but when they see the finished product, they’ll know what he’s talking about: because they’re making a horror movie, and they’re all horror fans.
Comedy will make idiots of us all, but horror can make people smarter. Point out that a supposed comedy is badly cobbled together, mean-spirited, and ugly-looking, and you’re likely to hear “Yes…It is funny, though.” Apparently, our lives are so fucking awful that anything that elicits a laugh gets a free pass. But if the lighting is a shade different in two shots in the same scene of a horror movie, there’d better be a good reason for it – a story reason – or viewers will start to disengage; you seldom hear anyone who enjoys horror say of a horror movie, “Yes, it’s not good…It is scary, though.”
You get smarter because you have to find a way to talk about these things. At The Onion AV Club, there is a recent feature article with British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) programming a 24-hour Halloween movie marathon. He speaks about a scene in David Cronenberg’s The Brood – the murder of the schoolteacher – and he speaks very specifically about the elements that go into making the scene so horrific and memorable. Here’s the thing: Wright’s a professional filmmaker, but he doesn’t say anything that I might not have heard in a conversation I had, thirty-odd years ago, with a janitor who’d just seen the original Nightmare On Elm Street the night before and had his mind blown and wanted me to understand – once I’d assured him I wanted to know – just why it was so scary…and how.
I think my first time was the birds on the jungle gym in The Birds, and my most recent was the scene in the pool near the end of Let The Right One In. (I remember that scene in The Brood, too, and a couple in Cronenberg’s They Came From Within, and I haven’t watched those movies in about twenty-five years.)
Something has happened to you, and you have to find a way to talk about it. You have to be very, very specific; you have to make yourself understood.
Nobody walks out of the cinema after an Adam Sandler movie or a Kate Hudson movie feeling that way.
A few recommendations: Avoid the French “extreme horror” film Martyrs – it’s everything you were warned Saw and Hostel would be (but really aren’t). Let The Right One In is great, but don’t let that put you off the American remake, Let Me In, which is in some ways superior (the carjacking scene). AMC’s The Walking Dead is well-made, but aren’t you tired of the zombie apocalypse by now? Do see Attack The Block, out on video etc. this week; it’s not horror, if you want to split hairs, but it’s a blast.