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Why Do We Like Horror Movies?

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 28, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 28, 2009 |

I hate it when people suggest we should just turn our brain off and allow ourselves to enjoy an otherwise terrible movie. It’s not as though our brain is equipped with an on/off switch that’d allow us to turn it on to do differential equations and then flip the switch, go full retard, and watch a movie while sitting in our urine-drenched jeans. I’m not saying that bad movies can’t be appreciated or enjoyed, I’m saying that there’s something about certain bad movies that appeal to us, on some level, intellectually or emotionally. The Crank franchise offers an excellent example: Few would concede that either Crank movie was anything other than ball-tremblingly stupid. But even among a more discerning audience of critics, both movies fared more than adequately (60 and 64 percent on the Tomatometer, respectively). Subtract mainstream stick-in-their-ass critics, and it’s probably in the 70s.

But why? One of our more popular comment diversions was where we admitted our secret shames (over 600 comments), and wouldn’t you know, there were a slew of movies that were mentioned by multiple people. It’s because there is something effective in those movies, some unidentifiable energy, an aura, a quality that appeals to even the most critical among us. And though we may not want to admit it, it takes a certain level of talent to make even a trashy movie engaging.

There’s no better example of this than the horror genre. There are only a handful of genuinely great horror movies that would hold up to strict scrutiny. But there are scores of others — like the first three Final Destination movies, for myself — that many of us like, enjoy, or even love. It’s not because we turn our brains off; it’s because these movies appeal to a certain part of our brain that we don’t associate with intelligence or depth. But what is it, specifically, about horror movies that we like?

Let’s turn our brains on, and explore that. Many suggest that we like horror movies, not because of the fear, but because of the relief from that fear. A successful horror movie can terrify us for an hour and a half, and then offer a reprieve during the final showdown, a release proportional to the level of fear that the movie instills. Others suggests that certain people actually feed off the negative emotion — that fear, itself, is what attracts us (this is particularly true of the torture-porn subgenre, I suspect). Neither scenario, however, actually applies to the Final Destination series. Fear doesn’t play into those movies.

Stephen King believes that horror movies offer our aggression an outlet, allowing us to forestall our own murderous impulses. Certain studies (mostly dumb ones), actually conclude the opposite: That prolonged exposure to horror movies increases our violent tendencies. I like to believe that Stephen King’s theory is partially correct. Slasher movies, in particular, provide a good example of this for me: Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers, in a way, act as stand-ins, allowing us to murder by proxy. It only works, however, if the filmmakers manage to create sufficiently obnoxious victims — people we want to see cut up and axed to death because they represent certain types (co-workers? in-laws? twits?) that we, in the real world, find obnoxious or insufferable. And what’s more insufferable than a whiny teenager? In the old days (read: the 1980s), all the obnoxious twits would die, and the people we actually identify with — the heroes — would survive, offering us that relief from fear in the end (nowadays, it seems, the good people sacrifice themselves for the whiny, screechy survivor). In a way, these movies appeal to our sense of schadenfreude: Relishing the death of those we despise. It’s also why, personally, I love good horror comedies: People I don’t like die in gloriously, hilariously fantastic ways.

To a certain extent, that’s what made the first three Final Destination films fun to watch: People we didn’t like got their comeuppance. It was very satisfying (see Kerr Smith, Amanda Detmer, Sean William Scott). But the real joy in the first three movies was something that is rarely discussed when exploring why we like horror movies: Anticipation and surprise. There’s something primal about our love of anticipation. Great sex relies heavily on anticipation. And great horror movies play with it effectively, e.g., even the most novice observer of horror movies knows who is going to die (and usually in what order), but it’s the anticipation that draws us in. Not knowing exactly when. Or how. Like sex, the actual act, itself, often isn’t as satisfying as the anticipation.

But what I really love about the first three FD movies was that they effectively utilized anticipation and then, frequently, turned it into surprise. James Wong, who directed the first and third entries, was particularly good at this: He’d slowly lead his victim down a path toward a nail in the head, only to have a car flatten him seconds before the nail gun went off, which is like slowly going into for a kiss with a pretty girl only to have Rachel Weisz knock her aside in the last second and ravish you. Awesome, right?

The Final Destination, conversely, fails in every way that a horror movie could possibly appeal to you. There is no fear. There is no anticipation. There is no surprise. And there is no schadenfreude. I’m not sure if it’s the repetition of the series, but it’s become too rote. There’s no anticipation because we know what’s going to happen and when. And there’s no surprise because, at this point, we expect the fake-out. A better director could probably find a few new ways to inject anticipation and energy into the series (as James Wong did in the third installment). But in The Final Destination, David R. Ellis (who also directed the second film) is just listlessly going through the motions.

Even worse, the cast — a bunch of WB-wannabe nobodies — isn’t even modestly talented enough to annoy or irritate us. We don’t care one way or another if they die, and there’s little satisfaction in their demise because we haven’t developed a sufficient hatred for them. David R. Ellis, too, has shifted the focus away from the anticipation and toward the actual means of death. He puts all his efforts on staging the death scene and nothing into developing the paper-thin stereotypical characters that we love to loathe in horror movies (where’s the virgin? the whiny imbecile? the likable dolt? the black guy that dies first!?) He’s taken away the foreplay and left us with clumsy, over-aggressive fucking.

The result is a overlong (even at only 82 minutes), poorly scripted, and tediously executed film punctuated by an occasional, lifelessly gruesome death. David R. Ellis and his plasticine, generic teenagers have sucked all the joy out of the FD series and left, in its place, a template, barely filled in, modeled on the other three movies. It’s too bad, too, because up until The Final Destination, this was a series I could depend upon to provide an outlet for my own murderous impulses. Now, all I’m left with is a butcher knife. And a poor little puppy pleading silently in the corner of my office.