What Makes a Good Horror/Thriller Movie?

Find out what it takes to impress a movie snob like myself when it comes to the “boo!” factor.

One of my biggest pet peeves in life is when someone starts telling me about a movie, and in a subconscious effort to be cool or to be a hero, blurts the ending.  Usually, that takes away much of the incentive to spend the two hours to watch the movie.  But recently, a coworker blabbed the twist ending to Orphan and it actually intrigued me so much that I watched it this past weekend with my wife and my mother-in-law.  And though I typically can’t say this about most movies, especially not “scary” ones, I give it an A+.  So what makes for a good scary movie, according to me, a self-proclaimed movie guy?

It doesn’t have bad acting. A few weeks ago I tried to watch Fire in the Sky, the 1993 thriller about alien abductions, and couldn’t make it past the first 20 minutes because the acting was simply not believable.  It was somehow both too cartoonish and too bland.  Like Christian movies and low budget sci-fi movies, scary movies also tend to feature unknown actors who are unknown for a reason.  For a scary movie to be good, the acting itself can not be a distraction.

It doesn’t exploit violence and gore. Granted, I don’t mind excessive violence and gore if it’s necessary to the plot.  I’m a huge fan of the Saw franchise.  But I didn’t like Saw III, Saw V, or Saw 3D individually because I felt the violence and gore itself was over-the-top and mainly there for shock value alone, whereas I felt that with first Saw, Saw II, Saw IV, and saw VI, the violence and gore had a purpose directly related to a meaningful plotline.

It doesn’t contain soft-core porn. The thing that has kept me from seeing Hostel is that I have heard from multiple people that “there is a soft-core porn scene in the beginning of the movie”.  A good scary movie doesn’t need obsessive nudity in order to be a good scary movie.  (When any kind of movie has excessive nudity and sex scenes, I almost always believe it’s in there as a desperate attempt to make an otherwise drab movie seem interesting.) There was nudity in One Hour Photo, but it was extremely relevant to the plot and had a purpose.  I’m not saying I morally approve nudity, but I am saying that when it’s done in good taste, it can at least keep from distracting from the quality of the movie itself, as opposed to most Friday the 13th movies.

It doesn’t contain special effects which I can tell are fake. In Saw 3D there were several death trap scenes where I could totally tell the newly dead bodies where just hollow rubber dummies.  That’s how I feel about the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Final Destination series.  I am a snob when it comes to special effects of any kind.  That means I don’t want to see any blood that looks too watery or any noticeable uses of green screens.

It doesn’t end with all the main characters dying. The movie is scarier if at least one person lived to tell the story.  I’m not saying that it has to end well.  One of my favorite scary movies is Skeleton Key- no one really dies in it but it doesn’t really end on a happy note either.  Yet the creativeness in how they pulled off that combo impressed me.  Same thing with One Hour Photo.

It doesn’t end unfinished. If the name of the movie is Freddy Vs. Jason, then either Freddy or Jason better clearly win the fight by the time it ends.  I’m fine with a movie that ends while leaving the door open for a sequel.  But if that’s the case, I want that movie to be able to stand alone as a film that in of itself actually makes sense and has closure.  The first Saw movie does this perfectly.

If a horror/thriller movie passes these six tests, there is a good chance it will be at least a good one.  It’s not about how many times you get spooked when something surprises you by jumping out on the screen or a high dead body count.  The movie itself has to be legit and in tact as a whole.  Otherwise, instead of walking back to your car after the movie as look around the parking lot for any suspicious shadowy creatures, you’re shaking your head at how stupid that movie was instead.


Movie Guy, at Your Service: My Top 11-25 Favorites

What do your favorite movies say about you?

Our favorite movies are loaded with subconscious connections to our own ways of thinking and our own lives.  And that’s why no movie critic can ever truly release a list of the best movies ever made.  Because that list would simply reflect that critic, not the general population. 

After having recently posted my own Top Ten favorites (Movie Guy, at Your Service: My Top Ten Favorites), here in my 300th post on Scenic Route Snapshots, I am now releasing the list of my Top 11-25 favorite movies of all time:

#11) About a Boy

#12) Elizabethtown

#13) A Christmas Story

#14) Zoolander

#15) Supersize Me (assuming that documentaries count)

#16) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

#17) Mrs. Doubtfire

#18) That Thing You Do

#19) The Wedding Singer

#20) Big

#21) Dumb and Dumber

#22) Napoleon Dynamite

#23) The Breakfast Club

#24) Pineapple Express

#25) One Hour Photo

I have been asked several times about my Number Four favorite movie of my all time, Sideways (2004).  It’s one that most people who I know in real life didn’t like, if they’ve even seen it.  I can totally see why people wouldn’t like it- a bipolar lead character (Miles, played by Paul Giamatti), a sex-crazed idiot sidekick (Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church), a good bit of comical frontal male nudity (by the man who played Tom on LOST), and no definite plot.  But I do solidly love this movie.  In fact, I also give it the award for “The Most Re-watchable Movie”.  And surely that’s another reason it ended up as #4. 

In keeping with the theme of this post, I am choosing to use Sideways as an example of how a favorite movie can say a lot about the person who loves it. I’ve said before that what makes a good movie is not its actors, budget, or plot- but instead it’s all about the characters (and of course the actor’s ability to act). 

Sideways is a character movie.  The main four characters (and pretty much only four characters of the movie) are all believable.  None of their lives are impressive.  They are very ordinary people.  And they are all quite flawed and that makes them more human than a lot of movie characters.

It wasn’t until I saw the movie for the 10th time, last weekend, that I finally picked up on the toned-down parallel between the types of wine and the characters, as well as the amount of passion for wine they had compared with their desire for meaningful human relationships.

I love the fact that the movie takes place in Napa Valley and integrates the culture of wine tasting.  It’s such a beautiful, unique place.  I was intrigued by Napa Valley the first time I saw the movie in 2005. 

Of course, three years later I conveniently married a girl from Sacramento, which means that I’ve been able to go wine tasting several times out there where the movie was filmed.  Just as Sideways makes it seem cool to take a road trip through Napa Valley and taste wine, the truth is, it really is that cool.  A perfect place for a road trip and a perfect place to get lost (which we do just about every time we go out there).

If nothing else, Sideways plays out like an adult, R-rated version of Dumb and Dumber.  The climax of the movie makes the “naked in public” nightmare a reality when Miles (Paul Giamatti) has to sneak into a house to retrieve Jack’s (Thomas Haden Church) wallet, after Jack just woke him up in the middle of the night after having ran several miles naked from across town. 

The entire soundtrack of the movie, with one exception when the song “Two Tickets to Paradise” is heard in the background of a bar, is jazz.  I like jazz a lot.  That’s one of the reasons I’m such a fan of The Pink Panther cartoon show.

Lastly, if it weren’t for a few scenes where Jack uses a cell phone, the movie could have very easily taken place in 1993.  Or 1989.  Or 1986.  Sideways has a really timeless, classic feel to it. 

So in review, the random elements of the movie that subconsciously connected to my own life were the following: a character-driven plot (I’m a people person), parallels between the wines and the people who drink them (I love undertoned themes), remniscent of Dumb and Dumber (obviously another one of my favorite movies), retro feel (I’m a fan of time travel), a jazzy soundtrack (it’s groovy), a beautiful location (that also doubles as my wife’s hometown region), a road trip driven-plot (I love road trips) and a scene involving a man having to run naked in public (I have that “naked in pubic” dream several times a year, and I plan to do a post on it soon).

How does a movie become a favorite?  It’s all about those subconscious connections between our own lives and the images, moods, and stories we see on the screen.  Either they’re there or they’re not.