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.


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Why Eighties Movies are So Hard to Remake

And what happened to the genre of romantic comedies…

Back in October I was stuck at home for a few days with severe sinus and allergy problems, streaming Netflix instantly on my laptop all day. I decided to take a break with an ‘80’s movie that I had nothing but fond memories of since my family rented it on VHS when I was in the 3rd grade.  A movie that the general American population still only refers to with a smile and a goofy laugh: Weekend at Bernie’s.

I made it through 38 minutes before shutting it off.  That movie is so boring.  Not funny.  Too unbelievable.  It took them 33 minutes to kill Bernie, and by the time they finally did, I stopped caring.

As I thought more about it, ‘80’s movies aren’t easy to successfully remake because those cheesy, far-fetched, imagination-dependent ideas just don’t fly now that Aerosol hairspray isn’t clogging our brain anymore.  The Eighties were the only ten years that we would buy those concepts.

Like Tom Hanks in Splash (1984).  He falls in love with a mermaid.

Or Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf (1985).  He is a high school basketball star who happens to have inherited “the werewolf gene”.

Or Andrew McCarthy in Mannequin (1987).  He falls in love with a mannequin that comes to life at the mall he works at.

Or Tom Hanks in Big (1988).  He transforms from a boy to a man and falls in love with a grown woman. And just the record, it remains one of my all time favorite movies.

There was this reoccurring mix of fantasy and romance.  Often with drab dialogue.  But completely overshadowed by its towering gimmick of a plot.

These days, we’re too cool for silly ideas like that.  Since Terminator 2 impressed us with believable CGI (computer generated imagery) in 1991, then Jurassic Park in 1993, we’ve been straying from fantasy and romance, and focusing more on sci-fi with some romance.  Leading us to the days of Avatar and Transformers.  And most obviously, the soon-to-end TV series LOST.

And that’s why if today, if they Steven Spielberg remade Gremlins, it would be a hit.  Or Ghostbusters 3, if they ever actually end up making the movie.  Because that’s something the Eighties gave us that worked: horror and comedy along with sci-fi.  They are currently remaking Child’s Play.  And of course, the Nightmare on Elm Street remake comes out this Friday.

We adopted sci-fi horror comedies and sci-fi romance from the Eighties, but what haven’t translated over are romantic comedies and romantic dramas.  Yes, romantic comedies and dramas still exist.  A new one is released into theatres every week.

But overall, they’ve earned a lousy reputation.  Romantic comedies have become “chick flicks”, typically meaning they’re too predictable and cliché for a man to enjoy.  The “girl goes shopping and tries on ten different dresses for her girlfriends during a musical montage” scene.  Too familiar.

The Eighties pulled off romantic comedies.  They knew how to make them work for both men and women: Can’t Buy Me Love, The Princess Bride, Roxanne, When Harry Met Sally, Overboard.

But there’s only so much Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant a man can stand watching.  So what happened because of it?  Judd Apatow and his friends made the genre of bromantic comedies more popular than romantic comedies.  And not just films that feature Seth Rogan.  The Hangover and I Love You Man had nothing to do with Apatow.

I’m all for seeing a good romantic comedy.  Truly.  I like the good ones, unashamedly.  But it’s been a long time since one has been made.

It’s simply unnatural for the romantic genre to be catered towards women- because romance is about a man and a woman.  Because Katherine Heigl and a remote controlled dildo device don’t make a great team (reference to The Ugly Truth).  But Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan do.

After enough corny romantic comedies, we men got the point:  Romantic comedies are no longer for couples- they’re for single women.  So we avoid them and instead run to R-rated comedies featuring funny Jewish lead comedians like Paul Rudd and Jason Segal (Manspeak, Volume 7: Bromance).

The concept of romance in movies has become polarized.  Women watch chick flicks and men watch bromantic comedy.  Ironic.

As for romantic dramas these days, Nicholas Sparks pretty much has the monopoly on that: A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, The Last Song, Nights in Rodanthe.

Someone tragically dies.  A disapproving mother.  A Southern setting.  Got it.

So what can we say about remaking ‘80’s movies?  Some of them, many of them, most of them, need to stay where they belong- in the ‘80’s and in our fond memories.  But the ones that made us laugh, while freaking us out, while being drenched in sci-fi, well, we want more of those.  And the ones that were truly romantic, catering to both men and women, we want more of those.

We’ll always have a love/hate relationship with the Eighties.

Pickles Make for Good Reading Material- Episode 2

 

There’s nothing like that childhood feeling of hearing the campy music of an ice cream truck coming near.  So much excitement, so much anticipation.  Everyone loves delicious ice cream.  But just because ice cream is universally the best thing a kid can get from a travelling salesman, it doesn’t mean that other good things can’t be sold in these trucks as well.  Obviously.  There are also Book-Mobiles.

But what else?  One of the best questions in the world that often goes unanswered is this:  Why not Pickle-Mobiles?  What a perfect idea when people are grilling out in the neighborhood.  The Pickle Truck pulls up just in time!  The perfect accessory for the perfect burger.

BBQ pickles.  Mustard pickles.  Cheese-filled pickles.  Candied pickles.  Super Sour pickles.  Frozen pickles.  Beef jerky flavored pickles.  Vanilla pickles.  Tossed salad pickles (comes with Ranch tipping sauce).  Caffeinated pickles.

In neighborhoods where the Pickle Truck really proves to be the most successful, a pickle buffet would also be incorporated into the event.  This would play up to the international, regional, and dietary preferences regarding the love of pickles.  The options would include, but not be limited to the following…

Aspartickle:  Pickle sweetened with Aspartame, causing it to have fewer carbohydrates but still leaves the person feeling like they should have just got the pickle they really wanted because artificial sweeteners will never really be the same thing as sugar.

Fiberickle:  Pickle coated in flax seed to ensure regularity.

Mexickle:  Pickle wrapped in a burrito with refried beans.

Chinickle:  Pickle fried in a doughy batter that causes the person to still be hungry after eating it.

Heart of Dixickle:  Pickle deep fried in sausage bits, dipped in A-1, then wrapped in a buttermilk pancake.

Wickle:  Pickle with a chicken wing bone surgically planted inside, to give the feel of eating a chicken wing.

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The Similarities Between Science and Religion (SCIence + FaIth = Sci-Fi)

 

 

In a year of history when pretty much anyone who will ever join facebook is now on facebook, those seemingly out-of-touch souls living without it most likely see it a different way:  They don’t want to be found.  The facebook search proves empty.  But not everyone who is lost wants to be found.

And while some people never find what they are looking for, some simply aren’t trying to find anything.


I am not one of those people.  After thinking about it a lot, I’m convinced that even if I wasn’t raised in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, I would still end up where I am today in my spiritual beliefs.  I’m intrigued by this mysterious Middle Eastern religion based on an ancient book that explains the origin of the universe and ancient mankind.  That predicted the life of a man who would wreck the traditional religious laws as he died for his radical and offensive beliefs, then brought hope to his followers by strangely coming back to life after his body was mangled beyond human resemblance.

 

The way I view Christianity is similar to the concept of the show LOST.  It begins with normal people trying to adapt to living in a less than perfect land.  There are struggles for power, unseen dangers, continued plans for rescue and escape, and supernatural occurrences that can not be explained.  Time goes on and they begin to realize their dwelling place has a history which is cursed from whatever it was that happened in the past, mysteriously involving ties back to Egypt.  The more they look, the more they find.  What began as a drama and action show in the first season evolved into a sci-fi show as seasons went on, losing many of its original viewers by the time the ancient Jacob was finally revealed last season.


While many people do enjoy sci-fi, many do not.  It either repels or attracts a person.  Sci-fi is abstract.  It’s imaginary until proven literal.  This train of thought led to the realization:  Christianity is about as sci-fi as it gets.


The following paragraph is how Wikipedia defines science fiction:  “A genre of fiction. It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically-established or scientifically-postulated law of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation). Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.  Science fiction is largely based on writing entertainingly and rationally about alternate possibilitiesin settings that are contrary to known reality.”

 

Again, as I put it, imaginary until proven literal.  But my spiritual beliefs are not built on fiction, they are based on a book translated from the ancient Latin and Greek scrolls of Moses, Paul, and Co.


 

Christianity is comprised of so many sci-fi elements:  An alternative story of how the universe was formed, countless scientific miracles (Noah gathering all the animals on a giant boat for a year as the rest of the population is destroyed by a world-wide flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Seven Plagues of Egypt, Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection, etc.), a realization that a person’s spiritual condition and relationship with their Creator affects both their current condition and their eternal one, a future life outside this universe.  Very bizarre.


It should be no surprise that “the Force” in Star Wars has been compared so much to elements of Christianity.  Sci-fi and religion are ultimately inseparable.


So why is Christianity so popular, not just in our country, but across the world?  With sci-fi being such a stumbling block for so many people, why are so many people okay with the fact that to an outsider the entire concept of Christianity can seem like a weird fairy tale?


The major element that sets Christianity apart from all other major religions is the fact that God actually loves people and wants a daily, personal, eternal relationship with him.  I’ve studied all major religions and the rest seem to feature a distant god that a person can only hope to be in good standing with by following a list of do’s and don’ts, void of love, mercy, and grace.  I simply need an involved God who loves me and has a plan for my life.


It has been said that religion is for the weak.  Yes, that’s the whole point.  I am weak and can’t save myself.  That’s sort of the whole idea behind serving God.  Humility was a major part of who Jesus was when he lived on Earth.  That’s the example to follow.


But interestingly, it’s not just Christianity that is laced in sci-fi.  All religions are.  Even for those who are truly atheists and believe that when a person dies, that’s simply the end and there’s nothing else, they still have to address the fact that the universe had to come in to existence somehow and miraculously support intelligent life.  To answer that question, it takes faith in a sci-fi concept that no living person was around to see happen.


One of the major religions of the world that tends to slip under the radar is what I call “Good Personism”, which is completely different from Christianity.  Based on the spiritual outline drawn in entertainment media such as Disney’s baseball movie Angels in the Outfield, if a person is good, they become an angelic being when they die and go to Heaven.  If a person is really bad (mass murderers, rapists, people who slaughter seals and whales, etc.), they become a demonic creature and go to an unmentionable hell.

 

The reason this religious concept is so popular is because it’s one of the most non-offensive religions, while appearing to resemble whatever the popular religion of that culture is.  Here’s how.  The creed of followers of this faith is the following:  “I’m a good person.  At least I’m not as bad as (enter the name of a known felon or war tyrant).”  The problem though is that creed itself shows an acknowledgement that morality should be confronted by a worthy judge.


This concept is non-offensive because it is quite vague about what exactly it takes to be bad enough to be cursed and how good a person has to be to be saved.  It groups all gods together so that as long as a person believes in some sort of higher power, at least, then that makes everything okay.  The origins of this faith are based on elements of Christianity, Buddhism, national tradition, and a general, innate understanding that mankind is corrupt.  In this religion, Jesus is simply a “good teacher and a good man”.  (Even though a good teacher and a good man wouldn’t base his teachings on lies, claiming to be the only way to God if he wasn’t.)


What if the physical, tangible life we see around us was all there really was?  And we didn’t have to think about bigger things outside of that?  But then someone we know dies.  And it crosses our minds for at least a few minutes that there has to be something more.  That leads to faith in something.  Even if it involves a person unknowingly converting to Good Personism.


 “From emptiness to everything, everyone believes.”  -John Mayer (“Belief”)

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The Interstate to Memory Lane: Why Deja Vu Happens

The summer after 7th grade in 1994 I went to Gatlinburg, TN for the first time.  Amidst all the tacky airbrushed t-shirts and options to get my picture taken as a redneck wearing overalls and a raccoon hat, the shop that intrigued me the most was a now out-of-business magic store.  I bought a few magic tricks there and half-way impressed my friends with them.  But the more magic tricks I learned, the more I realized the emphasis was on the word “trick”.


Not only a trick, but a cheap trick.  False decks of cards.  Drawing the audience’s attention to a bright handkerchief while in the other hand I put the “disappearing dime” in my pocket.  An almost invisible piece of fishing line used to make a matchstick “float in the air”.  There is a bittersweet feeling of realizing something unexplainable is not only explainable, but easily understandable.


So is the case of Déjà vu, the French word for “already seen”.  A fascinating yet weird experience we all encounter from time to time where we are positive the situation that just happened has happened before.  Or that it happened in a recent dream.  Makes some evidence for those who believe in reincarnation.  Until the cheap trick is revealed.


We have a long-term memory which consists of memories that have happened in the more distant past, along with learned skills, and even many of our dreams.  (I can remember dreams I had as a kid.)

And we also have a short-term memory which serves as the “live feed” of the events we are currently experiencing.  Sometimes the long-term memory overlaps the short-term memory, causes us to firmly believe that the current experience (conversation, setting, people involved, etc.) has already happened or was recently dreamed about.

When in reality the current experience accidently bypassed the Live Feed and went straight to Long Term Memory.


And voila, what a let-down.  The mystery is gone.  We were designed with powerful memories that sometimes slip up and make us feel like we’re in a sci-fi show on Fox.

 


 

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How to Hang Out with Friends and Have Fun

 

An instinct we had as kids is that we always knew how to hang out, without a plan or agenda. In the way that Adam and Eve were not at first aware of their nakedness, we used to have the blessing of being unaware of social awkwardness and social cues. It’s an ability that began to escape us sometime around junior high. When I was a kid, it didn’t matter which friend I was hanging out with after school or spending the night with, we never got bored or recognized that we were about to run out of activities or subjects to talk about.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that as kids we knew “how to play”. Though I may not be a girl, I remember my sister and her friends always seemed to be playing “House”. Females socialize. Males, on the other hand, compete.

As boys we would go outside, often to the woods, to play out some sort of good guys/bad guys scenario. Our version of “Cops and Robbers” was more like Ninja Turtles Vs. Shredder. Bikes and water balloons were often part of the plan. When we got tired, we’d go inside and play Nintendo until we had regained enough energy to initiate a wrestling match on the carpet. And there was the trampoline too. Hours of fun.

But as adults, we don’t use “playing” anymore as the main way to interact with our friends.

It’s not as simple as an adult just to tell a friend, “Let’s hang out at my house after work today”. In many cases, the hanging out is done outside of the home. Instead of playing like we did as kids, adults talk and “catch up”. But there is always a staple to bring the people together. It may be sharing a meal, going to watch a game or movie, or a showing up at a party associated with a holiday or sports event.

But the most simple and common thing I see is people going out for coffee, beer, or wine. The drink serves as a campfire. In the same way people gather around a campfire and find comfort in it with those around them, a drink of choice magically sets the fertile environment for good conversation no matter the location. If by chance the friends find themselves in a noticeably quiet moment, it’s easy to fall back on the easy conversation piece: “Starbucks is wonderful”, “Good beer”, or “I love this wine.” Obviously it’s good. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the modern day campfire.

The one exception and yet another reason to love Paul Rudd in a bromantic situation…