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.


Would You Define Your Life as a Comedy or a Tragedy?

The same question goes for the movie Garden State.

I have struggled for a solid ten years trying to figure out what makes things funny. Universally, seeing someone fall down (who doesn’t get hurt) is always funny, but I don’t know why. Defining what humor is, is almost impossible to simply and briefly put into words. What I can do is make a judgment call on whether something as a whole is a comedy or a drama.

One of my college professors taught me there is a clear way to distinguish between the two: Comedy involves a protagonist who in the beginning of the story is standing outside the borders of his society and by the end of the story is accepted into it. Therefore a tragedy is when the protagonist in the beginning is accepted as part of the society but by the end is expelled from it.

To test this theory on comedies, I will take Adam Sandler for example: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Water Boy, The Wedding Singer, and Big Daddy all involve a character who starts out as one or more of the following: incompetent, poor, lonely, selfish. By the end of the movie, Adam Sandler’s character is accepted into the fold as these previous attributes are resolved. So I can see how the definition of a comedy works here.

For tragedies, I will take some horror movies for example: The Blair Witch Project, Skeleton Key, The Strangers, Quarantine, and Carrie. The protagonists end up either dead or in a really bad situation by the time the credits roll. So I can see how the definition of a tragedy works here, as death or loss of freedom is a way of being ousted from a society that the protagonists were once a part of.

The end of a movie ultimately defines it as a comedy or tragedy. Garden State, which is more a drama than anything, ends with Zach Braff’s character being able to overcome his dependence on his doctor’s/father’s misdiagnosed prescription of anti-depressants and feel alive for the first time as he moves back home to New Jersey, making new friends and finding love: That’s a comedy.

Using this theory, these other genre-vague movies would also be considered comedy: Fight Club, Forrest Gump, and Elizabethtown. And these would be tragedy: Into the Wild, Vanilla Sky, and One Hour Photo.

Life is comprised of rotating moments of comedy and tragedy. Times where I’m on the outside looking in and I get in (comedy) and times where I’m inside but am pushed out (tragedy). In ways big and small. But a person’s general perspective will cause him or her to see it ultimately as one or the other:

If life is comedy-in-progress, then life is me trying to figure out how to be normal enough to succeed in being accepted by my immediate society, eventually dying satisfied, knowing I’m surrounded by those who love me.

If life is tragedy-in-progress, then life is me already having everything I need and want in life but having it all taken away from me in the end, eventually dying sad and alone.

Big decisions, big decisions. I’ll go with comedy-in-progress.

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