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.


The Good Ole Days: Past, Present, or Future?

At what point does life reach its peak?

Last August I bought Third Eye Blind’s new album, Ursa Minor, on the day it came out. And while I love it tremendously, I realized several years ago that nothing they ever do will top their 1997 debut album with “How’s It Gonna Be”, “Semi-Charmed Life”, “Jumper”, “Graduate”, “Motorcycle Drive By” and “I Want You”. They keep making good music, even if I’m the only one still listening. But they peaked 11 years ago.

Michael Jackson experienced his peak in 1983 with the success of Thriller, personally haunted by the fact that he was never able to commercially or critically top it. And as much as I love Dave Matthews Band, I find it scientifically impossible for them to top their 1996 7x platinum album Crash, featuring the flawless “Crash into Me”.

Not that it’s an awful thing to peak early in a career. Not everyone can go out with a bang like George Burns, or remain relevant after several decades. It happens to plenty of good actors and comedians too: they continue to make movies after people stop really caring. Steve Martin. Jim Carrey. Will Ferrell. Robin Williams. Tim Allen.

A sign of a once-relevant comedian officially being past his peak is when he appears in a family movie in which he gets thrown high into the air, then lands abruptly but suffers no major injuries, then looks up at the camera with this expression that says, “Ugh, that’ll leave a mark…” (I have a visual right now of Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen when he gets catapulted out of the Gymboree.)

Gone are the days of Steve Martin’s classics like The Jerk, Father of the Bride, Roxanne, Parenthood, and the legendary Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (which I refer to in about 23% of my writings). Now we’re stuck with The Pink Panther. I’m sure it makes him millions of dollars, but it doesn’t make anybody laugh.

Steve Martin: surprisingly, not Jewish.

While I don’t have a career in acting or music where I have to keep reinventing myself to please fans in the business of entertainment, I do live a life in which I am sometimes tempted to keep looking to the future for my vindication, contentment, or perfect stage of life. When those thoughts cross my mind I have to remind myself of some corny forward that someone e-mailed me a few months ago that said: These are the good old days.

Whether or not I am living in the peak happiness of my life now or in 30 years, it doesn’t matter. Because I’ve learned it’s not the bad, boring, or annoying memories I keep going back to. It’s the good ones. Those are what I keep close to heart: These are the good old days.

Robin Williams: Also, surprisingly not Jewish either.

“I’d like to think the best of me is still hiding up my sleeve.” -John Mayer (“No Such Thing”)

“And I’ve never been so alive.” -Third Eye Blind (“Motorcycle Drive By”)