Criticizing Horror Movies: The Reason for the Season


It’s Halloween! At least it will be in a few days. So, why not take the time to talk about horror movies? It is Saturday night after all, the perfect night for a horror movie.


Look Behind You!


So, continuing with my habit of being a stick in the mud, I’m really not much of a horror movie fan. I think it has to do with the fact that most of the horror genre is garbage and relies entirely on predictable tropes. For example, the movie The Conjuring was something that Dolley really, really wanted to watch, so we got it from Redbox a while ago. I thought it was sort of okay, but since it was entirely built around jump scares every 3 minutes or so, it lost any scare effect on me. I was mostly bored.


See? I really am a stick in the mud.


I expect the same thing from horror movies as I expect from comedies: I expect them to work dramatically. Because Dolley and I were bored after Junior went to bed a couple nights a couple of weeks ago, we watched the first two Friday the 13th movies. Well, they’re certainly motion pictures, but I’m not sure they’re really movies in the traditional sense. They don’t really have characters, plots, or themes. It’s most just lining up a series of teenagers to kill with some flashes boobs along the way. I found it mostly boring, again, because there really wasn’t anything to latch onto narratively. Now, I’m under no misapprehension that the Friday the 13th movies are considered epitomes of horror cinema by anyone, but they’re one of the biggest and most obvious examples of horror movies.



Is that All?

For the longest time, I equated horror movies in general with comedies that don’t make me laugh. If a comedy doesn’t make me laugh, then am I expected to like it? If a horror movie doesn’t scare me, then am I expected to like it?



I still think that’s true, but I hadn’t really seen anything could truly scare me. Most horror movies are dominated by jump scares, and they largely don’t get me. I’ll occasionally get caught off guard, but it’s a rare thing, and since horror movies (especially of the slasher variety) are so plentiful, cheap, and easy to make, that seemed to be the extent of the genre. Of course, I was wrong. It all started turning around with The Exorcist.


My dad scared me off of the movie before I had ever seen it. He convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to sleep after seeing it, so I avoided it for years. When I did eventually watch it, I set everything up in the middle of the day to ensure that I would minimize the scare only to realize that I didn’t find the movie that scary anyway, and yet I still loved it. With that example, I think it’s easy to see why. There’s so much more to the movie than just the horror elements. It’s a story about faith that takes Catholicism, the devil, and its characters seriously. As Jay Bauman said in his recent review of Re-Animator, if you take out the horror element, the movie still works, and The Exorcist is no exception. 


So out of a genre that’s unusually full of dreck, there’s far from nothing. Below are two of my favorite from the past few years.


It Follows

It Follows is kind of the perfect monster movie. One of the problems with a lot of monster movies is that once we actually see the monster itself, some of the tension is lost. This is actually one reason that Jaws works so well because we don’t see the shark until late in the movie. Our imaginations are left to work on the form of this beast for most of the film. In It Follows, we never actually see the monster at all. We only ever see it through the eyes of the characters, and part of the conceit is that the monster masks itself as someone its prey trusts, so it never looks like anything other than another person.


Another reason this movie works so well is its consistency around the rules of the game. It establishes them early and never really adds to them. We don’t have the monster suddenly gaining new powers that we had no idea about before, undercutting any established tension. The rules themselves are also very simple. The monster walks towards you, no matter where you are, until it kills you. The only way to get it off of you is to have sex with someone and then the monster will chase that person you had sex with (in a neat twist of the typical horror trope that sex leads to death in horror movies).


But, even outside of those horror elements, the movie still has a solid emotional core. We care about the characters and want them to survive. They’re not just meat for the grinder, we want them to survive.


The Babadook

Here’s a movie that I’m not afraid of just saying is simply great. Not just a great horror movie, but a great film overall. Director Jennifer Kent spent five years trying to make this movie, and it shows in the best of ways. It feels so perfectly crafted and fine-tuned in its purpose and execution, that it can’t help but be terrifying.


A quick personal story: Dolley says that she loves horror movies, but the truth is that she only loves them if they don’t actually scare her. She was very open to watching this when I discovered that it was on Netflix, but she’s never forgiven me for showing it to her simply because it absolutely terrified her. It scared the crap out of me too.


The core of the movie is that the monster is both real and not real. The Babadook is a manifestation of the main character’s guilt over holding her husband’s death against her young son. It’s something that we gather, along with the main character, as the movie progresses until the only way that she can fight the monster is to confront her own guilt. I’m really not giving the movie justice in this abbreviated description, but it really is magnificently done. It’s a character study disguised as a horror movie.


In the Spirit of the Season

What are your favorite horror movies? Are you someone who’s happy with mindless splatter? Or do you have needlessly demanding standards like your pretentious host?


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David Vining

I am a fiction writer living in Charleston, SC. I've had a variety of jobs, but nothing compared to what Heinlein had. I don't think that time I got hired to slay the wild and terrifying jack rabbit of Surrey counts since I actually only took out the mild mannered hedgehog of Suffolk. Let's just say that it doesn't go on the resume. Lover (but not, you know...lover) of movies. Married to the single most beautiful woman on Earth with a single son who shall rule after my death. If that didn't deter you, check out my blog or browse some of the books I've written.