Here’s a worthwhile read in the online magazine Slate.
All this week, author Jason Zinoman is offering his recipe to make horror movies truly horrifying again.
In the series’ first installment, Zinoman, the author of the new history of the genre, Shock Value, argues that horror directors’ aspirations toward respectability (witness the success of the cable series “The Walking Dead” on American Movie Classics) have made them more conservative and less willing to take chances.
“Hollywood occasionally produces a trashy good time such as the 3-D remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Piranha, and HBO has scored big with the guilty pleasures of True Blood. Cinematic taboos are still challenged in the small-scale extreme horror subgenre populated by envelope-pushers like A Serbian Film and Human Centipede. But these movies, which have limited releases, are so ghettoized that the audiences who seek them out expect to be shocked, often responding with as many smirks as squirms. Mainstream horror movies are bloodier than ever but less inventive and thus less shocking.”
Zinoman backstops his argument with the infamous “Ice Cream Truck” scene from John Carpenter’s 1976 film “The Assault on Precinct 13.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen something quite as profoundly scary on film.
Why is this scene so scary? Because it taps into something primal in all of us. There’s nothing quite as upsetting as the death of a child. Anyone watching the results of the Casey Anthony trial verdict this week knows that.
As a father, this one hits me particularly close to home. My daughter and I frequently purchase ice cream from a truck that makes the rounds of our neighborhood. The idea that such a horror could be perpetrated in what is supposed to be an oasis of summertime innocence shocks to the core.
In the second installment, Zinoman looks at 1970s classics such as “Halloween” arguing that they’re scary because so little time is spent exploring the villain’s backstory. No one knows why, for instance, Michael Meyers goes around slicing and dicing teenagers. The terror lies in the randomness of the act.
Adding a veneer of Mommy issues, childhood bullying or some other explanation, he argues, takes away from the scariness.
“The wisest sentence ever written about horror is the first line in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 literary history of the genre, Supernatural Horror in Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If our greatest fear is of the unknown, then too much explanation is usually the enemy of truly frightening horror. What distinguished Halloween from its imitators is that its relentless killer is impossible to explain. Michael Myers has no psychology or motivation and barely any back story. The scariest thing about him is the suggestion that his mask isn’t hiding anything. Rather, that’s all there is.”
On the other hand, you can make a pretty credible argument that Norman Bates’ mommy issues make him no less terrifying in “Psycho.”