Do Horror Movies Have to Be Scary to Be Good?

by thethreepennyguignol

Even after two years at the helm of this mighty blog, I still love horror movies. My very first post was about a horror musical, and I’d like to think that I’ve continued to express my blinding adoration for the genre since then. But a thought has been skittering around my brainbox of late: does a horror movie have to be scary in order to be worth watching?

In theory, horror movies are there to frighten or at least discomfort you, in the same way that the aim of a comedy is to make you laugh. If I went to a comedy movie and didn’t laugh once (I’m looking at you, The Hangover 2), I would consider it a failure; so if I see a horror movie and it doesn’t scare me, surely that means it’s failed in it’s aim?

I think one of the things that makes horror movies such an interesting genre is that you can’t possibly make a movie that’s going to terrify everyone who sees it. You can make a movie that hits on enough tried-and-tested horror cliches to guarantee that some of the viewers who’ve spent less time immersing themselves in a giant pit of horror movies will find it scary (something like Dead Silence would be a good example- completely predictable but intermittently effective), or you can spend time crafting a movie that you know you would find scary but that doesn’t guarantee an audience’s reaction.

Put it this way: I have seen superb horror films that haven’t scared me at all. This whole conundrum sprung from re-watching Let the Right One In, an absolutely sensational Swedish horror movie about a child vampire. It’s beautifully shot, rich with thematic elements, and features a collection of exceptional performances, but it doesn’t scare me and never has. I don’t know if that means I should mark it down a few pegs, because it didn’t actually succeed in doing what it- in some ways- set out to do, despite how good it is.

And compare this with Insidious  I don’t think it’s the worst horror film ever made, but it’s pretty generic- like I mentioned above, it ticks off most of the most obvious haunted-house cliches in a reasonably effective manner and is pretty scary in places. But the script is a bit messy, the plot is weak, and the performances are mediocre. It’s probably a worse film on a technical level, and it’s a film I enjoy much less, but it scared me. It achieved the horror movie aim. It’s difficult, because I don’t know if that makes it a more effective movie, and even if it does if that makes it better. Is making a film that hits all the targets set out by the genre better than making one that doesn’t?

And filmmakers can’t account for what might flick their audience’s buttons. I find The Blair Witch Project incredibly frightening, and Paranormal Activity pretty weak, even though the basic plot comes down to the same idea. In a perfect world, the people who made these movies would immerse themselves in the genre and learn to avoid the cliches that populate a lot of the big horror films over the last five years or so (there have been some notable exceptions, that said- Sinister, You’re Next, and the first two-thirds of The Last Exorcism are all worth seeing). But those cliches are an easy way for a director to get a jump out of their audience- we know that when the music swells and the boogeyman jumps out from behind the door, it’s scary, and that we should be scared. It’s effective, but doesn’t show a great deal of talent or finesse. Compare this to Grave Encounters, where next to nothing happens for forty-five minutes and it’s brilliant, and my brain is starting to bend under the weight of this question. If you make an absolutely brilliant and original horror movie that only frightens a small portion of your audience, is it therefore a worse movie? Have you failed to do what you set out to do?

I’ve really got no answer for this question, which is half the reason I wrote this article- I was hoping I’d find one along the way, and I’ve dismally failed to do so. All I know is that some films that have scared me shitless and left me cold on a critical level, while others have done nothing to frighten me but are still genius. I’m genuinely appealing to my audience of two hundred or so: what do you think?