Most horror films produced in the last decade or so fail for one predominant reason: They do not appreciate the power of emotional resonance in fear. Cinematic technique is as good, if not in some cases better, than it ever has been. Certainly, technology today far surpasses the clunky tools that had been available to an Alfred Hitchcock, a Roman Polanski, or a Brain De Palma back in their heyday. Indeed, technique and technology are so superior that they have become crutches for directors who either cannot or do not want to invest themselves in the traditional craft of storytelling. It is too simple, pretentious, and ultimately inaccurate really to castigate this as an example of modern day intellectual laziness. Indeed, my observation has been that most of these directors are neither stupid nor lazy. If they are guilty of anything at all, then it is in exhibiting too much faith in the power of modern day tech over old fashioned archetypes. The myths have staying power precisely because they bring to life the primordial conceits about life, death, and love which modern sensibilities cannot wash away. The times are the tides washing on and off the shore. The myths are the granite that remain defiant on the beach no matter the hurricane winds and waves. Too many directors are caught up with their times and so fail to see that the granite on the beach indeed may have something of real and lasting value to teach them. I am reminded of a young filmmaker I knew years ago who invited me to participate in a kind of Dungeons and Dragons game. He explained to me that he had assembled a small group to play this game not really for its entertainment value, nor to find likeminded friends, but to practice how to develop characters and storylines for a film. He saw a role playing game as a precursor to a film in much the same way we often see a computer game as the launchpad for a popcorn movie. The problem is that the computer role playing game relies on near instant gratification and on technological newness to shine more brightly than its competitors in the marketplace. The focus is on sensory overload, not on quiet moments, subtle characterizations, nor ambiguous plotlines. Is it any wonder that so many horror and sci fi films of late look and sound like those quick cut, CGI orgasms starring The Rock that seem to hit our theater screens every other month? Do not misunderstand me. I have no problem with Dungeons and Dragons, or computer games, or CGI orgasms in and of themselves, and I can concede the entertainment value in them. It is just that I do not find them to be all that horrifying or suspenseful. A roller coaster ride may be fun, but is it really all that scary? Or when you have been on the same roller coaster dozens of times, and know every twist and turn inside out, is it really all that suspenseful any more? The adrenaline may be there still, but will it give you a dark nightmare that night when you return home from the amusement park? Returning to the prior metaphor, the waves can be a lot of fun when they splash upon the shore, but then they quickly recede and are forgotten. It is the granite that is going to have staying power. It is the face carved in stone that is going to linger in dreams. If a film is only fun, then like the wave it quickly recedes and is forgotten; but if the film forces us to turn away from the ocean and to gaze upon the granite totem behind us, then that film is going to stay with us long after the credits have rolled.
So why does Alfred Hitchcock kill Janet Leigh’s character within the first half hour of Psycho? Why does Brian De Palma murder Angie Dickinson’s character so soon in Dressed to Kill? Or Wes Craven hang Drew Barrymoore from a tree within the first ten minutes of Scream? As has been discussed many times, part of the scare factor is in killing off the star early. We expect a top billed actress to make it to the last scene, and so the surprise factor of seeing her die so soon in the film adds to the intensity. We are also more prone to be horrified when we see a character with whom we empathize succumb to murder. Though the Janet Leigh and Angie Dickinson characters do something wrong (Leigh steals money and Dickinson cheats on her husband with a mysterious man), they are both presented as basically good people who had done wrong for good reasons (Leigh wants to help her boyfriend pay off his towering debts so they can be married, and Dickinson wants to rekindle sexual love her husband no longer can or will provide her). We care for them, and since they are the stars within their respective films we expect them to right their own wrongdoing within ninety minutes. Drew Barrymoore does not do anything wrong in her short time on screen in Scream (except for answer wrong a Friday the 13th trivia question, which I suppose may be considered a sin). Nevertheless, her character is an innocent, and a convention of horror films then was that the virgin one way or another would survive the mayhem to be “the final girl.” The larger point here is that with all three of these victims the murder scenes are so much more horrifying, and stay with us long after the film has concluded, becasue of what we think and expect about them as characters. Technique is important, no doubt. These murder scenes would not have been nearly as good as they are but for expert direction, cinematography, and score. Still, the technique would be forgotten eventually but for the characters, and the characters work because we see them as an endearing blend of unique characterization and primordial archetype. What makes them unique plays on our conscious minds at the moment we are watching them on screen. What makes them archetypal plays on our subconscious minds then and later.
So the art of horror is in bringing archetypes to life. Since the archetype properly remains as a carved image in stone, it is a kind of Frankenstein perversion to bring it to life. This is why a myth brought to film lends itself so readily to comedy or horror. The perverse monster invites either laughter or fear. In order to bring an archetype to life, though, the writer/director need to know what the archetypes really are. Even more so, they need to know the darker and the lighter subtleties of characterization that will arise if and when an archetype is let loose. They need to know how other character types will respond to these “perverse monsters” and what are the possible plotlines to emerge from such interactions. I admit that there is something to be learned along these lines from role playing computer games just as there is something to be learned from reading the Cliff’s Notes for a classic novel. Nevertheless, the master is the person who has put in the time and the effort to read the actual novels. He may enjoy his share of CGI orgasms, but he is also well versed in the Bible, in Shakespeare’s plays, in great novels, etc. He can have fun on the roller coaster, and he can allow the rest of us to enjoy the same bit of fun through his expertise with film technique; but if he is truly a master, then he is above all a well read and thoughtful storyteller.
Why did these great directors “kill the girl,” so to speak? They did so because they truly and deeply understood storytelling. They knew that killing the girl with whom we had a degree of affection, and to whom we attributed certain archetypal truths, would shake us to the core. It is no doubt cruel that we must continue to sacrifice the virgin (Drew Barrymoore’s character), or the good woman who goes astray (Janet Leigh’s and Angie Dickinson’s characters), upon altars of dark righteousness. It is no doubt horrifying that we continue to feed these beautiful souls to the masked or obscured butchers (Norman Bates’ Mother, Michael Caine in drag, or Ghostface). Nevertheless, we do so for the reason that the rightous cries linger long after the blood has been washed from the altar (or scrubbed off of Norman Bates’ shower).