Master of Fright Stephen King reveals why the Hollywood behemoths are just not wired to deliver horror movie magic
While walking back to my Boston hotel after a surprisingly well-attended Tuesday afternoon showing of Bryan Bertino’s horror thriller The Strangers, I found myself musing on what’s scary and what’s not. Whatever it is, The Strangers had enough of it to do incredibly well at the box office. But what makes such a little film with only one star (Liv Tyler) work in the first place? That the question interests me shouldn’t amaze anyone, since I’ve worked in the scare-’em-silly field for years. And it must be of vital interest to Twentieth Century Fox, which this summer releases two movies in the genre with much higher budgets: The Happening and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The Happening was better than I expected, but it wasn’t as scary as The Strangers. As for The X-Files (out July 25)? Children, I have my doubts.
One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the 10 or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage. Among those that truly work are Carnival of Souls, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and The Blair Witch Project. All cost almost nothing to make and earned millions, while their sequels and remakes were crap (Dawn of the Dead in both its incarnations being the exception that proves the rule).
Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself, and when it works, the screams of a sold-out house are almost intrusive. In that sense, a movie such as Blair Witch is more like poetry than like the ”event films” that pack the plexes in summer. Those flicks tend to be like sandwiches overstuffed with weirdly tasteless meat and cheese, meals that glut the belly but do nothing for the soul. Studio execs, who not only live behind the curve but seem to have built mansions there, don’t seem to understand that most moviegoers recognize all the bluescreens and computer graphics of big-budget films and flick them aside. Those movies blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge.
The scariest sequence I can remember is in Night of the Living Dead. The cemetery-visiting heroine, Barbara, is chased back to her car by a lurching zombie with white hair and dazed eyes. She locks herself in only to discover her brother has taken the keys. The zombie reaches down, finds a rock, and begins to bash it strengthlessly against the car window. The first time I saw this (and twice after), the scene reduced me to jelly.
Of Fox’s two summer creepshows, give the edge to The Happening, partly because M. Night Shyamalan really understands fear, partly because this time he’s completely let himself go (hence the R rating), and partly because after Lady in the Water he had something to prove. And, happily, Happening plays as a relatively small movie. The new X-Files movie, on the other hand, looks big…but horror is not spectacle, and never will be. Horror is an unknown actress, perhaps the girl next door, cowering in a cabin with a knife in her hands we know she’ll never be able to use. Horror is the scene in The Strangers where Liv Tyler tries to hide beneath the bed…and discovers she can’t fit there.
One more problem: Big movies demand big explanations, which are usually tiresome, and big backstories, which are usually cumbersome. If a studio is going to spend $80 or $100 million in hopes of making $300 or $400 million more, they feel a need to shove WHAT IT ALL MEANS down the audience’s throat. Is there a serial killer? Then his mommy didn’t love him (insert flashback). A monster from outer space? Its planet exploded, of course (and the poor misunderstood thing probably needs a juicy Earth woman to make sexy with). But nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.
That’s why I can’t imagine that anything in X-Files will match Liv Tyler’s exchange with one of the masked home invaders in one particularly terrifying scene of The Strangers.
”Why are you doing this to us?” she whispers.
To which the woman in the doll-face mask responds, in a dead and affectless voice: ”Because you were home.”
In the end, that’s all the explanation a good horror film needs.