From the Voices in My Head: the Key to Making a Horror Movie Genuinely Scary (and How to Fail).

This is probably not a popular opinion amongst the horror elite, but my least favorite subgenre of horror are slashers. Why? Because the great majority of slashers–and especially mainstream horror–bore the shit out of me. To be fair, part of the problem is that slashers are, by their very nature, self-limiting. No matter what their particular circumstances, set up, characters, or killer, all slashers basically follow the same formula: hapless group of teens or young adults being senselessly murdered, one by one, by a mysterious killer who, for some reason, just gets off on killing folks.

You can change the setting, the characters, the particular shade of serial killer–living, dead, undead, sane, insane, paranormal, surprise-twist-HA IT WAS _______ ALL ALONG! it’s still pretty much the same.The killers are relatively omnipotent, utilize any number of creative choppy-methods, usually with little or no backstory to explain their chop-stabby lifestyle. And of course, most of them still follow that tired tradition of the Final Girl…usually the most wholesome (ie least hot) of their disposable comrades. Oh, and slasher is never dead the first time, because why waste an opportunity to stick in one more goddamn jump-scare?

Exhibit A of characters I disliked so much that I hate-rooted for the killer.

And yet, once in a great while, it works. Even following all the strict slasher rules, there are slashers that are genuinely scary, suspenseful or at least not boring, for one very basic reason: the characters are sympathetic.

Here’s why: when I’m watching a horror–any sub-genre, but particularly slashers–if the characters are one-dimensional, cliché, boring, stupid, obnoxious, then I don’t give a shit whether they live or die. And if I don’t care enough to want them not to die, then there is no real suspense. It becomes nothing more than a kill count; at best, I’ll feel mild curiosity…and in truly egregious cases, I actually root for the killer. Not just once in a while; in my experience, a good 90% of slashers are populated with characters so irrelevant that they might as well be slasher chum. I don’t give a shit about chum, so I don’t give a shit when the shark eats it; ergo, I don’t care about characters whose sole purpose is to be murdered. And the best recent example I can think of is, surprisingly, even shockingly: Terrifier.

It takes a special talent to make this motherfucker boring.

There is no goddamn excuse in the world for the most ghastly-looking bastard in the history of clowns not to live up to its name. I looked forward to this movie an entire year, because just looking at that thing scared the shit out of me. And damn, son–whoever the make-up artist is…well, respect, is all I’m saying. As far as I’m concerned, they are the true star of this very disappointing movie, because that face all by itself should be enough. But here’s the problem–I did not give shit one about a single character in the movie. Not a single one of them.

Terrifier opens with two semi-drunk, froth-headed, tedious chicks whose only back story is that they have just come from a Halloween party (because OF COURSE, it’s Halloween), who are seated just catty-corner to Terrifier. Yay!

A blatant case of sexual harassment.

So, the arguably hotter bore crawls upon clown’s lap without even asking permission–and in Terrifier’s defense, touching a stranger without permission is not just rude, it’s a goddamn violation, killer clown or not. Not saying she deserves to be butchered, but she’s not entirely blameless, either. Anyway, Blonde Bore takes what is probably the 47th selfie of the day, too narcissistically oblivious to notice that clown is not amused. Not only is she vapid and boring, she’s also presumptuous and rude. Moving on. So blonde bore and, according to slasher rules, the more sensible brunette bore, run along; Clown leaves shortly thereafter, at which time the owner of the diner discovers that he smeared shit all over the bathroom, which is pretty goddamn disturbing…so I still had high hopes for the movie. I was fucking rooting for it, really.

The two bores head out, one of them (can’t remember which one; don’t care, either) has to pee and for some reason, decide to choose the most obvious serial killer den possible–a semi-abandoned warehouse. So…stupidity. Great. I guess I was in denial, because I deliberately overlooked it. From that point on, however, was just one rando after another getting killed in admittedly very creative fashion. Boy’s got talent. And he must know his history, because that whole sawing somebody in half vertically? That is straight up Caligula. One of his favorite pastimes, actually. So…kudos, I guess. But I still don’t give a shit about anybody in the movie, including the fool getting crotch-sawed. Aside from not being believable as actual human beings, I know nothing about them…much less care. None of them are likable, much less intelligent or interesting or even the slightest bit sympathetic–not a single character has even the depth of the badly written script they memorized…and not well, judging by their not-stellar performances.

But to be fair, the writer didn’t give them much to work with. Sure, the Clown looks scary. The kills are unique. But there was basically no plot, no backstory, no explanation as to what in the fuck caused this talented psycho to paint himself scary as shit and commit one Da Vinci-level murder after another on truly witless people who put themselves in a nonsensical situation…though after awhile, I began to wonder if he was simply taking dumbasses out of the gene pool. Maybe he was supposed to be a very confused, well-intentioned humanitarian. I don’t know. About 45 minutes in, my brain went on auto-pilot and I began doing what I always do when watching a horror with wasted potential: mentally rewrite the whole thing. Trust me–my version was actually terrifying.

Again–not trying to shit all over slashers. There are a few I actually love–Black Christmas still scares the shit out of me, multiple decades and multiple-multiple views later (though I have a very valid reason, which I will share in the future Black Christmas post), as does Halloween. I fucking love You’re Next, not only because writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard turn those tired slasher tropes on its ass…but because the protagonist was likable. And interesting. And not-stupid. I rooted for her–still root for her–all the way to the fucking awesome ending. I didn’t want any of the characters to die (except later and then only two of them…who were such excellent villains that rooting for their death was also part of the fun); in fact, one of the deaths was genuinely sad. I was emotionally invested, and that kept me happily tense from beginning to end. Even when I know what is coming next, I still feel that wonderful heart-leap of the Good Scare.

Yes, Virginia:
It is possible to be both a scream queen AND a badass bitch.

In fact, it’s not even completely necessary to make your characters likable…as long as they’re interesting. Examples: Session 9. The Ranger. The Pact. Lovely Molly. The characters in these movies aren’t exactly warm and cuddly, but they are complex and compelling. So you don’t even have to make characters entirely likable; you just have to make them interesting enough to want them not to die! It really is pretty fucking simple. And give them at least a minimal back story, traits that are unique to them, bizarre quirks, strange habits, moral failings which may or may not contribute to their downfall, mommy issues, something. Because if I don’t want them to die, then I’m going to tense up every time they are in danger…and when they are killed, it’s going to be scary. Or at least compelling enough to keep watching.

The Ranger: morally challenged characters that you still don’t want to die.

Conversely, here is recent example of a horror movie that scared the shit out of me because I fucking loved the characters: The Devil’s Candy.

Swear to god, I don’t get why this movie wasn’t a fucking blockbuster. Well. Okay, judging by some of the mainstream horseshit that is commercially successful (but critical bombs), I guess I do get it…but it’s a goddamn shame. And it was definitely a critical success: 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping 72 on Metacritic, which is pretty fucking impressive for horror because Metacritic is primarily a clan of stuck-up critics who routinely hate anything horror. But with Sean Byrne as writer and director (who also wrote and directed The Loved Ones, in which you hate the villain so goddamn much that it becomes fucking crucial for the emo-ish but very decent protagonist to survive), an original script with a clever but not too-clever-by-half red herring, exceptional performances by Shiri Appleby, mini badass Kiara Glasco, the terminally likable Ethan Embry, and especially the surprisingly, terrifyingly believable Pruitt Taylor Vince, it is almost impossible for it not to be a great horror movie.

Also, Ethan Embry was surprisingly hot.

But the reason this movie gave me the Good Scare and still makes me tense even after multiple viewings is because, not only do I like the family, I like them so much that I wish they were real and that I was cool enough to be their friend.

We should all have this dad.

Besides being a hot metal head artist, Embry’s character is also a great dad–the kind of dad you might actually like during the years you hate your parents no matter what they do. His wife is warm and sensible without being a tightass, and the kid is funny, sympathetic, smart as hell and a goddamn survivor…while still being convincingly vulnerable as any 15 year old stalked by a psychotic child serial killer would be.

Shit gets even realer when you give a shit about the characters.

The three of them are cool, funny, loving without being cutesie and when their family is threatened, the tension is almost too much to bear. The idea of one or all of them being murdered is genuinely upsetting. In fact, of all the hundreds of horror movies I’ve seen over the years, never have I felt as emotionally invested as I felt watching The Devil’s Candy. And, while Pruitt Taylor Vance’s tortured but deadly serial killer is scary enough, half of the reason he is so terrifying is because the idea of him killing any of them would be devastating…so much so, that it’s a lot easier to suspend disbelief during the climax, which might be a bit of an eye-roll in a lesser movie.

Yes…believe it or not, Vance can be terrifying

So, are there exceptions? Of course. There are always exceptions. Haunt is the rare slasher movie that I actually enjoyed enough to watch twice, even though I didn’t particularly care one way or other about the characters, which I found flat and uninteresting…though I did come to sympathize with one character about 2/3 of the way through. And there is nothing likable about anybody in The Devil’s Rejects. The characters aren’t even anti-heroes–they’re straight up horrible and more than a little big repulsive…but they’re charismatic, they do have a history and in the end, I really didn’t want them to die (even though I would in real life. A lot.). Interestingly, the three principle characters were also a family and very devoted to each other…albeit in a twisted, sociopathic way. There is also a great deal more going for The Devil’s Rejects, however–especially the astonishing 70’s drive-in movie authenticity–but I’ll talk more about that when I post about The Devil’s Rejects, which I’ve yet to buy.

Incidentally, in the spirit of fairness, the ending of Terrifier pretty much guarantees a sequel…but I’m hoping for a prequel, because if I at least could understand what caused this psycho to become Terrifier, well, maybe it will be…scary? Possibly. Hopefully.

So just to make sure that I beat this dead horse into fine leather, I am begging all horror creators–but especially writers–please…make me want to give a shit about your characters. At least make me not want them to die or root for the killer. Do that and I promise, I’ll be scared.

Fio

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