Monday, October 25, 2010

Six Horror Movie Cliches that Need to Go

Horror movies may be creepy and kooky, but they're becoming less mysterious and spooky. These days, you can pretty much tell exactly where the plot is going and what is going to happen when.

Just this past week I was watching a scary movie with my wife (who doesn't do well with horror films) and as a character explored his dark house, the soundtrack suddenly went silent - I told my wife to close her eyes and, sure enough, a ghost popped out. My wife was still startled by the noise of it all, but at least she won't be dreaming about that ghost woman's face and she won't wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me how she blames me for her nightmare.

The point of that story isn't to say that I am a horror movie genius (even though I am, of course), but rather that modern horror movies are too predictable. Certain aspects of the horror genre have become a staple for uncreative writers and directors to try and build suspense or help move the plot forward.

Certain cliches don't bother me that much. For example, I don't mind that girls are unrealistically attractive in scary films (love you, dear!) and I don't care if we all know that the person they're trying to make us think is the killer isn't really the killer (they can still surprise us with who it actually is), but certain movie cliches just need to go. The following list includes six current horror movie standards that are completely annoying. These cliched moments/plot points/gimmicks pull the viewer out of the movie and into the realm of skeptical disbelief.

Here they are, in some particular order:

1. The Creepy Insightful Kid
When I say "creepy kid," I am not referring to Samara from The Ring or Gage from Pet Sematary. I'm referring to the weird, pale child who seems to have some knowledge as to what is going on - even if there is no logical reason they should know what is going on. While all the adult characters are freaking out, this creepy kid is level-headed, staring off into the distance and explaining exactly what is happening and what people should/shouldn't do. Now, I have kids, and I'm pretty sure if ghosts were invading my house, they would be crying and screaming and running around the house. But, then again, they act like that most of the time anyway. Yes, Hollywood, we get it, kids are creepy in horror films - but every child does not always need to be dark, brooding, disturbed and have some sort of connection to the other side. Sometimes, kids should just be kids.

2. Jump Outs Galore!!!
There is a difference between startling someone and scaring someone. It always bugs me when a trailer or promotional video for a movie shows the audience jumping in their seats while watching the film to prove how scary it is. Any idiot can startle someone, people do it on America's Funniest Home Videos all the time. Nonetheless, certain movies will constantly startle audiences over and over, but not giving them any real fright. Now, don't get me wrong, I think a jump-out moment every now and then is an excellent release to well-done built-up suspense, but movies shouldn't do it too much. Those overdone startling moments are only a step above jumping out and yelling "Boo!" at the audience. Creating an atmosphere of fear is much more memorable than making someone constantly jump in a fleeting moment of fright.

3. Torture Porn
The first Saw movie was a clever and interesting psychological thriller. After that, the series turned into the "Watch the different horrible ways we can kill people" movies. Saw wasn't the first film series to do this; after all, slasher films have been around since the 70s, but Saw was the movie that spawned dozens of copycat films - none of which have any real horror substance. Gore does not equal terror. Gore will make audiences cringe, blood may make viewers squirm in their seats, but it isn't scary. It's shock-horror. It's the same principle as the gross-out comedies - let's disturb the audience by showing them something extreme in order to get a reaction. This isn't real fear, it's a gimmicky shortcut. It's simple to get a reaction when you show someone getting sliced in half, but that reaction won't be fear, it will be disgust. Real fear comes from tension and suspense. Real terror makes you turn on your lights at night after you get home from watching the movie. I might add that some of the most terrifying deaths in film happen off screen, because sometimes your mind can create something much more horrible than what they could actually show in the film. Please, Hollywood, please stop confusing torture porn with real horror movies. Also, you might want to closely monitor the makers of these movies; they have to be seriously disturbed to come up with some of the deaths they portray on film.

4. Relationship Turmoil
In horror movies, there is always some tension in the relationship. Maybe the couple recently got in a fight, maybe they're getting a divorce, maybe they are divorced already, maybe their child died, maybe their hamster died, but there are rarely happy couples in a scary movie. It would almost be more startling to have a couple actually get along in a horror film. We'll be so thrown off by their happiness that we won't know what to expect. Yes, screenwriters, we get it, a couple that is distant at the first of the movie will draw closer together because of the horrible events in the plot and that makes for a good character arc, but it's tired, it's old and it needs to go away.

5. Leaving it Open
Filmmakers, haven't we learned anything from Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th? If you leave ANY sort of opening for a sequel in your horror film, the sequels will come and they will be horrible. Now, I know that you're trying to get in one last scare to give the audiences something to remember you by, but it's no longer effective. Horror film audiences are expecting the final scare these days. Let the movie end! Make one good horror movie and leave it at that. If you have an inkling to do another horror movie, or if the crowd is crying for more, do something crazy - try something different. Create a new story with new characters and new scares. Horror sequels are rarely, if ever, good; don't give Hollywood the opportunity to take something good and scary and repeatedly water it down and stretch it out.

6. Mirror Scares
This video, made by Rich Juzwiak, is all the explanation I need to give here:

Case closed.

Hollywood filmmakers, please take note; every one of your horror movies would be better without these tiredly overdone redundant and repetitive cliches. . . .but you can keep casting the unrealistically attractive girls. We don't mind that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

11 Kid Movies that Still Scare Me as an Adult

I like horror movies, believe it or not. I'm always excited to see what the next big scary film is going to be, so I can add it to my horror movie collection. But sometimes I don't need something new and over-the-top creepy to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Sometimes all I need is to revisit the movies of my childhood.

So now, faithful readers, I'd like to present to you eleven kid movies that still scare me as an adult. What makes it a "kid movie," you may ask? Well, it usually means a G or PG-rated movie that I watched as a child. Hopefully at least one of these films still scares you, too, otherwise I'm going to look like quite the pansy.

So without further ado, here they are in order of their fear factor:

11. The Witches
I loved reading this book as a kid, so when the movie came out I was really excited to see it. I was not prepared for what I was about to see. The witches in the movie were truly horrifying. Anjelica Huston, specifically, haunted my nightmares with her long, pointy nose, purple eyes and grotesque skin. To this day, my skin starts to crawl when the witches lock the doors of the conference room and start taking off their shoes, gloves and wigs. *shudder* To this day, I'll yank on the hair of any woman who is wearing gloves. . .just to be sure.

10. Garfield's Halloween Adventure

This 1985 made-for-TV movie may have been forgotten by many, but not by me. Cliched jokes and catchy songs aside, this television special always makes me feel like I'm back in my 4th grade class, fearing that the ghost pirates are going to end up in my house or that I would run into real monsters while trick or treating. I actually did have a couple nightmares where I relived the moment when Gar-Halloween-field and Odie are hiding in the cupboard and the ghost pirate suddenly pops his head in. Yes, it's only a half-hour long, but that's plenty enough to get me into the Halloween spirit.

9. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

In case you can never remember which one is which here's a tip: The one called "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" focuses more on Charlie, whereas the one called "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" gives more background on Willy Wonka. Now you know. Regardless of which version you go with, it's always a little disturbing to have children punished in various, horrible ways in a candy factory. However, it is the 1971 version that has that freaky tunnel scene right after Augustus gets sucked into the river of reddish (probably blood) chocolate. I don't know which screenwriter was on acid, but no kid should have to see a millipede crawl across a dude's face, a giant eyeball and a chicken getting beheaded while some dude is singing/screaming at them in the midst of flashing, colored lights. That scene is messed up and it still gives me the willies (pun intended).

8. E.T.

Most people get warm, fuzzy feelings when they think about this movie. They think of cute little Drew Barrymore, they think of the iconic flying bike scene, they think of a cute little alien with a glowing heart. Me? I think of one scene and one scene only: when Elliott first runs into E.T. in the cornfield. That's right, the part where E.T. makes some weird screaming noise and Eliot screams right back. That part made me cry as a kid and I still want to close my eyes during that scene. The digitally-enhanced version makes that part significantly more cheesy-looking, but if I ever hear that noise E.T. makes while I'm walking through an alley, I can guarantee I will wet myself.

7. The Secret of NIMH
This is a dark, dark movie. Why do we even show it to children? The animation alone is enough to give a kid nightmares! Additionally, it has some very disturbing imagery and themes. Plus, this film is full of freaky eyes. The cat's eyes are freaky, the owl's eyes are freaky, the old rat's eyes are freaky, it's not normal to draw animals like that! Plus, it deals with animal experimentation and a lot of characters die! The owl chomping down on that bug is disgustingly horrifying. Even the comic relief of Jeremy the crow can't keep this movie from giving me the creeps.

6. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

Pee-Wee Herman is inherently creepy, but he's not the reason this movie made my list of creepy kid movies. I think you all know the reason that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is scary - say it with me: Large Marge. That scene in the movie is horrifying beginning to end! The music, the story, the way Large Marge tells the story, Pee-Wee's reaction, the lighting. . .it is all prepping you for that horrible moment when her face transforms into clay animation terrification! I remember avoiding taking a shower one night because I was convinced that Large Marge was going to be in the bathroom (she's a trucker, she hangs out at rest stops. . .it makes sense, right?). This film was Tim Burton's and Danny Elfman's big break as masters of the macabre, and I'd like to think that Large Marge had a little to do with that.

5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

I find Disney's animated adaptation of Washington Irving's story to be much more terrifying than the Tim Burton version. Bing Crosby should have made an album telling scary stories, he has a knack for it. This whole animated short gives me the shivers. I still get goosebumps when Ichabod is riding through the dark forest near the end. It just does a great job of setting the mood for the upcoming arrival of the headless horseman. They try and put a little comic relief in during the chase, but it only enhances the fear. After all, when people laugh, they open up their emotions, which is a perfect time to strike with a scare. This one is a Halloween must and it's the one I plan to use to teach my kids to like horror movies - either this or Michael Jackson's Thriller.

4. Darby O' Gill and the Little People

Beware the Banshee! I usually watch this one during the St. Patrick's season, but it would also be appropriate for October because of those two horrifying moments when that terrible specter manifests herself. Some people say that the special effects aren't that good, but I think the shoddy special effects of the late 50's only make her more terrifying. The multicolored horse is freaky, too, but every time I hear the mournful wail in the background of the movie, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. And I cannot confirm nor deny that I close my eyes when Darby opens the door, knowing the banshee is outside to take Katie away and we get to see a close-up of her horrible face. Thank goodness my fears are soon washed away by the soothing singing of Sean Connery.

This bizarre and twisted tale came from (where else?) George Lucas' head. Directed by Ron Howard, this fantasy film had a number of things that would haunt a child's dreams. Bavmorda, the evil queen, was frightening herself, but Patricia Hayes, the good sorceress, who is supposed to be our friend in the movie, is also terrifying. Then you have those hairy trolls crawling all over the walls who then morph into a giant two-headed fire-breathing monstrosity. However, the most disturbing part for me, still, is when Bavmorda turns our heroes into pigs. I'm not scared of humans, normally, and I'm not scared of pigs, normally, but it's that weird in between point that really freaks me out. It looks like a really painful transformation. Many people like Willow, and I do, too, but it still gives me the creeps.

2. The Dark Crystal

This film shows that Jim Henson had a dark side. This is a trippy and disturbing film. I remember being terrified as a kid that my soul would be sucked out through my eyes, and I'm pretty sure those spider-like Garthim and the vulture-like Skeksis came from someone's nightmares. And don't even get me STARTED on Aughra, the one-eyed scary seer lady! I still have a hard time watching this film as an adult. It's just such a stressful and upsetting story. I know that there are people out there who like this film, but I just don't think I'll ever show it to my children. Or maybe I will, but it will be a punishment. "You'd better stop throwing your food on the floor or I'll make you watch The Dark Crystal." "No, Dad! We'll be good, we swear!" Problem solved.

1. Watcher in the Woods

This is one of the few PG-rated horror movies out there, so it's one of the few that my parents would let me rent for sleepovers when I was a kid. It is truly frightening. They don't pull any punches in this film just because it is a Disney movie. I had nightmares about the old woman with Bette Davis eyes pushing me down into the water, about the blindfolded girl talking to me in a mirror and about my siblings suddenly saying "Nerak" in a creepy low voice. Yes, this film still scares me - I'll admit it. Although, I will admit that it got a little less scary when I watched the deleted scene where they actually show the Watcher. It looked a little too muppet-y to me. I'm not saying I wouldn't be freaked out if that thing was hovering above my bed, but sometimes things are more scary when they're not completely visible.

So there you go. Call me a fraidy cat if you want, but parts of these movies still scare me. They're not as frightening as some of the horror movies I've enjoyed as an adult, but every now and then these movies will make me want to turn on a bunch of lights in my home when I'm getting ready for bed. After all, who knows when something from my childhood will come back to haunt me?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Do You Know Zozobra?

Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I'm all about tradition. I enjoy learning about new customs, odd rituals and unique celebrations of various cultures. So imagine my utter joy to find out that there is pagan puppet burning going on in New Mexico!

If you don't know who Zozobra is, maybe you know him by his other name, "Old Man Gloom." If you still don't know who he is, well, neither did I until alert reader Jordan sent me an article talking about the ritualistic ceremony.

The idea is pretty simple. You take all of your problems, stresses and other glooms and write them down on pieces of paper. You take those pieces of paper and stuff them into a puppet made of wood. Then you burn the puppet. Simple, yes? Well, now take that idea and multiply it by a whole city.

This is Zozobra:

I know! He's huge! In fact, the 2007 Zozobra, measuring 49.11 feet high, holds the Guinness World Record for largest marionette burned in front of thousands of people in the southwestern United States in early autumn. Now that's gotta be a hard record to hold.

All the people in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico can head to the Santa Fe Reporter (a local newspaper office) and drop off slips of paper into the local gloom box. They build the mighty Zozobra (his hair color changes every year) and then they stack all of the papers at Zozobra's feet. Then, the matches are lit and the party is ready to begin.

The burning of Zozobra usually happens the second week in September (in preparation for the Halloween season, obviously). William Howard Shuster, Jr. came up with the Old Man Gloom tradition in 1924. Since then, it has grown both in participation and the size of Zozobra. Today, the burning of Old Man Gloom attracts more than 40,000 people, which is more than most festivities in Santa Fe.

Still don't believe me that Old Man Gloom is a Halloween-related post? Check out this video (also sent in by Jordan - make sure you have the sound on) and tell me it doesn't look like something straight out of a horror movie!

So, faithful readers, if you're stuck on what Halloween costume you're going to wear this year, might I suggest a giant, flaming Zozobra? You'd have to trick or treat pretty fast, though - this costume only lasts about three minutes.

P.S. Hey Zozobra committee? If you need someone to do the voiceover work for Old Man Gloom next year, I'm available. I'm working on my roar.

Monday, October 4, 2010

La Isla de las Munecas

In case you were looking for a little getaway this Halloween season, I have the perfect place for you: La Isla de las Munecas. This tourist attraction, sent in by alert reader Kendo, can be found on the Teshuilo Lake near the Xochimilco canals in Mexico. For those of you faithful readers who do not speak Spanish, "La Isla de las Munecas" translates to The Island of the Dolls.

Legend has it that a little girl drowned on this island back in the 1950s. Don Julian Santana decided to live on the island and so he put up some toy dolls to appease the wandering spirit of the little girl.

Santana was also a farmer. He would trade some of his produce for additional dolls, in whatever condition they were found. Santana would then tie them onto trees, or place them on the ground, or put them in little arrangements.

However, no matter how new the dolls were initially, the harsh winds and strong rains made them all battered and weathered. Santana liked to dress them up, add sunglasses or headdresses.

Santana welcomed tourists and other visitors to his island of dolls. He would proudly give visitors a tour and charge a small fee to take pictures.

Santana died in 2001. He was reportedly found in the water in the exact spot where the little girl had initially drowned.
The dolls are still there in Xochimilco - thousands of them. They patiently wait for people to come and visit, then silently stare at any visitors who happen by.

Maybe one day I'll take a trip down to the Teshuilo Lake. But, then again, I doubt I could convince my wife that we should go to La Isla de las Munecas. Maybe I'll just tell her it translates to "The Island of Arts and Crafts."