Jeepers Creepers

A scary movie is so much more than gore

Hollywood discovered a long time ago that audiences will pay good money to be frightened.

Of course, this isn’t the frightened you felt when you were riding shotgun with your Mom and she ran a red light and you were almost hit by the Coca Cola truck.

No, this is the fear you felt as you walked down the stairs into a dimly-lit basement and you were certain there was someone or something down there. Or the kind of spooky feeling you have when you wake in the dead of night, certain you’ve heard something, and you lie awake, peering into the darkness, listening, perhaps staring at the closet door that stands slightly ajar and you are certain that you closed it before going to bed.

Think of it as the creepy factor. That which defies logic, gets your heart racing, causes your skin to crawl and the hairs on your arms to stand up. It’s haunted house fear; full moon, cemetery, something’s out there fear; and, of course, it’s what makes kids peer, reluctantly, under their beds… just to be sure.

The strange thing is, we love being creepy scared. In some primordial way we gravitate toward it, proverbial moths to the flame. It could be argued that it’s even a bit addictive, not unlike the rush that extreme athletes get when rock climbing or sky diving or skiing the Giant Slalom, all those endorphins and adrenaline being released, the fright-flight response kicking in.

It’s a rush.

So, naturally, countless movies have been made over the decades designed solely to try and scare us out of our wits. And those movies that accomplish this are truly works of art.

It takes the right stuff to create that synergy of emotion. Hitchcock was a master at making films that caused audiences to hunker down in their seats, avert their eyes, and refuse to shower alone. Recall the impact of “Psycho.” Or the sustained tension and climatic terror created in his film “The Birds.” A brilliant example of a blending science fiction and horror was the 1979 film “Alien,” directed by Ridley Scott. There is something elemental, almost inherent in our belief that we are not alone in the universe and that the ETs that are out there are dark and predatory (as opposed to the benign ET of Stephen Spielberg). Scores believe in the Roswell conspiracy. Others have given depositions, insisting they’ve been abducted by aliens, probed, altered in some way and returned.

It takes a master film maker working with a well-crafted script to fashion a truly creepy, scary movie. Hence they don’t come along too often.

Case in point is the recently released “Dawn of the Dead.” Like so many movies produced today in the genre of horror or thriller, it bypasses all subtly, forgetting that less is more if you want to scare viewers. Instead this movie goes for the heavy-handed and the explicit. When did movie makers forget that it is not what you see but rather what you imagine that is the essence of good horror film making (recall “Jaws” and how long it took before we actually saw the shark and not just its fin)?

So, in “Dawn,” using state-of-the-art computer graphics and makeup, the audience is shown, repeatedly, and then again, zombies and humans bludgeoned, shot in the head, decapitated, run over, stakes driven through eyes, and throats ripped out in artery-pumping detail. While it is gory, graphically real, even disturbing, it is never scary. Instead, it is simply gratuitous and, sadly, lazy movie making. Viewers might close their eyes, but not because they are frightened – shocked, perhaps, the way one might be at seeing a small animal flattened on the highway by a truck; but not frightened.

Unfortunately, young audiences (the target demographic) who have been raised on movie-fare that is gruesomely unsubtle, embrace such films. On its first weekend, “Dawn of the Dead” bumped “The Passions of the Christ” out of first place, earning $27.3 million. What is remarkable about that number is that this film has only the thinnest of stories, and is more of a video game than a movie (meaning there is no real narrative or story arc).

You are holding the joy stick and you have to get your small group of humans out of the shopping center and to a distant marina where they will board a boat and escape. You will also have to kill hundreds of zombies along the way (a chain saw is put to use … really).

There is another facet to the making of such movies. If the sexual content of this film were as brutal and flagrant and explicit as the killing, “Dawn of the Dead” would be rated NC-17. No question. But we are much less squeamish about violence than we are about coupling. But then we know this. Consider the Janet Jackson brouhaha, interesting if only because it occurred in the context of watching one of our most violent national sports broken up by commercials for sexual dysfunction drugs and a gaseous horse that’s turned into a flame thrower.

Secondly, there is the issue of desensitization. Do young people gradually become desensitized to violence after hundreds of hours of video games, television, and such movies, so when they witness the taking of life it has little real impact? And do such films nurture fantasies that can lead to acting out in aggressive and ultimately violent ways. The jury will likely be out on those questions into perpetuity.

Still, it’s worth thinking about.

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