Horror directors could stand to learn a thing or two from their monsters
Michael Myers methodically marches down a hallway, he raises a knife, a scream emits and then... he falls over. Or takes off his mask and espouses a long-winded monologue about the nature of life and death or how his character is the manifestation of the fears of his parent's generation. That would suck, right?
It seems to happen a lot, though. Not with kills in slasher movies (they seem to have that nailed down) but with endings in horror films. Horror and theme park rides share a similar conceit: subject + setting + something goes horribly wrong. It's wrapping up the story that gets tricky for writers and directors (often the same person in these low-budget affairs).
This comes from a director wanting to do too much. Horror movies are best when kept simple. The more elaborate the close, the more chances you have to pull the audience out of the tension you spent 60 minutes building, right? A film that gets it 100 percent right (unsurprisingly) is "The Exorcist." Don't worry, I won't spoil a 40-year-old movie you should have already seen by now.
It helps that the film has a strong narrative, spectacular special effects and phenomenal actors, of course, but in the final scene it never gets bigger than it needs to. While ostensibly a large, studio film (its $12 million budget in 1973 would come out to $68 million in 2017), its finale is relatively small. It stays within the confines of its story and in so doing keeps things taught - it never gives you a break.
Compare that to a myriad of horror films that get too caught up in their own mystique because they so badly want to reveal something to you. Let's call it "Blair Witch Syndrome." Listen, I know I just went through this whole thing about not spoiling a 40-year-old movie, but go ahead and click away if you don't want "The Blair Witch Project" spoiled for you. Are you gone?
Due to budget constraints, "The Blair Witch Project" ends without ever revealing the titular witch. We never see anything except a man in a corner and a camera thudding to the ground. It totally works. "You never see anything" is now a common criticism from those without something insightful to say, but my hunch is they'd complain had there been a big reveal, too.
Here's the problem: that ending has had a real psychological effect on horror directors. It seems many so badly want to give their audience a grand send-off to the exits they overcompensate, doing their movie a disservice in the process. That's not good and it's not scary. Not every horror movie needs a big climax; sometimes it's okay to wink at the camera and shut the thing down.
There's a balance to be struck there, of course. Hiding too much from the audience just for the sake of it isn't a good way to make a horror film; but it's horror, not drama. Exposition is here to scare the audience, not put them to sleep. I touched on this in my review of "The Void," but the last third of the film is essentially all exposition — why? That's not the movie I signed up for.
And while I'm fine having some of the bits and bobs explained to me, I don't really need 20 minutes of scenery chewed to have a mostly nonsensical plot poorly explained. I'm reminded of a line in "Skyfall," just about as far away from a horror film as you can get. Sometimes old ways are best. Put another way, Stephen King has a pretty on the nose quote about horror. I'll end with that.
"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize ... I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out."