Thoughts on Gimmick Horror Movies
Tea: Rooibos Lemon
After recently watching the more than mediocre Hush, a movie about a deaf and mute writer being stalked in her small house in the woods by a redneck hunting enthusiast, I thought hard about those kind of horror movies with a certain gimmick. In this example, the deafness of the main character, or you can think of others like the monster from It Follows, the self-awareness of Cabin in the Woods and so on and so on. Therefore, I thought a few notes on what these movies are capable of doing that others may be not or where they sometimes fall short would be appropriate.
Initially, I thought the concept of a horror movie with no sound, or at least strongly restricted moments of sound, would work wonderfully. After all, losing one of the most basic senses should instil fear in a lot of people who never had to put up with such a severe lack. Additionally, it could heighten the tension as neither the character nor the audience could judge how loud certain sounds are when the main character would have to be as quiet as possible. The identification with the situation would be all the better and the experience a terrifying one. Of course, the movie did no such thing. There are only a handful of scenes that take advantage of this sort of tension building. They even go a step beyond ruining the gimmick and fall into the old trap of “loud sound when killer suddenly appears in the field of vision” trope. While this is something I truly hate and the rest of the movie did nothing to convince me that someone with a true vision was working on this movie, I still held a certain belief that more could be done with this and that amidst the clichés and overused tropes a potentially good movie was buried. Apparently, directors/writers are afraid of embracing the gimmick they introduced which is somewhat baffling. I assume they think if they followed through with it all the way, no one would fund such a project or that it would appear to artsy to be considered a mainstream release. And that is where they are obviously wrong.
First of all, I want to make clear what I understand as a gimmick horror movie aside from the ones I have already mentioned: They rely on a single aspect the horror is built around, this aspect usually is something not found in most other horror movies, therefore, a killer stalking a person would not constitute as a gimmick. Often the problem is that the gimmick wears out and then they resort to using other overused tropes to somewhat keep the tension up, a good example for this would be Don’t Breathe which has a somewhat strong gimmick at the start with darkness and sound (both, once again, drawing on a loss of senses) but by the end it devolves into a weird torture porn-y gross-out fest that drops the initial idea. The question is then not whether horror movies can rely on a single gimmick, but rather if they can carry it all the way to the end and portray it from various angles as to not become stale and repetitive. Going back to the example of Hush, what really bothered me was the constant switching of perceptions. I was never certain whether I was not hearing something because there is nothing to hear or because I am right now perceiving the world as the main character does. While I would have preferred the latter version, both would be fine as long as you follow it through consistently. The uncertainty stems from an inconsistency on the level of the movie itself which is a really meta-approach to horror for such a by-the-numbers movie.
Generally, visibility is often used to instil fear due to the lack of light or impaired vision. A movie which does this excellently is The Descent, beautiful bare lighting and thus a strong atmosphere. Other senses can be used equally well, the sound example form Hush could turn it into a truly terrifying movie and put you into the position of the main character. It would not have to follow her around necessarily, but simply adopting her deafness could seriously heighten the tension. Don’t Breathe goes into a similar yet different direction. Here the production of sound is equally dangerous, but the audience can hear them and in the best-case scenario you will do as the title suggests and hold your breath with the characters. Both of these could work since they produce anxiety and uncertainty. However, the latter one is a tricky customer as a balance between uncertainty and pay-off is required to handle it properly. Carrying an entire movie with the only pay-off being the ending is a masterful act and the only one I can think of which actually pulls it off is Ringu as basically nothing happens until the end. Tension is built up and held throughout the entire film. But I digress, a gimmick can carry a movie if the director is able to introduce enough different situations and problems associated with it. Once they have to rely on cheaper means of creating a haunting atmosphere or a flat out jumpscare, the entire thing crumbles apart. And since senses are so important, music should really be the next spot on the list.
Horror movie themes are the ones most immediately recognised across the board. They are often simple, yet scary. John Carpenter’s Halloween theme still holds the crown in my books for the best one created because it is simple enough to work as a recognisable and layered enough to stay interesting. However, if audio-horror is central to the movie, music could potentially ruin it really quick. Halloween worked in this regard since it did not rely on any manipulation of senses and the music was simply there to grant gravitas to the appearance of the stalking figure of Michael. In Hush, music would not work since it would demolish the entire concept instantly which did not stop the makers from including these loud obnoxious sounds when something abruptly happens or – and I am not kidding – a hard rock passage for a fight scene. It Follows is another great example where music is used in a similar way to Halloween and here silence would not have worked at all. While I have my problems with the movie, I’d still consider it successful in terms of embracing its gimmick to the fullest.
The conclusion I wish to draw is that gimmick horror movies can be a blast if the gimmick is embraced and made interesting enough. Introducing one and then not following through with it is almost worse than making a movie without a central interesting idea. The only thing that remains then is lost potential which makes me angrier than not bothering to make something interesting at all. And, of course, this is applicable to more than movies, games can work in a similar fashion and the central gimmicky idea can be saviour and destroyer all depending on how it is handled. If there truly is a unique idea to your creation, embraces it and don’t destroy it with unnecessary bullshit.