I've been reminded at least four times in the last few months that it's incredibly difficult to make a truly great horror film. Not speaking from experience, of course; I don't make horror movies myself. I do watch a lot of them, though, and that's really the more important of the two sides when you get down to brass tacks, for a whole slew of reasons, chief among them being that this is my column.
Anyway, the thing about horror movies is that we want to love them, so when something comes along that seems even remotely new or veers away from the run-of-the-mill tropes and cliches we've come to expect from scary movies, our first instinct is to pile on mountains of praise that, in time, reveals itself to be completely undeserved. For example ...
If you've seen the film Rosemary's Baby, I totally understand if your first inclination was to flee the theater in terror while also telling everyone within earshot that they must see it sometime. Of course, you'll note from the wording of the previous sentence that the subject was watching the movie at the theater, when it was fresh and new. That, of course, was the year 1968.
The movie was borderline revolutionary at the time, but "at the time" is a big part of that equation. A movie like this had rarely been seen back then, but we've seen a ton of them since then, and, as much as it pains me to say it, Rosemary's Baby is miles away from being the best, no matter what nearly every list of the best horror movies ever implies to the contrary.
For starters, it's just not that well-executed. Even if you've never seen or heard of Rosemary's Baby, if you watch it today, you will figure out what's going on about 10 minutes into the movie and it will drive you insane that Rosemary somehow does not. Once that happens, it's a long, slow procession of mundane events, sometimes scary, usually not, until exactly what you think is going to happen does, in fact, happen.
Oh! What about that scene where they finally reveal the baby, though? Right: For one thing, it's hard to even spot. If you've ever heard someone gush about the "baby scene" in that movie, allow me to shatter any perceptions of awesome you may have with this screenshot.
It's a Gremlin, basically.
Look, I get that they were working within the technological limitations of their day and that this was actually a neat idea back then and all of those other possible defenses of the movie. All fair points, but given all its modern-day shortcomings, why do people continue to recommend Rosemary's Baby as if it's some sort of essential watching in the "movies where the old people next door are Satanists" subgenre? This is a well that filmmakers have gone to time and again since then, often with much more entertaining results.
What You Should Watch Instead: The Devil's Advocate
It would be way too easy to suggest that you check out the 1976 masterpiece The Omen if movies about the biggest Red of all are your thing. In a perfect world, you've seen that movie like five times by now.
Watching it a sixth time certainly wouldn't kill you, but in the name of shaking things up, I'll take what I suspect might be a slightly controversial stance and say that, if you've never seen either movie, instead of watching Rosemary's Baby, give The Devil's Advocate a shot.
I know that suggesting a film starring Keanu Reeves as an alternative to a film that has probably made several "100 best movies ever" type lists probably seems a bit far-fetched. Hell, Keanu Reeves plays a lawyer in the movie; that alone is pretty damn far-fetched. Also, Al Pacino overacts up a storm, just like he always does. Except, this time, that overacting is exactly why the movie works.
Al Pacino: Doing this exact thing better than anyone else for five decades now.
The creeps in Rosemary's Baby were obvious, certifiable creeps way before they started hinting at wanting to get their neighbor pregnant by the devil. Al Pacino, for his part, is also very obviously a nefarious character, possibly Satan himself. The difference is that Al Pacino makes you like the devil. He's a fun guy. He cracks great jokes and pulls hilarious pranks, like the scene where he convinces a guy on a train that his wife is at home smoking crack and having anal sex with their neighbor, solely for the giggles of it all.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making me wonder if "smoking crack" is a euphemism for anal sex.
If that seems unimportant, it's definitely not, for one huge reason. If you watch Rosemary's Baby today, you will pick up on a million different clues that leave you screaming at the screen in frustration. Just leave! They're old and slow! Maybe you can make it!
Al Pacino doesn't come across that way. Al Pacino plays the devil like a pimp. I don't mean that in the douchey "That's pimp, bro" adjective kind of way, either. He talks like a guy that you'd suspect could convince anyone to do just about anything if you give him a few seconds of time in their ear, and that's exactly what he does for the entirety of the movie. It's an over-the-top performance like all of Pacino's others, except here it's exactly what the movie needs.
Call it blasphemy all you want, but if you were to ask me to suggest one movie of this kind, The Devil's Advocate is my pick.
The Blair Witch Project actually has a lot in common with Rosemary's Baby. Both were considered groundbreaking works upon their initial release, both are still regarded as horror classics today, and neither really deserves it.
In 1999, found footage movies were a new thing, so much so that plenty of moviegoers actually left theaters believing they'd seen actual footage of the tragic disappearance of three college students when The Blair Witch Project first premiered. Not only was it an idea that hadn't been explored much, but it was also an inspiring idea. This was a feature film shot using the kind of equipment you take on a camping trip. It's the type of film that makes people want to make films, basically.
"Basically" meaning "unfortunately."
That said, just like Rosemary's Baby, it has since been topped in its field in every way imaginable. When you take the found footage charm away (and make no mistake, people loved it ... at first), The Blair Witch Project is a movie that can only end one way. Right up top they explain that this is "footage" of what happened to three campers who went missing. So, spoiler alert, nobody lives.
Which is fine, because you'll hate them all within the first five minutes.
When you remove the tension like that right up front, what happens between that point and the inevitable conclusion is what makes or breaks the movie, and a lot of The Blair Witch Project is petty bickering among assholes you kind of wish would've just died in a car crash on the way up and saved us the hassle of having to watch them get killed on screen.
That said, The Blair Witch Project is probably my favorite of all the movies I'm taking down here, and it's because it pulled off one of the most difficult horror movie tricks of all. More on that later, though. For now ...
What You Should Watch Instead: V/H/S
Like I said, The Blair Witch Project inspired a lot of people to pick up shitty home movie cameras and use them to make seasickness-inducing found footage movies. An alarming number of horror films today fall into this category, and almost all of them are terrible. The first couple of Paranormal Activity movies were fine, I suppose, but you obviously don't need any recommendations there.
Except maybe to avoid this one at all costs.
So, how about you check out V/H/S sometime? For one thing, it's one of those rare found footage movies that actually makes sense as a found footage movie. It begins with a group of petty criminals tasked to break into a creepy house said to contain one particular videotape that they are supposed to steal. They're never told what's on the tape, only that they'll know it when they see it. When they arrive at the house, surprise, there are dozens of tapes! So, they have to watch a few in order to track down the right one, hence the found footage-ness of it all.
The rest of the movie involves them watching various tapes, looking for the right one. Each of those tapes represents a separate short film in what ends up being one of the most entertaining anthology flicks in all of existence. Watch it right goddamn now. Watch the sequel, too.