5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking

At some point in the past 25 years, the horror genre went from a fresh vein of box office and critical masterpieces to a never-ending slew of "gotcha" scares funded on a porn movie's budget. I swear to Janet Leigh's hot ghost, if I have to see one more career waiter get surprise-dragged by an abusive demon, I'm going to make a Benny Hill supercut. Actually, I'm just going to do that anyway, because my life is a void of time.

I wish I could tell you there's still hope for the horror genre. I wish I had an exclusive trailer debut for an insanely cool new horror movie to show you, but there's no such- WHAT'S THAT? We ... we actually have one of those right below this sentence?

Huh. I stand corrected. Along with practical-effects creature-feature Harbinger Down up there, other recent movies like It Follows and The Babadook have been providing a major upswing for scary-ass cinema. So what do these films get so damn right about the genre, when so many others fail? The answer is stupidly clear and conveniently listable!

#5. The Best Horror Films Have Adult Protagonists

Warner Bros.

Check out Box Office Mojo's top-grossing horror films according to their supernatural, period, slasher, creature, torture, anthology, and remake categories. What do they have in common, besides the fact that their posters tend to consume a shitload of black ink?

Walt Disney Pictures, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Lionsgate Films, Paramount Pictures
Van Helsing counts as horror because of Hugh Jackman's hair and Kate Beckinsale's accent.

Answer: no teenage slasher films. Despite their suppleness and cattle-like reasoning skills, there's a conspicuous lack of teens getting spleened on that list, as well as the list for highest-rated horror films on Rotten Tomatoes -- even Blair Witch Project features people in their mid-20s actually playing people in their mid-20s. Save for classics like Friday The 13th and Halloween, movie audiences have never cared to see jailbait getting nakedly jostled apart by a taciturn pro-wrestler. So why were the '90s filled with so many pubescent slashers like Scream, Urban Legend, and I Know What You Did Last Summer? My guess is that screenwriters simply found it easier to justify rash character decisions when the characters had frosted tips.

Look, I love watching teenagers get slashed as much as, uh, anyone else -- but the horror classics have always been films like Psycho, The Omen, The Shining, and The Exorcist. Stories starring notable adult actors getting fucked around by some kind of supernatural entity. It's simply way scarier when the person being forced to accept the phantom realm also knows how to do their own taxes and can legally rent a car. This is why Scream's popularity mucked up the genre -- because even the teenage horror films we do consider classics never featured mortal villains: Michael Myers and Jason are unkillable; Carrie is telekinetic; Freddy Kruger is a sleep ogre. In an atmosphere where a drooling Matthew Lillard is going to invoke more laughter than fear, it's a baffling wonder that we got four Scream movies and a slew of copycats featuring flesh-and-blood killers.

Dimension Films
Unless that's ectoplasm, you're not scaring anyone.

The best horror films of last year follow this pattern. It Follows is about teenagers being trolled by a sex-phantom, The Babadook is about an adult mother dealing with a dapper grief monster, Harbinger Down stars a gruffy ol' Lance Henriksen, and We Are Still Here stars the middlest of middle-aged actors. This isn't rocket science; I'm just looking at the past and seeing a pattern of success and failure. But besides the horde of teenage protagonists, there's a way bigger reason so many films from the '90s were soaking garbage ...

#4. Music Is (Scientifically) EVERYTHING

Warner Bros.

Blair Witch Project was a cultural phenomenon that creeped the hell out of a generation, but have you ever tried to rewatch it since canceling your dial-up connection? It's about as fun as ... well, looking at some dudes walking in the woods for 80 minutes. In fact, with all the respect in the world: No found-footage movie will ever become a classic. Sure, they can be really fun (V/H/S, Unfriended) and really disturbing (never see Megan Is Missing) -- but in terms of staying power, these films will ultimately end up on the futuristic equivalent of a dusty library movie nook.

Netflix
Which I'm guessing will look like this.

If I had to finger just one reason why these films have all the rewatch value of a drowning victim's colonoscopy exam, it would be the lack of music -- aka, 50 percent of why you love horror films. That statement wasn't subjective: Back in 2010, a group of biologists found that the most popular music scores in cinema had a tendency to replicate the sounds of distressed animals, which invoked our primal instincts and got the biggest emotional responses from audiences. In other words, the reason we remember the Jaws theme so vividly is that each chord is literally telling us to go fuck in a cave. Halloween, The Thing, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen -- all the horror films society considers classics come with soundtracks as unforgettable and chilling as shitting your pants at an Arby's.

Now try to think of a horror score from the '90s and 2000s that was half as memorable as one John Williams tuba note. There might be one or two, but those decades were mostly taken over by shitty found-footage ambient sounds and ungodly nu metal soundtracks. This era was scientifically killing the genre by moving away from "old-fashioned" scores in favor of the latest Creed song blasted over a Melrose Place actress being impaled by a yawning ghost.

Dimension Films
Not sure if she's screaming or if that yawn is really contagious.

This is why it's such a long road to recovery: As studios keep opting for cheaply made found-footage hits like Unfriended, films like It Follows are barely making bank with amazing scores that sound like John Carpenter getting blown by Vangelis. At least the director of Insidious managed to light up the radar with a score of Hitchcockian strings before moving on to Furious 7 and the new Aquaman -- a career shift that isn't as surprising as it sounds, considering that ...

#3. The Best Horror Films Are Never Made By "Horror Directors"

Paramount Pictures

Anyone who thinks it takes a specialized mind to conjure twisted murder scenarios has clearly never worked in the service industry. Case in point: Back in 2000, a terrific horror drama called What Lies Beneath zoomed past our collective nostalgia despite making superhero money at the box office, and the director was none other than Robert Zemeckis -- the guy who made Back To The Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away. In fact, he made it at the same time as that last one. In the time it took Tom Hanks to physically transform into the volleyball-fucking beardman, Zemeckis took a break to shoot one of the most successful horror films of all time.

Warner Bros. Pictures
It's only his second-creepiest film, though.

When you take any talented director and give him an extremely stylized genre, it's not hard to shit gold-plated fear. And yet, in the past 15 years I count only two instances of well-established directors crossing over into the horror genre (the other being Martin Scorsese's widely successful Shutter Island). This despite the fact that the best scary movies have never been made by horror-only directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, or the disturbed genius who makes those Wayans Haunted House films.

Seriously, let's go down the list: Richard Donner directed The Omen before moving on to Superman and The Goonies; the director of The Exorcist did The French Connection; American Werewolf In London's director made The Blues Brothers and Animal House; the guy who made The Untouchables and Scarface is the same guy behind Carrie; lunatic Roman Polanski made Rosemary's Baby before Macbeth; and Stanley Kubrick made The Shining long after films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey (they were still horror movies for the actors, though). Even John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sam Raimi directed thrillers, adventure films, and silly dance movies.

Frazer Harrison/Getty /Getty
Someone give this man a Wes Craven script.

I get that not every horror movie can have an accomplished director behind it, but considering how visually and emotionally powerful the genre can be, you'd think newer directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino would at least take one crack at it. And I'm not talking about some ironic, '70s throwback car chase movie either, because ...

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