5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking

What do these films get so right about the genre, when so many others fail? The answer is stupidly clear and conveniently listable!
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!

The Best Horror Films Have Adult Protagonists

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
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.

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
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 ...

Music Is (Scientifically) EVERYTHING

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
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.


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.

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
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 ...

The Best Horror Films Are Never Made By "Horror Directors"

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
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 ...

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking

Being Ironic And Self-Aware Isn't Scaring Anyone

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
Columbia Pictures

I'm not going to sit here on my high horse and tell anyone that The Cabin In The Woods wasn't some awesome shit (it was); instead, I'm using my lofty equine positioning to declare that, along with You're Next and Shaun Of The Dead, these terrific films have no business rubbing elbows with the horror genre. Nor do classics like Sharknado, Iron Sky, Zombieland, Planet Terror, or WolfCop (which is exactly what it sounds like).

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
Echolands Creative Group

Unless you pictured a uniformed wolf instead of a werewolf, but that would be too unrealistic.

In fact, while I'm rampaging here: I don't think Scream should count as a horror film either. Calling these films "scary" or "horror" is as disparaging to the genre as digging up and nipple-tweaking Vincent Price's skeleton. Because, believe it or not, there was once a time when horror films were about actually trying to scare the audience and not just executing a series of in-joke winks about genre cliches.

After Scream hit it off, every subsequent film was too self-conscious to try to scare us with a straight face. Suddenly, being ironic was used as a crutch for bad writing, as every filmmaker tried to be the next Carpenter with overtly bizarre gross-out films like Hostel and The Human Centipede. The problem with intentionally playing off kitschy gore and '80s ridiculousness is that these films are too self-aware to naturally pull that shit off. You can't imitate Carpenter when Carpenter had no idea why Carpenter worked. Take the legendary six-minute fight scene from They Live:

To this day, Carpenter has no clue why we love that scene -- because all he wanted to do at the time was make a really long fight scene and not some iconic moment of camp. Roddy Piper wasn't intentionally trying to look like a swole lumberjack Buffalo Bill for the yuk of it, so when films like Death Proof stick a pompadour and racing jacket on Kurt Russell it's always going to feel a little like a sad attempt to re-bottle lightning.

It's yet another reason I can't stop singing the praises of It Follows -- a film that (spoilers) includes a dead serious scene where all the teenagers attempt to defeat the demon by trapping it in a swimming pool surrounded by household electronics. Not only is that plan Willy Wonka insane, it's played completely straight in a film that never tries to make fun of itself. But the final slam dunk for It Follows and The Babadook is this:

The Best Horror Movies Are Secretly About Something Tangible

Allied Artists Pictures Corporation

SPOILERS: It Follows ends on the main character passing her sex-demon to a friend, who in turn (probably) passes it to a prostitute. The movie ends with them walking down a sidewalk hand-in-hand and bound by the fact that death is always creeping toward them ... and if one of them dies, the other will shortly after. In other words: They are married.

MORE SPOILERS: The Babadook is about a widow tormented by an unruly child and a monster threatening to make her go Jack Nicholson on her annoying son. In the end she manages to bury the looming specter in the deep recesses of her basement the same way you would bury grief and sadness.

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
Causeway Films

If sadness looked like Ozzy Osbourne.

Both of these films symbolized some kind of larger, real-world stress personified into a demon -- which is the case for most of the scary films we love. Rosemary's Baby is about a young woman whose reproductive choices are hijacked by old men, The Exorcist is also about a young girl losing control of her body, The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are Cold War paranoia allegories, The Shining plays off of alcoholism and abuse, and Carrie is about how every post-pubescent woman is a vessel for Satan's eventual reckoning.

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking

Also, the dangers of flick wigs on men.

Now compare that to films like Scream and Paranormal Activity, which as far as I can tell are just about creating good jump scares to put into trailers. Unlike every other genre, more and more horror films get away with having utterly meaningless plotlines and subtext. Characters go entire films without even so much as an arc -- the story ultimately ending with everyone dying in flabbergasting ways. In a genre that is open to surrealism, they have to be going out of their way not to inject an allegory or some kind of creative execution. In a world of ghosts, ancient demons, psychological breakdowns, and multiple dimensions, for some motherfucking reason the best this genre has to offer are a bunch of found-footage films about loud phantoms. It's so infinitely clown dick that I'm actually going to reboot my last entry just to bitch about that ...

Seriously, Found-Footage Films Are The Worst

5 Simple Ways To Make Horror Movies Stop Sucking
Paramount Pictures

Look, I don't doubt that like 95 percent of people reading this already agree with me. But this isn't about you. I need this, because found-footage is the worst thing that ever happened to me. I'm like fucking Helen Hunt in Twister, and found-footage is the raging storm that sucked up my loving roughneck father.

Let's start with the fact that found-footage horror films are always, always narrated by someone you hate. Whether it's the guy who won't shut off the camera or the fictional off-screen producers who choose to edit together and sell someone's grisly murder, every premise starts with the idea that what you're seeing is supposed to be exploitative. This is like if every movie opened with a shot of the director beating up an orphan dolphin.

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville. Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their fo

"... and used for lavish hooker money."

After this shoddy premise comes waffling in, we're left with the cold realization that the next 20 to 40 minutes of screentime will be devoted to giving the audience a vast opportunity for reflecting on the $9 they just spent to watch a fake home movie. By the middle of the second act you begin to realize that what you're actually seeing is a calculated swindle where the evil studio genie switched "tension" with "nothingness" under the false flag of realism. But the actual reality here is that a film shot on a $2,000 digital camera in a single house where nothing happens 80 percent of the time can somehow make hundreds of millions of dollars for this sharted-out effort.

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In any other industry, this would be considered a crime. An inferior product half-heartedly passed off for the real thing, like a vendor selling pirated DVDs and "Moakley" sunglasses on the street. If movies were cars, then found-footage is like a rusted '93 Volkswagen Rabbit that doesn't go over 30 mph and costs as much as a 2015 Passat. If someone tried to peddle that hogwash under any other circumstances then we'd send this grifter pariah up the courthouse steps to be hung unceremoniously as a stark warning to other snake-oil fabulists. But instead we pay out, film after film, like a gambling addict pounding through scratchers at a 7-Eleven.

Why? Because some part of us needs the rush of a horror film so bad that we're willing to sit through hours of utter mediocrity in the hopes of finding the one part that scares us. Maybe it's time we start demanding a better quality high, instead of sucking out gutter swill. Otherwise, before we know it, every film will look like it was made by that insufferable plastic bag kid in American Beauty.

David was really dead this whole time. Give him your undivided attention on Twitter.

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Also be sure to check out 9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame and 5 Real-Life Horror Movies Deleted From Your History Books.


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