Not every writer is good at writing every genre. Most writers, I think, tend to only write in one genre really well even if they can write passably in others. I like to think my strength is in Science Fiction, but I’ve also written quite a few Dramas. Genres that I think are my weakest would include Comedy and Horror.
Horror, specifically, confounds me. I know what horror movies think of as scary, but at the same time they rely on coincidence, terrible character decisions, and gore to elicit that “scared” response from the viewer. Maybe I just don’t understand what horror is, but to me there is a difference between being “scared” and being “uncomfortable”.
I saw the new Evil Dead remake today, which is where I began to question the difference. Most reviewers have praised the remake, for what I’m sure they find to be good reasons. It is certainly intense, and definitely shocking in areas, but is it scary? Or does it just make the viewer uncomfortable, which the viewer then mistakes for fear?
I would venture to say that Evil Dead is more uncomfortable than it is scary, based on the elements that I think make something scary. Those are:
Characters: How much do we care and relate to the characters? There are only five in the entire movie (not including the prologue or embodiment of the spirit that possesses the lead).
1.) David – Essentially the protagonist, and also the skeptic, of the whole movie. He is the brother of the Mia, who becomes the antagonist for 3/4 of the movie thanks to her possession. His flaw is that he is absent from the lives of those that care about him. He comes to the cabin to make amends to his sister for not being there when their mother died, and to help her kick her heroine addiction.
2.) Mia – Her heroine addiction is what leads everyone to the cabin, to help her quit cold turkey. It’s revealed that she has tried and failed before, which leads to everyone mistaking her possession for the affects of withdrawal. She resents her brother, David, for not being there when their mother was dying.
3.) Eric – A high school teacher with an insatiable taste for knowledge! I guess making him a high school teacher was supposed to excuse his actions that set off the entire plot (regardless of how nonsensical they were) because he’s curious, or something. I don’t know, his motivations were kind of unclear. But (!) he is angry at David for being an absentee friend.
4.) Olivia – Eric’s girlfriend (I think) who is also a nurse that seems to have an inferiority complex over not being a doctor. She shares the role of skeptic with David, and blames most of what happens to Mia on the heroine withdrawal and not possession.
5.) Natalie – David’s girlfriend. That’s pretty much about it. Until her turn comes to get possessed she really doesn’t do much of anything.
Outside of David and Mia, we don’t get to know any of these characters very well let alone come to care for them. The focus from the first shot of the film is on trying to scare the audience, but as an audience it is difficult to be scared for people you barely know and don’t care about. What happens to everyone is definitely uncomfortable, but I wasn’t particularly invested enough emotionally to actually be scared.
The movie failed in getting me to care about anyone or their troubles, thereby failing to scare me when bad things start happening to everyone.
Relatability: The scariest movies, I think, are when you can relate to the characters, their situations, and their decisions. For me, plausibility enhances fear. Of course, there is a certain amount of suspension of belief to even buy into the basic plot of Evil Dead, so that must be taken into consideration.
Character Motivation: I bought into why they were in the cabin, and the initial actions taken by each of the characters as they thought that Mia’s possession was due to her withdrawal. However, just because I bought into it doesn’t mean I related to it. Drug addiction is something I’ve done a good job avoiding most of my life. Where the writers did a good job of making the characters relatable is through David and his absence from people’s lives. I wish those feelings of abandonment and regret were a bigger part of the plot and the characters, but it was a good way to bring the viewer into their worlds.
Character Decisions: The movie should have never even began, let alone get to where it needed to in the climax. I, for one, could not relate to the decisions the characters were making. Maybe it’s because I’m a big pussy, but if I found a trap door in my family’s cabin that wasn’t there before, blood stains caked on the floor, I’d probably at least call the authorities. Even if I didn’t call them, and was talked into exploring, once I found a bunch of dead cats hanging from the ceiling with a book wrapped in barbed wire, I’d probably leave well enough alone and head out.
They were stuck in the cabin due to a storm, which is fine. But when people start vomiting blood, cutting open their faces with shards or glass, and trying to murder everyone no one has a cell phone? There are no better options than staying there?
There is a scene where Natalie, whom we don’t know anything about outside of being David’s girlfriend, goes back into the cabin by herself on David’s orders to get sugar and water for Eric, who had been attacked in the scene prior by a possessed Olivia. She is frightened, but wants to help her friend, which is understandable. But as soon as I started hearing voices from under the floor, where we had just locked a demon that tried murdering everyone, I’d have peaced out and gotten backup at the very least. The fact that she decided to open the trap door after the other doors had just closed by themselves struck me as something only a character in a horror movie would do, not a rational person.
Tension: I think being scared has more to do with build-up and expectation than payoff. This is an area where Evil Dead shines, as it does a wonderful job building tension before revealing its horror. The cinematography, particularly, does an excellent job of establishing expectation without revealing anything until the time is right.
There are several ways we can approach the horror genre to really figure out whether or not a movie is scary, or just uncomfortable. Evil Dead, sad to say, merely made me uncomfortable. The character’s weren’t particularly well-drawn, nor their decisions and actions relatable. In the end, these flaws made it a mostly forgettable, and often frustrating experience.
As a genre, I think horror is usually measured in quantities of gore and shock. Maybe this is why I’m not sure I could successfully write something horrific, it’s too easy to slide into that cliche. Evil Dead is a perfect example. The climax has so much blood it loses its effectiveness. That’s bad.
Of course horror needs gore and tension and shocking twists, but I think the best horror also has relatable characters in relatable situations making solid decisions.