Category Archives: Cinema

What Makes a Movie Remain Scary

Source: implied promises that the installment before this one would be the last, there’s yet another Saw movie out. I can understand to some extent why audiences find them entertaining, and perhaps even scary. But if the movies do manage to scare people, it’s not as if they deserve any accolades for doing so.

By releasing so many entries in the series, the Saw franchise has essentially admitted that not much effort is needed to frighten the viewer in the manner they’ve devised. The formula is fairly simple: Show a victim trapped in a room who will soon be killed unless they manage to survive through means that will cause them great pain or mental anguish. Sure, it’s scary when the viewer thinks “What if that was me,” but it’s a fairly obvious means of frightening someone, and the filmmakers aren’t demonstrating a great deal of talent. Anyone could devise one of Jigsaw’s games given an hour’s time.

There’s a difference between a movie that is scary when it’s seen and a movie that remains scary afterward. Exceedingly few films have succeeded in generating fear long after they’re over. I’ve been left queasy after a movie is finished because of its implications for the future of its characters and society as a whole, as was the case with Larry Clark’s Kids, but very rarely frightened for my own sake.

Former Tom Servo Kevin Murphy, in his book A Year at the Movies, describes the criteria for a film to be genuinely horrifying:

To genuinely evoke fear, a movie can’t simply address our fears, it has to dig them out of where we hide them, in our subconscious. Find a filmmaker who can draw from our subconscious and show it to us, and you have a true master of horror.

Given this definition of a true horror film, it’s no surprise that he goes on to name David Lynch’s Eraserhead as the most horrifying movie he’s seen. The premise of Eraserhead — as best I can understand it, anyway — is that a young man discovers that he’s fathered an illegitimate child with his girlfriend, and is now expected to take care of it as any father would. And the baby in question has… something wrong with it.

I’ve read about a common archetype of a monster being an entity that is human in most respects, but is still not quite right, dipping into the “uncanny valley.” Eraserhead exaggerates this trope with the baby, which given the shape of its head is suggestive of something cute and infantile, but sweet Jesus is that thing NOT an infant and it sure as hell is NOT cute. It channels our innermost instincts to care for and protect anything that resembles a human child and then vomits them up right in our faces by showing itself to be repulsive upon closer inspection. It’s the same reason we are put off by pictures of dolls that have been abandoned and subjected to the elements.

Murphy writes of Eraserhead: “David Lynch has managed to do what few other filmmakers can accomplish: to present on film a dream, or in this case a nightmare.” Through the medium of a film presented through the filter of “dream logic,” Lynch portrays the fear inherent in the newfound responsibilities of parenthood.

But while the revolutionary means of storytelling establish Eraserhead as a cinematic milestone, it did not strike me as especially horrifying. I suppose it would have a far greater impact on me if I saw it as an expectant father, just as I’d be frightened by Rosemary’s Baby. But other movies have certainly succeeded where others have failed, with one outstanding example.

The movie that scared me the most is one that I’ve never seen described by anyone else as one that scared them. Actually, compared to the likes of The Exorcist and Eraserhead, I’ve hardly seen it discussed at all. It’s Sisters, one of the early efforts of Brian De Palma. (You may not recognize his name, but you’ve almost certainly seen at least one of his movies.) The plot concerns a pair of conjoined twins that have since been surgically separated… Oh yes, and one is evil.

Granted, the premise may not exactly be anything too groundbreaking, but that wasn’t the aspect of the film that I found so frightening. I was most scared by two scenes toward the end that had little to do with the conjoined-twins plot. Nobody was killed in these scenes, nor even a single drop of blood spilled.

(Of course, to explain why these scenes are scary, which I’ll now proceed to do, would entail spoiling the ending. Read further at your own discretion.)

The protagonist of the movie is a reporter, notable for her columns critical of law enforcement, who witnesses a murder at the hands of the presumably evil twin. As the police are wary of her given her body of work, they are incredulous of her claims, and it falls on her to solve the crime herself with the help of a private investigator. Not that she displays a great deal of competence in contrast to the cops: Right after the murder is committed, she finds a cake wishing two people a happy birthday, proving her claim of twin sisters rather than an individual living in the apartment. She brings the evidence to the detective… And then trips, dropping the cake and smearing the frosting.

Her leads eventually lead her to a mental hospital, which employs the murderer’s accomplice and ex-husband as a doctor. She’s then found, however, by another staff member, and said doctor explains that she’s a patient who has delusions of being a reporter. She refutes that she really is who she claims to be, which can be proven by her ID… which she left in her car. After a few minutes of being condescended to by the staff member and her desperation growing, another of them arrives with a needle. The reporter screams for help to no avail.

After being sedated, the reporter is then subjected to hypnosis by the doctor, who repeats that the murder she witnessed didn’t actually occur. By the end of the film, he too falls victim to the murderer, drawing the attention of the police, who now have reason to believe the reporter’s story. So the previously incredulous detective sits her down and invites her to reiterate her story…

…Which goes nowhere, as she’s been successfully brainwashed by the doctor and can only repeatedly insist that the whole thing was a ridiculous mistake. And unless the private eye can actually come up with something, the murder will be unsolved forever. The end.

So there are the two scenes that scared me, the one where the reporter tries fruitlessly to prove her identity and the one where she demonstrates herself to be brainwashed. And while I found them both frightening, they were frightening for different reasons.

The first scene was a classic example of the protagonist as audience surrogate becoming trapped and helpless, in the same vein as Jigsaw’s victims. But there are some key differences here. The most obvious is that the audience has followed the reporter’s plight for a while now and has had time to establish rapport with her, so they can relate to her more than someone who is introduced to them already chained up in a filthy bathroom. The other may be connected to the aforementioned monster archetype.

The Eraserhead baby was far scarier than the Blob or Mothra because it was not something so exaggerated as to be unrelatable. It started out as something to be nurtured and not feared, and then corrupted. Likewise, the asylum scene in Sisters was not a situation as outlandish as finding yourself needing to gouge out your own eyeball in order to survive. It was a logical escalation of the film’s conflict, and it bore some resemblance to commonplace, everyday arguments with with most audience members would be familiar.

It was all too easy to imagine myself in the reporter’s situation, surrounded by people whose trust was gained by my enemy rather than me. And like the reporter’s previous incident with the cake, her having left her ID in her car was her own fault that she could easily have avoided, thus adding another layer of irony. If only she’d brought it with her…

It wasn’t just the set-up of the scene, either: Its pacing and staging built perfectly to its conclusion. As it plays out, the viewer slowly and steadily comes to the realization that the woman is completely screwed.

I have never been kidnapped by a sadistic madman or a serial killer. I have, however, been antagonized by people who wield some degree of authority. I could easily envision myself falling victim to an authority figure who managed to outwit me, and his pawns who thought they were doing what was right. The believability of the scene enabled it to bore into me like few movies could.

The scene where the reporter shows herself to be hypnotized showcases a scenario that is truly terrifying: What if, under outside influence, one can be betrayed by their own mind? What if the very tool that is used to perceive and store information about the world around them can become someone else’s plaything? What if we can no longer trust our own memories? It’s classic paranoia fuel, and the only consolation is that the concept is simply a Hollywood fiction that can’t be reproduced in reality… Oh, shit.

That’s why Sisters was the film I’ve seen that I found the scariest. (It’s also one of the reasons I consider De Palma to be an accomplished filmmaker — call him a shameless plagiarist of Hitchcock if you want, but the fact remains that Sisters frightened me more than Psycho and The Birds combined.) I realize that doesn’t mean it’s the scariest film I’ve seen, of course. Every audience member is different, and the task falls to the storyteller to figure out which parts of their psyche will recoil when prodded.

Happy Halloween…

A Primer on Pills


So there’s this new documentary out called The Red Pill. It’s from the point of view of a feminist who starts researching the men’s rights movement, and gradually starts to realize the movement may be in the right. Thus the film’s title: She “took the red pill,” or at least she did from the point of view of a men’s rights advocate.

The phrases “red pill” and “blue pill” have seen an upswing in use as of late, and they’re often associated with certain social and political movements. But given the potential of the expression, it shouldn’t be tied down to any one specific mindset.

The terminology of red and blue pills originates from the hit 1999 cyberpunk sci-fi movie The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowski… Well, let’s just call them the Wachowskis. It may seem odd for a motion picture to serve as inspiration for an idiom, but it’s hardly unheard of: You may have heard that someone who abandoned their moral principles in their pursuit of wealth or prestige has “gone to the dark side of the Force.”

On the off chance you haven’t seen The Matrix, here’s a recap of the relevant details with spoilers minimized as best I could. Keanu Reeves stars as office drone Thomas Anderson, though he prefers to use his hacker moniker “Neo.” Neo has been getting subconscious urges to seek a mysterious figure known as Morpheus. When the two finally meet, Morpheus compares Neo to Alice on the brink of the rabbit hole, and offers to show him “the truth” about something known as the Matrix. He presents Neo with two pills, one red and one blue, and offers him a choice:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Neo took the blue pill. After ingesting the red pill, Neo is shown the shocking, devastating truth about his entire life: It was a complete lie.

It was a computer simulation the whole time, to keep his mind occupied and unable to see the world for what it really is. Nearly everyone he knew was also trapped in the Matrix, created by sentient machines to harvest humans’ body electricity. (So why, you ask, do the machines bother farming humans and setting up this simulated reality to use their body electricity for energy, instead of just burning whatever they’re feeding them for fuel directly? Well, that will have to be a story for a different time.)

Morpheus introduces Neo to others on his team, most of them former Matrix inhabitants who have presumably taken the red pill themselves. They live a rather miserable life, manning a futuristic hovercraft and roaming a wasteland devastated by the war between man and machine that machine won. Their mission is to “unplug” more people from the Matrix and give them the red pill, so they too will be awakened and realize the truth about the world. But Morpheus explains this will not be easy:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

It would seem that not everyone would be open to the idea of leaving the reality to which they have grown accustomed and start exploring the real world. In fact, not all those who have already been unplugged are satisfied with their choice. One of Neo’s shipmates confides in him that he wishes he took the blue pill. He’s aware that he would be living a lie if that were the case, but at least he wouldn’t be stuck in a vast dystopia eating food of dubious origin on a tiny ship. “Ignorance is bliss,” he moans as he savors a bite of juicy steak that by his own admission is really nothing more than a few lines of code.

Such is the choice to be made by the inhabitants of the Matrix. Do they take the red pill and learn the bitter reality of the world around them? Or do they take the blue pill, and remain in a comfortable dream world, avoiding unpleasant truths at the cost of their own freedom?

That dilemma is central to the expressions regarding red and blue pills. When you are offered the chance to see the world for what it really is, do you accept, and risk facing unpalatable realities, but gain enlightenment and the ability to improve the world? Or do you refuse, and continue to live a life that is fake but comforting, being part of the problem as you allow the state of the real world to stagnate?

It is rather obvious that this allegory feels relevant to those who believe the common consensus about society does not reflect the actual state of it. It’s especially useful when the speaker believes that people believe falsehoods about their reality because they have been brainwashed by a malevolent, powerful force, and the truth is difficult to take in and handle.

Therefore, to “take the red pill” is to accept the knowledge of how the world really is and how it functions. To “take the blue pill” is to be offered a chance at the truth, but to refuse, as they are so helplessly lost in lies that they refuse to consider they have been lied to, or they prefer a comforting lie to an inconvenient truth.

Here are some ways the terminology of pills can be used:

“James has suddenly started questioning the effectiveness of the 12-step program the court ordered him into. He must have taken the red pill.”

“Of course it’s in the Rothschilds’ best interests that everyone keep taking the blue pill.”

“I didn’t really consider the possibility that Jews control the banks and the media until I took the red pill.”

“Don’t send your kids to public school — they’ll be force-fed the blue pill every day they’re there.”

“A redpilled group on campus is challenging the gender studies majors who claim that gender is just a social construct.”

“Bonnie still refuses to read about how the world is really run by a cabal of humanoid lizards. She really must have swallowed that blue pill hard.”

The speakers in each of these situations may or may not be correct in terms of these statements, but they are using the expression of red and blue pills correctly in the context of their beliefs.

The same cannot be said of some I’ve seen using these sayings. The most glaring error is attempting to adopt the action of taking the blue pill as a badge of pride: “I’m glad I took the blue pill.” This makes no sense, just as you would not say, “Well, I guess ‘not being the sharpest knife in the drawer’ must be a good thing!” If someone accuses you of taking the blue pill, the proper counterargument is that the pill allegory does not apply to the topic at hand, or that it is in fact they who have taken the blue pill.

So there you have it. The allegory of pills can be useful when discussing matters of censorship and unpleasant truths. Just don’t assign the idiom to any specific movement.

Also, if you really haven’t seen The Matrix, you should. But do yourself a favor and take the blue pill — pretend the sequels don’t exist.

Five Awful Movie Taglines

5. Die Hard (1988)

'Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane... That's just the way he likes it.''

Uhh… No, it isn’t. When John McClane first realizes the plaza building is under attack, one of his first courses of action is to call for help, so the odds won’t be against him. After all, he may want to rescue the hostages and have the training of an NYPD officer, but he’s only human — which is kind of the point.

After audiences had their fill of Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, Bruce Willis breathed new life into the action hero archetype with John McClane. McClane would never refer to crime as a disease with himself as the cure. He would never wax poetic about crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him, and hearing the lamentations of their women.

So he was clearly a different kind of action hero, and Die Hard was a different kind of action movie — which would seem like its main selling point. But no, the tagline makes McClane out to be no different than the larger-than-life meatcakes before him. How often do you see a tagline that actively negates what the movie has to offer?

4. Psycho (1998)

'Check in. Relax. Take a shower.'

The necessity of Gus Van Sant’s practically shot-for-shot Psycho remake was and always will be questionable at best. It certainly doesn’t help that its tagline depends upon audiences’ foreknowledge of the original film to work, and implies that little will be different this time around. How exactly does one expect to sell tickets by saying, in effect, “You’ve already seen this before”?

3. Yogi Bear (2010)

'Great things come in bears.'

Come to think of it, I don’t really feel like dwelling too much on this one. All I’ll say about it is that the poster doesn’t help matters. Moving on.

2. Clockstoppers (2002)

'What if you had the power to stop time?'

On its surface, the tagline “What if you had the power to stop time?” is merely boringly simplistic. But given that this movie is targeted at teens and preteens, it really becomes a problem.

It insults the intelligence of the one group of people who really don’t want their intelligence insulted, and would prefer to be treated as reasonably mature whenever possible. “What if you had the power to stop time?” is so lacking in nuance that it sounds more fitting as a premise to a Saturday morning cartoon rather than a movie that adolescents wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen watching. It also sounds like the prompt for a school writing assignment.

On the plus side, however, this tagline can inspire you to create taglines of your own that follow the same format. “What if you could enter someone else’s dreams?” “What if your daughter was possessed by the Devil?” “What if your family started to draw you into organized crime?” “What if the ghost of your father visits you and claims he was murdered by your uncle so he could be crowned King instead?” Have fun!

1. Contact (1997)

'A message from deep space. Who will be the first to go? A journey to the heart of the universe.'

Let’s get this out of the way first. I liked Contact. Yes, even the ending. But this tagline… It’s a matryoshka doll of terribleness. Where to start?

First, there’s the overall structure. A tagline consisting of multiple paragraphs is not unheard of, so long as there is an overarching focus. Nothing of that sort in Contact‘s horrifically disjointed tagline: It meanders listlessly from one possible point of interest to another. It’s as if the marketers resorted to throwing random bits of what could pass as a tagline on the poster to see if anything would stick.

Furthermore, bombastic claims about the film’s epic scope are far too vague to leave any impression. Messages from deep space and journeys to the heart of the universe could be featured in anything from a space opera to a gory extraterrestrial monster movie.

And as for who will be the first to go, why should anyone care if they’re not yet familiar with the plot? The question is of little importance, as they haven’t been introduced to any of the characters and see no reason to root for any of them in particular. And why is this such a point of contention anyway, as potential viewers are unfamiliar with the context of the issue and don’t understand why everyone who wants to go can all go at once?

For a story about a woman overcoming the odds to explore different worlds, communication with extraterrestrial civilizations, and humankind’s place in the universe and potential to better itself through science, the tagline causes it to come off as boring.