Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10 Horror Movies That Should Have Been Better

It has been an unacceptable four months since my last post, but what better time to get things rolling again than October with a post on my favorite subject--horror flicks.  This list is not about scary films that I dislike - on the contrary, I actually admire these movies, but I have always felt that the premises promised more than the films delivered.  They could have been truly great if the creators had made a few different choices.  I am curious to know if you agree... [Spoilers ahead]

Suspiria (1977)
What Works: Italian horror auteur Dario Argento's arguably greatest film looks fantastic.  He knows how to put together showstopping setpieces and he uses colors better than perhaps any other horror director.  This combined with an eerie score from prog rock band Goblin and you have the perfect atmosphere for terror.

What Doesn't: As is typical of most Italian horror films of the era, Suspiria was filmed with the international cast speaking in their own languages and then was dubbed over in English.  This leads to some very awkward dialogue scenes and brings the movie to a halt whenever there is no bloodletting going on.  The dubbing (and maybe the original acting as well) prevents me from caring much about what is happening to the characters.
The Shining (1980)
What Works: Stanley Kubrick is an unquestionable master of cinematic imagery.  The inventive steadicam shots as little Danny explores the halls of the hotel, the creepy ghost girls in identical blue dresses, and of course the brilliant, iconic shot of blood spilling out of the elevator doors provide some of the most memorably chilling moments in film history.

What Doesn't: Stephen King vocally opposed Kubrick's adaptation of his novel for multiple reasons, but his main criticism was that the protagonist was supposed to start off normal and then become crazy.  I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly.  Jack Nicholson's blocked writer is (unintentionally?) hilariously psychotic right from the opening scene with his being barely able to suppress the urge to butcher his wife and son while en route to the hotel.  This is certainly entertaining at times, but does not fit with the mood that Kubrick works so hard to create.  And while I'm mentioning distracting performances, I find myself puzzled by Shelley Duvall's take on how a normal human being behaves and looks.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
What Works: The Oscar-winning werewolf makeup from Rick Baker is really cool, but what keeps me coming back to this John Landis fright flick is the superb opening sequence featuring our hapless heroes backpacking through the Yorkshire Moors and taking refuge in a most unwelcoming pub.  Also, Griffin Dunne makes the most of his limited screen time, cheerfully popping up post-mortem in increasing states of decomposition.

What Doesn't: Story goes that Landis cast star David Naughton after spotting him in a Pepsi commercial. That sounds about right given Naughton's pretty features and complete lack of acting ability.  He makes it hard to care about his plight and the script does him few favors, culminating in a very abrupt and weak conclusion to the movie.

Scream (1996)
What Works: Genre legend Wes Craven, working with a clever script from Kevin Williamson, crafts some great suspense scenes that pay homage to (and in some cases outshine) late 70s/early 80s slasher films.  The movie has fun pointing out genre clich├ęs while skewering them in a manner that is smart, funny, and surprisingly frightening.

What Doesn't: The ending is a drawn-out mess that relies on the "talking killer" trope where the antagonist takes the time to stop and explain exactly why they did what they did instead of just killing the hero immediately.  I also have a problem with Matthew Lillard's shameless mugging at every opportunity.  His annoying mannerisms have only worked for me in one film: SLC Punk!, which takes the time to dig under the surface of his character's outward posturing.

28 Days Later (2002)
What Works: Danny Boyle is above all else a stylist, which makes the horror genre a good fit for his talents.  28 Days Later, like his other films, has an exciting and inventive energy that rarely ceases to entertain.  Up-and-coming actors Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris give believable and heartfelt central performances.

What Doesn't: The third act in which our heroes are "rescued" by a troop of psychotic soldiers is disappointing.  The new antagonists are two-dimensional baddies that aren't nearly as terrifying as the zombies that dominated the first two-thirds of the film. Boyle almost makes up for this slight with his cool visuals, but he loses me again when he chooses to end the film on a syrupy high note as opposed to the bleak conclusion that he and screenwriter Alex Garland had originally planned.

The Ring (2002)
What Works: The scenario is intriguing: there is a videotape that kills anyone who dares to watch it.  The Japanese original, Ringu, did some great things with this premise, but left plenty of room for improvement.  I find that the American remake is more involving and, like a lot of films on this list, has an amazing look. The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli gives every frame a beautiful blue-green hue, accentuating the perpetually-drizzly Pacific Northwest settings.

What Doesn't: First of all, the cursed videotape is not scary at all.  Like Martin Henderson's character says, it is "very student film" and not something that teenagers would dare each other to watch.  The acting is another problem.  While not altogether terrible, the aforementioned Henderson is bland and the bug-eyed David Dorfman makes a very unconvincing child.  I have never seen a screen family as unrealistic as the trio in this movie.  Even an actress as accomplished as Naomi Watts (see her entry in my Great Performances series) cannot make us believe that her character actually cares about either one of them.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)/The Devil's Rejects (2005)
What Works: Rob Zombie has an obvious affection for the grizzly grindhouse thrillers of the 1970s.  Both of his "Firefly family" films get the details right, from the backwoods Texas locations to the balls-to-the-wall performances from genre luminaries Sid Haig and Bill Moseley.  Zombie also thankfully forgoes the recent trend of watering down horror movies in order to attain the dreaded PG-13 rating.  House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects are gleefully graphic and all the better for it.

What Doesn't: I have a problem with rooting for the bad guys in horror films.  It greatly reduces the fear factor because nothing really seems to be at stake.  There are no surprises and no obstacles to overcome - the "good guys" just line up to get slaughtered.  Once you start rooting for the Freddy Kruegers the movies stop being horror and start shifting more towards (boring) action or worse, comedy.  There is no question that we are supposed to be on the side of the Firefly family and these two films lose a lot of potential scariness because of this.

Saw (2004)
What Works: Again, we have an interesting premise: two men wake up in a decrepit public restroom, chained to the wall.  A tape recorder placed on the scene informs them that one of them must kill the other in six hours or his wife and daughter will be murdered.  Oh, and there is also this bone saw...  Anyway, Saw drops us into this situation right away and I for one wanted to stick around to see how that saw was going to be used.

What Doesn't: Two words: Cary Elwes.  I love The Princess Bride as much as the next guy, but man, this is one soul-penetratingly awful performance.  And half of the movie involves us being trapped in a 20x20 room with nothing but him and his theatrical ambitions.  OK, there is another man in the room played by Leigh Wannell, the film's co-writer, who is not that bad.  But, neither main character is likable or relatable.  And as we know, this spells doom for a movie trying to be scary.

Hostel (2005)
What Works: Once the film arrives at the titular resort, director Eli Roth kicks things into high gear.  The phrase "torture porn" gets thrown around a lot with Hostel, but I don't think that's fair.  It is very gory, yes, but the scenes where the protagonists are brutalized are highly suspenseful.  This is not gore for gore's sake.  Like Rob Zombie, director Eli Roth recognizes that his material can only work if he pushes the limits of on-screen violence.

What Doesn't: The first half of the film drags on interminably.  We spend this time with two American frat-boy assholes and their Icelandic fratboy asshole friend as they traipse around Europe looking for sex and drugs.  The actors do what they can, but Roth's script doesn't allow any of them to do anything that isn't obnoxious or annoying.  The only reason the second half of the film did work for me was Roth's craftsmanship, not his writing.


  1. I would have to add Neve Campbell's mid-sentence inhaling, nostril flaring, and utterly unsympathetic performance to what doesn't work for Scream...

  2. Is your.............brain leaking? I actually like Neve Campbell's performance.

  3. I think your full of shit when it comes to The Shinning, Jack Torrance being crazy the whole time is what made it scary to me, that scene when she looks thoruhg his writing and sees that he typed hundreds of pages of "All work and no play makes jack a dull boy" You can show a guy being crazy all you want but when you see that, you know he's just fucking gone, and has been gone. And I have to say to King, too bad, his book was good but would translate to the screen poorly, what with hedges attacking people. And he blows up something or burns something down at the end, King ends almost all of his books that way, The Shinning, The Stand, Children of the Corn, Firestarter, Carrie,Salem's Lot, Needful things, The Sun Dog, Misery, Under the Dome and thats just what I've read so far, I've only looked at maybe half his body of work.

  4. CJHelton, you're crazy if you think the Shining wouldn't have adapted well to the screen in its original form. In fact, it was probably the most primed and eager of his books to be a film!

    But Kubrick ruined it, no question, Torrance is a 1 dimensional and flat character with no character developement at all. None of the characters in that film are likeable, and it's just an absolute mess that buckles under it's own pompous direction by probably one of the most pompous directors to have lived. And if you honestly didn't think that sequence with the Hedge Animals was scary, then you don't have a soul. Fuck man, Kubrick didn't even have to do any special effects for that. Just show stationary hedge animals that were getting closer to Jack every time he looked away. Simple, effective, and scary, just like in the book!

    Btw, King does have trouble with ending his books, but let's not forget he has written some really great endings as well. Shawshank Redemption? Stand By Me? Blaze? From a Buick 8? The Long Walk? The Dead Zone? Cujo? And possibly his best ending of all time...IT? And to be fair, the ending of Salems Lot ends with them fleeing the town, and the actual burning down is more of an epilogue, not a major plot event.

    1. I think I have to agree with both of you, CJHelton and birchj. Well, sort of.

      When reading The Shining, I also did not think that could translate well to the screen...I dunno, you explain it very well and simply, birchj, but I dunno...something about *seeing* that in a movie, I feel would seem silly.
      BUT, ironically, that was one of the creepiest moments for me when I was reading the book! Ha ha...maybe because I just so happened to be out on my back porch (where my parents have a beautiful garden) and I was reading that bit...gave me chills in the summer heat.

  5. I think Hostel wasn't that bad of movie, but i found Saw to be way over rated! I did like the movies The Ring and 28 Days later!

  6. David Dorfman and Naomi Watts is partly why I loved the Ring. That kid was perfect to me, not all annoying and sappy like most other boys they cast. The only two other kids I've ever liked were the Shining original Danny and Damien in the original Omen.

  7. Bad list imo. The first three films are the only films that actually should be any good. The rest are just hack Hollywood commodity garbage (except for Scream, which is tongue in cheek so it gets a pass). As for the first three, The Shining and American Werewolf are both perfect films (everyone cites The Shining as one of the, if not the best, horror films of all time). The gripes cited for these two are really silly. Kubrick never sticks to a novel, which is awesome, he creates something of his own. By the way, someone else did adapt King's novel verbatim to the screen.. and it was awful.

    That being said, Suspiria is perfect for this list, because it could have been on par with The Shining had it just a few missing components: a better script/dialogue, subtitles rather than dubbing, better acting, more realistic blood, a more developed story/plot/characters.. basically style and atmosphere are king in this film, but everything else leaves something to be desired.

  8. you are so, so, so wrong about scream. that film is perfect from start to finish. the ending delivers 100% and is probably the only time i have ever not been bored during a 'killer reveals all' trope. did you miss the part where the movie is supposed to be simultaneously using AND poking at cliches? that movie is so brilliant because it works on both levels every step of the way. scary as hell and clever as hell. it will probably always be in my top 5 horror films.

  9. With regards to 'The Shining', I only agree with your prognosis if you are talking about the abbreviated theatrical cut (which, for some strange reason, Kubrick actually preferred). The extended cut, however, is much more effective at playing up the suspense of Jack's character being a ticking time bomb. Sure, him being an ordinary man turned nuts by this alpine hotel is scary, but it's not exactly tense. It's really a choice between mystery and suspense; for the sane man driven over the edge rendition, you have a great mystery, but for the ticking time bomb rendition, you have great suspense. I prefer suspense, and Kubrick's extended edition delivers that (while the theatrical cut doesn't really capitalize on this suspense).

  10. I'm actually amazed 'The Amityville Horror' didn't make this list. It didn't even freak me out as a kid. 'The Shining' was way better.. Ah well, this movies review is only one blogger's opinion.