October 19, 2004

Take One

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With Halloween looming, a horde of purportedly unnerving, bloodcurdling films is set for release. This Friday, The Grudge, a remake of the haunting Japanese film Ju-On, opens nationwide. Victims in the film suffer from an enigmatic paranormal curse that inflicts an uncontrollable fury upon them before they die. This unfortunate syndrome spreads rapidly as an American nurse tries desperately to escape it. Also opening on Friday is The Machinist, in which the title character is besieged by a living nightmare. Having endured a year without sleep, his mental health begins to rapidly deteriorate. Equally disconcerting will be the gruesome hostility promised by Saw, a horror flick scheduled to open on Halloween weekend. In this unsettling film, complete strangers find themselves in life-or-death predicaments, all for the distasteful amusement of a sadistic villain.

Of course, it remains to be seen if these films will succeed in frightening audiences. After all, so many alleged horror films wind up as objects of mockery, relative failures when measured against the high standard set by thrillers such as Psycho, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs. What cinematic elements create an exceptional horror movie? A horror film, as distinct from a horrifying film (e.g. Gigli, From Justin to Kelly), need not, for instance, boast special effects of bloodthirsty fiends attacking innocent humans. What are often the most truly horrifying moments are those that insinuate rather than demonstrate. The ability of the actors, and the director, to convey a chilling ambiance, a sense of apprehension and anxiety, and to imply the potential eeriness of an upcoming scene, is much more provocative than blood and gore. The effect of silence in a horror movie is often dynamic.

A successful horror film, then, should include a profound and insightful psychological ingredient, — rationale that the American Film Institute surely considered when they named The Silence of the Lambs the fifth-most thrilling film of the 20th Century. They also named the film’s central character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the greatest villain of all time (while rounding out the top five are Norman Bates in Psycho, Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest). Silence has an uncanny ability to achieve an indescribable, intangible attribute of a good horror movie: that elusive manner in which it manages to creep under our skin. When Lecter challenges Clarice Starling emotionally, the viewer may begin to feel vulnerable as well. One can recognize a good horror movie if it causes even an ephemeral suspension of reality, and when certainty is confused with an illusion, the results can be terrifying.

Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is undoubtedly the benchmark as far as horror film villains go. Author Thomas Harris, who, after a troubled childhood, became enthralled with serial killers, created this character who mixes charm and vice, acumen and extravagance. His disquieting riddles, metallic pitch, and piercing eyes can induce dread in anyone who listens to him. And of course, there was the time he attacked a nurse at the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, chewing out her tongue — and his pulse never went above 85. The psychological aspects of Silence transcend those created by many other serial-killer thrillers, such as Halloween or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Similarly, over the past few years, the most disturbing movies to a large portion of the viewing public seem to have been The Blair Witch Project and The Ring, a sequel to which is scheduled to open March 24. But whether or not the upcoming Halloween releases will scare us as well will depend in large part on their novelty and of course on their ability to get under our skin.

Archived article by Avash Kalra
Sun Staff Writer