One of my favorite horror movies from last year was James Wan’s The Conjuring. I just watched it for the third time this weekend, showing it to someone who had yet to see it, and I was surprised by how easy it was for me to reinvest in the film. Especially since it can flatly be categorized among my least favorite of the horror subgenres – the supernatural thriller.
Sure, you’ve got classics like The Exorcist and Kubrick’s take on The Shining but those rise so far above the bar I’m not sure I’d include them in the genre. Analytically, of course they belong. But I have to work really hard to even remind myself of that because the bulk of movies where “things go bump in the night” (and it may be the total absence of such a trope that helps elevate the Exorcist and Shining for me) are flat out f*cking boring. Even the ones that work for me generally have very little replay value. Something like 2001’s The Others, I remember how amazing Nicole Kidman was in it – I remember the twist ending – and I remember being fairly engaged by the whole thing. Yet, 13 years later, I have absolutely zero desire to spend another 2 hours wandering around that house being quiet with her family. Will I ever watch The Grudge again? Nope. What about Mama? Probably not.
And those are the really good ones! We get a lot of screeners at the site and the vast majority of them seem to be leaning towards supernatural these days. I’m talking a lot of low budget stuff that makes dreck like The Haunting In Connecticut 2: The Ghosts Of Georgia – one of the most painfully dull “respectable” movies in recent memory – seem like Terminator 2. There are only a handful of greats like Poltergeist, and for every one of them there are thousands of barely watchable forays into the unknown.
“But every genre is like that,” you say. And you’re right. The main difference is almost every other genre has some narrative thrust. Their stories are required to move. Not supernatural horror, which is a genre predicated on being as slow and methodical as possible. Except most times the filmmakers leave out the “methodical” part and concentrate solely on the “slow” aspect. This usually means we get to spend the running length of any given supernatural entry watching the director spin their wheels, setting up long shots with zero significance, lulling us to sleep and expecting us to be thankful the minute something even remotely kinetic happens – like a match blowing out, an occurrence that in relation to the rest of the film is practically the third act of a Michael Bay movie.
Even the very worst slashers, replete with stalk and slash scenarios that never pay off, have more to offer. At the very least they have brighter lighting and the internal obligation to kill off a few characters. Supernatural horror often aims for stately, deliberate and classy pleasures – and falls short on every count. I’d rather watch something incompetent and obnoxious than a polite bore any day of the week. Which sort of dovetails into my new cardinal rule, “don’t be boring.” Even if your movie has ghosts, even if it’s about things that go bump in the night, even if it’s a “slow burn” – it doesn’t have to be dull.
What makes The Conjuring work is the fact that it has a story to tell and it goes through the effort of drawing and developing its characters into three dimensional beings. We invest as an audience, and therefore we care about the peril that is created (it also doesn’t hurt that Wan is a master of making otherwise banal moments suspenseful and terrifying). That’s what makes Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Shining work as well. They have actual stories to tell. That’s it, really.
If you have enough story for a movie, make it. If you don’t, make a short.