Stephen King: Why Hollywood can’t do horror
While walking back to my Boston hotel after a surprisingly well-attended Tuesday afternoon showing of Bryan Bertino’s horror thriller The Strangers, I found myself musing on what’s scary and what’s not. Whatever it is, The Strangers had enough of it to do incredibly well at the box office. But what makes such a little film with only one star (Liv Tyler) work in the first place? That the question interests me shouldn’t amaze anyone, since I’ve worked in the scare-‘em-silly field for years. And it must be of vital interest to Twentieth Century Fox, which this summer releases two movies in the genre with much higher budgets: The Happening and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The Happening was better than I expected, but it wasn’t as scary as The Strangers. As for The X-Files (out July 25)? Children, I have my doubts.
One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the 10 or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage. Among those that truly work are Carnival of Souls, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and The Blair Witch Project. All cost almost nothing to make and earned millions, while their sequels and remakes were crap (Dawn of the Dead in both its incarnations being the exception that proves the rule).
Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself, and when it works, the screams of a sold-out house are almost intrusive. In that sense, a movie such as Blair Witch is more like poetry than like the ”event films” that pack the plexes in summer. Those flicks tend to be like sandwiches overstuffed with weirdly tasteless meat and cheese, meals that glut the belly but do nothing for the soul. Studio execs, who not only live behind the curve but seem to have built mansions there, don’t seem to understand that most moviegoers recognize all the bluescreens and computer graphics of big-budget films and flick them aside. Those movies blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge.
NEXT PAGE: ”Horror is an unknown actress, perhaps the girl next door, cowering in a cabin with a knife in her hands we know she’ll never be able to use.”