Why do people watch horror movies? There are many answers to that question, but I go for the obvious – I enjoy being scared. Whether it’s a jump scare that makes my heart skip a beat or a creepy concept that makes me wonder if something’s lurking in the dark late at night, that fear gives me a welcome jolt. Even as someone who’ll watch anything and everything in the genre, however, there’s always the concern of coming across a disturbingly bad movie. And that doesn’t necessarily have to mean disturbingly bad like Halloween II or The Roommate, but rather films that are so off-putting or have concepts that are so alarming that not only is it impossible to enjoy, but it makes you unhappy.
Admittedly you can’t generalize when writing about what makes a person scared, so here’s a breakdown of the disturbingly good and disturbingly bad from a personal perspective.
It can often feel like filmmakers just use and reuse the same old, tired concepts, but that makes the innovative ones all the more powerful. I’d always watched loads of horror movies, but after beginning a full-time career as a movie critic and reporter, I practically never missed a new release, and when you’re seeing more scary movies, it just makes sense that fewer will feel fresh. So I’d gone years since a film kept me up at night, but then in came Paranormal Activity. We’d seen shaky cam and the found-footage perspective before, but not like this. Katie and Micah felt like real people and their house looked like one you’d drive by on a daily basis, and that very natural presentation made their encounter with a demon all the more terrifying.
It’s one thing to say you’ve never committed a crime so Jigsaw (from Saw) will never come after you, or that you’re not going on a road trip through the middle of nowhere so no vicious mountain mutants will eat you up, but Katie and Micah were two normal people, living in a rather average-looking house. Something like this shouldn’t happen to them, but it did and there was nothing they could do about it, so that means, there’d be nothing you can do about it either. The best part about this type of unease is that you can tell yourself, it’s just a movie. It’s all fake. When else can you experience such a degree of terror and then just write it off in an instant?
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Embarrassingly enough, the first movie that kept me up at night was Killer Klowns from Outer Space. (I was six; give me a break.) But after getting over the fear of being liquidized and gobbled up via a silly straw, I actually started to miss the thought – not the specific thought of being alien "klown" food, but the thrill of the fear of being alien "klown" food.
Jason Goes to Hell
Once I joined the MTV generation, that kick was easy to come by, thanks to late night TV. During my preadolescent years, before it became a family routine to take me to the latest R-rated releases, I got my fix through commercials. The full film gives me the giggles now, but way back when, I’d actually pull the covers over my eyes during the TV spot for Jason Goes to Hell. While that does feel quite silly now, it’s undeniably connected to the types of scares I enjoy today – ones that make you uneasy and then make you laugh at yourself for feeling uneasy because something totally fabricated got the better of you and you enjoyed it.
What I love about this genre -- and the feeling it gives you -- is that these are things that can never happen in real life. When a movie packs the power to make you believe, even just the slightest bit, it’s a thrill. But that’s where we draw that line. Soon after, that feeling should go away and when it doesn’t, then it’s a problem.
I’ve got a major issue with bad things happening to animals on-screen. And I’m not just talking about outright violence. Frankenweenie is a great film, but I can’t recommend it because I couldn’t enjoy it. Sure, Victor brings Sparky back to life, but that’s after the poor pup is hit by a car. That moment gets the waterworks flowing and then having to watch Sparky prance around with those stitches and bolts just keeps the tears coming.
At least Frankenweenie earns that emotion. This new trailer for the upcoming release Scorned, on the other hand, is using animal violence as a device, and it absolutely infuriates me. Based on the promo, the plot of this one is bound to be frustratingly familiar and the acting laughably melodramatic. There’s no judging a final feature by its trailer, but you certainly can judge the choice to include the scene during which AnnaLynne McCord pops her friend’s pup into a microwave. You can’t earn something like that in two minutes and because this trailer doesn’t earn it, it’s the ultimate turnoff and I know I will deliberately avoid this movie come February so I never have to see it again.
Warning: Trailer is NSFW.
The Last House on the Left
There are cases where narratives can go too far and make you totally uncomfortable yet justify that outrageous behavior. Take The Last House on the Left, for example. When the 2009 remake came out, there was nonstop talk about that rape scene. Even though the MPAA forced director Dennis Iliadis to shave off a full minute, the sequence is still an absolutely brutal and deeply upsetting watch.
There’s also no denying, however, that the film wouldn’t be what it is without it. Wanting to fast-forward through a portion of a movie often bears a negative connotation, but that’s not the case with this one. You suffer through that rape scene because it enhances what’s to come. Watching the Collingwoods tear Krug and co. apart is monumentally more exhilarating and satisfying because you understand and feel the motivation.
The Human Centipede II
Call me crazy, but I think The Human Centipede is a good movie. I judge Tom Six for coming up with such a disturbingly twisted scenario, but there’s no denying that it’s clever and well executed. The Human Centipede II, on the other hand, isn’t just a bad movie; it’s insultingly bad.
It’s almost as if Tom Six forgot he’s a filmmaker and just aimed to rub the fame he earned from the first film in everyone’s faces by devising a narrative that essentially mimics the Human Centipede pop-culture mania in the sickest way imaginable. There are no characters to connect to, just loads of absolutely abhorrent visuals, each one trying to outdo the other. Torture porn isn’t really my thing, but films like Saw and Hostel work because they’ve got strong characters and the violence has context. You squirm in your seat because it’s gross, but also because something terrible is happening to a character you’ve come to know and like. Not so in The Human Centipede II. Martin is nearly impossible to look at from beginning to end and all of the other characters might as well be nameless background extras because the movie isn’t about them; the movie is about Six showing off how far he can push the concept and it’s fun for no one but himself.
Martyrs falls under the disturbingly bad category too, but for an entirely different reason. Writer-director Pascal Laugier gives the movie an exceptional amount of range and the large majority of it works very well, but even though it’s successful from a filmmaking standpoint, the turn it takes towards the end is just flat out gratuitous.
There was no staying up late at night and messing with myself by recollecting the eerie imagery; I was up at night and borderline miserable because I was truly disturbed. It had nothing to do with a fear of experiencing what happens to Anna (Morjana Alaoui) or even fearing that such sick people could possibly exist. It was simply about seeing such an awful thing happen. Not that Dr. Heiter’s (Dieter Laser) experiment is any less horrific, but Martyrs has a greater psychological impact. Not only are you shocked by the repulsive visuals, but the thought behind what’s actually happening makes it unusually unsettling.
Again, to each his own, but this is where I draw the line. Similar to riding a roller-coaster, it’s fun to get a good horror movie scare and then move on with your life, whether that happens immediately when the credits roll or after a night or two of checking under the bed. Upsetting films are a different story. We’ve all got enough going on in our lives to fret about; why add movie stress, too? Yes, in an industry where there’s quite a bit of washing, rinsing and repeating we’re in desperate need of fresh material to keep raising the bar, but that doesn’t have to mean scarier, gorier and more shocking. I look forward to continuing to indulge in the genre for my much-needed thrill, but thanks to films like The Human Centipede II and Martyrs, I will keep my guard up.
Where do you fall on the spectrum? When do horror movies go too far for you? Tell us what you find disturbingly good and disturbingly bad!