For today’s sophisticated audience, it’s not all about jump scares – the best horror movies keep playing even if you shut your eyes
There’s nothing like genre junkies to cut to the chase. The glory days of drive-in-theatre critic Joe Bob Briggs may be past (“No dead bodies. One hundred seventeen breasts. Multiple aardvarking. Lap dancing. Cage dancing. Lesbo Fu. Pool cue-fu… Joe Bob says check it out”), but his spirit lives on. While movie critics have been going into raptures over The Conjuring – comparing its director James Wan to David Lynch, calling his direction “rhapsodic”, finding his film “a metaphor for moviegoing itself” – horror afficionados have been getting down to basics: how many jump scares does it have? And: are they the right sort?
You know jump scares. The moment in a horror film when the protagonist wipes the steam from a bathroom mirror and sees the psycho standing behind them. The hand coming out of the grave at the end of Carrie. The axe in the back of Scatman Crothers in The Shining. The bed-swallowing in Nightmare on Elm Street. According to The Verge:
“A well-done jump scare breaks down the same way Michael Caine describes illusions in The Prestige, with three distinct steps. First there’s the pledge: a character is introduced into a situation where danger is present. They hear a rattling in the kitchen, or voices when they’re home alone. Then comes the turn, where the character finds a reasonable explanation, or the immediate threat is somehow removed.
Everything seems all right, and the audience lets its guard down. That’s when the filmmakers execute the prestige, hitting an unsuspecting audience with the actual scare – usually accompanied by a shrieking music cue or sound effect.”
The only trouble being that finding an unsuspecting audience these days is like looking for a virgin at summer camp. We’re so well versed in the shot rhythm of the jump scare that audiences get them ahead of the beat: all you need do is cut to a closeup of your heroine, and the audience is tensing it’s abdominals in preparation.
“Deafening noises, bursts of music, faces materializing from nowhere can make the heart skip, send popcorn flying from tubs and reduce one to watching a screen through woven fingers, but after going home and surviving the night, all the just-a-cat moments and demon faces and gore slip from the mind,” said Jake Cole at Film.com. While admitting that “some jump scares are so ingeniously executed they take on a life of their own,” the fact remains: “Jump scares don’t cause nightmares.”
Nicely said. Early word was that The Conjuring, James Wan loving homage to the days of The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, was full of them. “We’ve seen swarms of birds, levitating furniture and chaotic third-act exorcisms before, even down to its very last shot, The Conjuring demonstrates a scary – and welcome – amount of care,” said William Goss at Film.com. The movie was choc-a-block with jump scares, but they punched their weight. “Each of the scares are actually pretty creative in their jump,” said Ain’t it Cool. This was music to the ears of all the horror fans out there, their senses dulled by too many it-was-just-a-cat and oh-it’s-the-caretaker. The debate over jump scares goes back to Hitchcock’s famous definition between shock and suspense, delivered to Francois Truffaut in 1962:
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
Hitchcock didn’t stick to his own rule, of course, delivering some of the most famous jump scares of all in Psycho: the shower scene, the knife attack on Arbogast, the revelation of Mrs Bates in the basement. It’s the main reason Psycho, of all his films, hasn’t worn so well: shock dates, but suspense does not.
The best horror movies keep playing even if you shut your eyes – they beat on the backs of your eyelids, like ideas that can’t be shut away. Very little of The Shining takes place during the night and the maze in which Nicholson freezes over at the end – Kubrick’s invention, not King’s – could be an allegory for a man trapped in his own mind. A very Kubrickian nightmare, to be sure – shutting yourself in with the maniac – but also a reminder that there are no exteriors in the best horror movies, only interiors, no bogeyman worse than a stray thought. Cole’s top 10 of atmospheric shockers is excellent. Here is mine:
Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg (1973)
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1958)
Nosferatu (FW Murnau, 1922)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)