The undead are notoriously difficult to manage. It’s why they’re such tempting subjects to explore creatively.
There are tons of horror movies — many depicting creatures from other worlds, but most focusing on our own dead, back to harm us.
The sad thing about all these movies is that most of them are fucking terrible.
I could go on about plot, characterization, and the needless inclusion of nonsensical “twists” at the end.
But today’s beef is ghosts. Silly goddamn ghosts. They look like people with white makeup on. Or they just look like people, period. Making a ghost look like a living person worked in Sixth Sense for plot reasons. Making a ghost look like a living person also made sense for financial reasons, back in the day.
But we live in the now. Special effects have become accessible to most filmmakers. Even indie movies have them. Here are a few suggestions for the making of a good monster.
Here are my top 5 categories of scaries:
Natural-law-breakers. The idea of floating ghosts isn’t new; however, few depictions of gravity-defying ghosts exist on-screen.
An uncanny episode of Buffy named Hush features silent, floating “gentlemen.” Their silence encompasses the area around them, resulting in an episode without speech altogether. Their rictus smiles and eerie drifting haunted me for weeks afterward.
Broken anatomy. The film I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016, Netflix) is subtle, long, and complex. Part of the story mentions a ghost that got twisted around and has to walk backwards everywhere. Though I didn’t care for the film overall, the ending stayed with me. The ghost (above) lurched awkwardly across the screen before the end credits. I can’t get the image out of my head.
Creatures without eyes. There’s something effortlessly fucked up about not being able to look into something’s eyes. You can’t understand or level with something eyeless.
The book Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) has one of the creepiest ghosts I’ve ever read. He’s a man with his eyes scratched out. The protagonist can never look into his eyes because they’re scribbled over, like a destroyed old photograph. The idea of these moving scribbles on a person literally gave me nightmares.
Non-humans. The dead are different from us. (Obviously). So why are they always depicted as us-with-whiteface?
Crimson Peak‘s ghosts were slippery, mangled, colorful monsters.
Beetlejuice had some really goofy mofos flitting around.
The Last Of Us (a video game) takes the concept of ant-brain-devouring fungus and applies it to humans.
If it’s not possible to get ghosts right, why have them in the film at all?
How about this:
Unseen villainy. Blair Witch Project & Paranormal Activity were both cult horror movies featuring found footage. They’re both scary — in part because, I believe, they never show the antagonist. Less is more.
Two movies that blazingly failed at this include Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was about (sigh) evil tooth fairy monsters.
It was creepy when the monsters were in the dark. You could see their hands silhouetted against things, and their eyes glinting in the shadows. Creepy.
Partway through the film, they started showing the monsters in great detail.
They were revealed to be little monkeys with bad dentition.
Not scary any more.
Mama is a film about two feral children rescued from the woods. It’s unclear how they survived for years in an abandoned cabin.
Turns out that the children were raised by a ghost named “Mama.” This mother-ghost followed the kids back into civilization in an effort to get them back.
The first half of the film was graced by a soot-black haunt with long, twisty fingers. The figure shuddered in the shadows. My pulse skyrocketed.
Until I saw Mama’s face.
The actual face of the creature, once revealed, was laughable. Mama’s face looked like it’d been hit by a shovel. She fell out of the ugly-tree and hit every branch on the way down.
The movie was wrecked. It wrapped itself around that ugly-tree in a blaze of special-effects glory.
It never recovered.
In an era of advanced special effects, sometimes the best solution is no solution. If every film stops “showing the monster,” that technique will get old; but maybe a few more stories could take that tack instead of showing laughable monsters or people with sloppy makeup.
All I want is to be scared.
Come on, horror makers: terrify the daylights out of me.