What Do Horror Audiences Want?

10/12/2010 1:18 PM |

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If you follow box office at all, you might have noticed that Let Me In, the critically acclaimed remake of the critically acclaimed Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, died a pretty pathetic financial death a couple weekends ago. This is surprising inasmuch as (a.) vampires are so hot right now (right?), and (b.) even non-hit horror movies tend to make an okay amount of money, say eight to twelve million, on their opening weekends; this is a major reason why studios release horror movies. Let Me In, though, was actually beaten (if only by a few thousand dollars) by the long-shelved and mostly unscreened Renee Zellweger horror vehicle Case 39.

Having already seen and loved Let the Right One In, my enthusiasm for Let Me In is probably more muted than it should be—probably because it’s so faithful to its predecessor. Regardless, Let Me In stands a decent chance of remaining the best U.S. horror movie of the year, and it’s being done in by a mixture of completely indifference at the outset and, I’d imagine, having seen the movie at a screening and read anecdotal accounts, some fairly hostile crowds expecting a creepy-kid-creature movie and getting a slow, creepy, meditative, beautifully shot actual movie.

This got me thinking about audience reactions to horror movies, which I see in theaters fairly often.

“Audience reaction,” of course, is just as nebulous as “critical reaction”—you can use numbers like second-weekend drop-offs or CinemaScore polls as sort of populist versions of Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s not as if the loudest or most noticeable members of an audience speak for everyone, just as “the critics” rarely speak in unison (even if it sometimes seems that way). Nonetheless, I’ve noticed more audience hostility to horror movies than any other genre, despite what seems like an example of genre-specific low standards (or at least willingness to see a large percentage of genre output; how often will a movie be expected to make a certain amount of money because, hey, it’s a comedy? Or hey, it’s science fiction?).

Take, for example, the recent faux-documentary horror picture The Last Exorcism. It’s not as brilliantly creepy as Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, but as far as slow-building first-person horror with surprisingly strong character development, it’s well on par with, say, Quarantine: an effective second-tier exercise. When it comes to its conclusion, my audience flipped out, not from terror or excitement, but a weird sense of disappointment that… I’m not quite sure. That it cut off abruptly without any bigger scares? That it made no sense? I think it was something like a collective “that’s it?!” It was a reaction I’ve heard at the end of so many horror movies: basically, a vocal group “WTF?!” with little discernible target.

Now, the ending to this movie is no triumph of imagination or even terror. In fact, it is easily its weakest section as the next generation of faux-doc horrors paint themselves into narrative corners. Perhaps I’m exercising snobbery by assuming that the horror audience—noisy, restless, young—was not expressing disbelief that a well-drawn, character-driven horror movie could end with a series of half-hearted, disappointing cliches. But having observed this reaction so many times, sometimes chased with actual boos or hisses, including at even better movies like Paranormal Activity, I don’t think that’s what the audience is getting at. In horror movie after horror movie, from good to bad to mediocre, I’ve heard passionately negative responses (groans, laughter, boos) that don’t seem warranted as responses to horror boilerplate or sometimes even reasonably logical or satisfying conclusions. There is this sense of abiding disappointment, a feeling that the audience was expecting something far more awesome and mind-blowing than what they got. (Do people do this at Katherine Heigl movies? Because while it would be, in a sense, even less warranted based on reasonable expectations, I have to admit it would crack me up.)

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At the same time, horror audiences are, at least in my NYC experience, the apotheosis of the puzzling trend of people packing up and getting ready to leave the theater as soon as possible; basically, as soon as you can assume that the climax is over (even ignoring the convention of one last cheap scare). Again, it’s tempting to project our own critical problems and read this as knowing practicality; well, that was a waste of time, and why spend another two minutes on it? Yet if it’s only important to know whether the demon is vanquished or the slasher temporarily halted, isn’t it sort of bizarre to go to a horror movie at all? Like people who come to movies to half-watch the screen as they text or talk or make phone calls, this frustrates not just my sense of audience decorum but my curiosity: you’re eager to get here, and then you seem extremely eager to leave; what are you actually seeking from this experience?

I’m honestly curious about what these audience members would consider their, as a friend of mine called it, “platonic ideal of a horror movie.” I can tell you—again, anecdotally, based on box office patterns and what I overhear from horror fans—that they like The Ring and the first Saw. But those movies came out eight and six years ago, respectively. I’ve seen a fair number of good ones since then, but usually met with—at best!—the type of audience indifference that might greet the Nightmare on Elm Street remake; at worst, a sort of inarticulate hostility (mini tea parties in the movie theater!).

Yet these audience members, despite some john-like post-climax exit strategies, aren’t walking out en masse after twenty minutes; they stick around long after it’s clear that movies like Let Me In and The Last Exorcism are going to have, you know, talking and character development and atmosphere (even if it makes them giggle). So it seems like they think something can happen in the last ten or fifteen minutes of these movies to completely make all of that boring dialogue and cinematography totally worth it. What is this catharsis, I wonder?

I’m picturing some kind of insane twenty-minute gore marathon-slash-explosion, maybe, like the centerpiece section of that Piranha remake. But I’m pretty sure if some hilariously ghoulish Aja-by-way-of-Savini gore chased the wintry chill of Let Me In or the pragmatic relative realism of Exorcism, audiences would laugh at the crazed looniness, not jump up and applaud. They could be hoping for a mind-blowing twist: tiny vampire was human the whole time.

In a way, the persistence is touching, in a mildly stupid sort of way: genre fans—kids who go on a date every time a new slasher movie comes out, not horror nerds who worship Romero and early Carpenter—will stick around for a movie they don’t even like for the possibility that it will give them a gigantic experience-redeeming scare, a BOO! to end all BOO!s, at the end of the night. After all, no one really talks about their favorite scene from The Ring or Saw; they talk about their favorite parts: the part where the little girl comes out of the TV, the part where the guy chops off his own foot. Maybe that’s the problem with horror movies depending so much on gut reactions: you mainly notice when it’s not there.

4 Comment

  • The same kind of question could be asked of SPLICE, the science fiction/horror film which saw a bit of controversy on the Internet over those who read it as an intelligent piece of sci-fi, and those who felt it was sorely lacking. The latter view came down to what was seen as a disappointing and cliched ending. I thought the film was a good sci-fi effort along the lines of MOON but not as good overall, interacting with key scientific and ethical questions of our time. Given the negative assessment of many to SPLICE, like you I wonder, “What do horror audiences want?”

    John Morehead
    TheoFantastique.com

  • John, Splice is another great example I wish I had remembered when writing this piece! Splice definitely went in a horrific direction, but it didn’t seem to be enough to satisfy the more high-minded horror fans (who may have felt it was another phoned-in climax a la The Last Exorcism — although the Splice ending was a lot better than that one) yet was too WTF?!?! for genre fans who want something messed-up violent or disturbing maybe, but not something messed-up WEIRD that actually interacts with the movie’s themes. I remember reading that movie’s CinemaScore marks were incredibly low, and probably an even-more-conventional ending would’ve boosted them a little.

  • As a Cronenberg nut, is Splice worth my time?

  • Jeff, I’d say so, unless you love Cronenberg so much that an imitation would drive you crazy with its inferiority. But Splice has, to my eyes, a welcome Cronenberg influence that can’t really compete with, say, The Fly, but is still a lot of squishy fun.