How can anyone find satisfaction in watching gratuitous violence, sex and predictable deaths over and over again with very little variation? What is it about the “bad” scary movie that makes me sit down and watch a movie like Friday the 13th (2009), or Scream 4 with the hope of rolling a perfect 6?
I’m not talking about a movie that’s so bad it’s good (in fact most of these movies have decent imdb ratings). There are bad movie fans who will gleefully sit down and watch bad movies to laugh at them (and yes, I am occasionally among them). We’re not discussing Ed Wood’s cult following. I’m talking about a generic scary movie, the type that Scream tried to satire and ended up being known as. Most scary movie fans will agree that there are more bad ones than good. For every arguably good Saw, there is a Saw 4. Yet, I will watch all of them, and enjoy them very much.
Take the last generic scary movie I decided to watch, Friday the 13th, the newest version. I could tell you after five minutes of watching the main characters which of them would die, and I could give a pretty good guess about the order. Yet, I still watched the whole ordeal.
Perhaps there’s something about the predictability that’s comforting. It’s like watching romantic comedies. You know they’re going to end up together, and many of the jokes will be the same. The setting might be different, New York, Rome or maybe a trip to Las Vegas, but the characters will have the same personality “quirks” to tell you that they’re all human, and all “likable.”
With generic scary movies you’ll get the “virgin” who has the best chance of survival. The good boyfriend, who might sacrifice himself, or be falsely (or rightly) accused. The bad boyfriend or just friend, who’s so much of an asshole you’ll be cheering while he’s being disemboweled, and the slut, or sluts most likely, all of which will die in horrible ways after they’ve showed you their tits, or sometimes while they’re showing you their tits.
Anyone who has watched just a few of these types of movies will recognize the plot structure immediately. Groups of college friends somehow end up isolated and get hunted down one by one.
Scream came out in 1996, when I was 9. It was my first scary movie and it explained it all. I was prepared by this movie, and because of this I’ll never tire of them, even though I haven’t been genuinely frightened by one in a long time (I have, however, been scared by “good” scary movies, not to mention the wave of Japanese horror, though I’m working up a tolerance for them too, unfortunately). After Scream I devoured I Know What You Did Last Summer (and its sequel), Urban Legend, Scream 2 and 3, as soon as they came out. I was hooked.
I think my enjoyment is always at its greatest when I’m actually surprised by some small detail that feels original or breaks with the rules, but not too much! If it breaks all the rules, it’s not a bad scary movie after all. Take Friday the 13th: I found myself connecting with a character, which rarely happens, thanks to Jared Padalecki’s great acting. I also enjoyed the order and execution of the deaths (pun intended, sorry). I’m always constantly evaluating the deaths. It’s like a show-case for good make-up and effects (for example, a physical effect is usually better than a CGI death), and it’s not just about realism. In my book a movie can roll a 5 just for the creativity of the deaths, the more ridiculous the better. Or alternatively, surprising gritty realism might get me too.
There is definitely something about the combination of rules, surprises, creative effects and archetypes that appeals to the betting person in me. I like to make a mental guessing game and see how many plot points and deaths I can guess, only when I lose, I actually enjoy it even more.
So, what makes a good bad scary movie? Browsing imdb, they’re clearly not the bottom of the barrel when it comes to bad movies. Even Scream 4 has a 6.4 rating, which in my book is more than worth a watch. Parody movies, by comparison, seem to score lower and lower with every attempt (please note these figures are not based on any deep research). Scary movies are not thrillers in my book. The Orphanage is a scary movie, yes, but it’s not a “scary movie”, if you get my meaning. So why do I love them?
I think in the end it’s all about a balance: ridiculous deaths, predictable plots and characters, need to be combined with a slightly original setting or twist, but not too many surprises or else you’ll alienate your audience (or just me, I don’t know).
Making a bad scary movie is quite an art.