There’s a wonderful video blog entry from Mark Kermode over at the BBC site that articulates something that has irritated me about a number of recent horror films. Watch this first and then we can carry on talking.
Pointless jump scares are one of the quickest ways to put me off a horror film. You know the kind of thing — the heroine is poking around in the creepy old house, and suddenly we get a loud spike of music and a close-up of a hand grabbing her shoulder. This is then revealed to be her boyfriend, who decided it would be a good idea to get her attention this way instead of, say, speaking to her. There is an immediate burst of fright which immediately dissipates into anti-climax.
What Nigel Floyd has identified in this clip is related, but subtly different. It’s the use of jump scares which do actually have some pay-off, in that they’re not just false alarms, but have not actually been “earned” through building up tension or atmosphere. If they’re overused and not given context then the film ends up like cinematic junk food: it sort of hits the spot at the time, but it leaves you feeling unsatisfied in the end.
Jump cuts and the like aren’t new developments in horror films. I remember jumping out of my seat when Jones the cat leaped out of a cupboard in Alien, back in 1979. That scene had a long build-up, though, and the scare with the cat was just the opening to a more sinister revelation. It didn’t just feel like one explosion in a string of firecrackers.
Like Kermode and Floyd, I am not a young man. I sometimes find myself getting irritated while watching a horror film that was obviously made for teenagers, and have to remind myself that I am no longer the target audience. With the boom of horror cinema recently, there are films coming out to appeal to diverse tastes, and this is a good thing.
Still, one of the pleasures of middle-age is being able to complain about the youth of today and how nothing is as good as it was, so thanks to Nigel Floyd for giving me something to be grumpy about.