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Criticwire Survey: Scary Movies That Don't Scare You

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by Sam Adams
November 4, 2013 9:46 AM
2 Comments
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'The Exorcist'
'The Exorcist'

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Leave your own response in the comments, and send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Now that Halloween horror-movie recommendations are out of the way, what's a scary movie that doesn't scary you at all?

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend

The Shining. I know, I know, it's a classic. It's iconic. It's Kubrick! But it's just never scared me. I distinctly remember viewing it the first time. I'd been dedicatedly watching whatever horror movies I could get my hands on, be it by renting weird looking movies from the video rental store (like Evil Dead and It), watching them at older friends' homes (mostly slashers like Psycho, Halloween and Friday the 13th movies) or sneaking freaky flicks at home when my parents weren't around (Child's Play(s), Poltergeist(s), and Gremlins on repeat). But The Shining somehow stayed out of my grasp. As a budding cinephile I knew it was a must-see, but when I sat down to finally watch it, it just felt slow and dull, not scary. 

Maybe it was because I was used to more garishly gory fare. Maybe it was because some of its most memorable scenes I had seen as out of context clips or parodies long before I finally saw it. It's really anyone's guess. I did give the film another shot a few years back, and once more was just bored. Well, that's not entirely true. I think it's beautifully shot. But scary? I just don't see it.

Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly/The A.V. Club


Having missed A Nightmare on Elm Street back in the day, I finally caught up with it not long ago and was singularly uncreepedout. (If Shakespeare could coin words at will, so can I!) Maybe you had to experience Freddy Krueger before the endless sequels turned him into a wisecracking pop-culture icon, but he seems a terribly generic threat in the first picture, and the whole is-it-a-dream? business is clumsily telegraphed throughout. I actually prefer A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, which at least boasts a fascinating (if problematic) gay subtext in which Freddy is the hero's projected figure of self-loathing.

Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post

I saw The Exorcist long after its first release, and I've talked about how much I loathe it -- a viciously anti-woman film. So here I get to mention, I guess, that I also found the special effects ludicrous -- the revolving head, the pea soup, the levitation, what have you. I don't believe in the devil, much less in demonic possession, and all that flapping around, talking in Latin and handwringing over her soul... I was rooting for Regan. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I'm probably not the ideal subject for this question, inasmuch as I'm the scarediest of scaredy-cats. As a rule, being in that dark theater virtually guarantees that absolutely anything that goes "boo" is going to freak me the hell right out. But I suppose my most noteworthy example to the contrary was my first (and thus far only) viewing of Repulsion last year. As much as I could admire the formal elements, it simply felt like it started from a place where protagonist Carol had already pretty much lost her mind, allowing little opportunity for unsettling buildup. For me, fear is most often about waiting for the worst to happen; when we see examples of the worst happen right off the bat, dread evaporates.

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

Paranormal Activity. Such a rip-off. Nothing even remotely scary about it.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

I'm going with The Exorcist. I like the movie a lot, but it just never terrified me, which I realize is the common response for most of its fans. I didn't see The Exorcist for the first time until a few years ago, so I think it can mostly be chalked up to having seen so many parodies or references to a lot of the film's most recognizable or iconic elements that there was no surprise left in any of the story. Had I seen the movie, say, during its 2000 re-release in theaters, or if I'd avoided the movies that mocked it, like Scary Movie 2 (and, sidebar, I do dearly wish I'd never seen that tripe), maybe it would've spooked me. As it stands, I find The Exorcist tense and, in its second half, relentless in a pulpy way. Just not scary.

Kevin B Lee, Fandor

While watching The Conjuring, my imagination conjured another horror movie scenario: a horror movie fan watches The Conjuring and, while acknowledging its handsome craft and effective fulfillment of genre expectations, can't help but notice how it's like so many horror films he's seen before. He revisits some of these films to console himself, but now he is startled to find himself watching them as if through new eyes. Now he can only see the same horror story formulas and filmmaking tricks run through relatively small variations, like slight twitches of the same puppet strings pulling at the visceral response mechanisms of his brain. He tries to share his experience with his friends, but they either don't know what he's talking about or don't really care to know. Alienated from his friends and the films he's loved all his life, he falls into a suicidal depression, as if he was possessed by the same demon in The Conjuring. And that's when he realizes that this episode may just be his own version of The Conjuring. Thrilled by this possibility of actually living a real life horror film, he decides to follow the film's example and exorcise himself of his terrible thoughts. He buys a crucifix, uses it to scrape out the critical thinking part of his cerebrum, and returns to being a contented viewer. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Popmatters

It's difficult to be fair to an older horror film. Anything that truly upsets the zeitgeist gets so plagiarized and re-referenced in subsequent films and commercials and other pop culture ephemera that by the time you actually see it, through no fault of its own, it's already been broken down and commodified, losing much of its edgy, daring impact in the process. I once showed Psycho to a group of high schoolers and their boredom was palpable. That said, I finally got a chance to watch Rosemary's Baby a few years ago, and it just felt silly and dated: One of those films where you knew so much more than the dunderheaded protagonist, it seemed as if they deserved to get what was coming to them. I am not happy about this, but as good as it might have been, it was lost to me. The lesson? Watch brilliant horror movies as fast as you can and don't listen to anyone else talk about them until you do. 

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com

I suppose being scared is a slightly different emotion from a feeling of dread and unease.  The former never happens to me anymore. Not because I am desensitised to violence, but because horror films have never really scared me to begin with.  Earlier this summer, for example, critics and normal people couldn't shut up about how scary The Conjuring was, and then I watched it, shuffling in my seat, mildly enjoying the anachronistic camera work. A feeling of dread and unease, on the other hand, I get from any old film. I have naturally high blood pressure and that might be one of the reasons I can feel very nervous during even the most pedestrian of tense scenes. That, and the fact that I am a pussy.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

I've spent the month of October avoiding horror-movie recommendations; it's not a genre I have any particular interest in -- in fact, I don't have any particular interest in any genre, or in genre as such, which is of use mainly to the marketing department (although the Western is the supreme political genre and musicals are great if you like music). That said, Night of the Living Dead never scared me, never shocked me, never amused me, never moved me, never impressed me; it would have been better if it had made by Ed Wood, a much less skilled but much more inspired director.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

I wanted my first viewing of The Exorcist to be traumatic, so I turned off all the lights in what was then our middle-of-the-woods home and watched it on a night when my wife was out of town with friends. Instead of an evening filled with nightmares as I'd anticipated, the subsequent sleep was one of the more peaceful ones I've had. 

Robert Levin, amNewYork

I appreciate M. Night Shyamalan, or at least the work he did in his late 90s-early aughts prime. But The Sixth Sense offers moody atmospherics and one-note pop-psychology, not scares. Would there have been the same degree of fuss without the iconic twist ending? I bet not.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I'm afraid of everything.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

It depends on what you mean by "scare." To me, a great horror film does more than just give you the occasional jump-out-of-your-seat jolt; great horror has the power to cut deeper, to creep you out and disturb you. So sure, I'll admit that I can be pretty susceptible to, say, James Wan's recent jump-scare-a-thons Insidious and The Conjuring, so those horror films basically "worked" for me. However, I can't recall the last time I encountered a horror film that went beyond such superficial jolts to truly shake me to the core (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was the last movie I can recall that affected me in that way, and it's debatable how much that one actually fits into the horror genre). 

Seeing Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre again at Film Forum recently, though, I was reminded that, as far as F.W. Murnau's original 1922 Nosferatu goes, there's a horror film that admittedly has never really "scared" me in that deeper way I describe above. Don't take that to mean that I don't think it's as great a film as its reputation, by any means; it's just that I tend to admire it as a piece of filmmaking more than I have a viscerally horrified reaction to it. (Herzog's Nosferatu, on the other hand, I did find creepier and more evocative than I remembered seeing it on DVD years ago -- but then, I saw the Herzog in a theater on 35mm; I have yet to see Murnau's original theatrically, so maybe that makes a difference.)

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

This is a very interesting question, because our taste in horror films is probably more psychologically revealing than our taste in any other genre. When a movie scares us, it's often because we bring our own particular fears and neuroses into the theater with us for the film to exploit. For instance, after seeing The Blair Witch Project for the first time back in 1999, I literally didn't sleep for four nights. Make of that what you will. On the other hand, you've got a film like Session 9. So many trusted colleagues and friends were freaked out by this movie, and it completely left me cold. I don't think that's a statement on the quality of the filmmaking. It's more that the particular ideas that film was selling are not the ones that send chills up my spine. Such is the nature of the genre.

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

I find that a film's quality and its ability to scare me are almost completely unrelated. A haunted hayride could scare me, and so could almost any film with a long, slow walk down a dark hallway where I know something is lurking. That particular brand of tension is almost unbearable for me and get's me every time. 

On the flip side, plenty of classic horror movies creep me out or disturb me without ever really making me sweat. So, while The Shining is brilliant, unnerving and as mad and obsessive as Jack Torrance himself, it doesn't really scare me. I don't even think that's Kubrick's goal, so it's by no means a knock on the film. The Shining feels like a horror film made by someone who's never seen a horror film, and that's part of the reason why it's so effective.

Adam Batt, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

My favorite scary movies are ones which affect in a more conceptual way. Things like Orson Welles' The Trial, or Jonathan Glazer's Birth, or even Mulholland Dr. which, while not a horror film per se, is probably my scariest movie. Flipping back, and in answer to the question, I guess it's the more obvious fare that doesn't bother me. While a Saw movie or the average franchise remake may be disturbing in their gratuity and in the extremes plundered in an attempt to shock, I nary find them to be particularly frightening. 

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I had a great time watching Cabin in the Woods but not because it scared me. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's mashup did leave me with a big smile on my face, thanks to its savvy understanding of the predictable horror-isms that pretty much define the genre and how easily they can be turned on their ear. While the Scary Movie series has gone for the same effect, with a more financially successful result, Cabin is more clever, dare I say, sophisticated, and far more consistent.

Josh Larsen, Filmspotting, LarsenOnFilm.com

The Exorcist unsettles me in its Father Damien dream sequence, but just when that should be building into something truly terrifying, the movie throws its infamous possession sequences at us, which have always been tying too hard to truly frighten me.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

As someone who saw all seven Saw films in the theater during their theatrical release, I have an appreciation for horror films. But I've been nonplussed by Eli Roth's work, starting with Cabin Fever and continuing through Hostel. The only thing that scares me about his films is all the praise he receives.

Pat Padua, DCist, Spectrum Culture

The original Vanishing. It's not something I'd want to try out, but the climactic scene didn't scare me a bit. Maybe I spent too many hours in a dark movie theater.

Sean Hutchinson, CriterionCast + Latino Review

I think this question is a little misleading because -- to paraphrase a recent Film School Rejects piece -- scary movies are generational and subjective. That video of kids watching John Carpenter's original Halloween now has been circulating around the internet recently and it's drawn the ire of a lot of people, but what does it matter that some snot nosed brats don't think the original Halloween is scary? If it's effectively scary to you then that means so much more than someone else not breaking a sweat. Not everyone is going to be scared by a film you find terrifying, but singling out a particular film you can make it through without being scared is kind of meaningless because of horror's particular subjectivity. 

Jeff Berg, Local OQ

Scary movie that doesn't scare me: The Shining. It has moments, but for some reason I've just never been see what the big deal was beyond the good performances by everyone involved. Guilty pleasure film that still scares me is Phantasm. Yeah, I know.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

Not many of them really anymore, sad to say. But most recently The Conjuring left me cold.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont'd)

I think a perfect recent example would be Francis Ford Coppola's recent and truly underrated (given it didn't even get released in theaters) horror movie Twixt. In the film, Coppola plays the film's scary narrative to be a bit of a dime store feel, something that reflects the half-thrown together story of its protagonist, Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer). But as the film dives between dreams and reality (or is reality just a dream?), it finds "horror" moments -- gruesome blood oozing out of necks, terrible guilt related to the past, and much of the supernatural. But Coppola has no interest in losing us in these horrors to make us fear things, to scare us -- instead, it uses horror as comedy, as a delightful mystery, as a space for surreal imagery, and, to steal a phrase from Bill Ryan (and do some shameless plugging of his conversation with Keith Uhlich on my site), a form of grief therapy. And what do ya know? it's on Netflix Instant now, so give it a spin.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

This is the first week I have the same answer for both questions: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Slavoj Zizek's musings on our enjoyment of ideology, and the fact that stepping out of it hurts, are a great starting point for Sophie Fiennes' documentary. From Coca-Cola as the perfect commodity, full of metaphysical reality ("The real thing!"), to the Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs with the toy inside (an excessive object with the cause of desire stuck between the two), Fiennes and Zizek do their best to make theoretical concepts understandable in ways others have found scary.

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

James Cameron's Aliens no longer frightens me. I first saw the movie when I was six years old, and it gave me consistent nightmares for a decade. But when I sucked it up and finally rewatched it, I discovered it's not to bad after all. Now I'll watch Aliens whenever it's on TV or it's a rainy day and I want to curl up with an old favorite.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

Since it's based on a Stephen King novel, I suppose Misery is a horror film by default. However, I've never found the movie version by Rob Reiner all that scary. I like Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning performance as Annie Wilkes quite a bit, and James Caanis no slouch either. But so much of the novel takes place inside the Caan character's head that probably no actor could scare me as much as the book does. Even the "hobbling" scene, the most chilling in the movie by far, is not as horrific as the far more drastic measures Annie uses in the book.

All Is Lost

Q: What is the best movie in theaters right now?

A: Tie: All Is Lost12 Years a Slave

Other movies receiving multiple votes: GravityThe Counselor

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2 Comments

  • scary | November 4, 2013 10:56 AMReply

    It's fun to notice which movies no one mentions-- I don't see anyone mentioning Psycho, Jaws or The Omen, three of my most scary movies.

  • Justin J. | November 4, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    I really only agree that "The Conjuring" and "Cabin In The Woods" are not scary and too reflexive - (only the "Scream" franchise is the true champion of being successful at being 100% reflexive to other horror films and itself). However, if you've watched "The Exorcist" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" as a child, it will always be scary to this day. Both of those films do have a humorous side that makes you laugh because of the vile behavior on both the little Exorcist girl and Freddie Krueger's parts - but that's just what's so twisted - what they are doing and what they think about their actions is absolutely NSFW.

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