Critical Condition: Computer-generated fear fails to frighten

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November 7, 2008

3:14 AM

Recently UCAB showed the horror classic “The Shining”. I had never seen it before and was eager to finally discover what the hype was about. I wasn’t disappointed either. It was full of suspense and subtle humor, and all the actors were fabulous. Yet despite these selling points, what stuck out most about the film was its lack of computer-generated images. That’s not a bad thing.

Most horror movies today focus on some computer-generated monstrosity terrorizing brain-dead celebrities, yet the most gripping parts usually take place before the monster is even revealed. That’s the opposite of how it should be. When we finally see what sort of creature is causing trouble, we should be wetting ourselves, not snickering to our friends.

“I Am Legend” is the perfect example of special effects destroying a movie. Its best moments involve nothing more than Will Smith and his dog traveling around New York City. Watching the computer-generated lions and zombies in action is about as painful as watching Gilbert Gottfried, the guy who played the parrot in “Aladdin,” do standup.

The fact is, a zombie movie should have scary-looking zombies. The idea of zombies themselves isn’t what makes them frightening. It is all that decaying flesh and the image of something that once was human but is no longer. The zombies in “I Am Legend” looked more like rejected character models from an Xbox video game. This saddened me deeply, especially since the zombies in classic horror films like George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” looked creepy; they were played by real people with real makeup and prosthetics. No fancy graphics were used then — they didn’t exist.

And did anyone see “The Descent?” It looked like it would be as scary as a movie could be — a bunch of people get trapped in a dark cave with monsters. I watched the first 15 minutes or so, but the moment the creatures came on screen, my friends and I laughed and popped in another DVD. “The Hills Have Eyes” and “House of Wax” are equally bad, if not worse. I’m finding it harder and harder to think of more good horror movies than bad ones.

So, why is this happening? Well, in many cases, it comes down to money. Believe it or not, it’s cheaper to stick in a computer-generated image for a big monster, a dark cloud or whatever the creature-of-the-week is rather than hire some makeup wizards to conjure up a real-life nightmare for each day of filming. And the more impressive a makeup job, the longer it takes to apply. In “X2,” Alan Cumming spent four hours each day getting into his Nightcrawler makeup. He hated it so much he refused to come back for the third film, no matter how much cash they threw at him. Obviously, it takes a special actor with special patience to withstand such trials.

The long-term effect of the easier road is negative, however. Things that looked cool in movies 10 years ago just look stupid today. Take “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” for example. It’s probably the best action film there is. The film’s villain, made of a futuristic liquid metal, wowed audiences when the movie was released. Today, however, flash games on your PC have more sophisticated graphics. That’s why films shouldn’t bank on their tech to make them big hits or classics — I’m looking at you, George Lucas (director, “Star Wars”). This advancement in technology can’t be avoided, but it can be planned for.

It all comes back to what scares people. We’re all desensitized to violence these days, so that isn’t it. Who hasn’t found themselves browsing through YouTube videos of random strangers nearly killing themselves? It’s one of my favorite pastimes, and perhaps that’s why blood and guts just don’t sell my ticket. I think the thing that makes great horror movies great is their subtlety. Suspense, timing and character development are all imperative in making a movie utterly terrifying. If you don’t care about the action on screen, it isn’t going to terrify you. Most modern horror movies trade all that in for a video-game reject. Its no surprise they’re not as successful.

__Matthew Falwell is a Critical Condition columnist. He has taken it upon himself to design a more frightening zombie for “I Am Legend.”__

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