Maybe it's that my folks had kids relatively late in life, after the Great Depression and WWII were behind them and when they were already in their forties. Or maybe it just came naturally to me. Whatever the reason, I was a sissy when I was a kid - and the Fifties was no decade for sissies. This was the Cold War at its most frigid. Nuclear war often seemed just a push of the button away. We kids did "duck-and-cover" drills at school, while our parents priced fallout shelters.
Hollywood preyed on our fears and profited from them. A great example was "The Amazing Colossal Man," a 1957 black-and-white B-movie about a U.S. Army colonel who gets exposed to plutonium. Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning grows to be 60-feet tall. He subsequently murders the doctor who is trying to cure him, kidnaps (King-Kong style) his girlfriend, trashes Las Vegas, gets horribly deformed by initial efforts to recapture him, and finally (again, King Kong style) engages in a fight to the death (yeah, his) on top of Hoover Dam.
My brother Leo will gleefully tell you - especially if you buy him a beer - that I sat through most of the Saturday matinee of "Colossal Man" with my stocking cap pulled down over my eyes. Include a shot of Jameson's and he'll add that I got so scared that I made him leave early. That night I had a nightmare.
"Colossal Man" and its sequel "War of the Colossal Beast" captured our national nightmare of a nuclear cataclysm. I will go to my grave remaining amazed that no such event ever occurred… that the Evil Empire collapsed under its own dead weight… and that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) actually did deter WWIII.
Today, radiation-induced colossal men have given way on the big and little screens to vampires (e.g., the Twilight films) and the notion of a zombie apocalypse (e.g., "The Walking Dead" TV series). What nightmares of the younger generation do they tap into, I wonder?
I think the driving force behind the horror movies of today is twofold: there is a powerful appetite for realism, but we also want that realism to be more frightening than the realities of our own lives - whether to distract us from those realities or to lessen their impact, I'm not sure. Violence has become unfortunately commonplace, whether it's on the news, in our schools, or on the streets outside our doors, and I do believe that we are all a bit numbed by it. After you've seen a journalist beheaded while sipping your morning coffee, or watched people leap from the burning twin towers, what horrors are left, really?
And so for quite some time, Hollywood endeavored to outdo itself with more carnage and corn syrup than any horror fan could have expected, or wanted. The result was the "torture porn" of the early-to-mid 2000s - movies like "Hostel" and "Wolf Creek" that had little to no plot, but plenty of gore and sadism to satisfy the lowest common denominator. Frankly, the results were often terrible. Many of those movies lacked any sort of imagination or suspense (and thus, any real scares), and only further served to numb the audience. I won't go so far as to speculate that torture porn is a thing of the past ("The Human Centipede 2" just came out last year, after all), but it seems safe to say that its popularity is now mainly restricted to cult followings.
Next came a slew of "found footage" films. Audiences were either tired of or indifferent to scenes of ultra-realistic violence, and the illusion of found footage was the next logical step to making horror feel as realistic as possible. Though "The Blair Witch Project," one of the most well known examples of the genre, came out in 1999, it wasn't until about 2007 that the found footage genre came to Hollywood in full force, beginning with the hugely popular "Paranormal Activity." But after two sequels and countless copycats, that genre feels stale as well. Found footage films continue to trickle out on a semi-regular basis, but they've lost that sought-after feeling of authenticity.
So what will come next? Sadly, I feel that we are sitting smack dab in the Age of the Remake. I couldn't even begin to list all the lazy redos that have come out in the last few years, but just to name a few: "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Silent House." Not all of them have been terrible ("Let Me In," for example, was a good, if unnecessary, remake of the original Swedish film), but it doesn't make the lack of imagination any less pathetic.
Now, what movies scare me? Well, none of them feature prolonged torture or found footage. In complicated times, the scariest movies are full of simple fears. They are the ones that tap into primal, instinctive fears, like the fear of losing your mind (the main question in the superb "Martha Marcy May Marlene"), or the fear of your home being invaded (showcased with terrifying suspense in "The Strangers"). But the scariest movie of the year? Definitely HBO's "Game Change."