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It’s time for a horror movie makeover

Want to revive the element of fear in the current glut of horror films? Start by killing off the chianti-and-fava-beans guy once and for all. By Dave White
/ Source: contributor

Oh good. “Hannibal Rising” is here. Finally. I was waiting for that, hanging by a thread, begging for Hollywood to give me more and more and more Hannibal Lecter, to strip every last bit of meat off a bone that’s already been gnawed to the marrow. Because, you know, we needed teen Hannibal in our lives. Hot, Euro, CW-ready teen Hannibal. So tormented. So misunderstood. The Molly Ringwald of serial killers. And “Hannibal Rising” is his “Pretty in Pink.”

No, I haven’t seen “Hannibal Rising” yet, but I have a kind of ESP about this sort of thing. It’s a talent I’ve honed from watching too many horror movies to count. And my ESP tells me that, promise of R-rated gore aside, this is not a cannibal I’ll care about, much less be scared of.

There were two decent movies featuring this character. One was “Manhunter.” The other was “Silence of the Lambs.” In neither of them was he the actual killer. He was just a consultant. This is a man for whom the chomping of human flesh is as effete an exercise as going to the ballet. He is so not-scary that bad comics the world over think they’re being witty when they impersonate him. They’re going to make a talking doll out of him soon if they haven’t already. So can we just say goodbye to this cat? He’s turned into Chucky.  In fact, I take that back because Chucky is still more entertaining.

And it’s not all Hannibal’s fault, either. Horror movies, in general, kind of suck right now. Hollywood makes more of them than ever before, it seems, but the results are like eating a stale, severed thumb when what you’re really in the mood for is a fresh human brain. So I have a tiny handful of makeover tips for all future screen killers and their screenwriters, producers and directors. Abide by them, dear maniacs, and you may be allowed to keep your ticket-buying audiences from turning on you like starving zombies.

1.  Final chapters: make them so
This is the hardest one for me to write, because I love Jason Voorhies more than some members of my own family. But it has to be done. Retire him and Lecter, Freddy, Chucky (I know, I just said he was entertaining, but if he gets to stay then everyone will want one more moment in the sun), Candyman, Jigsaw, Leatherface and the people who run that European hostel. I know all your tricks and you know that it gets harder and harder, with every passing sequel, to frighten the audience.

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And really, how much more baroque can the “Saw” movies get? Probably much more, yes, but does that make it right? No, it does not. These guys are not scary anymore. They’re just adorably eccentric now. Finish them off. Rip the bandage off completely, in one go. If you’re creative you’ll find new characters to murder hapless teens and those revenue streams will once again flow like sweet, sweet blood.

2. Kids are stupid: let them read “Goosebumps”I saw “Boogeyman” with a bunch of 12 year-olds. You know why? Because it was rated PG-13. And I felt like the creepy old guy sitting in a multiplex full of middle-schoolers. (I resent having to explain myself in the first place, but in my defense I had to go see it because I review movies for a living and “Boogeyman,” like almost all the others, wasn’t screened in advance for press, so off I went to the mall on opening day, and yes, I wasn’t happy about it).

As much as tired franchises, this horrific horror development is doing its best to kill off the genre: PG-13 is a marketing stance, not a creative one. And it’s not even really about gore, although gore is awesome. The fact is that serious fear is almost always rated R. It just is. And everyone knows it. So you can take “The Messengers,” “Stay Alive,” “Pulse,” “The Grudge,” “Grudge 2” and “The Return” and whatever other Sarah Michelle Gellar movie is opening this week and stop trying to bore me to death with them.

3.  If it’s too loud then you’re too lameSpeaking of “The Messengers” — the rural “Barn of Terror” movie that opened last week and somehow made more money than anything else — I sat in front of a group of rowdy teenagers (PG-13! Whoo-hooo! Let’s skip school!) who openly mocked the film when the following sequence of events went down:

a) Teen heroine, in close-up, fills half the screen. The soundtrack is unnaturally silent. The other half of the screen is empty and waiting for a ghost to jump into frame, a bird to fly into a window, a toy to spontaneously animate without human help, anything to fill the frame all surprise-y and boo!-ish.

b) That other thing fills the screen after approximately three to five beats.

c) The soundtrack erupts in a digital thunderclap so loud that the audience in the next house watching “The Queen” all jump out of their seats.

Now, okay, yes, a shock-cut and a loud noise can work if it’s a ghost. Being ghosts, they’re capable of anything, including jet-engine-style decibel levels. But birds knocking on windows, cats jumping out of dark closets, toy tractors rolling forward out of the dark really fast and scary? That stuff doesn’t warrant this sort of thing. It’s cheating. It’s bad filmmaking. It’s so laughably been done a million times and then a million times more that even the truest, purest burnouts of the educational system who’d sooner ditch class and come watch your movie than get an education, even they know its coming. And they’re laughing at you. So why do you bother anymore? I know, I know, you have their money and you don’t care.

4. Declare moratorium on remakes
I wrote about this once before on this very site. A whole article about it. It was pretty good if I do say so myself.  Here’s the gist of it if you’re too lazy to go back and read it: remakes, save for “Dawn of The Dead” are no good. Ever. Never ever. They offer a cheap moment of almost-entertainment. Sometimes. But that’s it. Like PG-13, they’re not about making anyone happy, they’re about making money. Yeah, I know that makes the filmmakers happy. But I don’t care about them. I care about me. So knock it off.

5. Think fearSome recent horror films that I thought were pretty decent? “The Descent.” And … um ... hang on, still thinking ... yeah, “The Descent.” You know why? Because it upended the teen-star paradigm by featuring an ensemble of (admittedly interchangeable) adult women, it focused as much attention on the tense, suffocating claustrophobia and giddy panic of being trapped in a pitch-black cave as it did on the herky-jerky eyeless monsters that lived there, it was gory but didn’t rely entirely on fake guts splattering every square inch of screen to make its point and, at least in its original UK release version, it came back-loaded with a bitter, brutal ending.

“The Descent” knew what all truly frightening movies know: that darkness and what happens there, especially when it’s inches from your face (think Jodie Foster being trailed with night vision in the final sequence of “Silence of The Lambs” or any real-life Manson Family “creepy crawl”) is the most terrifying stuff of all. To be trapped in that darkness is everyone’s greatest fear. But until another well-made horror film comes along, one that understands what moves to make in that darkness, audiences are going to remain trapped in a crashingly dull day-for-night.

Dave White is the film critic for and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find more of him at .