Images floated on the screen as if caught in liquid amber during the opening moments of Spain's The Devil's Backbone (directed by Guillermo del Toro). Rainwater swirled and mixed with a dead boy's body until, finally, the body morphed into a gilled fetus. Only a few people sat near me in the old unheated movie palace as I felt my heart thump a little harder. It was snowing outside and I'd have to walk home alone when the movie let out, well after midnight. The Devil's Backbone, I thought, was going to be great. I was going to be too scared to breathe.
After two hours of watching gorgeous cinematography, sincere acting and stellar special effects I was far from frightened; more like the victim-viewer of a group therapy session disguised as a horror movie.
First, there was The Sixth Sense. Then, The Others. And now, The Devil's Backbone. Over the last few years, a certain trend has developed in mainstream horror filmmaking, best represented by these three movies. They're all blockbuster visual orgies that rip the "scary" out of "scary movie." The late nineties brought a slew of teen gore flicks but, outside of Scream, none of them stuck. The Blair Witch Project was a singular blip on the radar and Troma is, as always, Troma. That said, a certain formula has emerged we'll call Sixth Sense Syndrome (SSS).
The first principle in these three recent films is that everyone is, deep down, good. We're talking ghouls with hearts of gold. The bumps in the night? Morse code from beyond telling us to love each other.
Until now, monsters and ghosts were motivated by evil, Satan's command, base desires or insanity. Dracula's sick, sexual blood suck unto eternity was just that. In the three movies mentioned above ghosts have feelings, not evil urges. They are sentenced to a limbo existence where they try to communicate a sort of pop-psychology morality to the living, and are frustrated in their attempts by the living's reactions to their bloody, nasty visages.
More importantly, the victims are good, too. Most horror movie victims used to be as trapped by their tragic flaws (greed, sex, pride, affection for controlled substances) or needs (sleep, shelter) as they were by the hounds of hell. Now, they are noble soldiers overcoming prejudice about the dead to learn an important lesson on love and the beauty of interpersonal communication. In each of these films, the living struggle to accept the ghost before them whether it is only a shadow, a puking girl or a blood-leaking aqua-boy.
The hero-victims must be played by those who lack the possibility of tragic flaws, people both noble and naive. In other words, kids. Viewers can relate to the childhood fears that play out on the screen, such as one of the boys in The Devil's Backbone wondering if something's under his bed, and, at the same time, believe the characters are guiltless and uncomplicated victims. The kids in Village of the Damned wanted to wipe out the entire human race; the brother and sister in The Others just want to keep their little lights a'shine.
The twist is the most important element for films with Sixth Sense Syndrome and it only works if we believe everyone starts out with the best intentions. Jacinto blows up and stabs people in The Devil's Backbone because he's an orphan. Nicole Kidman's Grace suffers from a really bad case of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
When the twist is finally revealed, all of our assumptions are turned upside down and we learn that the story we thought we were seeing was not the story we actually saw. The perspective we followed was somehow skewed or, again, the characters who looked like bad guys were actually bad-looking good guys. The twist then flowers into a short-lived reconciliation between the living, dead, un-dead, un-living, born and un-born. The characters have a few minutes to find their balance, tell what's on their mind, deliver a thesis on being good and reaffirm their love for one another. In The Devil's Backbone, this plays out with a slight variation. The murdered boy vengefully drowns his murderer. Even then, the dead and living are able to confront each other and resolve their differences.
The mild reconciliation leads to a melancholy ending where the main characters leave one another to face their respective sides of mortality's coin alone.
If Psycho had been made as one of these magic realist head shrinkings, nine-year-old Norman Bates' dead mother would have appeared to him with an axe in her skull and explained the birds and bees better than she obviously did when she was alive. The mother's soul would have returned to limbo and Norman would have grown up to be a slightly depressed man, not a cross-dressing taxidermist/serial killer. But, would that have been scary?
Affection between the dead and living has existed in films before, but as an ill-fated love story (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Always, Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply) or some sort of comedy where the ghost orchestrates tricks for the living. To adapt this concept for horror movies, directors and writers have to insert lots of superficial thrills. The Others has some jump-out-of-your-seat scenes. The scene that was cannibalized for the previews and commercials, for example, where Grace asks a veiled figure about her daughter, includes a creeping camera, empathy-inspiring acting and an unwelcome surprise. This jack-in-the-box moment, though, is only good for an instantaneous spine tingle and following scenes play as romance or comedy (until another thrilling moment pops up) as if we had never seen the wrinkled face under the veil. The scares in SSS-afflicted movies don't go for the gut or the heart. They shoot across the skin like an electric shock and then dissipate. They don't sustain anything as unsettling as Norman Bates' interior monologue at the end of Psycho, which holds viewers' imaginations long after the credits roll.
The other reason a head-shrunk Psycho wouldn't have been scary is that it would have made sense. Death is unexplainable and existence after death is unknowable. Good horror movies keep this as their model, bad ones reveal all of the whys and hows. The rational is conquerable and, therefore, not scary. By providing a twist and rigorous logic leading to that twist, films with SSS bind us to faith in reason and disallow horror movies' supernatural nonsense.
Night of the Living Dead's first scene is tongue-swallowing frightening. It takes place at dusk in a cemetery with a brother and sister visiting their parents' graves, playing on a whole host of innate human fears. The audience gasps as one nasty zombie unexpectedly grabs the sister as she passes, but the spine tingle doesn't end with just this trick. The sister's ensuing nonsensical hysteria disrupts the story, disorients the viewer and haunts the first third of the film. Her chaotic, unreasonable activity becomes more frightening than the zombie who initially rubbed his decomposing mitts over her. Consider that a rational explanation is never offered for how a flock of birds decides to use Tippi Hedren and pals as supersized sesame sticks, which is why The Birds frightens viewers over and over again. We never know how Norman's psychosis developed.
Occasionally, even the best horror movies provide reasons for the suffering on screen, but these rationalizations are weak and unimportant, and often as fantastical as everything else that's happened. Think about the logic behind the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Aliens plant a pod in your garage that grows your clone that takes over your life when you fall asleep, even if you only nod off for a millisecond miles away from pod and clone. Once the clone assumes your identity, your body just disappears into thin air.
No matter how well-scored or well-made SSS-sufferingfilms are, we cannot deny that, at their roots, they are over-resolved cases of misunderstanding with a few jolts tacked on. And no matter what type of poetic sadness their endings impart, they are not horror movies.
For most audiences, the films' failures to live up to the horror genre will be easy to ignore. Their final twists will continue to surprise and the grounded reasoning as easy to swallow as the concession stand's $3 popcorn. I'm sure, as I write, the preview for Dragonfly, which promises to suffer from acute SSS, is making someone jump. But a few of us will stumble accidentally into an SSS-inflicted film and grumble to ourselves like the town witches that we've been robbed, cheated and jilted.
People don't go to horror movies to feel all right about life. That's what Julia Roberts' cinematic corpus is for. Horror movies are the mental playgrounds where we scamper with our instinctual fears. We're allowed to indulge the grotesque images and sensations that we summon and dismiss when confronted with spooky situations in real life. If humans constantly responded to our fears we would never take risks, leave the house or, even, move. So, we repress our fears or talk ourselves out of them. But, for a few hours in a horror movie, we have the healthy release of doing the opposite.
Characters rarely win in horror movies. That's because the genre acknowledges one important truth: we all lose in the battle against death. The will to survive is too strong for us to affirm that dying right now is as good as dying when we're in the nursing home. So, we repress this truth as much as our fears. Celluloid fantasies crammed with nearly unrelated images and accompanied by a creepy soundtrack allow us to give a nod to death without participating in it. A film suffering from SSS promises to present fear's playground, but then explains fear away. It shows us death, but then creates a sense of triumph.
Perhaps the scariest film I've watched was a restored late-night gross-out fest (bad sound, bad film stock, bad hair) about Hell's gates opening in a bed and breakfast basement–the opposite of an SSS-cursed work. During the conclusion, the leads flee a hospital floor full of zombies by running down a set of stairs, and find themselves in the B&B basement. There's no explanation offered for the geographical confusion. Unable to escape the basement, the two venture through Hell's yawning entrance to be locked in eternal suffering amidst writhing bodies. The film proposed something more frightening, and somehow deeper, than anything The Sixth Sense could muster that made me sleep that night with the light on: In the end, we are all death's bitch.