My friend Shawn held a little horror movie fest at his place this past Sunday night in honour of All Hallow’s Eve. While my taste for horror movies has dwindled over the years – something I wrote about last year – I still have enough of a soft spot for the fright features that I grew up with to make them a yearly part of my October schedule.
Shawn cultivates a horror lineup with the care that I concoct a party music mix, which is actually a better comparison than you might think. A great horror movie is like the dark, twisted B-side of a great pop song: its success is based almost entirely on rhythm and timing. Artists in both fields need to understand their audience’s expectations for when the beats and hooks are going to hit. The difference? In pop music, you play to those expectations; in horror, you messwith them.
Shawn’s pairing of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) was particularly inspired, and not only because the latter is clearly inspired by the former. If anything, the pairing made me appreciate The Descent even more so than I did before. Yes, it looses its claustrophobic focus in its final 20 minutes and, on second viewing, its dour ending feels less shocking than cheap, but it still stands as one of the most genuinely scary and well-crafted horror films of the modern era. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful reprieve from the exploitive, nihilistic “torture porn” films that have depressingly filled multiplexes in recent years.
The Descent, like fellow modern/future classics like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead (yes, it counts), is a British production with a British director. I’m not sure what it is about the British film system that seems to produce some of the only horror films worth watching this decade, but for whatever reason, Marshall – like Scott before him – perfectly understands the construction of a horror film on both a macro and micro level.
Neither Alien nor The Descent introduces their respective monsters until over an hour into their running time. To someone who grew up in the 1990s, this is equal parts bizarre and brilliant. A casual observer would chalk this extra time up to character development, but neither film really has that much characterization (Alien succeeds far better in this regard than The Descent). No, instead the real use of that hour is to establish the environment and setting, to lead the viewer to fear and distrust the surroundings so that when the creature is finally unleashed, the tension is dramatically increased.
But really, what both films share is an absolutely brilliant sense of horror timing. They know how to build tension and to hold off releasing it until exactly the right moment, which is often just slightly off of when you’d expect it. They also both know the power of the reveal. After birthing one of the most shockingly horrific scenes ever committed to film (you know which one), Alien is endlessly creative in how it reveals its creature to the audience, my favourite being the one at the end in the shuttle. Likewise, The Descent features one of the greatest reveals I’ve seen in modern times, a night vision freak out that lingers for juuuust long enough to go from freaky to genuinely frightening.
And while the experience of a good horror film may be quite different than that of a pop song – cowering in fear versus rocking out – the end result somehow ends up in the same place: if not always full-blown satisfaction, then at least an appreciation for the craft.
For more on horror and Gothic film and literature, check out my recent Dalhousie News story “The Art of Darkness” (credit to my clever editor for the great title).