Cattle Prod Cinema
Time Out film critic, Nigel Floyd coined the phrase “cattle prod cinema”. It is used to describe the trend in contemporary horror cinema, whereby “jump scares” are coerced out of the audience rather than earned through genuine film-craft.
It works like this: a scene will go very quiet quiet quiet quiet THEN VERY BLOODY LOUD!!!!
You can’t not jump.
But are these films actually scary? I watched Annabelle last night – the haunted doll prequel to The Conjuring, and latest entry into the pantheon of cattle prod cinema. Aside from it being hugely derivative and boring, it was absolutely not scary. It really made me jump though. And that made me angry!
My poor wife then had to endure me ranting for twenty minutes about “proper horror” and not this “cheap cheating shit!”
So what exactly qualifies as proper horror? Well, I guess subjectively it comes down to whatever makes your blood run cold. For me, there is one simple rule for a film to be scary. MAKE ME CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS. If I don’t care about them, I can’t possibly be scared for them.
And this got me thinking about what films really scare me, and continue to scare me on repeat viewings. Here are a few:
THE SHINING Mental illness, alcoholism, isolation, failed writing ambition and an elevator filled with blood combine to create a genuine tour de force of horror.
THE BABADOOK A beautiful horror film, bursting with symbolism and anchored by one of the great acting performances from 2014 by Essie Davis. This is a stunning film. It made me so glad I don’t have children. It also left me dripping with sweat. The sense of dread building is palpable.
RINGU I can't lie. I've only watched this once. Once was enough. So damn scary.
THE EXORCIST I saw this for the first time in the cinema when it was re-released in the UK in 1998. A large portion of the audience were laughing. They weren’t scared at all. It scared me though. I was so unnerved by the whole experience I thought I was going to vomit. If I’m in on my own, and this is on TV, I keep on flicking.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY Yes I know this is the film that almost single-handedly created the cattle prod cinema phenomenon, but let me explain. First of all, I think this is a very well crafted film. It does use jump scares, but it employs them very effectively. It also builds tension fantastically. Each passing scene watching the couple sleep becomes ever more ominous. Which leads me to the other reason this film works for me. My wife suffers from night terrors. It is not unknown for her to shoot bolt upright in the middle of the night, see things that aren’t there, or cower in the corner of the room, terrified of something. She once ran from the room screaming, as if being chased by some horror movie killer. So…..those scenes of Katie…..well lets just say they hit home. I didn’t sleep for about a week after seeing this.
EVENT HORIZON Sci-Fi horror at its most fleshy. Sure, it borrows heavily from 2001, Solaris, Alien and other classics of the genre, but then slathers it with a visceral “Cronenburg meets Hieronymus Bosch” style and design. It is creepy, atmospheric, jumpy, and when it’s time for the third act Grand Guignol, it delivers by the bucket load.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT I think this is very much like Paranormal Activity, in that you either go with it, or you don't. If you don't, it's just kids running around in the woods with a video camera. If you do go with it (as I did in the cinema back in good ole 1999) then you will see one of the great works of pure suggestion ever created. No violence. No gore. No jump scares. No bogeyman. Just the dark of the woods, and your own imagination. I was shaking when it finished.
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME The most hated David Lynch film? If that is still the case then it is long overdue for a critical reassessment. Fire Walk With Me is a waking nightmare of a film, that will haunt you long after you have seen it. Every frame is pulsing with dread. You have already seen the TV show, so you know what all this weirdness is building to. So tense. So scary. A masterpiece.