What Makes A Film Scary?


by Bernadette Bridges

Film genres know no religion, and at AJFF we’re not scared to say that we love a good horror film. At past festivals, we loved Demon and Jeruzalem, which were both screened in 2016. Who knows, maybe a few will pop up in this year’s line-up?

But we wonder, as you celebrate Halloween, what is it that makes a film scary?

YouTube account Now You See It tells us what makes a scary scene. Their definition: one large, lasting scare that aligns the viewers with the defenseless protagonist. How that protagonist eventually resolves, or doesn’t resolve, their conflict decides the scariness factor for the entire film. There are endless choices of scary movies that we could dissect, but there are three Jewish directors who bring us three perfectly differing examples.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Microscopic synopsis: A bunch of friends rent a cabin in the woods and are slowly possessed/terrorized by demons.

This cult hit created by Jewish filmmaker Sam Raimi can be found on pretty much every list of must-see horror films. But, let’s be real, if we were only to rate horror movies based on their sheer scariness, would The Evil Dead make the cut

And yet people LOVE this movie. Empire Magazine ranked Ash Williams, the series’ protagonist, 25th in their list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters. The movie inspired a musical, multiple video games, and a spin-off TV show. And, we have to admit, we’re hooked too. If we remember Now You See It's guideline for a scary scene, The Evil Dead triumphs at aligning the audience with the protagonist, even if it experiences a few pitfalls with the scares themselves.

Raimi specifically frames the protagonists as the prey through his use of Peeping Tom shots. While, technically speaking, the first film has its laughable moments (unfocused shots, the acting, and the special effects), nevertheless “the film is ferociously kinetic and full of visual surprises". And, returning to the idea of whether the protagonist does or doesn’t resolve the conflict, Raimi leaves us unsettled as (spoiler alert) Ash encounters an evil spirit at the very end of the film.

Jaws (1975)

Microscopic synopsis: Shark kills woman. Dudes try to capture shark. Shark kills lots of beach-goers (and a few of the main dudes).

Two notes into the theme song and we’re wrapped up in Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, Jaws. We can all agree that, yes, Jaws is a fantastic movie. But, in terms of Now You See It’s scary movie standards, is this film worthy of scary approval?

The fear factor is high enough, particularly because we rarely see the shark itself. Spielberg does also successfully navigate the use of scenes with one large scare rather than many little ones. And, according to our other scary movie guideline, he does align us with the protagonist who ends up defeating his fear and the toothy predator. The film triggered such fear that it helped cause a decline in the number of large sharks, which fell by 50%, and kept people out of the water for generations. Still, if we're being honest, we don’t know if we can rightly classify it as a scary movie.

The Ring (2002)

Microscopic synopsis: Teens watch a movie that they all know will lead to their death; it does. A journalist tries to investigate the tape, seven day chaos ensues.

Jewish filmmaker Gore Verbinski’s remake of the Japanese film Ringu is part of a truly harrowing film legacy that leaves its mark forever within American cinema. The Ring helped usher in a long line of Japanese horror remakes, reinvigorating the genre of J-Horror.

We can't help but chuckle at how dated this movie is: the horror revolves around the watching and copying of VHS tapes, proceeded by mysterious calls received on the characters’ home phones. But, to get to our actual analysis, let’s look at the scare factor of this movie.

Verbinski clearly follows Now You See It’s “one large scare” rule, seeing as the entire movie really only consists of rising anticipation ahead of the singular, final moment. As Joe Morgenstern said in his review, “watching The Ring won’t kill you, but it could bore you half to death". And, while we can agree to some extent that the film does leave us in suspense for most of its duration, it pays off with a profound and very unsettling ending that leaves us without a conclusion.

Verbinski somehow successfully translates the raw fear from 90’s Japan in his remake, and in the end we can all connect with fear of change in an age of technological revolutions.

Maybe, in the end, the real criteria is this: A movie is really scary if it  "keep[s] playing even if you shut your eyes – they beat on the backs of your eyelids, like ideas that can't be shut away." 

In addition to being a talented writer, Bernadette Bridges is a student at Columbia and an AJFF intern; and you could be too. Interested? Let us know.