Why we shouldn’t be afraid of fear

Is fear, particularly in family movies, a bad thing, ponders Simon? And is injecting the right amount of fear into a film an increasingly lost art?

At the end of last year, you might remember that Disney released its take on A Christmas Carol. This was the film put together by director Robert Zemeckis, who used performance capture technology to bring Charles Dickens’ festive tale back to the screen.

Appreciating that, at the time of writing, Christmas is many months away, it’s probably best that I get to the point. And it’s this: I got to the end of watching A Christmas Carol, and thought that it had contained some of the most effective horror sequences that I’d seen all year. There were genuinely tense, unsettling moments, as Scrooge’s solitude and haunting were put across with a mixture of quality direction and superb sound management.

I had the chance to put this to the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, a day or two later. And his reaction was telling about the current state of the horror genre (“I think horror is a dangerous word to use these days”, he told us, in the interview that you can find here). For it seemed that the immediate fear when a film is classed in any way as a horror movie is that it’s treated or regarded as a Saw knock-off. And that wasn’t the case at all.

Panic not: I’m not going in the torture porn debate here. Nor am I intending to take shots at a franchise of movies that people clearly enjoy. Instead, though, I do wonder if we’ve lost sight of a dividing line between fear and terror somewhere along the way. It’s a line I felt A Christmas Carol trod quite carefully, and while I can understand why the film might be a little too much for very small children, my own personal viewpoint on it is that a little fear isn’t a bad thing.

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It’s a conclusion I’ve reached as a parent as much as a moviegoer. For I’ve got a young son who’s getting increasingly into the movies. And as such, I’m finding I’m choosing quite carefully what films he gets to see, and am discovering that his reactions to them are fascinating.

His current fad is dinosaurs, and thus, it was suggested to him that he might like to watch Jurassic Park. I was in two minds about it at first, but we decided to give it a go. And there he sat, enjoying a two hour rollercoaster of a movie, with moments that he was genuinely a little in fear of.

But I’ve come to conclude that, to a point, that’s a good thing. Fear is, after all, a genuine human emotion and a valid reaction to material, and I’d suggest that the reason many of us want to see horror films is to be a little scared from time to time. Heck, the clichéd story of Doctor Who back in the day was that people hid behind the sofa when it came on the telly. Did they really?

It doesn’t really matter. The likelihood is, though, that the material on screen unnerved them a little, in the same way that the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who episode Blink unnerved a fresh generation of viewers.This is not a bad thing, and it’s no coincidence that that’s an episode we still talk about years later.

It only becomes troublesome though  when people misunderstand the difference between fear and outright terror. Because, in the case of the latter, we have a generation of films where everything has to be seen, where the skill of cutting away and letting our brain fill in the gaps has gone. Computer effects are such that we can see everything on screen now. But just because we can, it doesn’t mean that we should.

Take the oft-quoted instance of Bambi’s mother. This isn’t an outright example of the fear/terror divide, but it is one that demonstrates how complicit the human brain and imagination is in creating memorable movie moments. For Disney originally planned to include, and worked on, the sequence of the shooting of Bambi’s mother. It could have gone in the finished film. The reason it didn’t? It was deemed too traumatic, and too upsetting. Instead, the very fact that we didn’t see what was going on was what made the difference, and ensured it was a movie moment that’s still being talked about decades later. In short, it was all the more upsetting because we didn’t get to see it.

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But back to the difference between fear and terror. Last year, this was vividly demonstrated by the Halloween box office shoot out between Saw VI and Paranormal Activity.

The Saw movie, which I’d argue was actually the best one in the series since the second, looked tired and out of tricks against its cheaper rival. And for the first time, Saw‘s box office number dramatically dropped, while a film that went for subtleties rather than an all-out assault on the senses won the day. Paranormal Activity may have not won over everyone, but it was, I’d argue, far more effective at sending chills through your bones. And again, that’s down to a judgement, a call that less is more.

It’s one that the horror movie genre doesn’t always get. And I come back to A Christmas Carol again here, because what that film got that many didn’t, is how crucial sound is to the mix.

How many horror and monster movies are being played out to loud rock music soundtracks and the ilk now, robbing the movie concerned of a legitimate attempt to get under our skin in exchange for selling a few soundtrack CDs along the way? A Christmas Carol, meanwhile, traded heavily in silence. The same silence that, in The Thing, had me on the edge of my seat for long periods. The same silence that made the Nostromo in Alien such a haunting place to be. The same silence that is getting harder and harder to find.

This year, however, I’d wager that we’ve seen a film that’s worked out how to instil just the right level of fear into a story, with a quite brilliant end result. That film? Toy Story 3.

It’s interesting that it’s a family movie that’s done it too, given that the computer animated family flick has more and more become something very much in a self-defined comfort zone. You want talking animals, celebrity voices, good jokes for the trailer, and some stuff you can slap on some merchandise at the end of it. What you don’t want to do is in any way put off your audience.

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Well, credit Pixar for going against these seemingly unwritten rules. And DreamWorks too, to be fair, for the terrific How To Train Your Dragon (its biggest standalone success in some time).

But I want to specifically cite Toy Story 3 here, because in the best possible sense, it brings brilliant moments of horror cinema to a family audience. I’m not going to spoil the film here for those who haven’t seen it. Instead, I can’t help but think that two characters in particular in the film – the monkey, and the doll – sent the chills right down my spine. It’s not because they were wielding weaponry or had been built up to as massive nasties. It’s because they were genuinely well designed, brilliantly presented characters.

And it’s also because, in Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 had arguably the director of the summer (I say that being a big fan of Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright, too). It’s not been said enough these past few months, but Unkrich’s handling of Toy Story 3 is quite brilliant, to the point where my son was attempting to hide under my coat for parts of the film’s last act, while also being unable to rip his eyes away from the screen. He was a little frightened, and – like most of us – quite exhilarated at just how brilliantly the final act of the film was playing out.

Unkrich’s handling of the material, his cutting together of the big sequences of peril, and the way he presents his characters, is majestic throughout Toy Story 3. And in doing so, he injects a welcome amount of fear and edge into the movie, without ever having to resort to outright terror.

The proof of the pudding for me came when I was talking to my son as we left the cinema. “It was really scary,” he told me. Before his face promptly erupted into a huge smile at the thought of going to see the film again.

And how could I say no to that?

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