I have a morbid fascination with horror movies. It used to be a lot worse, actually. But I'm still quite interested in a very simple fact that seems to me to disclose a lot about how humans work: The fact that horror movies may be completely trivial, chop full with clichés, ripe with sexism and racism and stupidity (if you're a character in a horror film, don't ever have sex - especially not if you're a girl...). Scream and Scary Movie thrive on this formalism of horror. Horror, possibly along with porn, must be the most conservative genre there is.
And they still work. I mean, from a purely, umm, functional perspective - you don't have to have complex characters or backstories or interactions... all you need is a motivation for the group to stay in the haunted house, some tensions among the group itself, a few jump scares, and then let them die one by one without any explanation whatsoever. And voilà, there you have it: a perfectly effective horror movie. [REC] works that way. Blair Witch Project works that way. A lot of others do the same.
Of course, some people require some more quality. But I feel assured in my belief that even for those folks, the requirements for horror films are below those to which they would hold movies in other genres. It's got to have something to do with fear being such a primitive, old, deeply rooted emotion.
Ironically, in a way, bad equipment (or rather, the simulation of "bad equipment" in a movie) can help a horror movie. Dark shadows and places you can't see and weird camera angles help a lot. But how to get those if you have perfect lighting and equipment? "Found footage" to the rescue! Once the camera light is off, there's nothing left but darkness.
Anyway, "Grave Encounters" is a good example of what I'm talking about. The thing is not sophisticated. It's a group of people locked in a house at night, with malicious spirits around.
=== SPOILER WARNING ===
There are major spoilers ahead. If you plan on watching the movie, don't read any further. You have been warned.
=== SPOILER WARNING ===
I didn't even watch the whole movie. I only watched maybe half an hour of it, jumping through the DVD. And still I had a hard time turning off the light afterwards. Call me a wussy.
One strong point of the movie is the sheer brutality and malicousness of the spirits. There is no way to communicate with them, no arguing, no pleading, nothing. Those folks are playthings the moment they enter the house, and the film makes this very clear as things progress. I mean, the scene where the one guy tries to find his way out through total darkness, helplessly screaming the names of his fellows, only to then... argh. I would die from a heart attack, long before they.... Argh, again. If you know the film, you know which scene I'm talking about. If not, you'd better not know.
The second one is the "found footage" style. I'm a sucker for that. I loved Blair Witch Project, the natural limitation of light and focus that this style brings makes me imagine all sorts of evil in the dark. It's just delicious. It keeps me on the edge of the seat all the time.
Interestingly, the two parts that totally sold the deal to me were none of the jump scares or the gruesome deaths. One was when they discover that it's 3pm, the following day, and the night just won't end. The other one was when they break through the main entrance, and instead of the outside world, all they find there is just another corridor.
Those two items, in combination with the way they died, told me that there was no hope. They were doomed, period. They would die in there. And die they did. And how.
And again, this is so... simple. Limit the audience's perception, make it final and hopeless, make it dark and gruesome. Simple recipe. But oh how effective!