This piece contains spoilers for the following films: An American Werewolf in London (Director John Landis) The Shining (Director Stanley Kubrick) The Blair Witch Project (Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) Sinister (Director Scott Derrickson)
In the middle of a very shaken and chaotic London, we see a woman, very in love, walk into a dark alley. She's obviously very scared, very confused too. She begins to beg and plead with a man named David. The shot is then filled with a wolf, standing at the ready. David is not David; he is a werewolf. She warns the wolf that people want to kill it, and then she tells David that she loves him -- but he can't understand what she is saying. The wolf lunges towards her with intent to kill her, though he is shot before he gets the chance. What she did must have been out of passion right? She wouldn't have done such a silly thing if her emotions hadn't gotten the better of her, right? Everybody says trust your instinct, right? Not if your instinct is to go talk to a hungry werewolf! An American Werewolf in London has something that most other horror films have: idiots. Need further proof? Earlier in the film, David (the soon-to-be-werewolf) and his friend Jack (soon-to-be-deceased) go into a pub called, "The Slaughtered Lamb." This night happens to be the full moon. When they leave they are given clear directions, STICK TO THE ROAD! What do they do? They waltz off the path, and then they get mauled by a werewolf. Had they listened to the directions they would be ok.
Even though the film remains one of my favorite horror pictures, one thing we can agree on is: there's always a character in horror movies that acts stupid. But read on film lover, for you are about to understand why when you watch a horror film -- no matter how good or bad, old or recent -- there's always characters that make you go, "What the hell are you doing!"
The Blair Witch Project was one of the scariest films of the '90s. According to a lot of people, it's the scariest movie they have ever seen. And mostly because it's filmed like it really happened. It was a type of movie nobody had seen before. Well, kind of. Though it's filmed differently, it's only to cover up an incredibly formulaic character structure. And it's not until late in the movie that we figure it out. Mike, one of the boys on the trip is clearly angry. They are lost; they can't find their way back. So, this is Mike's brilliant idea: kick their map into the river... Good job Mike, you just earned the whiny child award. And with that prize you get to stand in a corner and get your friend killed.
Which brings me to 2012's very scary, Sinister. Our main character Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a struggling writer who can't seem to catch a break lately. So he and his family move to a new house where he can write his masterpiece about a mysterious murder that took place -- get this -- inside the new house he moved into. Your first indication that this guy is an idiot is when he finds a box of film reels in the attic, belonging to the murderer. Why would a murderer just leave them there unless they wanted you to see them? Ellison watches a filmed murder that takes place at his nice new home... and then spends the next hour of the movie watching the rest. Are you serious? You actually stay in the house after you see the first one, and there are more? No, you leave; I don't care if you just put a payment on the house you get the heck out of there. Now some could argue that the writer is "hopelessly inquisitive" like another character I'll be referring to momentarily. But we later learn that he let the fame of his previous book Kentucky Blood get to his head. All he wants is his fame and money back. And after all he sees, hears, and learns while in his new home, he still seems to find the events so mysterious, that he has to go check out what's going on. The wife could have packed the kids and left as soon as the situation went fubar, the writer could have left when the situation went fubar, BUT NO... He stayed because he is selfish and all he cares about in the end is fame. They didn't deserve to pay for his stupidity, but that's what happens in horror movies.
Now even film classics can sneak in the stupidity. Room 237 is off-limits. You don't go inside, stay the hell out! Do you understand that, five-year-old-boy-with-nothing-to-do? Now you may think, "Hey! The kid is five years old! Don't be so harsh." I'm not going to be. Danny Torrance in The Shining isn't one of these stupid characters; in fact, he is the smart one, surrounded by stupid people. Danny is hopelessly inquisitive and in the end it happens to be for the good of him and his mother. Danny can sense that his father is not well, which is something a lot of little kids can't do. Not being observant is part of growing up, but Danny has already learned to be. This is because of Tony, his imaginary friend; Tony is the instinct of Danny. Danny doesn't feel good about the Overlook Hotel, he knows something is up. But his parents don't listen. And Daddy is going a little nuts. So what does Danny do? He uses the shine to bring back Mr. Halloran (though Halloran's eminent demise is afoot). And when Danny realizes that his footprints will lead his father closer to him in the maze scene, he leads his father to his death. Now, it's Jack who is stupid. Danny is probably the manliest horror character to ever grace the screen; Danny is horror's Einstein. The Shining doesn't have characters falling over their own shoes when running away from a killer because Kubrick was behind the camera. No filmmaker has ever had a mind like Kubrick and nothing in his films was stereotypical.
Now, I was hoping with Sinister, that the string of stupid characters would be broken -- and it would aim for something like The Shining. It wasn't that, however it still left me horrified (I left the theater looking over my shoulder for Mr. Boogie). The formula for horror films has been pounded into our brains because of crap movies that make big bucks. (Horror is a great way to get cash). But if executed the right way, the formula can still get a reaction. If you do it like Sinister did, you layer the stupidity with good scares and It makes the average viewer not think about it. (Mostly teens with nothing to do on a Saturday night.) It gets people spending money, buying popcorn and having an awesome time. That's what, Sinister did for me. No matter how scared we got, my friends and I laughed afterward (and called each other names that I can't exactly say in this article) but it's a memory I'll have forever. No matter, if you're watching smart characters deal with the scary problems in productive ways, or watching blondes trip over themselves, chances are you're going to have a fun time. And that's what movies are about.