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For all the genres of film out there, horror can be one of the easiest types of to produce but one of the hardest to pull off correctly. You have to break the fourth wall and draw the viewer in, making them forget there's a screen between the scares and themselves. This can be attributed to a lot of things, but one of the biggest is the setting of your fright fest, whether it be a decrepit house or the cold Arctic — like this weekend's The Thing — your stage needs to set the proper atmosphere if your viewers are to be scared out of their seats and minds. It's in this spirit that we wax poetic on three of our favorite and most classic settings in horror films.
Max Says: Having grown up with one foot in the cityscape and another in the country, I'm here to tell you nature is a freaking creepy place. Clearly, a number of horror filmmakers agree, throwing us into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on Your Grave and even Friday the 13th (it's camp! It counts!). Granted, if your horror movie is going to occur in such an environment, you're likely to have companions--typically of the sexed-up variety, so get it while it's hot and in one piece. Seriously: other horror settings may have you ripped apart by zombies or mauled by an alien, but some of the most messed up crap in horror occurs in the countryside. Damn hicks with no teeth.
It can't hurt that what
makes such a setting effective for fear is how "normal" it is.
It's not a spaceship, nor is it burned to the ground. The trees are healthy,
the breeze is cool and the vistas seemingly endless and yours for the taking.
In a sense, such an environment is comforting to our baser, primal
instincts — we didn't start out in cities, after all. When a threat/psychopath
crosses you, it catches you completely off guard and shatters this
comfort typically to a debilitating state. You don't know what to
do, where to go or if you'll survive (probably not). What you do know
is that you were only going about a fairly normal routine for someone like you
(normal?), and horror was not part of the plan.
Simon Says: So you’re one of those city-slicker-hicks I hear so much about. The possible threat of a deranged hillbilly is always something to keep in the corner of your mind when venturing out into the wild, and especially when night falls that forest melds into a completely different, and as you say, damn creepy place. I’m not one to lambast the “sexed-up variety” by which you may be accompanied, just keep a machete under your pillow and one eye on that tent door.
You make a good point in
that the sense of relaxation as you sip beers under a lush canopy can be a
false crutch. Not to mention, it seems that as members of your gang slowly go
missing you always assume they are off skinny dipping, making fresh eyes at the
sultry Brandi (yes with an “i”) or gathering wood. Usually it’s too late when
your buddy finds you nailed unceremoniously to an oak. Still, the vast
wilderness does give you the option of escape by merely running and running
away from a foe, which is sadly a technique never utilized by the average dim-witted
Simon Says: In space, nobody can hear you poop your pants. Like all the best settings for a fright flick the feeling of isolation is a powerful foe and in many cases can be just as frightening as the beasty or baddie that wishes to do you harm. In terms of this sense of infinite solitude, it is embodied no better than in outer space — the absolute abyss. This sense of claustrophobia is a plot element used in almost every horror movie employing this scene, not to mention it usually comes down to one vs. the world (or would that be the universe?). Just this year, the found-footage lunar scare feature Apollo 18 used the realm beyond our planet as a landscape for chills. Arguably the strongest aspect of that subpar offering, the sense of doom and helplessness is palatable.
The “Alien” franchise is
infamous for using bleak interstellar settings to achieve its masterful level
of suspense, whether that be on a disabled space ship or distant planet. Pitch Black achieved a similar effect
within the confines of the “creature feature” brand (with the aid of the common
fear of the dark), Sunshine with the
horror thriller and even the slasher genre made its way among the stars with
the dreadful (but nevertheless relevant) Jason
X. Though sci-fi premises are often a hard sell with audiences, that in no
way deteriorates what is one damn creepy setting if you’re really looking to
jump in your seat.
Max Says: If you crap yourself, here’s hoping you’re already dead. That’s just unsanitary. If you want to talk about psychosis issues, throw somebody in a small space with a Face-hugger and we'll see what happens (hijinks!). When it comes to space and terror, isolation and lack of freedom play a huge part in protagonist paranoia, though why Simon had to remind me that I've seen (and reviewed) Apollo 18, I'll never know. To go into space is to cripple ourselves, notably on a physical level. Your options are even more limited than any other setting with no opportunity for the acquisition of friends/allies. Only monsters wait for you.
However, an argument can be made about this setting's slight disadvantage over the others in terms of shear horror. Take the "Alien" series, for example. The first one is absolutely a masterwork in terms of horror and helplessness in space. The others lack the suspense of the first because they do what so many "space" pics opt to do: arm their heroes. That doesn't mean they'll get out alive, but they have a fighting chance and when you arm the bloodbags, one has to admit that it takes away the suspense in order to boost up the jazz. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. It's just a different song.
Simon Says: Well you do void your bowels after you cease to be. I’m not sure how
this turned into a discussion about feces (probably something to do with
Uranus). Back to the horror, Aliens
certainly gave its heroes a helping hand by giving them a small arsenal with which to combat those pesky acid-spitters but I would counter argue that while
they can now legitimately fight back, a hull breach, defective suit or any
technical glitch will leave you rather frosty and as such rather incapable of
holding a weapon.
A Post-Apocalyptic World
Simon Says: Unlike the cold confines of the outer galaxy, the primary terror that encompasses an Earth devastated by war, disease, natural disaster, or the like is the sense of loss — a home turned into ruins. As you wander the desolate highway you see humanity lost: burned out schools, bodies of all ages strewn around and the threat of that “something” lurking around every corner. The most popular denomination of this horror sub-genre certainly comes from the mind of George A. Romero, the zombie movie. These creatures derived from undead origins perfectly mirror the world they inhabit: A pale version of reality and humanity reflected in death. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later energetically spun that convention to his own heart's desire, as did newcomer Jim Mickle with this year’s Stake Land, a zombie/vampire hybrid that perfectly captured a world besieged by the inhuman.
On the flip side, like outer spac,e a devastated planet
usually finds a lone protagonist. Even if traveling with a group of survivors,
it is me, myself and I all the way. Shuttered down from what made them what
they were before a ravaged world befell them, these characters are as haunted
as the landscape. Will Smith pulled off a one-man-show in I Am Legend as the lone survivor of a Manhattan-gone-vampire.
Hunkered in his bathtub, holding onto his dog for dear life, this is the
solitude that makes its mark. Even in movies that are not expressly horror, the
wholly grim The Road shows that
zombie apocalypse is not some fanboy dream that should be idolized. It’s a
scary world out there.
Max Says: I can’t argue with the horrors of the Apocalypse package (I'd hate to be that travel agent). The lone protagonist is essential, albeit a little tiresome — especially in Will Smith's case for I Am Legend. A better title would've been I Am Not Interesting, but I digress. We can't forget, good sir Simon, that it's not just any group of survivors in this setting: it's a carefully chosen social demographic of the world that was. You have the Good Gal, the Grizzled (Racist) Guy, maybe a slut (guy or gal) thrown in for good measure, a cop and a kid. For a decent reference, I will refer you to Dawn of the Dead.
I won't deny the core selling point of this setting is the psychological effect such an event would have on the human condition; that breakdown is what horror is all about! I’m looking at you, The Thing. It’s really up to the maestros behind the camera, as Simon says (hehe). Whether it is a frenzied affair or a calm(ish) landscape, there's something about walking the remains of civilization that sends a resonating chill. It makes sense as of all the settings imaginable, it’s the Apocalypse landscape that is most likely to occur. So stock up on bottled water while you can and have a good long talk with your loved ones about them putting one between your eyes if need be.
Simon Says: You make a strong point, Max in that these gangs of survivors are comprised of a rather familiar looking bunch of folks but that doesn’t really matter if the execution of the story is strong enough to instill that all-important sense of dread. I’ll admit I’m a tad biased towards this setting as the zombie flick is easily my favorite horror sub-genre, but I stand by its effectiveness regardless, consarnit!