Monday, November 17, 2008

4. Evil Machinery

Offending Parties: Demon Seed, Maximum Overdrive, Chopping Mall, Ghost in the Machine, The X-Files: "Blood", The Mangler

The concept that our reliance on technology could be our undoing is a potent plot device, and one which has been used to great effect in many films. However, the notion that a machine could develop sentience and summarily become evil is amusing at best and hilarious at worst. The Stephen King story "Trucks" actually managed to execute this idea quite brilliantly, primarily because it never made its titular nemeses out to be anything other than mindless drones (albeit mindless drones that knew Morse Code and were capable of strategy). Alas, King opted to go all cartoon Apocalypse for his story's filmic adaptation, Maximum Overdrive, dispensing of the source material's subtle nuances in favor of gonzo lawnmowers and crotch-killing Pepsi machines. "The Mangler", culled from the same story collection, fared no better, its seriously disturbing imagery steam-pressed into a peerless escapade of inanity that served only to reinforce the suspicion that Tobe Hooper had blown his load with Texas Chainsaw.

Although precursors to the aforementioned psychotic Erector Sets could surely be found prior to 1968, it was HAL 9000 who really got the ball rolling. His icy descent into madness, exquisitely voiced by Douglas Rain, remains the standard by which all other sinister automatons are rightly judged. However, his example has proven impossible to top, and practically every attempt since has proven to be an embarrassment. (Of course, the Killbots in Chopping Mall weren't intended to be anything but a joke, but I kept them on the list because they got to ice Mr. Futterman from Gremlins.)

If ever you're faced with a vacuum cleaner that keeps attacking your leg or a George Foreman grill that just won't let go of your hand, I have a suggestion: Pull the plug.

3. Tiny Things With Weapons

Offending Parties: Trilogy of Terror, Cat's Eye, Ghoulies, Critters, Troll, Dolls, Child's Play, Puppet Master, Leprechaun, Tales From the Hood, Nightmares and Dreamscapes: "Battleground"

Who in their right mind would be afraid of something they could drop-kick to death? Ever since a spear-brandishing Zuni fetish tormented Karen Black in 1975, dolls and goblins have been the pint-sized mascots of horror. Gremlins was the only film that ever did it right, largely because it addressed the absurdity of being terrorized by something smaller than a Tonka truck while maintaining a pervading sense of menace. I suppose there's something mildly frightening about an attacker that could hide inside your mini-fridge, but...actually, screw it. No, there's not.

2. Playground Chants

Offending Parties: A Nightmare On Elm Street, Candyman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Hush"

I remember recess. I remember liking it. But I don't remember ever overhearing the girls reciting one of their jump rope rhymes and thinking, "Holy shit, that's scary." So where did this playground chant phenomenon come from? I assume it had some basis in the old "Bloody Mary" legend, wherein participants reciting the titular name 100 times before a mirror in the dark would meet a gruesome end at the hands of Bloody Mary herself. However, that old slumber party chestnut went out with "light as a feather, stiff as a board" as soon as its participants realized that they could have an even better time by simply raiding the liquor cabinet and sneaking in boys. Alas, Wes Craven found it necessary to add a sinister connotation to what was once a harmless childhood pastime. Thanks a lot, buddy.

1. Little Kids

Offending Parties: The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, The Exorcist, The Omen, Children of the Corn, Pet Sematary, The X-Files: "Chinga", Stir of Echoes, The Others, just about every recent horror movie from Japan

Whether they're lingering in the shadows, crawling down the stairs, or whispering ominous threats, nothing says "creepy" like a little kid. Except, wait! Little kids aren't creepy. At all. So why do they keep popping up like herpes sores in seemingly every movie I see?

Because of The Sixth Sense. Yes, like so many other things (twist endings, crop circles, Joaquin Phoenix's resumé), M. Night Shyamalan ruined the market for adult-themed horror films for the better part of a decade. Haley Joel Osment's bravura performance as Cole Sear overshadowed the permeating sense of dread that really made the film effective, and Sixth Sense's subsequent domination of the box office fooled Hollywood execs into thinking that they could make a mint off of any precocious tyke who could look moody and spout catch phrases. Alas, they were doomed to fail. With the exception of The Good Son and maybe Alice, Sweet Alice, the only two films that ever successfully pulled off the creepy kid dynamic were The Shining and The Orphanage. Why? Because in the former they were twins, and in the latter one of them was deformed. And twins and deformed people are just fucking creepy to begin with.