Most mornings, you can find me plodding along on a little collapsible treadmill in the dawning day. To break the monotony, I watch all sorts of strange films, the kind that would cause my wife's nose to wrinkle if she were in the room. I dug up an early nineties "classic" this week (note the quotation marks) which had somehow escaped my notice -- Joel Schumacher's horror flick Flatliners. The movie surprised me, although not because of narrative heft or stylistic ingenuity or dazzling performances. It possessed none of those. No, what surprised me was how little horrific content Schumacher felt he needed to put in.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Flatliners, it goes something like this: A group of medical students decide to induce brain death and then get resuscitated in order to see what's on the other side, except when they come back they find themselves pursued by shadowy figures from their pasts, figures that seem bent on their harm. Freaky concept, even though the throbbing synth soundtrack, oddly incongruous neon lighting effects, and a mostly nonsensical resolution spoil much of the fun. Still, Flatliners has a scare or two up its sleeve. A plump-cheeked, pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland stares incredulously as his partially paralyzed (and long-dead) childhood pooch drags itself from a dark alley. When the group almost permanently loses one member, A a pregnant silence spent listening for a pulse carries more tension than a tightrope walker's wire. And the old ghost-in-the-mirror trick somehow seems fresh when Julia Roberts' cadaverous father snaps into view for a fraction of a second.
The funny thing about those scares? They contain next to no violence or gore. Now, splattery stuff has its place, but for too many storytellers those means have become the end. I know some think that slicing nubile coeds with a scythe or depicting unspeakably violent sex acts is scary. Well, maybe it is. That's up for debate. But we can't deny that's its gross and (I would argue) ultimately pornographic and therefore boring. There's no need to offend when we frighten. Leave the grisly stuff off-screen, so to speak. The scariest sights are those beheld in the mind's eye.
(Picture: CC 2010 by JustCallMe_Bethy_)