The concept of the horror film is to convey as much terror in 90 minutes or so as humanly possible. And seeing as 90 minutes really isn’t a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, horror writers and filmmakers are put in a position where they are forced to use tropes, symbols, icons, idioms and visual shortcuts to help convey the fear and get you, the audience, involved as quickly as possible. Good horror is a slow burn, but when you’ve only got 90 minutes, you can only go so slow.
Easy prey is the “teens in trouble” model. But if you look at the history of horror cinema, that model, while it works as a quick shortcut in getting the audience in the shoes of the protagonists, has always been looked down upon a little within the genre. The teens in the horror scenario sprang up in the 1950’s when there were a lot of teens (namely the baby-boomers) in the market spending a lot of disposable income on things like drive-in movies.
And naturally, with all the teens dominating the sales of movie tickets, horror filmmakers, being businessmen at heart, began customizing the horrors of the times toward teens. Suddenly middle aged protagonists like mad scientists and vampires gave way to teens saving the town from the likes of The Blob in a myriad of paranoid space/cold war/atomic horror scenarios.
This continues to this day, as teens and twenty somethings continue to dominate movie ticket sales, horror films still tend to make horror protagonists their age. And that’s totally cool.
But think about this...
While there are tons of great horror films where the teens are in jeopardy (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw, Nightmare on Elm Street, Blair Witch, etc), there is also an equally powerful (arguably more powerful) list of films placing older characters in jeopardy. These films always scared me the most, even when I was a teen. It’s the symbology. When you take the authority figure and cause him to lose his or her cool, that’s more frightening to people. Humans are naturally pack animals who look to their leaders for their bravery and fortitude in the face of terror.
I mean, when I saw a teen screaming on screen, it only affected me so much. Teens freak out, whine, and over-dramatize all the time, so the effect was a little lost on me. But when I saw someone older... someone over 30, 40, 50 years old and THEY were freaking out, it always frightened me more. They were supposed to be in control. They were supposed to have their shit together. They were the ones we young people turned to when we were losing our shit. So when they were terrified and left without answers about the uncanny, hideous, horrible and terrifying... it was that much more impactful for me, even as a teen. An older protagonist in a horror film is a terrifying symbol, one that is gravely under-utilized today.
When leaders, elders and responsible grown-ass adults get scared on screen, I get scared too.
You see a teen shitting her pants and screaming her head off, no big deal. They do that every 5 minutes.
You see the cops, the national guard, or your mom and dad doing it, and that’s fucking scary.
I’ve come up with a list of ten films you’ve likely seen, but maybe not. All of them are horror cinema’s best of the best. And they’re all about grown-ass adults in terrifyingly supernatural or terrifyingly uncanny situations. And while all ten have been canonized, as some of horror’s very best, none of them involve teens or teen problems.
Here’s my list of ten grown up horror films, in no particular order.
Ten of the top horror films of all time, starring people over 30 in the lead roles.
The Changeling (1981 w/ George C. Scott)
John Carpenter’s The Thing
This list barely scratches the surface. I’m curious. What’s your favorite grown up horror film?
I’d love to see your list.
Gaudium per atrox.