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Do Movies Need to be Gory to be Scary?


In 1972 when I was 16, two girlfriends dared me to join them at the movie theater to see "Last House on the Left."  It is a sadistic slasher film that, I learned years later, had raised the bar. They knew I was anti-gore and anti-violence when it came to just about anything, especially with regards to what I watched on the big screen. I had always been, for lack of a better description, overly empathetic.

But of course, I went, and immediately regretted it.

The report from everyone as we left the theater that night was that I was "green around the gills" and had to be escorted home immediately to recover. I still have flashbacks, and as a direct result of this experience, I stay away from movies with an "R" rating, if that rating is due to violence. Sex I can handle.

Since those days, the trend in Hollywood has been to produce sickeningly gory and violent movies, all in an effort to attract a younger (and mostly male) audience. The good news for us is that the trend seems to be slowing down. Just a few weeks ago my two teenaged daughters, husband and I watched "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a charming, intelligent and entertaining movie, which is highly recommended for all ages.

In 2011, " The King's Speech" deservedly won "Best Picture" and I remember how my husband and I were thrilled there was a movie we could actually watch (and which our daughters also loved) without squirming, putting fingers over eyes and ears simultaneously, or leaving the room (or theater). Sure, the soon-to-be crowned King blurted out a few indelicate words, but we were able to watch this movie without risk of trauma, shock or boredom. And last year we had " The Artist." I think we're heading in the right direction. (For a few more great movie night ideas, check out the AARP "Movies for Grownups" Award winners.)

The issue I have with so many movies today, specifically those that try to be scary, is that there is an incredible amount of gratuitous violence, gore, truly horrendous behavior, and just plain old nasty stuff.

I've never seen " Gladiator" (the title alone says it all), " The Departed," " Slumdog Millionaire" (I was forewarned about that scene), " No Country for Old Men" (not in a million years), or " The Hurt Locker." Their reputations preceded them. People have chided, scolded and mocked me (mostly mocked), but I stick to my guns: if a movie has an "R" rating and it's not because of sex or language, it's off my list (although, I've been fooled more than once by a PG-13 rating). And since that horrible experience in 1972 I've never, ever seen any movie that even slightly reeks of violence.  HalloweenNightmare on Elm Street? Are you kidding?

Call me an old fogey (I really hope you won't), but I truly long for the kind of movie that won "Best Picture" when I was growing up, the kind that would make me forget about my (and the world's) troubles for awhile; possibly, even make me feel good. While it shocked me when I read recently that " Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) was the last movie to win "Best Picture" with a PG (or lower) rating, in truth, I wasn't surprised. We've been moving toward increasingly graphic displays of violence for a very long time. It's no wonder that my two daughters -ages 14 and 17  -can comfortably watch a typical episode of " NCIS" as David McCallum (oh how I loved him in " The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") dissects a body to uncover that one piece of forensic evidence that will neatly tie the bad guy to the scene of the crime. We're raising a whole generation of kids who completely understand that the blood and brains they see on the screen are "not real" and that over-the-top violence is a necessary ingredient to hold onto the audience. I'm not there.

Take a look at the movies that were nominated for "Best Picture" in 1956, the year I was born. The winner was " Around the World in 80 Days," one of my all-time favorites, and the other nominees included some of the best movies ever made (well, my opinion): " Friendly Persuasion" (who didn't love Gary Cooper?), " Giant" (Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor AND James Dean? A perfect storm), " The King and I" (Yul Brynner was born to play this role) and " The Ten Commandments" (it was the first time I realized that God spoke English -a big relief).

Although, two movies in my "Top Ten" list are fairly bloody and I feel that in these cases, the violence is integral to the story lines: " The Godfather" and " The Godfather, Part II" (you can skip III).

The Godfather

They have become my "gold standard" movies, to which all others are compared (except animated or musicals, they have their own "gold standards"). I've seen them so many times that I know exactly when to cover my eyes.

Which brings back to my question: " Do movies need to be gory to be scary?"

I think not. This weekend, in the spirit of Halloween, my family and I hunkered down to watch " The Haunting," a 1963 film that is genuinely frightening, without a single ounce of gore. Below is a snippet. Don't say I didn't warn you...

For more tips on living your best life after 50 (or 60, or 70...) check out "The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts' Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More" Keep me posted on how you're doing by subscribing to me on Facebook and "tweeting" me on Twitter at @BGrufferman.  

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