Let’s talk about jump-scares, the gimmick that’s all but ruined horror movies.
Remember your friendly neighborhood haunted house? The cool Dad down the block would turn his yard into a Creepy Yard of Terror every year, mostly by handing rubber masks to other cool Dads, who’d hide behind obviously-fake pieces of scenery (usually gravestones or trees) and would jump out and yell “BOO!” when you got close enough. You’d shriek and laugh, assuming it wasn’t your Dad who ambushed you, in which case you’d go “EEEEEK! Oh, Dad, that’s LAME”, and Cool Dad in a Mask would hide and wait for the next bunch of kids.
That’s what a Hollywood horror movie is nowadays.
Watch the trailer for The Pyramid, which opens today.
The very first “scary” thing is a jump-scare. So is the second. And third. And last. Occasionally, we get a scene of something scuttling about in dark, but that’s only to give us a hint about what will leap on us from is not-so-clever hiding place.
I’m not opposed to jump-scares. Friday the 13th was nothing if not a master class on how to use jump-scares without boring the ever-loving snot out of an audience. Alien, one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, hangs almost all of its scary scenes on jump-scares.
Let’s hang a moment on Alien, because what Ridley Scott did with the bog-standard jump-scare is instructive to why The Pyramid’s trailer is so uninteresting. Alien was a slasher movie in space, where the occupants of Slasher HQ get picked off one-by-one until the plucky heroine finds a way to vanquish the slasher. Boiled down to its basic story beats, Alien isn’t all that different from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or, well, The Pyramids. Scary thing + helpless victims + ooga booga booga + a variety of gristly deaths = movie.
But the way in which Scott turned the basic jump scare into a slow and creepy device made his movie a classic. He hid the monster in plain sight, usually in the background of the frame. The monster’s morphology matched the background, so you couldn’t see if until it moved. Even then, you probably missed the movement until the monster was well and truly on the victim. I know I did, more than once, even the third or fourth time I watched the movie. By the time Scott delivered the BLEARGH moment, we were already scared. The attack of the little alien mouth and the crunchy noises were merely final punctuation. The fright was already in full effect. The next jump-scare would be different, though he used most of the same techniques: Lone victim, quiet scene, something moving in the backgr–OHMYGODTHEALIENAGAINSOMEONESAVEUS!
None of that exists in The Pyramid’s trailer. We can guess pretty well from which piece of scenery the scary thing will leap: that loose rock at which the heroes stupidly tug, the only shadowy corner in the room, the unexplored hole to Monstertown, that spot just off-camera that will be revealed to us in a slow turn to OOGABOO–no.
There is no ooga booga booga. We’re not scared. We’re startled, certainly, because humans are wired to be startled by a loud surprise that jumps at our faces and that natural reflex is what the lazy director of The Pyramids uses in place of real film-making over and over again.
Here’s what I’d like to have seen. The team finds a mystery, not about a scary, lunging monster, but about the curse of the pyramid itself. Suspense builds as strange things happen to the team. Perhaps one of the characters wanders off in the middle of the night and is found standing alone in the desert chanting an ancient rite. She can’t remember how she got there nor what she was saying nor why her hands are so bloody with not a wound anywhere on her. A couple of the camels go missing, with a blood trail that ends very close to where they found their sleepchanting friend. Slowly, the characters reveal the effect of the curse, which isn’t a death curse but a compulsion to complete the rite that opens the way to He Who Rules the Underworld. Now, scarier things occur. Low voices sing in a long-dead language from the darkness of the pyramid’s entrance, outside of which our team is camped. The guides huddle together at night and sing their own song of protection from the Stalker of the Sands. A sinkhole is found a short distance from the pyramid and one of the team noticed how if you extend that tunnel they found earlier, the one that didn’t quite match up to how other pyramids were built, you’d end up right where that hole appeared; and worse, the hole appears to have been dug from underneath. The team huddles around the base of a stele, frantically deciphering the ancient writing when suddenly —
Well, that ought to be enough in one trailer to get the goosebumps going, yes? I’d be interested. What has awakened? Did the team awaken it and, more importantly, can they put it back to rest or will it work its nefarious evil upon them all? Have they been co-opted by the curse? Are they in full control of themselves? What happened after that “suddenly –“? What is the Stalker of the Sands?
I’d watch that in a hot second. How about you? I’m disappointed in this trailer because I want a good suspense adventure that involves pyramids and curses and maybe a mummy or two. I loved The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, though they weren’t suspense or mystery stories. The Pyramid could have been a really cool movie, but BLEARGH!