Like the boogeyman haunting morality tales of old, Jim O’Rear knows what scares you.
The Alabama-native is a regular renaissance man of the cinema, writing, acting, producing, directing… you name it. Some of his movies that have developed a strong and loyal fan base are The Dead Matter, The Deepening, Scream Farm, Beverly Lane, Old Habits Die Hard, and Underground Entertainment: The Movie.
In part two of our interview, he talks about the art of terrifying viewers…
Tnalga: You make a living sending a shiver down our spines. As a Southerner, what sorts of things scare people in this neck of the woods, compared to other places?
O’Rear: Fear is a primal human emotion. It’s the same in everyone. Some people become more used to dealing with that emotion than others, but everyone has the same primal instincts when it comes to fear. So, working in horror you learn to play on those primal instincts that are common in everyone.
Tnalga: After the Newtown school shooting, a lot of blame has been thrown around. The NRA deflected the blame from guns, saying violent movies and video games are responsible for tragedies. How do you respond to that?
O’Rear: It’s a cop out. People struggle to understand and come to grips with a tragedy like that. They want answers and want to understand how and why something that like that could happen. Violent entertainment is an easy excuse and makes them feel better. But, it’s just a Band-Aid. The fact the tragedies keep happening is because no one is addressing the REAL reason behind them. No one wants to take the blame, so it’s easier to deflect it on to something else and people accept that deflection because it’s easy for them to understand.
Tnalga: I’ve heard the psychological theory that suspenseful and scary movies help normal people subconsciously process parts of real life that are troubling. Why do people pay their hard-earned money to go see terrible fictional things that would make us feel bad if we saw them really happening on the evening news?
O’Rear: It’s a release. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting your adrenaline pumping and then laughing at the release. If you notice, most people watching a horror film will get frightened — making the adrenaline flow — and then once they scream or jump from a shock they will immediately laugh. When this is repeated over and over throughout a 90-minute film, it’s a real rollercoaster ride for your body that becomes addictive.
Tnalga: Scary movies make us laugh?
O’Rear: There’s a very thin line between horror and comedy, so they’re, actually, a lot of fun to watch and to make. I’m usually laughing while I’m reading horror scripts. What happens in horror films is so ridiculous, how could you not laugh? I usually know I’ve found a good project to work on when I can laugh at the uncomfortable and horrific situations presented in a script. I am really drawn to dark humor. Horror films are usually the most fun to work on of any type of film, and I usually laugh more on those sets than any others.
Tnalga: It sounds like an emotional pendulum between joy and angst.
O’Rear: You can have a variety of combinations with things like action/comedies, action/dramas, “dramadies,” suspense/dramas, comedy/action/dramas, etc… but, you rarely ever see anything that works with horror other than comedy. You never see a horror/drama… an action/horror… something like that. But, you can easily find horror/comedies. The two genres really go hand-in-hand. Balancing them is not an easy task, though, because the scale is always going to tilt a little heavier to one side or the other. Too many people make the mistake of deciding to make a horror film and then add too much comedy to it, throwing their mix off.
Tnalga: How do storytellers avoid doing that?
O’Rear: You need a clear decision upfront of the type of film you’re going to make and add elements of the other genre to it.
Tnalga: There also seems to be a thin line between terror and titillation.
O’Rear: You can mix sex and terror all day long, and it works. There have been TONS of successful erotic horror films made. That’s because sex is part of horror. You can find it in almost every horror story or creature. For example, Dracula. Yes, he’s a monster… a murderer… a killing machine… however, his style of dress equates to romanticism, he is seductive and alluring, and the fact that his character’s nature is based around penetrating women (even if it is with his teeth), is very symbolic of sexuality in every way.
Tnalga: Violence seems so pervasive that we become desensitized, yet nakedness retains remarkable potency, doesn’t it?
O’Rear: Nudity is part of the horror movie formula. Horror films are simple. Most of them can be boiled down to “boobs and blood.” Give the fans those two things and 95% of the time you’re going to have a successful film. If you don’t give them boobs, there will be complaints.
Tnalga: At least that means job security for the busty scream queens.
O’Rear: I remember when the film Freddy VS. Jason was released to test screening audiences. The filmmakers thought it would automatically be a hit just because it had 2 of the most popular horror characters in it together, so they made it without any nudity. Repeatedly, though, test audiences noted on their opinion cards the fact that there needed to be at least one nude woman in the film. So, the filmmakers had to go back and shoot a new scene for the film that included nudity before it was released to the general public.
Tnalga: What was your favorite horror movie growing up? What is the best one you’ve seen recently?
O’Rear: I had three favorites growing up: The original 1968 Night Of The Living Dead, the original Halloween, and the first Phantasm film. I also believe these films still hold up today, too. They are still very watchable, and modern audiences can still relate to them.
Tnalga: Those are definitely classics. I used to terrorize my sister playing the Halloween theme on our family piano. And Phantasm was trippy, like a nightmare.
O’Rear: I don’t believe many people make true horror films any more. I’ve hated almost every horror film I’ve seen over the past several years. I’d much rather watch classics from the past, such as Re-animator, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Jaws, Dead Alive… something like that. If I had to pick some recent ones, though, I did enjoy Cabin In The Woods, Piranha 3D, The Orphanage, and Trick r Treat.
Tnalga: You’ve become somewhat iconic within your genre. What was it like to be immortalized as a comic book character opposite Thor in an issue of MARVEL Comics’ “What The?”
O’Rear: I’m very honored to have been able to be a part of Marvel Comics history. I grew up on comic books, especially Marvel, so for them to have included me, even briefly, was a great thrill. How many people can say they were in the comics opposite Thor? It still kinda blows my mind.
Tnalga: What did you think of The Avengers movie?
O’Rear:I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. People raved about that film, calling it one of the best movies ever. I was entertained, but I wouldn’t put it on my list of all-time favorite films. I think Joss Whedon is a genius, but to me it was just a very solid super hero film that was a fun time. Will I see the sequel? Of course, but I don’t find myself totally enthralled with the film, as many people seem to be.
Tnalga: Since you’ve won awards for your screenplays, what ingredients make for a great one?
O’Rear: There are so many details that come into play, but a great story, high-concept, characters your audience can relate to, intriguing dialogue, and proper script formatting all have to be in place.
Tnalga: There’s an aesthetic debate among horror fans. Gore vs. Suspense. Where do you fall on that sliding scale?
O’Rear: I’m “old school.” I’ll take a good tale of suspense over gore any day. Anyone can throw blood around, but not everyone can tell a good story that draws in an audience and really terrifies them.
Tnalga: How did working with magicians early on influence your career?
O’Rear: My background knowledge in magic has definitely come in handy in the film industry. It teaches you a different way of looking at things, as well as teaches you to see things as others may perceive to see them. This comes in handy with visual effects, lighting, camera angles, and more. I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to work a lot of the greats… Harry Blackstone Jr, David Copperfield, The Great Tomsoni, and more.
Tnalga: Don’t worry. We won’t ask you to reveal any tricks. Final question, is it true that you got into the horror field because of Disney’s Haunted Mansion? How did that inspire you?
O’Rear: Yes. Still, to this day, that is my favorite ride of any ride in any theme park. The themes, the artistry, the production values, the interactivity… everything is top notch. I was inspired by the fact that you could take basic elements of horror and fear and use them in an entertaining way that could successfully speak to audiences of all ages, races, and nationalities.
O’Rear: It was a great inspiration to see how simple visual effects created by practical magic illusions, lighting, details, and sounds could draw people in and get them immediately invested in the production that was being presented live, right in front of their faces. The Haunted Mansion is an overall experience that immediately establishes a mood and throws the customer into a completely different, entertaining, and all-immersive world. We visit Disney every other year, and I visit the Haunted Mansion no less than 10 times each time I’m there.
Tnalga: Me too! It’s a small world after all.