Horror architectures and pitch darkness are not inseparably intertwined. It’s a common misconception purported by spooky cinema itself. Don’t get me wrong – James Wan’s signature manipulation of outreaching shadows showcases why bumps in the night scare with ease (one of many examples). But what about the alternative? Thrill me in the sunlight, and you’ve conquered one of the hardest, most unforgiving subgenres. What I, so professionally, dub “Sunny Scary.”
With Ari Aster’s Midsommar primed to issue merciless dread while sunbeams celebrate pastels and blossoming springtime bulbs, I’m reminded of films that have accomplished similar feats. The original version of The Wicker Man, without hesitation, comes to mind as Summerisle‘s Celtic rituals unfold during off-kilter May Day festivities. Sergeant Howie’s investigation becomes more and more unsettling during inappropriate May Pole teachings or blatant missing child coverups. As “killer doll” movies prey upon innocence exploited, so do films that shatter daylight reprises via sacrificial damnation. One man’s discovery of unspeakable truths played out in plain sight, framed and illuminated with the festive enchantment of something much happier (without flaming effigial crosshatches).
We’ve been trained to associate darkness with horror and light with safety. Movies often cage evil haunts until night’s defined “Witching Hour,” subconsciously programming our brains to recognize structural tropes. Freddy stalks dreamland slumber grounds, Jason interrupts bedroom coitus, Michael slashes while trick ‘r treaters collect candy – all slaughters blanketed by night’s cloaking cover. Harder to see? Harder to escape. Fewer people awake? Fewer witnesses. Situational benefits for horror’s iconic slashers and ghost stories.
Anyone who believes on-screen horrors disappear once morning’s rooster “doodle-doos” needs to expand their knowledge of scare-based cinema. A movie like Annabelle: Creation maximizes past-bedtime saunters down ominous staircases aplenty, no lights flicked on, to rightfully nasty thrills – but my favorite sequence? Children scamper and giggle outside, signifying midday safety where demons surely would be spotted. Janice (Talitha Bateman) sits in her wheelchair soaking in country warmth, when all of a sudden “The Nun” starts pushing her towards an open barn door in broad daylight. We can only see Valek’s hands grasping the chair, but Janice’s face conveys all the terror we need. Malevolence never subsides, and that’s when Annabelle: Creation unexpectedly doubts its stakes.
Think back on both Dawn Of The Dead films. George A. Romero’s classic and Zack Snyder’s revamp (the latter hand-in-hand with 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later). Neither apocalypse takes a break when Mr. Sun arises. Threats continuously bang upon locked mall doors. Survivors flee from shambling hordes or rabid, sprinting berserkers at 10:00AM or 10:00PM. Romero’s hungry social commentary, Snyder’s aggressive-as-anything pace, and Danny Boyle’s outbreak hysteria? All singularly terrifying vehicles without timecoded restrictions.
The ferocity in which outbreaks can spread and interrupt daily routines adds weight to these types of horror films. It’s one thing when characters awaken from slumber, cities already shut down. The hustle and bustle quieted. Then you have something like 2010’s The Crazies remake, which opens with a tense standoff during a rural town’s baseball game. Horrors when we least expect them never hesitate to remind us that evils won’t wait until nightfall. No such thing as a “time out” because we’re at work, or in the supermarket, or watching recreational sports. “Sunny Scary” is all about reassuring us that at any time, in any place, our lives can throttle into pandemonium on a stage much like the one we take day after day.
Beachside aqua-horrors featuring underwater predators predominantly cannot escape exotic locales captured through glistening paradise refractions. Not that New England is comparable to resort islands, but Jaws stands as a masterclass in biting tension. Steven Spielberg’s “King Shark” thrasher employs now “dated” practical effects (mechanized Great White “Bruce”), crystal clear waters, and an inability to hide behind Mr. Moon’s dimness. Cinema’s most prolific appreciators still applaud Jaws as pure summertime dread by situation: an unfathomable marine monster munching vacationers without warning. Fun in the sun becomes a waking nightmare.
Think back on the trifecta of Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, and Lake Placid. The late 90s were the best of times for creature feature fans (add Deep Rising, but that’s another thematic article). Anaconda this Amazonian “National Geographic disaster” hot enough to make your screen perspire, Deep Blue Sea culminates Act III in broad daylight, and Lake Placid’s reptilian colossus munches its way through campsite horror for all to see. No frets about hiding rubbery practical snake designs or animated and animatronic sharks, as all three films accentuate either hazy tropics or natural woodland rage in the form of beastly horrors. A reverse Jaws situation which spotlights creature aggression. Ultimate scares aren’t guaranteed (Anaconda primarily, while Deep Blue Sea and Lake Placid sell monster designs), but given each film’s cult appreciation, such approaches build a better “Sunny Scary” animal attack on par with Australia’s 2007 Rogue.
For a most extreme example of the above, you have Piranha 3D’s goregasmic spring break carnage. The same sunshiny lakeside principles, but a different approach that opts to slather docks thick in coed juices. Legendary practical effects wizard Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX crafts chewed-up, dismembered, and razor-teeth shredded cadavers hyperdetailed enough to withstand natural spotlights. The sun discloses any filmmaking imperfections, making such scripted endeavors that much more difficult. Nicotero rises to meet Mother Nature’s challenge, delivering bloody beachfront chaos coated in fish guts and Eli Roth’s brain matter. It’s not as if piranhas can gulp victims like a Great White. Feeding frenzies are an underwater cyclone of ripped-and-torn flesh that leaves nothing but gored leftovers behind.
If you can execute spectacle effects that withstand full exposure, you might be lucky enough to release the next Cannibal Holocaust or The Green Inferno (speaking of Eli Roth). These cannibalistic feasts are meant to shock, awe, and disgust audiences, selling the normalcy of man-eating practices in a tribal setting. Lush greenage and blazing rays honor jungle atmospheres, but without “delicious” special effects, cinematic magic wears thin. Cannibal Holocaust is so realistic Ruggero Deodato was summoned into court to prove no actors died on set, and as for The Green Inferno, Roth’s hacked-to-bits prisoners would make Rob Zombie blush.
“Sunny Scary,” more than any other subgenre, is about selling prosthetic mutilation on Hall Of Fame (er, Mame?) levels. Blemishes can’t hide under shadows; same goes for cut-rate computer graphics.
A proficient horror storyteller needn’t lean on after hours darkness as a crutch. Wes Craven’s (and Alexandre Aja’s) sun-scorched desertion of civilization maximizes middle-of-nowhere paranoia in The Hills Have Eyes. A family stranded on Nevada backroads, the threat of hungry cannibal attackers, and an RV trekkin’ getaway sticky with a salty, sweaty cocktail. It’s this reaffirmation that terror can lurk in plain view (those binocular shots), but only when creators proactively address the shortcomings of midday monstrosities.
Craven and Romero were so proficient at heightening thematic social commentaries so that these types of see-all horror films became terrifying mirrors to humanity far beyond genre satire. Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake leans more into the death and brutalization aspects mentioned in previous paragraphs, but Craven’s deformed mountain clan benefits from a twisted tale of political despicableness that is for all to witness. By embracing searing desert terrain, Craven plainly states his case on 70s moral abandonment. Confidence, when it comes to “Sunny Scary,” remains a vital key.
Even the paranormal or mystical can execute their plans after dawn’s comforting embrace, looking at something like Shudder’s The Noonday Witch or Blind Sun. One story a Czech supernatural invocation that materializes its titular foe amidst yellowed grain fields and pristine blue skies in sweltering temperatures. The latter a Greek psychological thriller that takes place during a heatwave. Visuals are striking enough to dehydrate audiences thirsty for water, as the sun itself becomes a character, or worse yet, combating force.
It’s not just about “letting there be light” that defines “Sunny Scary” horror. Colorization plays a part, small or big, by employing cooling blues of coastal waters or warming yellows versus dismal nighttime filters that remove vibrancy to be replaced by dreadful nothingness. Tones we associate with relaxation, or beachside festivities, or spring breaks where swimsuits are every shade of the rainbow. Just like how mint greens are meant to soothe and hide turmoil, “Sunny Scary” and vacation-based horror films are meant to bring about thoughts of fantasy escapes from reality. Eyecatching backdrops too good to be true – then that damn shoe drops and squashes us underfoot.
Sunlight might cause Dracula to combust, but the most talented masters of horror shouldn’t fret UV rays. Be it cults, creatures, or cretins, terrorization that require sunglasses boasts a filmmaker’s true talents. You can damn well frighten me with a looming nightshade figure, but what’ll happen when I flick the light switch on? For top-tier directorial deviants, nothing changes – and that’s when real horror takes form for everyone to see.
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