Scary And Smart

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Bryce Dallas Howard seen here in the midst of the forest in a scene from the film “The Village”

The scariest part of a horror film often is waiting for it to start. You hear the premise (The Sixth Sense's "I see dead people") or see the trailer (a ghostly image on a TV screen for The Ring), and your palms sweat. Standing in line, you glance around to see if anyone else has that anguished look. By the time the film begins, you're a nervous wreck. What movie could match your nightmare of anticipation?

For two decades, horror movies have been R-rated snuff cartoons with severed limbs and buckets of blood. The Freddy and Jason films and the Chainsaw Massacres appeal to the connoisseurs of special-effects gore. Every item is laid out for you to see, like the carcasses in a butcher's window.

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But there's another kind of horror, a subtler, more seductive and lingering kind. "Whether it's Polanski's Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby or Kubrick's The Shining," says former Fox studio boss Bill Mechanic, "some of the best horror movies had a certain elegance to them." These films tell you that what you don't know or notice can hurt you. They are to the gore fests as romantic dramas are to porn. They are about mood, atmosphere, the notion that death is everywhere and inevitable.

Gross-out horror movies are essentially facetious; the more artful films are dread serious. "For me," says M. Night Shyamalan, who revived the ghost-story trend with The Sixth Sense in 1999, "the challenge is taking a B-movie subject like ghosts or aliens or monsters in the woods and treating it with absolute respect and sincerity." And at their heart, they have an all-too-human sadness. "There may be a bit more acceptance of horror because of what's going on in the world today," says George Romero, director of the classic Night of the Living Dead. "When people feel threatened, they either go to pure entertainment or to something that might strike a chord with the fears they have in real life."

The trick of dread movies is to take ordinary events and invest them with the unbeatable combination of must-see and can't-bear-to-look. Go on, take a stroll in the woods (in Shyamalan's The Village) when you've been told that monsters lurk there. Or a dip in the ocean (in the low-budget thriller Open Water) when you're left stranded as shark bait. Try to wash out that feeling of dread by shampooing your hair (in the Japanese spookathon Ju-on: The Grudge). You begin to rub in the shampoo — and for a moment you feel a third hand, corpse cold, massaging your scalp.

Just now, grown-up horror is frightfully chic. The Village, which Shyamalan describes as "a Grimm fairy tale — Little Red Riding Hood, but an adult, dark version of it," creeps into theaters this week, followed by Open Water. Ju-on has opened in New York City and Los Angeles and spreads to a dozen cities next month. Soon we'll see an assault of Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films. The Ring 2, a sequel to the 2002 Naomi Watts thriller that grossed $230 million worldwide, is being directed by Hideo Nakata, who helmed the original Japanese film version. A remake of Nakata's Dark Water, about a woman and her daughter drowning in sorrow and fear, will star Jennifer Connelly; Mechanic is the producer, and Walter Salles (Central Station) is the director. And Ju-on, Japan's top fright franchise (with four episodes) since The Ring, gets its Hollywood remake in October, with the original films' auteur, Takashi Shimizu, calling the shots and Sarah Michelle Gellar starring for producer Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi.

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