Saturday, October 13, 2012


When I saw that the new horror movie Sinister was from the producers of the 2011 horror movie Insidious, it made me laugh a little.

It also made me cognizant of a possibly fruitful naming convention for horror movies: Just pick a nasty-sounding adjective and go, even if that adjective may not describe that particular horror movie better than it would describe any other horror movie.

I mean, aren't most horror movies "sinister" or "insidious" in some way or another?

At the same time, you can't just use any old adjective. Sinister and Insidious both work as titles, but some of their synonyms would not. If I look up synonyms for "sinister" on, I get:

Adverse, apocalyptic, bad, baleful, baneful, blackhearted, corrupt, deleterious, dire, disastrous, dishonest, disquieting, doomful, evil, foreboding, harmful, hurtful, ill-boding, inauspicious, injurious, lowering, malefic, malevolent, malign, malignant, mischievous, obnoxious, ominous, pernicious, perverse, poisonous, portentous, threatening, unfavorable, unfortunate, unlucky, unpropitious, woeful.

Only a couple of these could stand alone as good titles for a horror movie. I'm thinking Bad, Evil, Malevolent, Malignant, Perverse and Poisonous could all stand alone as good horror movie titles. And of course Unpropitious

But that's only seven out of the 38 synonyms listed. Which suggests that a certain vagueness, a certain impreciseness of meaning is key to it working as a title. The word threatening, for example, is very common and recognizable to most people. But it has a kind of clinical literalness that keeps it from seeming like an ominous title (which is also the same problem with Ominous as a title). In this case, Threat would be a much better title. But then it would probably be a thriller, not a horror.

Let's take a look at the synonyms for "insidious":

Machiavellian, artful, astute, corrupt, crafty, crooked, cunning, dangerous, deceitful, deceptive, deep, designing, dishonest, disingenuous, duplicitous, ensnaring, false, foxy, guileful, intriguing, like a snake in the grass, perfidious, perilous, secret, slick, sly, smooth, snaky, sneaking, stealthy, subtle, surreptitious, treacherous, wily, wormlike.

Almost none of these would make a good movie title, with the possible exceptions of Crooked and Dangerous. But perhaps that gets at a problem with Insidious as a title. Perhaps the title Insidious is not even really functioning as a literal definition of the word, which is:

1. intended to entrap or beguile: an insidious plan.
2. stealthily treacherous or deceitful: an insidious enemy.
3. operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect: an insidious disease.

Since that movie is about a boy who is being haunted by spirits, there's not really any treachery or deceit going on here. The title would make sense if these spirits came to the boy in a friendly and apparently above-board way, but actually intended to do him harm. But that's not the case. Perhaps the producers are trying to make audiences think of the root word "inside," even though that word has only a tangential relationship to the word "insidious" as we think of it today.

Or, maybe they just thought it sounded like a cool title.

So that got me thinking of the other movies I've seen with one-word adjective titles -- and whether it was actually a meaningful description of what happens in the movie, or just sounded good.

Time for a list.

Now, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to rule out what I'm calling "states of being" adjectives. By that I mean adjectives that describe the state of being of a character or element in the plot fairly literally. For example, Awake, which features a man who is accidentally awake during major surgery. Or Buried, which features a man buried alive in a coffin. Also excluding such titles as Titanic, which is an adjective, but here is serving as a name.

Okay, I'll go through the rest alphabetically, with a quick definition of the word, description of the movie and judgment whether it works or doesn't work.

Anonymous (2011, Roland Emmerich)
Definition: without any name acknowledged, as that of author, contributor, or the like; lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction
Plot: Did William Shakespeare really write his own plays, or was that feat performed by a person whose name was never recorded by history?

Beastly (2011, Daniel Barnz)
Definition: of or like a beast; nasty, unpleasant, disagreeable
Plot: A modern-day take on the Beauty and the Beast tale.

Bedazzled (2000, Harold Ramis)
Definition: forcefully impressed upon, especially so as to make oblivious to faults or shortcomings 
Plot: Man disenchanted with his life is granted seven wishes by a mysterious woman who turns out to be the devil.
Sort of works - It's a bit of a stretch but we'll accept it.  

Big (1988, Penny Marshall)
Definition: large, as in size, height, width, or amount; of major concern, importance, gravity, or the like
Plot: A boy makes a wish on a carnival fortune-telling machine and is transformed into the adult version of himself.

Bound (1996, Larry and Andy Wachowski)
Definition: tied, in bonds; under a certain legal or moral obligation
Plot: Two women who have just become lovers team up to steal a briefcase of money from one's mobster boyfriend.
Works - Not only are characters actually tied up in this movie, but they are metaphorically tied to each other by the trust necessary to pull off the heist.

You know what? This is going to take too long. Let's speed things up here ...

Cellular (2004, David R. Ellis) - Works
Closer (2004, Mike Nichols) - Sort of works
Collateral (2004, Michael Mann) - Doesn't really work
Clueless (1995, Amy Heckerling) - Works
Crossover (2006, Preston A. Whitmore) - Doesn't really work
Fearless (1993, Peter Weir) - Works
Fireproof (2008, Alex Kendrick) - Works
Flipped (2010, Rob Reiner) - Mostly works
Frantic (1988, Roman Polanski) - Sort of works
Gigantic (2008, Matt Aselton) - Does not work at all
Hoodwinked (2006, Cory Edwards) - Sort of works
Infamous (2006, Douglas McGrath) - Doesn't really work
Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noe) - Works on multiple levels
Lawless (2012, John Hillcoat) - Sort of works
Limitless (2011, Neil Burger) - Works
Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras) - Works
Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) - Does it work? I can't remember
Overnight (2003, Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith) - Works
Redacted (2007, Brian DePalma) - Works
Rogue (2008, Greg McLean) - Doesn't work
Safe (1995, Todd Haynes) - Works
Shattered (1991, Wolfgang Petersen) - Mostly works
Spellbound (2002, Jeffrey Blitz) - Works
Super (2011, James Gunn) - Works
Taken (2009, Pierre Morel) - Works
Tangled (2010, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard) - Sort of works
Unfaithful (2002, Adrian Lyne) - Works
Unforgiven (1991, Clint Eastwood) - Doesn't really work
Unknown (2006, Simon Brand) - Works
Unleashed (2005, Louis Letterier) - Works
Untsoppable (2010, Tony Scott) - Works
(Untitled) (2009, Jonathan Parker) - Works
Wanted (2008, Timur Bekmambetov) - Doesn't work

Conclusion? There isn't really that much abuse of adjectives going on in titles after all. Most of them are pretty good representations of what the movie is about. And in one case that I consider sort of a stretch (Unforgiven), it's actually my favorite movie listed here, so I don't even care.

I hope this exercise was at least sort of interesting. Though I guess if I had to do it over, I would have written about Argo

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