Horror: The Ugly Duckling of Cinema
Horror films have been a part of my life since I first became interested in cinema. Having been squeamish throughout my childhood, I finally took the plunge in my early teens and became hooked instantly. For the past six years or so my taste has expanded but I still have a soft spot for the grisly pleasures of the subversive. Some would argue that there are a number of films from this genre that are openly regarded as classics by scholars and critics but I am still convinced that horror remains a niche cult phenomenon that is often overlooked and viewed differently to more ‘worthy’ material. Even the film department at my university does not consider this genre an important area of study in its own right, only ever using these films in relation to other areas of study, such as Japanese Cinema or Postmodernism.
A great place to start is by looking at the so-called classics and their place in relation to the genre as a whole. I have found it is possible to place these more accepted films into two categories; Revolutionary Horror and Prestige Horror:
This category consists of ground-breaking films that simply cannot be disregarded by film historians or critics. These are often of low quality as they do little more than showcase a particular innovative element. For example, Night of the Living Dead is a landmark of American independent cinema as well as a powerful critique of society but in terms of quality it is actually a very average film, especially by today’s standards. Similar could be said for The Last House on the Left, and Tod Browning’s Dracula; which is an incredibly dated early sound film but a landmark in the history of Universal Studios and cult fandom.
Other examples include: Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ring.
The more respected horror films often earn their status because of the names attached to the projects. For example, both Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick) were made by directors who already had a great amount of status due to their work in other genres. Although it is worth noting that neither of these films were met with immediate critical success and have both gained in popularity as the directors’ canons have been posthumously revised. Gothic Horror (including the Universal classics, The Innocents and The Haunting) also fits into this category as it is a continuation of a literary tradition with a pre-existing sense of cultural worthiness. I often feel that some of the classics are seen as being of substance simply because of contextual factors rather than their content.
Other examples: Eyes Without A Face, Peeping Tom, The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Both of these categories give the impression that there is a space for horror in film criticism. I would argue, however, that three fundamental problems still remain:
The most seriously overlooked sub-genre is what I like to call ‘Pure Horror’. This consists of films whose only real function is to scare or shock its audience. Many of the more critically accepted horrors are multi-genre films (such as Alien, Don’t Look Now, and The Wicker Man) often combining drama or Sci-Fi with horror and are thus not pure horror films. Ti West is a great example of a pure horror filmmaker as his films are all constructed around horror. In his films, subtext and complex character development take a back seat in favour of a steady climb towards a number a great scares. The main issue here is that these films are genre films and thus follow a basic formula for a specific purpose. Critics often find such films to be lacking in artistic value precisely for this reason and do not attempt to look at the multitude of layers that are actually at work.
Examples include: The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Borderlands, Pin, The Amityville Horror, Child’s Play, Suspiria, Candyman, Session 9, The Eye (2002).
‘Body Horror’ and ‘Torture Porn’ are equally overlooked subgenres. Torture films in particular can be easily dismissed because of their subversive content. It is certainly not uncommon for these films to be met with distain as their exploitative foundations means they can never fully justify their content. This automatically pushes them into the realm of cult cinema, even dating back to the silent era with the subversive films of Lon Chaney which were met with equal distain by audiences and were the first real underground films. The Phantom of the Opera is the only one with any real prestige but, as suggested earlier, this comes from its respected source material.
Other Examples: Excision, Braindead, The Fly, Night of the Creeps, Antiviral, The Penalty, The Unknown, Maniac, Hostel, I Spit on Your Grave, Martyrs, Wolf Creek, The Human Centipede, Inside, Audition, Tokyo Gore Police, Switchblade Romance.
I’m not an avid follower of The Academy Awards but their significance in the world of film is undeniable as is their frequent lack of recognition for horror. The majority of awards given to these films have been for aesthetic reasons such as best make-up effects for The Fly and An American Werewolf in London or costume for Sleepy Hollow and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite winning Best Picture in 1992, I would argue that The Silence of the Lambs is a multi-genre film, closer to a thriller than horror, as is Misery which claimed Best Actress in 1991. The only real spanner in the works is The Exorcist which was the first horror to be nominated for Best Picture and was the winner of Best Sound, Best Screenplay, and a number of acting awards.
The Exorcist is a particularly interesting film in relation to my argument as I think it is possibly the only pure horror film to be fully embraced by critics. It received mixed reviews upon its release but has gained in reputation particularly as it has been singled out by a few notable critics. Roger Ebert, whilst being somewhat shocked by its content, openly praised the film. Mark Kermode is the most important critic in relation to The Exorcist as to this day he still claims it is the greatest film ever made. I think Kermode is one of the only well-known critics working today who really respects the horror genre for what it is. It is also perhaps because of him that critics still openly express their regard for this film.
The list of previous Best Picture winners is really a joke in itself. The painfully dull Out of Africa claimed victory in the year Re-Animator and The Return of the Living Dead were released; two fabulously fun horrors that have never won any awards outside of niche film festivals. Just as the melodramatic schmaltz-fest Terms of Endearment picked up the award the year that Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome was released. Despite being a genre film, Videodrome is a much more memorable and individual film as it combines an unusual storyline with spectacular make-up effects. Its dismissal acts as proof that the Academy are uncomfortable with awarding unusual or audience-dividing films; as can also be seen through their avoidance of awarding a drama like Brokeback Mountain Best Picture because of its controversial theme.
Horror is often a great way into World Cinema but this does little to help the genre as foreign films are massively disregarded by the Academy. It may seem absurd to suggest that these films are Oscar-worthy, but I think it highlights the key difference between enjoying films and appreciating them.
Top Film Polls
As a film fan, polls have been essential to my viewing decisions over the last few years and my research has revealed some serious issues at the basis of the critics’ compilations. There are plenty of ‘Greatest Horror Movies’ polls out there which allows critics to separate these films from their ‘actual’ greatest. For example, classics like The Omen, The Evil Dead, Onibaba, and A Tale of Two Sisters are completely omitted from every major critics’ poll. Sight & Sound, The Radio Times, and Total Film magazine name the usuals: Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now. The Telegraph even chooses to split their Greatest Films list into different genres and the individual critics’ polls completely avoid horror apart from the inclusion of The Shining by Tim Robey. Psycho is a frequently high-ranking horror in a number of film polls but, from what I can gather, never breaks into the top 20 of any list.
One frequent omission is John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is considered to be a horror classic by today’s standards but was left out by Total Film, Sight & Sound, The Telegraph, and The Radio Times. Empire managed to squeeze it into 289th place on their Top 500 but this is hardly a worthy position for a film I personally consider to be a masterpiece in relation to all of cinema, not just within its genre. The problem here is that The Thing is simply a good horror film but nothing more in an historical sense. Something particularly interesting in relation to this is the inclusion of this film on the IMDb users’ Top 250 and the Total Film online users’ 100 Favourite Movies list. I think this ties in nicely with Jon Lisi’s Films We Watch Versus Films We Study article where he attempts to distinguish between films that audiences enjoy and films that have significance. This is at the heart of the problem for the horror genre – it seems to be rife with films for enjoyment and low on films with significance. As a result of this, people are much more dismissive of these films when a particular element isn’t to their taste and less willing to praise individual elements.
Mark Kermode’s top ten films is the most horror-friendly list I have seen; with the inclusion of four horror films. He was, however, one of only two critics to name The Exorcist as one of the greatest in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. This highlights the fact that, despite the positivity many classic horrors receive, when it comes to the actual ‘greatest’ films they are frequently dismissed.
You might assume from my argument that my personal favourite films would be packed with horror but in actuality I suffer from the exact same problem as these critics. I enjoy these films more than any other genre as a whole but I also find that when it comes to the actual greatest it is much easier to overlook these in favour of more ‘artistically worthy’ films. It seems we have all been conditioned to automatically show appreciation for certain types of art films (such as the work of Yasujirô Ozu, Federico Fellini, and Orson Welles) and less for others.
Another problem I am often faced with is trying to work out which specific horror films are my actual favourites as the genre is so diverse there really are too many to choose from. My real argument is that they are a separate entity, a cult phenomenon, whose pleasure is precisely in the fact that they still have an underground status. There is also a sense of achievement in viewing something that many others can’t bring themselves to watch, this is exactly what many horror fans thrive on.
As well as this it is one of the only genres, in my opinion, that can be enjoyable even if the film is absolutely terrible. A bad drama can be painful to sit through but Troll 2, Leprechaun, and Basket Case are surprisingly enjoyable. Outside of narrative pleasure, horror films have the ability to entertain on an aesthetic or comedic level. A bad drama will often take itself too seriously which can be uncomfortable to sit through whereas a film like Leprechaun revels in its own absurdity. This is not to say some don’t fall flat, I do find Poltergeist and Pet Sematary to be particularly unenjoyable but my lack of enjoyment leads more to me simply forgetting these than actually being offended by their dullness.
There is hope for the future, especially with critics like Kermode keeping the interest alive and websites like Netflix making available some of the more obscure cult horror films.
The fact is, horror is great and you’d be a fool to avoid it, even if some critics want you to forget it exists.
Some other recommendations: Black Christmas, Phenomena, Tesis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Carnival of Souls, Cemetery Man, Cure, Scanners, The Tenant, Eraserhead, Kill List, The Jacket, Sinister, Brain Damage, Ginger Snaps, Evil Dead II.
What do you think? Leave a comment.