Monday, September 24, 2007

My horror rules

My mind is currently brewing over what mere 31 movies to cast my vote for in 31 Greatest Horror Movies: Survey Announcement by Ed Hardy, Jr.

Mind you, I've noted (or at least hinted) that I'm feeling generally burnt out on both lists and horror movies, so it's not without hesitation that I'm choosing to participate. Unfortunately, I understand that the October timing is too good to pass up, and I'd very much like to support the idea of getting more horror titles out there for people to see and support.

The trouble comes for me is this number. 31. Yes, I get it.

I could write a list of 100 horror movies I love and still be disappointed at what was missing. Less than a third of that?

Making it even more of a challenge is the openness of the rules, "as for the definition of what makes a horror film, it’s entirely open to your own interpretation. Perhaps you think it’s a sense of creeping dread established by the tone. As far as I’m concerned, slashers, giallo, horror comedies/parodies, and any movie with a ghost, ghoul, zombie, vampire, or werewolf fit the bill."

Well, to make it easier for myself, I'm going to define a horror movie.

For one thing, I'm not comfortable with nebulous genre definitions. It allows a lot of room for people to sneak things in, and more importantly, out of genres for commercial or critical reasons and merely confuse the marketplace, both commercially and critically. Under these nebulous definitions, things are judged more or less harshly based on things that seem clearly not to be the intention of the work.

This is my definition of a horror movie. I don't get into it too often, because it gets me in trouble with other horror fans. With horror always being put off in a grungy closet, the disreputable inbred cousin of other kinds of stories, it's all too common for fans and creators of works that either are horror or at least within that realm to run to other more "respectable" labels such as "supernatural thriller".

I'll get to my definition, but let me be clear here, "supernatural thriller" pretty much covers how I'm going to define "horror". That's a label specifically designed by liars and cowards. It does not exist, in any manner of speaking, as something different from "horror". Anyone, fan or creator, who tells you different is either a liar, a coward or both.

That said, my definition knocks several things off the list of subgenres that are popularly considered under the umbrella of "horror".

Here goes. I define "horror" as "a story primarily intended to generate fear by use of, or suggestion of, supernatural, or otherwise otherworldly, forces working against humans or humanity as a whole."

As some of you noticed, I knocked a whole lot of popular horror movies off the list, although arguments could be made on some. Is Dawn of the Dead primarily intended to generate fear? Does The Wicker Man suggest supernatural, or otherwise otherworldly, forces? It's probably impossible to create a definition that doesn't leave some wiggle room around the edges.

But it does absolutely knock The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie likely to place well on the final list, off. So, what is it? I figure it's a thriller. Perhaps, if other people followed me in this, which they most certainly won't, then I'd suggest a subgenre for it to fit into, perhaps something like "hard thriller".

It also eliminates a whole lot of movies such as 28 Days Later and Night Watch, whose primary aims seem clearly to be other than generating fear. As notes, this can be tough in many cases to put your finger on, but I think it's actually the most important part. I can't tell you how many times I've had to endure complaints from people that movies like these "aren't scary", and I get stuck in a circular argument with them in which I have to explain that it they work on so many other levels and it's clear that generating fear wasn't the primary goal of the creators.

These movies, for what it's worth, are fantastique, dark fantasy. Sadly, a term out of vogue and one that, when used, often makes the user sound utterly pretentious. Until someone decides to coin a term that sounds more comfortable in the English vernacular, however, it's what we have.

Interesting, what becomes clear to me in writing this is that the larger genres are the "thriller" and "fantastique", and "horror" is, in my opinion, the subgenre that brings the two together. I accept that most people disagree, most in principle and nearly all in practice.


Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Fascinating post. I disagree with the "supernatural" element of your definition (obviously, since you quoted my own definition in the intro) but I was very excited to see you discussing what made a horror movie. I'm hoping everyone who participates in the survey will think about these questions, and hopefully we can get a discussion going about it. That's the reason I didn't limit people's idea of what they could include--then we'd just have a list of movies that I think are horror movies, instead of a list reflective of a community decision.

Thanks for making me think about this, I think I'll go post some sort of conversation starter to this effect over at Shoot the Projectionist.

Neil Sarver said...

Thanks for your comment.

I'd honestly like to see some discussion of that myself. I think we often take for granted with genre terms, because they seem so simply, that we all understand the same things when we say them or hear them, but I think very, very often we don't.

I am, as it happens, quite pleased that you have chosen to keep the rules for the survey itself as loose as possible. That is more interesting, and offers a better chance for a greater variety, which should always be the goal of these kinds of lists.

I don't expect many to agree with my definition, especially the supernatural element, although I honestly think that's because we've corrupted the word beyond having much useful meaning as a genre description.

There once was a time when mystery thrillers and horror thrillers were easily separated, and because neither, in any media, veered far from expectations, there was no reason to question where one began and the other ended.

Obviously, as time went on, both began borrowing from one another, for a variety of reasons. By the time of the late '50s and early '60s we first began seeing mystery thrillers, like Diabolique, Peeping Tom and Psycho, that borrowed enough from the horror thrillers that they achieved similar effects, while some horror thrillers, like The Haunting and The Innocents, that achieved similar effects to those of the mystery. This was, in itself, a good thing.

Unfortunately, the next stage was movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that take the form and power of a horror movie, leaving only the element of the supernatural behind. These were easier to sell and to understand as horror.

The natural progression from there was to back associate the movies such as Psycho as horror and movies such of The Innocents as something "less than" horror. And from there we have a mess where no one quite understands, at least in a definitive sense, what the difference is. Without a clear definition, it's easy to misdirect impression, to hide from the "horror" label if it seems commercially inconvenient or to hype a non-horror movie with some arguable element as "scary as hell" to amp up the first weekend receipts.

But, as I said, I don't expect anyone to accept my definition at this point. I try to avoid dealing with it in discussion anymore as it generally only causes frustration.

Here, as it happens, I needed some way to eliminate movies that may be favorites or qualitatively brilliant, just as a means to get my list down to the required 31 and this definition seemed convenient. And it seemed worth bringing the issue up for others to consider.

Piper said...

Great post Neil. It's obvious that you've thought this through and I may be one of the few that will probably not include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on my final list, but to eliminate any of the Dead films will be too hard for me. I get hung up on the "Supernatural" aspect of it. I'm going to make it even simpler for myself. Anything that gives me the willies is in.

Edward Copeland said...

I'm ready to join in (especially since I don't have to tally the results), but I'm also wondering what criteria to use. Should I include pure suspense pictures that aren't necessarily horror films? Maybe all monsters? At least I have some time to think about it. (Even though the scariest thing I've ever seen on film was Stephen Baldwin chewing off Pauly Shore's toenails in Bio-Dome, I will not include it.)

Neil Sarver said...

Piper, I like the "31 movies that give me the willies" as a criteria. That's great. Although The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would make that list for me in a walk.

Edward, I can imagine. Congrats and good job on the Foreign Language Movie list. I'm sure that was quite an undertaking and it was interesting to look over. I'll be interested to see what criteria you, and everyone involve, choose for themselves... Possibly more than I'm curious about the actual movie choices themselves.

Further notes: What Makes a Horror Film? by Ed Hardy, Jr. links this post and posits the question more generally than my post.

I'm also aware that works crossing mystery/thriller and horror existed prior to the point circa 1960 that I pointed to. There are the works of Edgar Wallace and Val Lewton, not to mention the plays I understand were popular in which supernatural phenomenon was revealed, as in an episode of "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?", to be a person playing an elaborate hoax, generally for their own financial gain. That's not even getting into the fact that the mystery genre itself is credited as being created by Edgar Allan Poe.

I'll stand by that point circa 1960 as being the point where the publics perception of that line gets increasingly blurry as you pass it.

Neil Sarver said...

Oh, and there will be a Dead movie on my list of 31. There would, in fact, be a Dead movie on my list of 1, were I forced to make such a list.

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