It was intriguing to watch. For those of us who love the genre, we knew it was inevitable. Still, with such a strong showing from the international community, it looked like the Ethan Hawke horror film Sinister was going to be something special. Insidious special. The Cabin in the Woods special. Heck, maybe even [REC] good. As it sat in the high 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, it looked like the often maligned movie category was about to score that rarity - a real critical hit.
Then it started. Slowly, then snowballing. As more and more ‘journalists’ added their voices, as the aggregate system over at Rotten Tomatoes started to show its already flawed stripes, the total score for Sinister dropped. First into the ‘80s, then drastically into the high 60s. By the end of the 12 October weekend (where it placed third at the box office), it had landed at a weak 63%. While that’s good in the overall scheme of the genre, it once again argues for a critical constant. Horror remains one of the most consistently marginalized and maligned categories in the history of the artform. More so than any other.
Now, we’ve previously discussed the reasons behind (or at the very least, our theory as to the reasons behind) the hatred of horror by the mainstream critical community, and little has changed in that regard. We still believe that, like comedy, what frightens people is individualized and hard to make universal. Second, we understand the slapdash design of most modern terror. As long as you can keep the budget down, the expectations high, and the demo driven, you can make crap (Paranormal Activity) and still walk away with a win… fall. Quality is almost never a concern.
But for our money, the most important reason horror continues to be marginalized is because there are so many geeks going gonzo over anything with a noted fear factor. Sometimes, these fetishes are viable (Dario Argento, Coffin Joe, Paul Naschy). At other instances, the work doesn’t warrant the passion and/or praise (Charles/Albert Band, numerous direct to video titles from the ‘80s). As with most problems within any social structure, we tend to blame the Internet. It’s turned the marketplace of ideas into a Wal-Mart of “whatever.” Got a Jones for something someone has otherwise dismissed as dreck. Google it, and you’ll find someone who thinks it walks on aesthetic water.
Of course, it’s not fair to blame everything on the web. For decades before, groups of cinematic outsiders wrote books, fanzines, and scholarly dissertations on their own personal appreciations, elevating the work of such stalwarts as Roger Corman and several exploitation kings beyond their basis in drive-in schlock. Even notoriously dismissed directors like Ed Wood were being championed—sarcastically perhaps—long before there were blogs and specific sites. The only difference is that, for the most part, you had to be part of the clique to get involved in the conversation. You had to seek out the specialty bookstore, find that rare copy of David Friedman’s A Youth in Babylon to gain membership in this elite entertainment debate. Once in, the obsessing began.
Today, any kid with a smartphone can start a flame war over any subject, and in that regard, horror has certainly suffered its share of slings and arrows. Now, it’s basically circling its wagons. The defenders are just as defiant as the detractors, neither capable of seeing the bigger picture or even wanting to. Websites like Bloody Disgusting and Dread Central crawl in bed with the studios, guaranteeing that someone on their (mostly volunteer) staff will praise the otherwise (typically) mediocre production coming out of the film factory. On the other side of the ring, the contrarians are consistent. Their bias and genre bigotry come out in big fat slabs of self-serving prose, anything remotely resembling scares earning their outright rejection. As a result, a vicious cycle ensues. Films are made for the fan who will basically watch anything, proving to the pigheaded that horror is nothing more than subpar cinema.
And so on… and so on… and so on…
They may have a point. Something well made and polished (like Sinister) stands out when viewed alongside its Devil Inside/Chernobyl Diaries peer group. Yet because critics are already preordained to hate anything horror, based on such a fractured frame of reference, it barely gets acknowledged. In fact, one devotee has voiced the opinion that a fright film that actually breaks through into mainstream appeal is not really pure macabre, but an odd combination of thriller and action film with shocks throw in for good measure. We’re not talking about the phenomenons here (Saw, Friday the 13th). No, we are addressing examples such as The Exorcist, Poltergeist, or Halloween. Sure, they retain their genre trappings, but for many, the true terror has been diluted.
Yet this doesn’t really address the real reason critics complain about horror - age. As we get older, what frightened us in our youth (a loud noise in the night, a shadow in the corner) earns a pragmatic explanation (the house settling, a trick of the light). Soon, all those supernatural visions that disturbed your dreams become nonsense in a world of mortgage payments, parent/teacher conferences, and the daily nine to five. Sinister suffers a bit from this clash with the real world. After all, would a father purposely lie to his family, placing them in possible danger, all to live in a notorious murder house and write a book about it? Once he discovered the box of horrific home movies, would he have locked himself in his office, reviewing them over and over, or would he immediately call in the police (no matter his distrust) to point out the newly discovered physical evidence to several notorious crimes?
Like science fiction, which requires a solid suspension of disbelief, horror has its inherent limits. It cannot and will not appeal to each and every member of the audience… and remember, we are dealing with individual opinion, which will always vary. No, the biggest problem facing horror (aside from the consistent crappiness of the product) is generational. The younger crowd, raised on the routine and the ridiculous, repeated ad nauseum by their favorite home video delivery device, love almost everything listed as dread. For the older, more practical pundit, it’s all carnival barking smoke and mirrors. Until that somehow changes, we’ll see more examples like Sinister and its spook show slippage in the ratings.