[30 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s sad but true – mainstream movie critics hate horror. Not in the conventional way, mind you. No, the standard print or online journalist hates motion picture macabre in a manner that seems inherent to its very makeup. It’s like how little kids hate vegetables or teenagers hate authority. Put something scary out into the marketplace and watch the negative notices pile up. Don’t believe it? Well, let’s look at the stats, shall we. Picking the major theatrical releases of 2006, and finding the ones that specifically deal with standard genre themes, the results are absolutely shocking. There is a definite anti-terror sentiment. Even recent outings by James Wan (Saw) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes 2) remain with low double digital decisions on the webs’ review database, Rotten Tomatoes.com.
It’s not just the standard fright flicks either. Big budget Hollywood horror, anchored by box office favorites like Jim Carrey (The Number 23), Sandra Bullock (Premonition) and two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (the soon to be released The Reaping) are being purposefully pigeon-holed as garbage by a journalistic paradigm that dismisses supernatural and paranormal elements as third class cinematic citizens – and it’s done automatically and en masse. Let’s go back to the beginning of 2006, shall we, and revisit the release of Eli Roth’s drop dead brilliant Hostel. Destined to be the Halloween of its generation, a movie as influential within the genre as it will be among the fanbase, the 93 writers who bothered to see the film ardently dismissed it (it earned a 59% approval rating). While certain caveats must be considered when dealing with such a gratuitously gory film, to read the blurbs posted, Roth committed some manner of horror movie hate crime.
It’s a revulsion that permeates almost all movie criticism. Though comic book movies and action films must endure the same perplexing prejudice, it seems that anything given over to terror just can’t catch a break. And if you combine the two – look out! Take Silent Hill. A video game adaptation (strike one) helmed by a style oriented foreign filmmaker (strike two) that dealt with themes and imagery revolving around death, religion, and surrealistic shocks (strike three), Christophe Gans’ groundbreaking masterpiece failed to fire up the Fourth Estate. Instead, they saddled the film with one of its lowest overall ratings – 27% - and argued that the visual brilliance on display was not enough to overcome the narrative’s intrinsic shortcomings. And almost all pointed out its PS2 platform origins.
It’s the same situation that happened when the first Hills Have Eyes remake hit theater screens. Granted, there is no love lost between franchise founder Wes Craven and those who write about film for a living. Their adore/deplore battle has extended as far back as the director’s first fright landmark, the nauseating and nasty Last House on the Left. Perhaps it’s his lofty ambitions for what are essentially exploitation flicks (he tends to defend his ideas by providing sound scholarly support for same), or the ruthlessness in their execution, but the two have been at loggerheads for decades. When a Hills revamp was announced, most applauded the decision, especially since those old enough to remember the original didn’t hold it in high regard. The second supposed stroke of genre genius came when director Alexandre Aja was chosen to steer the scarefest. His Haute Tension was a tasty slasher throwback, and all believed he could resurrect this sleazoid tale of a family vacation gone cannibal. Finally, we were dealing with a remake here – a somewhat proven entity seeming capable of providing the foundation for some funky fear factors.
With more than 50% of the press hating it, the Hills revamp turned out to be a major mistake. Not to fans, mind you. They loved the fact that Aja gave his flesh eating fiends a no nukes nastiness that clarified their repugnant ravenousness. But for those so-called sophisticates who bring their anti-dread baggage with them whenever they opine, Hills was a geek show glammed up with recognizable actors and overdone special effects. In fact, if one were to peruse every terror title released, over the last couple of years, they would see a similar set of descriptions used to undermine the genre’s very elements. “Too gory”, some will say, or “Not enough character development”, others will state. “Over the top” or “extreme” become the mantras for demeaning the decision to go for the throat, while “far too subtle” and “somber” illustrate when a critic feels the movie is making its case with mood and atmosphere alone.
It’s an unusual situation, one that becomes even more striking when you compare it to other cinematic categories. Comedies do get busted for lacking laughs, while dramas are frequently faulted for offering melodrama instead of reality, ennui instead of emotional impact. Action films can feel fake and underdeveloped, while family films are torn apart for failing to deliver the kind of whimsical delights their demographic demands. But in horror’s case, the cuts seem particularly cruel. If a slasher film is only trying to kill off one dimensional teens in as many imaginative ways as possible, doesn’t it live up to its expectations? If a monster movie delivers a beast that simultaneously scares and intrigues you, doesn’t that have some manner of viable value? Not every movie can be The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet you can find writers who’ve readily dismissed each and every one of these examples. So the current trend against the genre is not a new one – but the bias has become far more prevalent of late.
In fact, nowhere was the critic’s bile more inexplicable than in regards to the works of Glen Morgan. With only two major motion pictures under his belt (2003’s Willard and 2006’s Black Christmas) this former X-Files anchor has had the unfortunate luck of helming two major mainstream flops. Willard actually got some good notices, even though it failed to make a dent in the all important fiscal aspects of the industry. But last year’s remake of the Bob Clark classic was literally annihilated. It sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been taken to task for everything - from being unlike the original (unfair) to lacking depth and complexity (again, untrue). Nothing more than a slasher redux with an eye for detail and demented killer backstory, Morgan crafted a clever complement to Clark’s genre-defining shocker. And still, you could feel the verbal tar and feathering commencing all throughout the analytical flogging.
Yet what’s even more interesting about the entire situation is the number of critics who actually review these kinds of films. A recent release like Norbit can offer 111 different reviews, while a major motion picture like The Departed can see upwards of 200. But Black Christmas was discussed by only 47 critics. Hostel found 94 souls brave enough to take on its tawdry delights, while Silent Hill could only manage 78. Of course, this counts those who’ve waiting until DVD to discuss the film, so perhaps a better gauge of how much coverage the horror genre gets can be seen with the previously mentioned (and barely two weeks old) James Wan (Dead Silence) and Hills Have Eyes (the Part 2 sequel) titles. The 22% score for Silence comes from a mere 37 writers, while Eyes 2 gains it 13% from only 31. The importance of noting this is two-fold. First, it argues that only a small minority of the massive print and online community are even considering these films. If a potential pool of, say, 120 exists, only 25% are even bothering to address the release.
But it’s the second factor that’s even more disconcerting. It’s clear that, as a genre, horror is mired in a state of callous disregard. Critics who can’t get into free advance screenings obviously fail to follow up and pay to see the film, nor do they try and broaden their perspective on the artform by taking in such titles in their spare time. While they see dozens of dramas and several comedies per year, a horror film may only cross their path once or twice (and, again, if they don’t get to see it beforehand…), and without the effort to see it and properly contextualize it, there is no room for solid scholarship. A major monster effort like Slither can be easily stereotyped as a Troma film, creating a cynical shortcut to actually reviewing what’s on the screen. Similarly, blood and violence are so tied up in the continued juvenilization of our society that many critics can’t see past the PC pronouncements to respect gore or gratuity for its viable visceral power.
In essence, as a ‘minority’ within the ‘majority’ of mainstream moviemaking, horror continues to suffer from a sort of reactionary racism. This isn’t arguing that every macabre movie made is worthy of praise (just take a look at Turistas, or the recent AfterDark Horrorfest for proof), but, equally, not everyone is worthy of condemnation. Sadly, this is the way it’s always been, and as most fright fans fear, it will remain this way for decades to come. If you ever wondered why, years later, a forgotten horror film is suddenly embraced as a forgotten classic, part of the answer lies herein. The knee-jerk reaction by the critical community to the very idea of a scary movie exposes an undercurrent of intolerance that is both unreasonable and unprofessional. All film should be judged on what it has to offer, not on the bias of those providing opinions. It’s time to review what’s on the screen, not what is in the minds of those who propose to know better. Apparently, they don’t.