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Fear Factoring: Part 2

John Doe, the vengeful serial killer in Se7en

In this second of a two-part examination on the roles that fan appreciation, critical consideration, and subject matter play on categorizing horror film, our resident macabre master argues that unlike other cinematic genres, the basic tenets of the terror experience can change from year-to-year, generation-to-generation.

In the previous installment of Dread Reckoning (Fear Factoring: Part I) I made the case that cinematic genres are not rigid, absolute, hermetic, and immutable. Instead, film categories appear to be a fluid and permeable intertextual cultural construction. But if you think about it, this is a rather perplexing situation. After all, we often think of genres as a series of films that follow a rather predictable set of rules and clichés. As a matter of fact, as argued by the celebrated French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, such a repetition and predictability is what grants cinema a ritualistic and mythical structure that reflects our social and cultural preoccupations.

One could further argue that even if we had an imperfect definition of horror, experience shows that generic hybrids and other pathological cases that defy classification are few and far between. Certainly, cinematic fear appears to be fairly consistent after nearly 100 years and thousands of films. However, closer examination reveals that these rare instances where the movies depart from broad conventions, usually corresponds to efforts that eventually become influential, inspiring, and groundbreaking.

Just consider the case of Psycho, which upon its release in the '60s was thought to be something between a thriller and a standard "Hitchcock film". Evidently, critics and historians of the era did not initially consider it to be a horror film because it lacked the supernatural monsters, alien invaders, and atomic mutants that characterized the genre during that period. But today we can fully appreciate this film as the one that opened the door for hundreds of horror movies depicting the bizarre antics of seriously deviant individuals. And also, the current categorization of Psycho forces us to reconsider Fritz Lang’s M (1931) as a horror film.

Similarly, the early films of David Cronenberg proved difficult to pigeonhole during the '70s, but they eventually led to the so-called "body horror" subgenre. And perhaps not surprising, some of the most disturbing films ever made, Salo, Cannibal Holocaust, Caligula, The Last House on the Left, Nekromantik, In a Glass Cage, I Spit on Your Grave, and Cronenberg’s Crash, which may or may not belong to the horror genre, certainly defy classification.

Therefore, it almost appears as if every time there is a groundbreaking film that challenges cataloging, the conventions of the entire genre have to be revisited, revised, and updated. And as soon as we have an improved understanding of what makes a horror film, a new movie comes along that disputes our preconceived notions. And the process repeats itself in a never-ending cycle.

This appears to suggest that a big problem in genre theory is the fact that hundreds of new movies are released every year. Thus, a sorting that may make sense at some point in history may become problematic a few years later. Consider as an example the rather surprising case of Dracula, which back in 1931 was advertised not as a horror flick, but as a romance with very dark overtones. Indeed, its original release poster claimed the film to portray "The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known". It was not until years later that it was labeled as horror. Then, during the late '40s and early '50s, responding to the interests and preoccupations of the era, the studio re-marketed the movie under the science fiction banner for some international markets. And a few years later, during the promotion of Universal Studio’s Shock Theater package of films for syndicated TV, Dracula reclaimed its horror status once more.

In a similar way, The Creature From the Black Lagoon was originally released during the '50s as a science fiction flick, but most recently became part of the Universal Horror DVD Collection. Therefore, Dracula and The Creature From the Black Lagoon exemplify how the generic classification imposed by distributors and filmmakers is not intended to be a theoretical framework for the eventual analysis and dissection of the film, but a clever marketing campaign that addresses the demands in the volatile movie business.

Also interesting to note is that because of the questionable public reputation of our beloved cinematic category, some critics appear to be embarrassed to rave about any type of horror film. As a consequence, they unknowingly conspire with the studios to force the labeling of a movie macabre into what is believed to be a more profitable, artistic, and reputable type of product. For instance, many months ahead of its opening day, the official word from the producers and distributors was that Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs were thrillers and should not be confused with horror flicks. Some of the films’ promotional materials and marketing dollars were denied to magazines dedicated to the horror genre. Critics, for their part, continued mislabeling the flicks by avoiding the dreaded "H" word on their reviews.

Perhaps as a reaction, horror fans have often challenged the dubious labeling asserted by critics and distributors. Case in point: fright fanbases have sanctioned the adoption of Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs as important entries in modern horror culture. And similarly, these same fans have also questioned the legitimacy of films such as those in the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer series.

Such debates should not be surprising. After all, horror and science fiction are the only two cinematic genres with a strong worldwide following whose members have a propensity to negotiate standard ideologies and readings in conventions, online forums, magazines, and other venues. Thus, perhaps it makes sense to determine the tagging of a film based on its overall reception or rejection by these devoted circles (a cultural classification rather than a structural one).

But even so, one has to take into account that fans often tend to disagree on such matters. For instance, a considerable segment of horror fandom tends to worship only the films made prior to 1969, and considers the modern era an unfortunate decline into blood and splatter. Naturally, for others, only the most extreme gore feasts from recent years are worth discussing. And perhaps not surprising, these two subcultures are typically characterized by a gap in the ages of their members.

It is important to remark that some of the many complexities discussed here are similar to those found in other categories such as the western, film noir, or musicals. But truth to be told, horror has proved to be the most challenging genre to analyze. For instance, consider how the western and the film noir are severely constrained to a specific geographical setting and time period, while dread is more universal.

Indeed, horror movies can take place anywhere on Earth or in the vastness of outer space, hundreds of years in the past or far off into the future. And even more, similar to the unspeakable creatures that it often showcases, the genre is amorphous and unpredictable, transgressive and violent, fascinating and imperishable. Arguably, this is the reason why fright films have proven to be more enduring than any other type of movie.

To conclude in general terms, a genre should not be considered as an absolute descriptive configuration imposed by academics or marketing campaigns. Instead, it is a rather complex, intertextual cultural construction of arguments and readings continuously reshaped by audiences, scholars, fans, critics, filmmakers, and distributors. Because of its intrinsic cultural nature, it appears that any generic classification can only be realized as a set of subjective labels valid only on a specific cultural and temporal context. Thus, it is only as a cultural theory that genre categorization makes any sense in the analysis of aesthetic ideologies and commercial strategies.

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