Being a horror fan has its ups and its downs. Most obvious of the downs, perhaps, is the massive amount of crap we have to wade through to get to the good stuff (however we may define it). There’s also a certain fringe quality that characterizes the bulk of genre works. (Actually though, both of these points are true of all genres, not just horror.)
When genre fiction leaves the fringe and approaches the center—when it gets closer to the “mainstream”—things aren’t necessarily better or worse, though they’re certainly different. In science fiction we get things like the Terminator, Star Wars and Star Trek franchises; in the world of comics we get the stunning recent successes of both the Marvel and DC universes in film and television; in fantasy we get the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies and Game of Thrones. There’s a lot of slippage here—e.g., are fantasy and superhero comics separate from scifi?—and that, too, is a part of the move toward the center. (It also illustrates how fluid genres actually are). Again, this isn’t inherently bad or good, but it marks a noticeable change from the furthest recesses of genre fiction into the mainstream sensibilities of an increasingly global public.
Having said all that, it can be frustrating when, on their way toward the mainstream, filmmakers (or writers, or artists, or whoever) blatantly substitute lazy genre tropes for compelling storytelling. This is the theme of a recent article on popular comedy site Cracked.com. Writer David Christopher Bell offers up a list of what he considers to be the characteristics of good horror cinema. A couple of weeks ago I posted the link to his article and asked for comments on it, and you all graciously provided some very thoughtful ones.
I’m of two minds, myself, as I think most of the commenters were. On the one hand, I think Bell makes some good points: I agree, for instance, that jump-scares suck, and that self-indulgent winking irony often ruins what could otherwise be good films. On the other hand I think a lot of his claims miss the mark. This isn’t about right or wrong: everyone has opinions, and if there’s one good thing about the internet it’s that it gives us all a chance to air ours. (That’s also kind of the worst thing about the internet.) It’s ultimately a good thing that a writer on a major comedy site is bringing attention to what’s going on in the horror genre, because if nothing else it may help remind filmmakers that people are actually paying attention and won’t settle for recycled garbage. But at the same time, there’s a danger in overgeneralizing. In the comments on my previous post drhumpp made a very important point: “It just seems like he’s mistaking movies he likes for good movies.” I got the same sense from Bell’s article. It’s very easy to confuse opinion with fact, and as critics—which we all are, at the end of the day—we have to remember that our own opinions may not actually carry any weight outside of our own heads. (And the present rant is no exception.)
The bit about horror films needing adult protagonists, for example, seems to miss an important but subtle distinction: just because a movie’s protagonists are from a certain demographic does not mean that they are its target audience. Movies are a business, after all, and they’re often tailored to respond to what their creators think people want. A film like Unfriended, which features a bunch of shitty teenagers doing what out-of-touch Hollywood producers think teenagers actually do, is difficult for a 30+ viewer to relate to. But not every movie is a product of cynical marketing designed to make a quick buck, and movies such as A Tale of Two Sisters or Jug Face center on teenagers struggling with both human and supernatural conflicts that don’t (or shouldn’t) alienate older viewers, even though they explore issues relating to youth and young adulthood and the problems that go with them.
Elsewhere Bell argues, “Blair Witch Project was a cultural phenomenon that creeped the hell out of a generation, but have you ever tried to rewatch it since canceling your dial-up connection? It’s about as fun as … well, looking at some dudes walking in the woods for 80 minutes. In fact, with all the respect in the world: No found-footage movie will ever become a classic.” I wonder how he defines “classic,” because in every sense of the word with which I’m familiar, BWP absolutely is one. Whether you like the film or not, it’s a landmark in horror cinema that opened the found-footage floodgates. This isn’t a subjective claim about the movie’s intrinsic merit: it’s simply a fact of film history. As the final nail in this particular coffin, here’s a cool short documentary featuring the filmmakers discussing BWP and its legacy—produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, no less, an authoritative body when it comes to cinema history if ever there was one:
I suspect that Bell isn’t really a genre fan, a point suggested by his claim that “the best horror films are never made by ‘horror directors’.” This point is so wholly subjective that it’s not worth arguing, so I’ll limit myself to pointing out that self-identifying horror fans (myself included) are very likely to disagree. Again, his point is fine as far as it goes, but by using the words “best horror films” when what he really means is “my favorite horror films,” the author is falling into the authoritative internet fallacy—by which I mean the tendency of folks on the internet to position themselves as authorities without even necessarily realizing it, because seeing your own ideas on a computer screen sometimes blinds you to the fact that they’re your ideas.
I know it’s silly to argue with a comedy website, but I look at it as a thought exercise. Thinking about what makes the “best” horror movies helps me remember why I’m a fan, so while Cracked may be a bit of a straw man, it’s still a useful one.
5 thoughts on “Cracked: Opinion and fact. And also horror.”
Great write up! I agree with everything you say here. As much as the author of the Cracked article made some valid points, it’s apparent that he’s only a casual horror fan. How completely off base he is about The Blair Witch Project shows that.
Whether someone likes BWP or not does not diminish its place in horror. As I’ve said before, the film single-handedly put fond footage on the map. (And yes, I’m completely aware of Cannibal Holocaust. And yes, I really do like that movie. But no, it did not put found footage on the map.)
It’s foolish to write off a film’s impact just because you don’t like said film. I’m not a huge fan of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I promise you that I respect its spot in horror. I’d be ignorant not to.
Bell’s claim that “…the best horror films are never made by ‘horror directors.” is not flat out wrong on a few levels. One, good directors generally make good movies regardless of genre, And great directors generally don’t stick to one genre. And two, I can throw out another argument that completely contradicts what I wrote and still be right. What about Carpenter? Craven? Argento? Prettty sure those guys are (more or less strictly) horror directors. And I’m pretty sure those guys have made some of the best horror films in the history of horror films. So, it’s like you said, Angry Scholar, it’s subjective and the TL;DR of his argument here is that he’s wrong.
That’s not to say the piece Bell wrote is bad. He does bring up some good and valid points. He just gets in over his head because he’s clearly not a big horror fan. I don’t have any problems with that, but if you are going to attack a genre, it would be nice if you knew what the hell you were talking about.
Thanks! Yup, you’re right on all counts. I think being a good director makes all the difference in the world, regardless of genre. And I feel exactly the same about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No interest in it whatsoever, but it sure is important.
And yeah, per our earlier conversation, BWP is absolutely a landmark film. (I guess some people might hate it even more precisely BECAUSE it popularized found footage, but that’s a separate issue.)
Opinions. Everybody has ’em. Etc. etc. Just ours are better, is all.
It feels weird being such a big horror fan and being ‘meh’ on TCM.
Found your article while googling to see if David Christopher Bell had some undisclosed reason for constantly pimping that utter garbage that is unfriended.
I have only seen the “Your movie sucks” review of it and consider myself lucky for it. Great article by the way, and if you need material for another one you can check out the mess at cracked below…
Oh no, he liked it? Guh. I thought it was an interesting premise, and it held my attention–though that’s certainly not high praise. But of course in execution it really flopped. It was kind of the worst of all worlds: yes, I wanted those brats to die, but everything was so formulaic and bland that when they did finally kick it, I just didn’t care. Kind of an ouroboros of crap.
Thanks for the kind words, though. And just glancing through this latest Cracked piece, I’m amused by the claim that “I’m never hyperbolic.” Lots to talk about there.