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On Critics and Horror

The degree of its vulgarity is ever wavering, but to the critical establishment, “horror” is still a dirty word.

Skim through even most positive reviews of recent horror films published in mainstream outlets, and you’re likely to find some shots taken at the genre as a whole. “If only more horror films were like this,” they’re liable to say, conveying the incredible insight that bad movies should be more like good movies. But of course, the implication is that horror movies are almost inherently bad, and the few that manage to achieve widespread critical acclaim are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Then again, horror is in a renaissance period. Or at least that’s what I keep hearing from people who openly detest most of what the genre stands for. To be sure, there have been plenty of really good horror movies released in recent years, but the idea that this is anything new or unusual just goes to show that horror is still looked down upon en masse by the people writing these think pieces about how horror is finally becoming more artful and socially conscious (it’s always been both of those things, for the record). Look for how these same people will praise what they call a “true horror film” (where they got the authority to determine that, I’m not sure) and then go on about how it “transcends the genre” in the same breath.

Maybe I’m just too obtuse as a horror fan to understand the multifaceted subtleties of film criticism, but how exactly can it be that the “true” horror movies are also the ones that bear the least resemblance to the genre? Wouldn’t a “true” horror movie be one which bears all the trademarks of the genre and couldn’t possibly be filed under any other category?

But I think what they really mean is that they’re praising it as a true FILM in their eyes, and the fact that it happens to be a horror film is not only incidental but requires distinction to ensure that it’s not grouped together with more lowly horror schlock. In other words, even most of the best reviews of recent horror movies go out of their way to be condescending towards the genre, as if the critics writing them are convinced that they’ll lose credibility if they like a horror movie simply for being a good horror movie.

We horror fans have always found ourselves on the bottom end of the elites’ noses. Not that it’s any skin off our backs, of course. The countercultural aspect of horror fandom necessitates some degree of eschewing the values held by not just the mainstream moviegoing public but also the critical and academic elite dictating the canon of “serious” cinema. Jeffrey Sconce’s influential article “Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style” explains this in terms of economic class and social standing, observing the movement among fans of paracinema (horror, cult films, exploitation, etc.) towards a complete alternative definition of taste, one that stretches beyond the small-minded perimeters of mere “good” and “bad”, as well as a debasement of the canon decided upon by a select group of Eurocentric, bourgeois elitists and forced upon the film community as the be-all, end-all of cinematic study.

Paracinema freaks and the arthouse crowd are equally likely to bemoan the state of mainstream movies, but notice the difference in the language they tend to employ when speaking on this issue.

The arthouse crowd — that is to say the critical establishment and the college-age film school wannabes who write endlessly about how the Oscars always get it wrong yet are apparently unable to simply, uh, not pay the Oscars any attention — will go on about how most mainstream blockbusters are just mindless, escapist junk. The paracinema crowd will go on about how they’re safe, soulless, corporate products. While I’m really neither agreeing nor disagreeing with either assertion, it’s apparent to me that the former group champions what they perceive as intelligence above all other cinematic virtues, while the latter gravitates more towards what they perceive as personality. To the critical establishment, the worst thing a movie can be is dumb, but to horror fans and the paracinema crowd, the worst thing a movie can be is boring. I guess the common ground they’ve found is the combined implication that most Hollywood movies are both dumb and boring. Still, the emphasis is important to note.

It’s this concern with the purported intelligence of a film that has kept horror from earning the respect of the critical elite. It’s not a respectable genre to them not because they have a moral opposition to it (like some other groups do, but that’s another story), but because they think it’s stupid. To many critics and film scholars, the value of a movie is determined by how easily and to what length they can wax intellectual about it. The most acclaimed films are those that lend themselves to in-depth analyses fawning over the rich symbolism, intricate shot composition, meticulous narrative structure, and overt artistic merit (reviews of highbrow art films can often become an amusing game of “How Many Obscure Adjectives Can I Use?”). Because horror is largely a visceral medium, it admittedly doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to such analysis in many cases.

That’s obviously not to say that there isn’t a lot to dissect and discuss in most horror films, but it’s not the primary objective of most horror films. They’re not meant to be studied; they’re just meant to be felt. 

There has, of course, been an explosion of books and essays devoted to the critical study of horror and paracinema over the last decade or so, so the alternative canon alluded to by Sconce is certainly taking shape. But these are still relegated to specialty publications that focus almost entirely on the genre. Horror is, for the most part, still not much closer to the acceptance of the critical establishment than it was before this recent boom. It’s just that — especially since the rise of the internet and independent reviewers using blogs and YouTube as their outlet — the voices of the horror faithful finally have an opportunity to be heard alongside the more established (and historically exclusivist) cinematic intelligentsia. What was once just commonly dismissed as “bad taste” has been afforded the attention we all knew it’s deserved for a long time now, and it’s not because of a sea change within the pseudo-intellectual groupthink of “serious” film critics; it’s because horror fans now have the means to make themselves heard, and as much as some people won’t want to admit it, to place themselves on equal footing with the critics and offer a viable alternative to those with less conventional tastes.

The idea that horror is almost inherently “bad taste” has also been threatened somewhat by the rise of so-called shock cinema auteurs who make films that blur the lines between arthouse and grindhouse. Modern filmmakers such as Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noé, Chan-wook Park, and Pedro Almodóvar, as well as some past filmmakers who have undergone critical reevaluation and canonization over the last few decades such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, have earned the admiration of the critical establishment even as they’ve incorporated various lurid elements into their films that are typically more associated with horror and cult cinema such as extreme violence, explicit (sometimes even unsimulated) sex, and general off-kilter nature.

While most of these directors have made films that could reasonably be categorized as horror (Haneke’s Funny Games, von Trier’s Antichrist, Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, Park’s Thirst, e.g.), they are not considered “horror directors” (a dismissive term among critics, an exclusive badge of honor among horror fans). Nonetheless, many of the very things that critics ridicule in horror films are lauded in these arthouse shockers, and I believe this further proves my previous assertion that the critical elite won’t object to anything onscreen so long as it’s wrapped up in the guise of artfulness and intelligence. Their opinions are based on a serious case of intellectual insecurity.

And I think that’s why horror is still fairly maligned in most critical and academic circles: the typical horror movie does not come with a prepackaged intellectual defense of itself. The sex and violence in Antichrist are more graphic and extreme than even a lot of horror films in the torture porn subgenre can claim, and von Trier’s style is bold and confrontational in a way that’s not completely unlike the so-called “savage cinema” of the ’70s, albeit with a more refined, European tilt. But it’s that tilt that makes all the difference in terms of its critical acceptance and ability to be screened at film festivals like Cannes (where, granted, it was largely booed). As divisive as it is, the fact that it had any admirers at all within the critical establishment can be attributed to the sheer technical artistry with which it was made. With a lower budget, a less talented cast, less ornate cinematography, and a less reputable director at the helm, it’s conceivable that the same movie would have been wholly dismissed as vile trash — if it were even screened for critics, that is. The artistic merit and the overt symbolism in the film (not to rag on the movie since that’s not what I’m trying to do, but the symbolism is really obvious) serve as a built-in defense of itself and, I would assume in the eyes of the critics who applauded it while scorning similar films with less widely accepted pedigree, justify its existence. It’s like critics can only enjoy these sort of extreme films when the directors are all but formally announcing their desire to be taken seriously.

The aesthetic of arthouse shock cinema has bled into (pun intended) horror proper on some recent occasions as well. Take Robert Eggers’s also divisive 2015 debut The Witch (stylized as The VVitch on its posters), a film that seems to take as much influence from the works of Terrence Malick as it does from any horror movie. Unlike Antichrist, The Witch was labeled a full horror film and was advertised as such, yet you could easily make the argument that it’s actually closer in spirit to arthouse shock cinema than it is to what the more defensive horror fans might call “real horror.” A slow, poetic movie with sumptuous cinematography and meticulous period detail (if you don’t believe me, just wait until the movie ends and it displays a title card practically ordering you to be impressed by how much research went into its faithful reconstruction of the time period), it seeks to convey an overall tone of dread with its moody score, foreboding glimpses of a demonic goat and the titular witch, and sudden bursts of violence.

Among horror fans, the movie split reactions pretty sharply, with some praising it as a genuinely disturbing horror tone poem and others disregarding it as a pretentious bore. Among critics, there was more of a positive consensus. It got more than its fair share of obligatory “this is a true horror movie” and “it transcends the horror genre” reactions. It did what arthouse shock cinema did; despite its horror content, it demanded to be taken seriously by those who normally wouldn’t give the time of day to a movie about a backwoods witch and a talking goat that might be the Devil.

Another word that was used in many reviews of The Witch — and one that’s used in many positive reviews of horror movies — is “restraint.” Critics love that shit. When a horror movie shows restraint, that’s when the critics start dipping into their thesauruses. “Subtlety,” too. In fact, these qualities have been used as compliments by so many critics and so often that they’re kind of ingrained in our minds as inherently positive. At the end of The Witch, Black Phillip (the aforementioned goat) finally speaks…but we don’t get to see him speak. We only hear his voice off-screen. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that decision, but the fact that so many people remarked upon how much “restraint” and “subtlety” that showed is telling. Because to actually show a demonic goat talking might take it away from arthouse integrity and place it a little too close to lowbrow horror, I guess. That seems to have been the implication, at least.

So again, the message from critics is that it was a great horror film because it didn’t indulge in being a horror film. It’s a horror film that a lot of people act like they’re ashamed to call a horror film because, you know, they liked it. And they wouldn’t want people thinking they like horror movies, so they take every opportunity to distance it from the genre while simultaneously submitting it as a new beacon of what the genre should be. But if every horror movie were like The Witch, what would they even talk about with nothing so lowbrow and silly to which to condescendingly contrast it? Would they be forced to talk about the  actual content and themes of the film? Because, I mean, that’s definitely horror movie stuff. Ew, icky and stupid. Let’s get back to talking about how the lighting in this scene is like that one scene in Barry Lyndon.

I, for one, do not adhere to the philosophy that restraint and subtlety are inherent virtues. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the concept that an artist in any medium deserves praise for holding back. I like art that goes all out. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate anything that’s more minimalist or reserved, but that’s because some art requires that kind of approach; not all of it does. Certainly, most horror is decidedly unsubtle, and horror fans tend to collectively gush over the movies that are particularly relentless in not holding anything back. Horror is a genre that works in extremes. It can be extremely quiet and atmospheric to convey dread, or it can be extremely over-the-top gory and batshit crazy to convey utter chaos.

Either way, horror is usually at its best when it picks an extreme and rolls with it, often trying to push it to new limits to keep up with the ever bloodthirsty horror fan who thinks they’ve seen it all. Horror writers and directors don’t get anywhere by holding back. You have to be fearless in your pursuit to create fear. This can result in horror movies being almost purely visceral experiences, which as I’ve already stated, don’t exactly lend themselves to in-depth critical analyses.

There exists the schism between the established critical elite and the emerging cult of paracinema proponents: to the former, analysis is paramount, while to the latter, experience is. Scavengers of the proverbial paracinematic wasteland don’t always feel the need to explain with pentasyllabic adjectives why a movie is great; sometimes it can just be great through sheer kinetic energy or primal (occasionally even carnal) attraction, and the point of reviewing it is not to show the world how smart we are for understanding it, but to share with other like-minded individuals how great the experience of watching it was. It’s taking a stand against the would-be sophisticates and cultural elitists of the world and proudly offering up our own alternative standards of art, where outdated social constructs such as “good taste” and “bad taste” are sent back to the wannabe-aristocratic cesspool of classist shaming disguised as intellectual superiority from whence they came.

Bob Dylan (whom the very critics I’m talking about all swoon over) once said “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” and by the same token, you don’t need a critic or a self-professed film scholar to know that a shark fighting a zombie underwater (as in Zombi 2, of course) is fucking awesome.

Will horror ever be respected by the people writing the syllabi for college film courses, the ones who vote in the decennial Sight & Sound poll, or the ones who hand out golden statuettes to Hollywood’s richest? Probably not. And that’s okay. Because as horror fans and paracinema-loving weirdos, I think it would contradict everything we stand for to seek the approval of those people.

So stop complaining about how horror movies almost always get negative scores on Rotten Tomatoes and never get nominated for Oscars (unless there’s a very clear social message plainly underlined to assure the squeamish and the square that they’re doing more than “just” enjoying a good horror flick). It’s 2019. Print media is almost dead, and for the time being, it’s entirely possible for your thoughts and opinions to receive as much exposure as the people who think they can dictate what “good taste” means. Start a YouTube channel. Start a podcast. Start a blog. Share stuff on social media. The horror community is alive and well, and the alternative canon of classics we’ve been talking about for years is at last accessible for the whole world to see. Sure, not everyone is going to dig Lucio Fulci, but if you find that you prefer his movies to the restraint and subtlety of British period dramas and Oscar-bait message movies, there’s a whole lot of reading material out there for you that will enrich your appreciation of what you like, introduce you to even more cinematic oddities, and best of all, will treat your personal taste with the respect it deserves.

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