In his essay “So You Think You’re Scary?”, My friend and colleague Keith Rice has a lot to say about horror films from the past few decades, and it isn’t pretty. Keith thinks that the horror genre has a big problem. He thinks it’s gone “off the rails.” In his own words: “We gave up the truly unsettling and haunting, and we actually celebrate the cheap and the repackaged.”
Keith also talks about his love for horror. Well, I too love the genre. When it’s done well, I think it might just be my favorite of any genre of film.
That’s why I’ve stepped up to defend it.
Keith’s piece is thoughtful, interesting, and a damn fun read. I’m not just trying to plug his article when I recommend that you read it. It’s very, very good. Keith highlights a few great horror films and intelligently explores why they’re so great. He does it well. He clearly has a fine understanding of what makes those good movies good. But I also think his piece is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, I don’t think the piece is entirely fair. Keith discusses a number of “classic” horror films and uses these films to highlight his contention that modern horror is suffering. He argues that modern horror isn’t doing what horror of the past was able to do. However, he doesn’t look at both time periods in the same way.
In the article, Keith talks a lot about current bad horror movies, but neglects mention toward a number of good ones. I don’t think it’s fair to say that modern horror has gone downhill without at least acknowledging the movies that get it right. They’re still out there, and truthfully, they’re not even that hard to find. There were a lot of bad eggs in old horror movies too. It’s easy to look back and say that the genre was drastically better in the past when you practice positive selectivity for the “then” and the bad selectivity from the “now.”
In order to make a strong statement about the state of current horror, it only seems fair to look at the good and the bad. Keith mentioned a number of bad modern horror films in his article, so I’ll take this opportunity to throw out some examples of great films. It isn’t hard to argue that horror hit a bit of a rut for a while, but I would argue that recently the genre has been on a notable upswing.
As recently as this year, viewers were offered Oculus, a film that I would argue is just as good as any of the classics that Keith talked about. Yeah, I’ll stand by that statement. Oculus is smart. It takes its time. It doesn’t rely on cheap jumps and gore, as was the blanket diagnosis provided in the article under investigation. By bending perception and reality and forcing viewers to rely on unreliable narrators, Oculus is scary on a number of levels. This film does exactly what Keith said that modern movies aren’t doing (and admittedly, he does link to it in the final line of his article as a spot of hope for the genre).
2013’s The Conjuring is another recent horror success that should be mentioned. Sure, it follows conventional, classic scares — haunted houses laden with ghosts and freaky dolls — but that doesn’t take away from the terror it invokes. It’s well paced, full of suspense, and pitch-perfect. It’s another modern success of classic principle. The Woman in Black also follows fairly conventional methods, but it too is a very scary film that lives up to the suspenseful, careful pacing that Keith diagnoses as lacking in contemporary film. In his piece, Keith points to suspense as being incredibly important in horror. Both The Conjuring and The Woman in Black handle suspense skillfully.
I watched 2010’s Insidious alone in the middle of the night a few months ago, and I’m still recovering. Though it fumbled the ending, most of the film was downright terrifying in a way that’s hard to explain. It’s a fine modern horror film.
In 2013, Stoker was released and it became one of most unsettling, most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. It’s modern horror and modern art. It’s unique and special and totally different from “classic” horror films.
2012’s The Cabin in the Woods was something different too. This satirical film showed a clear understanding of the genre. Joss Whedon broke down every trope and stereotype established by classic horror, and on top of making a smart, impressive film, he made a scary one.
I could go on and on here. And I will, a little longer. Man, I know the 2004 Saw franchise met shitty reviews, but that’s not going to stop me from arguing that those films made “torture porn” thought-provoking. Those movies stuck with me. And the first one was shocking.
A string of bad follow-ups has watered down the Paranormal Activity franchise, but the first one was fun to watch, scary, and original. And even if the found footage subgenre has arguably gone downhill from a critical standpoint, people are still going to see these movies.
Perhaps the biggest argument that horror as a genre is doing fine is that people like me exist. Younger generations still love horror movies. They go to the theater to be scared. They pay for fear. I didn’t grow up with “classic” horror films. I’ve seen a lot of them, sure, but that’s because I spend a ton of time watching movies. Most of my friends haven’t seen the “classics,” but that doesn’t stop them from loving horror as a genre. To me, this is proof that enough horror movies are doing something right. Even if it’s not the same ol’ something to which film-goers are accustomed.
On another note, I want to touch specifically on what Keith says here: “Listen closely, if you actively enjoy a horror film then either you or the film is doing it wrong, probably both. Just think about that for a second, how can you be afraid when you are rooting for that which you are supposed to be afraid of?”
I would also argue that rooting for the thing that you fear can make movies even scarier. I don’t think it’s nearly as cut and dry as Keith stated in the article.
Look at characters like Hannibal Lector. Hannibal is polite, smooth, endearing, and very nearly likeable. (In NBC’s Hannibal, he is definitely likeable.) Hannibal is a villain for whom I often find myself rooting, and that scares me. It scares me to know that I can be aware of how evil a character is and still find a small part of myself hoping that he wins. That’s scary in its own right, and it’s a kind of fear that shouldn’t be dismissed as glibly as it is in Keith’s article. Rooting for the thing you fear can often make that thing even scarier, and it can make you fear something in yourself. That’s a whole new level of fear.
My main issue with Keith’s piece though is the idea he perpetuates that there is a right and a wrong way to enjoy horror films. To me, there isn’t a right or wrong way to watch any kind of movie, regardless of the genre. I realize that we, as critics, like to state our opinions as fact. But sometimes we must admit that our opinions are just that — opinions. They are subjective and the idea that someone is “doing it wrong” is incredibly subjective.
Get ready because I’m about to contradict myself, be a little hypocritical, and state my own opinion as fact, as critics are known to do: If you think there’s a right and a wrong way to watch movies, then you’re the one who’s doing it wrong.
If you like suspense, that’s great. Seek out films that hit that sweet spot for you. If you don’t like graphic, bloody films, don’t watch them. But if others enjoy watching “torture porn,” hell, that’s just great too. They should seek out those movies. I reject the idea that anyone’s doing it right or wrong because, in film, it doesn’t matter. If you want a film to fill you with a sense of dread and rising panic and you find one that does, you’re doing it right. If you want a slasher flick with girls in bikinis, chainsaws, and cheap blood spatters and you find that, you’re doing it right too.
Film is whatever you make it, and that’s part of why I love it so much. Don’t feel pressured to like what someone says you should like. Don’t feel pressured to watch movies in any particular way. Watch them however you like. It’s up to you to take away whatever you want out of every movie you watch. That’s sort of the point.