Horror? Or just plain horrible?
Is it safe to say that the horror genre is generally considered to be a relatively low quality one? That is to say, regardless of box office, can most of us agree that the genre has a pretty poor output to quality ratio? Just take a look at Netflix’s horror section. There are few films rated higher than two stars and fewer still higher than three.
Film is subjective. There can be no right and wrong, only a majority concurrence, and it seems to be that the horror genre wallows in mediocrity. As an unabashed horror fanatic, this pains me. I want to see the best in every horror film. I want them all to be good. They most certainly are not. A lot of this has to do with the nature of the genre itself. Horror films are (mostly) made by horror fans, which can breed a certain recycled, generic quality. They are making films that serve little purpose but to remind us of another (probably better) film. There is a difference between referencing and regurgitating.
To find the best horror films one often has to look outside of the genre. Some of the best of the bunch were made by filmmakers outside of horror’s insular, fan-boy bubble. There is Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, and Poltergeist, arguably directed by Steven Spielberg. Or how about two films that would most certainly be in my top five horror flicks, The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, and The Shining, by Stanley Kubrick? These are filmmakers of the highest order and they bring something to the table most horror directors let fall to the wayside: depth. These are well made films that don’t spend the majority of their time referencing others in their genre, constantly winking at us. They do not rely on the shock value of gore and nudity. The absurdity of the conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby would not have worked as well as it does without Polanski’s ability to craft such a phenomenal paranoid thriller beforehand. You’re already in it to win it before those kooky tenants reveal Rosemary’s black-eyed baby!
But what about some more current stuff? Is there anything in the genre worthwhile?
There is Neil Marshall’s 2005 film, The Descent. Its premise may sound like an absurd excuse for some T&A, involving a handful of extreme sports loving female friends who go cave diving together, but there’s little time for any sexy business. They hope to reconnect after one of them has experienced a terrible tragedy, but deep below the earth, in the dark, trouble is a’ brewin’. First in the form of personal conflicts, then in the realization that they may be lost, and finally in the form of a horde of shrieking, blind, cannibalistic underground dwellers. No, not like the C.H.U.D.S. (cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers) of the early eighties. These guys are actually scary. But more importantly, we care about the protagonists. And after watching them fight, panic and squeeze their way through claustrophobic tunnels for the better part of an hour the film’s mad, bloody crescendo feels like a release.
There is also 2007′s The Orphanage, written and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Guillermo Del Toro. It is an elegant, haunting film that harkens back to those glorious days before CG invaded the ghost story. A woman returns to work in the orphanage where she grew up. She remembers every inch of the place, and it turns out that it remembers her too. It is a study in subtlety. Perhaps a ghost moved that merry-go-round in the front yard? Or maybe it was just the wind? There’s a brilliant scene where the lead is playing an old game she used to play with her friends when she was little. She hides her face and begins to count. The camera holds on her, only revealing the empty space behind her when she turns to look. Each time the room is occupied by more and more children until. . . anyway, it’s extraordinarily well done.
Finally there is one of my favorite films from 2008, the Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, it features some starkly beautiful, icy cold cinematography and a sweet, adolescent love story at its core. Oskar is an overlooked and bullied boy. Eli is a little girl(?) who has moved in next door and has been twelve for a very long time. She offers to help protect Oskar. She continuously visits him in their apartment complex’s courtyard, barefoot in the snow, impervious to the cold. She repeatedly tells him that she cannot be his friend, and yet. Let The Right One In is a vampire film unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and I hear the American remake is actually quite good. Surely a testament to its source material.
And so there is hope. You needn’t settle on the straight-to-video tripe that clutters up genre. Like anything worthwhile, truly great horror films have to be sought out. Any suggestions?