10/26/09

In Search of the Horror Film Gold Standard





I recently watched the remake of The Hills Have Eyes with some friends, and the issue was brought up as to whether this should be considered a horror movie.  The film is without fail classified as horror at the video store, on Netflix, etc.,.... but why? A family is attacked by a bunch of irradiated mutants out in the desert. Could this not just as well be thrown in with science fiction? Plus, from beginning to end, there's fighting, running, chasing, and killing..... all the elements of a typical action flick.  In fact, there's a whole lot more blood, guts and killing in the Rambo remake, yet Rambo would never be lumped in with horror movies. It's confusing!

First of all, let me state for the record that classifying things, whether it be music, movies or even vegetables, can become an exercise in futility at times. Is a Giant Panda more like a bear or a racoon? The tug of war among zoologists on this issue has been going on for years.... but what's the point? The fact is, humans naturally like to classify things to help better understand their world. Your brain classifies things whether you like or not, it's part of your biology.  So, let's set aside the tired pretention that we don't need to worry about whether a song or movie fits into a certain category. It's in our nature. So, now I again ask the question: what makes something a horror movie?

I think most people's gut reaction to what makes something a horror movie would be: a combination of violence and scares.  Given that movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Scream, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw and A Nightmare on Elms Street are by far the most successful horror films of the past few decades, this answer isn't surprising. However, this couldn't be farther from the truth. This Venn diagram shows how using violence and scares to categorize a movie as "horror" is just not correct.








The chainsaw scene in Scarface is terrifying and gory, yet no one would ever classify it a horror movie. The "drug deal gone bad" scene in Boogie Nights is both violent and scary, but not even close to resembling a horror movie. So how do we make the distinction?
Wikipedia says "Horror films are movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, horror and terror from viewers. Their plots frequently involve themes of death, the supernatural or mental illness."  Actually, this may be the best defintion out there. Let's put it to use and see if it can differentiate things using hostage movies as our set...



Now things get narrowed down further using the Wikipedia definition.   According to the diagram above, the hostage movies High Tension, The Strangers, and The Hills Have Eyes fit into the horror category the best.

Okay, so now we can pare down everything and movies like Boogie Nights and Die Hard no longer make the grade.  It's got to have fear/horror/terror with themes of the supernatural/mental illness and death. 

We've made progress, but are still a long way from determining the "gold standard" - the movie that best represents the genre. W are still left with a large set which includes everything from the Scooby Doo movies to C.H.U.D.  Also, borderline movies like Deliverance could arguably still be included. The Associated Content has a helpful article on what makes a good horror film:

(1) Elements of the Extreme: Friday the 13th, Saw, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are good examples of this quality. Many of the forgettable PG-13 "horror" films that fill theaters these days really don't meet this criterea, and should fall in the "thriller" catergory instead.

(2) Appropriate Use of Sound to Create a Horrifying Atmosphere: High Tension, Halloween, The Exorcist, Suspiria and The Hills Have Eyes are great examples of this.

(3)  The Unexplained: Ghosts, the occult, human possession, etc. Movies like Rosemary's Baby, Halloween, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror are good examples. Even Friday the 13th utilizes the unknown, further separating it from something like Deliverance.

I couldn't agree more.  I love that they thought to include the use of sound - horror movies are very much an auditory experience.



So, I think we now should be able to come up with the gold standard in horror films- a movie that I feel best represents the genre as pure unadulterated horror with no impurities. That movie is, in my humble opinion, John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).



Does it elicit fear, terror and horror?  No question. 

Does it deal with death? Absolutely. As Loomis tells the skeptical sheriff: "Death has come to your town." There's the obvious fact that there's a series of murders in the film.  But Halloween goes much further - as in Macbeth and Hamlet, we see the murderous deeds of the past come crashing into the present. There's also the fact that everyone who dies in the film is sexually promiscuous, while the "innocent" (chaste) heroine survives - the allegorical idea that sexual awakening often meant the literal 'death' of innocence (or oneself).



Does it use elements of the extreme? Yes. Sure, there's basically no blood, but the violence is extreme without resorting to over-the-top gore. Not to mention, Michael Myers is the very embodiment of Evil.

Does the sound create a horrifying atmosphere? Carpenter's simple score is diabolically effective.

Does it make use of the unexplained? Most definitely. Michael Myers is "the boogeyman", a creature that has haunted the world of both children and grown-ups since the dawn of time.  There is also a satanic connection, a connection with Samhain and the devil, that is really never fleshed out by Carpenter - but this makes it all the more sinister. (In Zombie's remake, he chunked the "unexplained" quality of Halloween, thereby lessening its horror).

Perhaps, some of you have a better example of the perfect horror film? Leave yours in the comments - I'd be curious to hear them.

Tommy: Was it the boogey man?
Lindsey: I'm scared.
Laurie: There's nothing to be scared of.
Tommy: Are you sure? (She nods.) How?
Laurie: I killed him.
Tommy: You can't kill the boogey man.


9 comments:

  1. The Hills Have Eyes was a pretty scary flick. I say horror movie.

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  2. Horror is like erotica, what works for one will not work for another. That being said, it is usually easy to tell when a film is intended to be a horror film (or an erotic one, and no, porn =/= erotica).

    I find few films that rely on visceral shocks to be satisfying on 2nd or 3rd viewing. JAWS does very little for me, though I acknowledge it's a well made film. Conversely, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN works for me not because of the Monster/s but because of Dr. Praetorious -- he is just so wRoNg that he imbues the film with an incredibly creepy feel.

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  3. Wow.
    I really enjoyed the high-brow geek-out on quantifying horror... as I've known to do the same myself from time to time.

    Hills Have Eyes Remake: I say "horror" only because of the constant feeling of dread that permeates the film.
    I never felt that dread watching the latest Rambo film. Sure both had gore, but there is a feeling of helplessness and fear that happens when you watch a horror film.

    I never fear Rambo is going to not make it out of there alive... he's freaking Rambo.

    That's all I got.

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  4. Excellent work. I love your analysis, but you're right, it's an exercise in futility. I would say films like "The Hills Have Eyes" should be considered thrillers or suspense, but not horror. My only other choices for perfect horror films would be "The Exorcist" or "The Shining".

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  5. Thanks for the feedback. This is me sort of thinking through this - yes, retrohound, the Venn diagrams actually did help me wrestle with it.

    As I said, let's not fool ourselves and think it's wrong to classify things - it's in our nature. So, when I see Bully or The Hills Have Eyes, I naturally wonder if these are horror movies. Using this method has actually helped me mentally sort through it.

    For example, Bully is NOT a horror movie. Why not? Well, does it "strive to elicit the emotions of fear, horror and terror from viewers"? No. Problem solved.

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  6. Just to be a pedant: DNA has conclusively proven that pandas are bears, not raccoons.

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  7. Great post, and I totally agree with your Gold Standard choice. Halloween still creeps me out, to this day!

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  8. I agree with your analysis, Halloween (1978) is the best horror movie ever made. There are several reasons for this:

    1) It has stood the test of time. The trailer for the movie scared the hell out of me in '78 when I saw it on TV as a kid, the movie scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it in the early '80's, and it still scares the hell out of me today.
    2) When a movie does not need to resort to graphic violence to get scares, you know it is good.
    3) The narratives given throughout the movie by Dr. Loomis give us enough terrorizing information about Michael Myers, but not too much.
    4) Carpenter's ability to present Michael Myers using the "know you see him, now you don't" technique was masterful.
    5) The fact that Michael never runs, but slowly and methodically stalks his sister, heightens the horror factor.
    6) The greatest reason I believe was that the main character's (Michael) psyche was left as a mystery to the audience. Look at the last picture from this post when Michael had just killed his sister, Judith. When the audience looks into Michael's eyes and that blank expression, you don't know exactly what to think. It is utterly terrifying! It took Dr. Loomis 8 years to figure out what was behind that boys eyes - pure evil. That's all we know and that is all we need to know. Zombie destroyed this mystery in his remake, leaving nothing to the imagination. Sometimes the imagination is enough to make a movie have true terror. Halloween does this.

    So let's rate this movie using the wiki definition:
    fear - 10
    horror - 9
    terror - 10
    death - 10
    supernatural - 10
    mental illness - N/A (Michael was not mentally ill in my opinion, he was as Dr. Loomis put it: "...purely and simply evil".

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