September 9, 2008

Horror: an appendix to the Claire Denis entry

I think the 'Horror' genre has been misnamed.

I had a discussion with my room-mate after watching Trouble Every Day (the movie in the picture). He's a big fan of "horror" films. Freddy, Jason, all the big franchises; and he grew up on classics like The Thing, The Exorcist...etc. He eats that stuff up.

I grew up hating "horror" films. I thought they would scare me, so I never watched them. Fear is not an emotion I enjoy experiencing. So I've avoided horror films, even the classics -until the last couple years when the cinephile in me needed to see these films which are held in such high esteem.

What has surprised me in finally watching these movies is how un-scary they are. The titles I've enjoyed most (The Shining, The Thing, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist) had little moments of fear -but nothing all that bad. Sometimes they left a deep impression of disturbance -a strong intellectual dissonance- but nothing horrifying.

In my post-Trouble Every Day discussion with my room-mate he said something interesting: that he doesn't watch "horror" films to be scared. He enjoys them for their laughable absurdity. Like nonsense art. Dadaism. He said, "when there's a guy with a chainsaw chasing people around a summer camp chopping them up, eventually the nonsense piles up so high that you can't help but laugh." He also referred to their campy quality as an attractive feature.

It surprised me to hear that. I always thought horror buffs liked being scared.

When I voiced this, my room-mate said no, he didn't enjoy being scared. Grossed out, maybe, but not truly terrified. He said he hated films like Trouble Every Day. They really bothered him. They left too much off-screen -and for a person with an active imagination that is a recipe for real terror.

So I think "Horror" is a misnomer. Those movies aren't scary. Sometimes they're gross, and sometimes they're perversely funny, and maybe once in a while they throw in a moment of real fear -but it's not usually what the film is about.

PT Anderson once said he was interested in making a "horror" film, but that if he did he would want it to be scary for real. I think I know what he meant. So-called horror films are cowardly. They don't go all the way. Or else they're not really aiming for horror. Their aim is something else, and they've appropriated the conventions of the genre as a means of accomplishing their goal. This is the case, I think, with the best films of the genre. Like The Shining, which is a masterpiece but is not scary. Not really.

I haven't seen many really horrifying films in my life (other than images on the news -which is another category altogether). Trouble Every Day was a real horror film.

I suspect Michael Haneke's Funny Games was a truly horrifying film.

In the past I've argued that movies like Cries & Whispers, Cache, or Inland Empire are "horror" films, because they're a hell of a lot scarier than Rosemary's Baby (a film I enjoy a lot) or Scream (a film I could take or leave). But I think I was guilty of a little sophistry in making such an argument. Those kinds of films are not what I thought of when I imagined what "horror" films would be, before I started watching them.

Trouble Every Day
was; plus it was really well-made.

That kind of cinematic experience is not one I'm eager to have again, but I respect it a lot more than the escapism/entertainment of this misleadingly named genre. It is an intellectually honest film with violence as its subject matter, and because it is cynical in its outlook that translates to being really really really scary.

Any thoughts? Has anyone seen any well-made real horror films? Or is my definition of "real horror" unclear?


Leif Pederson said...

I think that "horror" films are watched for many reasons, and that there really are people out there who just want to be scared. I once heard horror movies described as being "a release for people who live in a society without real fear." The person was trying to get across that we live in rather undangerous situations, with mundane jobs for the most part, and we want that feeling back of having to fight for survival.

I reccommend the SAW series, if you haven't watched them yet. They are intelligent, gruesome, and the plot actually takes you somewhere if you watch the series from start to end (still going, number 5 due out for Halloween).

Having watched horror movies with your roommate, I think that he has changed his tune a bit. While yes, we indeed watched many a "zany" horror movie, we also watched "In The Mouth Of Madness," which was rumored to have a strange affect on those watching, ranging from apathy to complete freak-outs. I recall your roommate's hopes in watching the movie that he would be completely freaked after watching - and his disappointment when he wasn't.

nathan davies said...

i have such a hard time defining the horror genre. i do remember watching the exorcist when i was younger being quite scared. but i am not sure the effect it would have on me now. but i think a lot of movies now a days are trying to pass themselves off as horror movies. for instance the 'saw' series. that series' only reason for existing is to try to put the most disgusting things on screen the directors can think of. just like the 'hostel' movies. i believe people refer to them as 'torture porn'. but i don't think you can call them a legitimate art form or horror movies.

Dave McGregor said...

The Saw movies are bullshit. They encourage an already artistically inept society to wallow in its own filth.

Sorry Leif.

Leif Pederson said...

I think you are critiquing them (the SAW series) through prejudiced eyes. They fit into a certain category, which I believe has merit. The films are not trying to be the next choice for the Criterion Collection, they are trying to make the audience freak out a bit. The entire goal is to get into the minds of the people watching and make them uneasy.

Do they use gore to get there? Of course. Are there a ton of other movies trying to do the same thing, like the Hostel series (and even Snoop Dogg made one about vampires). Do they do it in a better way? Yes.

The point I would like made is that there is a place for other types of film in society, not just the ones which will actually stand the test of time. Think about all the stupid videos on YouTube. I watched one last night which was about 5 minutes long, following the horrific plight of what turned out to be the ghosts in a Pacman game. It was very funny.

Will things like that last for the next 50 years? No. Are they great cinematic achievements? No. Are they clever and entertaining? Yes, they are. In the same way, some people are entertained by "brainless" horror movies, just like by "brainless" action movies (I cite Collateral Damage as the perfect example of a horrible action movie which the world could do without.)

I've come to believe lately that while I indeed hate many of these movies just like yourselves, there is a place for them, because there are people out there who are going to be entertained by them. At least while the market is being inundated with crap like it, there are a few which do try to have more of a story and plot, like Saw, which I believe would be right up there with the "classics" like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th if they had been made back in the day.

I see both of your critiques and get the fact that you think the world would likely have better people in it if we all hated film which just allowed us to shut down and not have to engage. I think there is a flaw, however, when you look at all film through the eyes of the great directors and writers. It seems too elitist for me. It feels like you're saying "the great Belgian and French Chocolates are the only true form, and this Cadbury stuff is shit." At the end of the day, some people like Cadbury, even though it isn't winning any "chocolate" awards.

-And no offense ever taken in this debate Dave.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


I'm reluctant to condemn the pleasure people take in Saw or Hostel. God knows I take pleasure in some awful stuff like the Friends TV franchise or certain U2 songs -which are probably as offensive artistically as the "torture porn" movies coming out now.

I need to make room for the crap people like. We all enjoy "artistically inept" stuff sometimes.

I've never seen the Saw films, so I can't judge them. Maybe they are masterpieces. I'm doubtful though.

What am I trying to say?

I don't think Saw is the kind of movie I'm looking for Leif, but I will read up on it.

I'm okay with gore in films (for example Straw Dogs, Cache, or Trouble Every Day), but the kind of "real horror" films I'm impressed and horrified by are not those films which present horrible imagery for it's own sake, but use it as a means to a nobler end.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I still have a hard time keeping track of its and it's, even though I know the difference.