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?