Sense of Wonder: Are Horror Critics Blinded by Blood?

28 WEEKS LATER - splatter in the service of great cinema 

In my recent interview with Dario Argento, the horror auteur remarks that today’s critics are “absolutely not important,” because audiences no longer pay attention to them. Although this might sound like sour grapes, coming from the director of critically reviled horror movie MOTHER OF TEARS, it is actually a statement with some validity. In the recent article “Critics, Know Thy Audience,” Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein gives a rundown on the deteriorating state of criticism in general and film criticism in particular. Goldstein offers a hit list of reasons for film critics losing their readership and their jobs. Basically, they are out of touch with the audience – a complaint often voiced by fans of the horror genre, which is typically viewed with disdain by the mainstream media.

Although Goldstein is not specifically addressing the issue of niche audiences and genre criticism, his prescription is relevant to those subjects. He suggests that the Internet offers a stage for improvement, where no one is respected “simply because of the authority of the institution they write for.” Additionally, there is an opportunity online to write in-depth about films that might, at most, be squeezed into a tiny corner of a newspaper or a magazine. (As Argento observes, “Many years ago, critics wrote long articles about films. Now in seven lines they are finished: ‘The story is this. The actor is this. The color is good.’”) In other words, the Internet offers a level playing field, a sort of virtual democracy in which the critics who matter are the ones who can attract readers by offering in-depth insights about films they love.

Sounds like nirvana for horror fans, whose favorite films often go unnoticed except when they are singled out for scorn. Unfortunately, the reality, though red, is not quite so rosy; rather, it is stained with the steady stream of artificial blood. This crimson color too often obscures the vision necessary to make insightful observations. Instead, we end up with a strange variation on the old cliché “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”: for the average online horror critic, the motto is, “If there’s gore, it’s good.”

This broad generalization might seem unfair, but look at the way the Internet lit up with approval when we learned that ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM would be rated R, as if this would somehow atone for all the other faults of its PG-13 predecssor. Look at critics who argued that 30 DAYS OF NIGHTS was the best horror film from Ghost House Productions because it was the first to receive an R-rating (ignoring that the PG-13 THE GRUDGE scared far more people, far more effectively). Or better yet, take a look at “7 Deadly Sinns: PG13-ification!” on the Dread Central website. Tristan Sinns offers advice to Hollywood on how to make PG-13 horror films: build a solid plot around contextual horror and clever humor, and keep it smart, without patronizing the target audience. Betraying perhaps more than he intended, Sinns states that R-rated horror has a “profound advantage” because the genre is built around shocks. Although he does not draw the obvious conclusion, it is easy for the reader to infer that, because R-rated horror can rely on shocks, it does not need any of the elements Sinns prescribes for the PG-13 variety (i.e., intelligence, humor, plot). If there’s gore, it’s good!

This kind of well-intentioned writing does horror more harm than good. It perpetuates the perception of the genre as a sleazy backwater where quality is unimportant to fans who will be satisfied as long as they are fed a steady diet of blood and bone-marrow. It reinforces the prejudice that Horror is a disreputable genre, a label to be avoided at all costs. Thus we have the sad spectacle of the publicists for the blood-drenched SWEENEY TODD fearfully neglecting to pitch the film to the horror audience, working on two disastrous assumptions: (1) the so-called horror audience will not see a film unless it is SAW; (2) the mainstream audience will not see a horror film, because they think “Horror=SAW.”

Gleeful gore-loving is not the only problem; idol worship is detrimental to critical writing. One function critics serve is as an antidote to the Hollywood hype machine. Unfortunately, in too many cases mainstream critics have been co-opted by that machine (if your paper or broadcast wants access to the big star whose blockbuster is opening that weekend, you better not say too many bad things about his movie). The Internet theoretically offers an alternative to this, but too often it turns out to be a small-scale recreation of the same problems, with established icons uncritically praised and second-rate work held to a lower standard because everyone wants to support their home team and see it succeed. Thus, criticism becomes mindless cheer-leading.

For evidence of this, one need look no further than Scott Weinberg’s recent “Fan Rant” in Cinematical. Pondering the decision to delay press screenings for THE RUINS until almost literally the last minute, Weinberg wonders “Why Studios Hide Horror Flicks from the Press” – and inadvertently answered his own question, by noting that THE MIST bombed despite strong reviews. Here’s a little hint: If critics continually recommend films that no one wants to see, their recommendations become meaningless, and there is no point in screening a film for them. Every time they sing a hymn of praise to Frank Darabont and Stephen King for THE MIST or to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez for GRINDHOUSE – regardless of the quality of the actual results – they alienate the far larger audience who enjoy being frightened in movie theatres but opt for movies like THE GRUDGE, SIGNS, THE SIXTH SENSE, or even SLEEPY HOLLOW.

The simple fact is this: The self-identified horror fans and critics are as out of touch with the audience as mainstream critics ever were, and they are just as allergic to self-reflection and reappraisal. How many have expressed second thoughts when their predictions turned out wrong? When a film like SLITHER bombs big time at the box office, do they reassess their recommendation and admit that the film was, at best, a quirky little cult item that was never destined to reach much more than a direct-to-video audience, or is the default position that the film will eventually be recognized as a classic, proving them right all along? Stranger things have happened – the stature of some films does grow over time – but do these writers really believe we are being inundated with the horror movie equivalent of BLADE RUNNER?

I suspect this is another example of “Availability Cascade” (which I dealt with in this article about RATATOUILLE). This is chain-reaction process whereby expressed beliefs become established as conventional wisdom, which leads more people to express belief in them, which further solidifies their status as conventional wisdom. Theoretically, conventional wisdom can be overturned when it is not supported by facts, but too often we see people who seem to live a hermetically sealed bubble where facts do no intrude. On TV news this takes the form of journalists who believe that the American public still supports the war in Iraq or that Democratic voters are tired of the primary race between Clinton and Obama. In the horror blogosphere, this takes the form of commentators who refuse to believe that their favorite films failed at the box office not because not they were badly promoted, or ahead of their time, or critically reviled – but maybe, just maybe, because audiences did not like them.

I love the Internet, and I am completely in favor of democratizing our public discourse, taking it out of the hands of critics who believe their pronouncements should be accepted ex cathedra. But I have to put on my elitist hat in this regard. However much fun it is to see the old dinosaurs growing extinct, I do not want to see their evolutionary niche filled by an only slightly more modern lizard brain. Whether they write for mainstream outlets or personal blogs, too many critics care less about whether a movie is any good than whether it simply validates their own personal peccadilloes. This seems especially true in the horror genre, where cynicism masquerades beneath a hip facade, and being jaded passes for some kind of wisdom.

When you look at movies from the revolutionary ‘60s and the “cynical” ’70s, there were many downer endings (e.g. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), but there was a difference. Those films were cynical about the state of the nation, but they believed that the world should be better. Motivated by moral outrage (at Nixonian corruption, the Vietnam war, etc.), filmmakers refused to let their audience off with a feel-good ending. Perhaps naively, they sought to inspire viewers to abandon passivity and to take action. *

The current crop of horror films (including the Torture Porn genre) trend in the opposite direction. Rather like the Steve Buscemi character in ARMAGEDDON, they advocate “embracing the nightmare.” Just assume the world is rotten and there is nothing to do about it; then sit back and watch with amused disinterest. Films that traffic in this pointless violence and/or nihilism are not courageous; they are simply pandering to our worst instincts. Enjoying them does not make us any more sophisticated than viewers who enjoy other sorts of pandering (cute kiddy movies, romantic fantasies, jingoistic patriotic movies). We are simply indulging a form of Escapism that relieves us from having to wrestle with moral issues facing the world today.

By way of comparison, a film like Brian DePalma’s REDACTED, about the Iraq War, may not be great, but at least it had the nerve to stare the Gorgon in the face. We are living in a country that is conducting a war overseas and that has approved torture as a mean of interrogation. In this context, movies about innocent Americans being tortured by evil foreigner seem less bold than blind to ugly reality, and watching their make-believe violence in the safety of a theatre is no justification for macho chest-thumping. During peacetime, it would be simply silly; during wartime, it approaches being offensive.

The sad thing about this is that the horror genre can be much more than a slaughterhouse sideshow; cinefantastique is the perfect place to address ugly issues that, Gorgon-like, are too dangerous to approach directly. (For example, both LAND OF THE DEAD and 28 WEEKS LATER offer excellent splatter-filled visions inspired by Iraq.) Horror films can help us to face our fears and process, if not conquer, them. It is a genre with a long history that deserves more respect than it has ever received, and those who love it should be doing everything they can to elevate its status. Instead, we are trapped in a Catch-22 where mainstream acceptance is viewed with suspicion, as a sign of selling out to a larger audience, and films that misfire badly are seen as noble martyrs to the cause, their failure a badge of honor. In short we celebrate films not because they challenge people but because they offend, degrade, or depress.

 One can make an argument for why such films are valid, and one of the great things about the Internet is that it allows writers to service niche audiences who enjoy unusual fare. There are many movies that deserve respect and attention despite their lack of broad appeal; hence the term “cult film.” It is in this area that horror critics and bloggers can effectively service their readership. Whether you like them or not, it is good that people who enjoy INSIDE, THE LOST, and  other films of that ilk can find each other and discuss topics of common interest with like-minded comrades.

However, it would be a benefit if there were more self-awareness about the limited size of this niche. Let’s hear less confusion expressed about the small box office returns on films that satisfy only a small, core audience. Let’s acknowledge that gore is slathered on more often to hide a lack of talent than to express an artistic vision. Let’s acknowledge that some of the best recent work in the genre has been in films that eschew explicit violence. Let’s get off the kick that PG-13 automatically equals bad, while R or NC-17 automatically equals good. Refrain from excessive praise until a film really deserves it; then the rest of the audience might sit up and listen, maybe even take a chance on a film they would otherwise avoid.

Love of cinema is a beautiful thing, even if the object of your affection is not widely admired. Sticking to your guns in the face of opposition is admirable. Just remember that staking out a minority opinion does not automatically entitle you to aggrieved minority status.

*Just to be clear: I am not suggesting that the 1970s were the apex of cinema achievement. I think many of the highly praised films from that era are over-rated. I’m praising their good intentions more than their finished quality.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

One Response to “ Sense of Wonder: Are Horror Critics Blinded by Blood? ”

  1. [...] dealt with this whole “PG-13 vs R” debate before (Are Horror Critics Blinded by Blood?), but it is worth revisiting because I am saddened to see Barker jump on the bandwagon. In an era [...]

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