Friday, June 17, 2011

Top Six Problems Derek has with Horror Movies

A few weeks ago on an episode of Outside the Cinema, Bill and Chris aimed their weekly Top Six List segment at something that's been eating at me off-and-on over the years. I have to hand it to them; it took some chutzpah to target "what's wrong with horror (films)" on their podcast. I agreed with a lot of their points, and since it's been a while since I've updated Plan D, I thought I'd steal their idea take some inspiration from OTC and present my own Top Six List.

Top Six Things That Derek Thinks is Wrong with Horror Films (that will probably upset at least one person!)

1) Remakes. And before we get into this, let's set some ground rules. 1) John Carpenter's The Thing is not a remake; it's an adaptation of a short story ("Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.) that just happened to have a film based on it before (you wouldn't call The Last Temptation of Christ a remake of Jesus Christ Superstar, would you?). 2) There are going to be exceptions to the rule (Tom Savini's 1990 Night of the Living Dead, for example).

When I was paying attention during my film classes at Montana State University back in the 90s*, one of the things that caught my attention during a class taught by Ronald Tobias was that the film industry is a business. I knew that, but he put some solid numbers behind that statement and showed that nation-wide, the floral industry makes more money than the film industry. Flowers over film? That took me by surprise, but it makes sense, and it certainly explains a lot of the all-business-no-art decisions that seem to be made in Hollywood.

Remakes? They MIGHT make money, right? A lot of times, they do. And horror remakes? Another phrase slung around during my film school days was that a horror movie never lost money; that they always at least made up their production cost eventually (the joke being that Friday the 13th Part VIII was losing money until Paramount sold the franchise to New Line). I don't know if that was actually true, but if a studio can avoid spending a lot of money on a completely original screenplay and just buy up another property, hire a music video director trying to get some feature films on his resume, and churn out a remake that doesn't even need as much advertising since some of the "new" film's buzz is going to generated by the fact that it is a remake (watch the horror podosphere and blogosphere anytime a new remake is announced), the studio is good to go . . . right?

I have a lot of problems with remakes. I think they're too easy. I think they muddy the shared cultural language horror fans have ("I really like Dawn of the Dead!" "Which one?"). I think they send the wrong message to audiences and creators. (The Dawn of the Dead remake was given a bigger budget than Land of the Dead) Again, there are exceptions to the rule (Hammer's The Mummy or Hitchcock's own remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much), but too often, an over-reliance an CG effects (2010 The Wolfman), casting too many "too pretty" people (2005's The Fog) or remakes in name only (2008's Prom Night) show the lack of drive, passion and innovation present in the Hollywood horror machine. (And don't get me started on the lack of respect for the original creators of a film being remade. Paul McCollough, co-writer of the original The Crazies, found out about the remake online like the rest of us when it was first announced. Chances are, he got paid about us much as the rest of us as well.)

2. Heavy metal. Now, don't get me wrong. Mixed into my film scores, 80s and 90s rap, brit-hop, nerdcore, etc., etc., I have some metal on my iPod. A lot of my close friends are bona fide metal heads. But I don't necessarily want it mixed into my horror films, and every few years, there seems to be a concerted effort on behalf of horror film media outlets to link the two. Kiss on the cover of "Fangoria" magazine. Glenn Danzig on the cover of "Rue Morgue." I mean, I get it. I do. Kiss and Danzig tap into horror imagery quite a bit. Okay. Makes sense.


An interest in one does not equal an interest in the other, and it's an overused cliché now to use metal in a film's soundtrack that almost immediately turns me off. It makes sense in a movie like Black Roses or Trick or Treat, but it doesn't belong in every horror film, and the assumption that because I love horror films I must love heavy metal is off-putting and least and offensive at worst.

3. Grindhouse, exploitation and other non-horror films being slipped into our genre. There's no question that a lot of horror films of the 70s were grindhouse films. But not every grindhouse film was a horror film. Not every film played at a drive-in in the 60s were horror films. Not every exploitation film is a horror film. Some of these films may be HORRIBLE in terms of content (this is not a judgment, but a descriptor of the things that happen to the characters in these films), but that doesn't mean that something like A Serbian Film or Hobo With a Shotgun are horror films. Shocking, off-putting, offensive material does not equal horror movie. Honestly, I'm tired of seeing it, and think that the horror genre itself gets diluted when revenge stories, serious biopics of real life serial killers and material that defies description (What Is It?) get somehow lumped into the horror movie mix so easily.

4. Throwbacks. There are some of these I like (While he works mostly in science fiction rather than horror, I think Christopher R. Mihm has a solid grasp on how to make this work the best), and I even got caught up in Planet Terror (which I'll use as an example in a moment), but for the most part, whenever a filmmaker tries to make an "homage" film that's reflective of some bygone era of filmmaking, I find they either fail or offend.

Look at Planet Terror. Really look it. Director Robert Rodriguez put his love for 80s horror movies on the screen (and even tried to put it on the soundtrack by trying to get John Carpenter to compose the score). He succeeded. And then he "grindehouse-ed" it. Artificially adding scratches and burns to the "film" (Rodriguez shoots digitally) after the fact is one thing, but CG effects? This isn't something you'd see in a grindhouse film from the 80s. The effects we saw on screen - the gun-for-leg replacement comes to mind immediately - were not indicative of an earlier era of filmmaking, and if you really look at Planet Terror, it's easy to see that there's a heavy sheen of gimmick covering the film (and when considering that Rodriguez's Grindhouse partner Quentin Tarantino seemed to forget he was making a "grindhouse" film as well with his Death Proof, one wonders where the "grindhouse" in Grindhouse really is).

There have been some attempts at humorously poking fun at earlier eras of filmmaking, and while I respect that Larry Blamire has a following and a lot of people enjoy his The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera and its follow up, I don't laugh at them. I may be taking things too seriously, but I find them a little disrespectful. I know that's certainly not the intent. I love my modern day zombie films, I enjoy the Friday the 13th series, but I also really enjoy the genre films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. While they're certainly a little goofy through today's eyes, I like to watch these movies wearing the hat of a "cinematic sociologist/archaeologist." I enjoy watching something like 1957's The Black Scorpion and appreciating the movie on multiple levels of viewing a different time in American and even Mexican history, the filmmaking techniques used, the special effects techniques used, etc. Sometimes, when we do nothing but laugh at these older films, it comes across as mockery, and any intention of homage gets lost by a general audience ready to laugh at the monsters waddling across the sceen in Alien Trespass. (To be fair, I did enjoy Alien Trespass even if it, too, did have the modern gloss that wouldn't have been present in a film from a previous age. However, the filmmakers didn't just make a "throwback" movie, but made an attempt to create a viral campaign for their film with mock news reports about unearthing a lost film, complete with the film's leads - Eric McCormack, Robert Patrick, etc. - appearing in staged interviews talking about this lost film their grandfather/great uncle/etc. worked on years ago.)

We wouldn't be where we're at horror film-wise now if not for the horror films of the past, so I'd like to see a little more respect engendered, and, again, while I don't think that's necessarily the intent of some of these filmmakers, designing a movie using the trappings of older filmmaking techniques doesn't let the audience appreciate the older style of filmmaking; it lets them laugh at it. (And, yes, I even struggle with some "Mystery Science Theater 3000" sometimes, especially the film.)

5. The ratings game. While I appreciate that filmmakers have found a way to work the ratings system by creating unrated/director's cut/R-rated-for-previously-a-PG-rated-film versions, the system is now working us by expecting us to pay box office ticket prices to see an R-rated horror film at the theater, and then spending more money on unrated version on DVD/Blu-ray. The idea of blindly going to R-rated horror films so that Hollywood will pay attention and greenlight more R-rated horror films is laughable. Where were the Rob Zombie's, the Eli Roth's, the Adam Green's championing the R-rated The Wolfman? Oh . . . right . . . They didn't make THAT movie so they had no real vested interest in seeing that one succeed.

The Ring (the remake) showed us that a PG-13-rated horror film can work well both box office-wise and audience appreciation-wise. Ratings are such an arbitrary label, it's foolish to rely on them as an audience member to decide where to spend our movie consumption money. While it's not always necessary to see EVERYTHING the filmmakers shot, if I'm planning on seeing a new horror movie, I'm probably going to wait for DVD/Blu- anyway because then I'll get the unrated edition that didn't have that pesky ratings board involved.

6. Netflix (and other large rental/streaming services). I like Netflix. I use their service quite a bit and have seen a LOT of movies thanks to them. I stream a lot now, too. It's great. What's not great is that Netflix has grown to the point at which they don't need to buy every DVD that comes along to put into their inventory in order to have product available. A few years ago, a new independent release had a greater chance of finding their way into Netflix's listings. Jason Santo's Bent - a 2004 release - can still be rented through Netflix, but 2008's Deadlands 2: Trapped is not available (even though Tempe Video was behind both releases). Over the years, Netflix has cracked down on the number of lower-budget/smaller-studio releases, and since Netflix is such a massive player in the distribution game, and since a lot of horror movies are lower-budget/smaller-studio releases, we're seeing less and less new horror releases making their way into Netflix customer's homes.

Streaming? Well, that's an option. But with streaming, you lose special features. And since recent years have shown that horror fans will support quality horror documentaries (not that Netflix carries all of these - where's Shout! Factory's The Psycho Legacy?), which means a streamed movie robs horror fans of the option of watching any documentary special features.

I've got other beefs and gripes, but these are my Top Six. MY Top Six. This is all opinion, of course, and I fully expect some folks to disagree with me. Heck, I disagreed with some minor points Bill and Chris made during their Top Six List!

* One of my regrets is that I never finished that film program . . .

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