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Consider This: Is Horror A Dirty Word in Giving A Film Acclaim?

Consider This is an editorial opinion segment featuring personal examinations and thoughts on the state of film. This week, we take a closer look the horror genre and how the term has become synonymous with less significant filmmaking.

The Thesis: The Witch, the latest film by Jarin Blaschke is about a family in 1600’s New England who separate from society and practice their faith on the edge of a dark forest, where presumably a witch lives and begins to terrorize them. We praised the trailer and wrote about our impressions of it hereThe trailer is clearly marketing a horror film. It has all the telltale signs, including an atmospheric score, editing, sound effects, and lots of blurbs from critics using words like, “Unnerving¹”, “Nightmarish²”, and “Terrifying³” splashed across the screen. Yet as the film garners more interest and early reviews heap praise, a subtle shift is happening in the marketing and on many headlines, “Horror” is being replaced with “Thriller.”

Consider This: Quality Films Marketed as Horror will Never Gain Widespread Appeal


Dan: Why should intellectual film discourse only be reserved for Oscar winners or artsy foreign films? Some of those other dirty little exploitive genres occasionally have some thematic depth worthy of analysis too. That’s what me and David are here for. We’re not film snobs, or those type of critics who only like movies that are culturally approved before release. If we see a trailer for a horror movie we aren’t afraid to dig a little deeper, and pull back the layers on the proverbial onion.

Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs)
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs)

Horror is a dirty word in Hollywood. If Silence is the Lambs is called a thriller instead, it’s somewhat more accessible and likely to get award consideration. It’s like those adults who are too high on themselves to admit they read comics. “No, I don’t read comics,” they say, “I read graphic novels.” Okay. Well, I read comics and I watch horror movies. And I’ve got something to say.

The trailer for The Witch just debuted. Our trailer analysis breaks down why it’s so impressive on first sight. It has all the familiar tropes of horror, but may also have another layer worthy of discussion.

What if the witch isn’t real? What if there is no supernatural involved, just twisted ideologies?  What if the witch is really a woman, shunned and forced to live alone. Driven mad. Driven to revenge. Moreover, the witch may be innocent, with the real culprit aiming suspicions her way. The missing child could have been kidnapped by an even scarier monster: our fellow man. I’m not saying that’s what will happen, but it’s the impression I got from the trailer.

Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)

I love it when horror movies debate science vs supernatural, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This thematic approach forces us to ask ourselves what is more terrifying: a real witch or what people are capable of? This stunningly photographed film could get serious recognition should it debate religious beliefs and the evil they can influence. Should it comment on society while scaring the crap out of us, and receive critical acclaim, the genre will surely flip from horror to thriller. After all, serious commenters and lover of films shouldn’t enjoy exploitive trash like a horror movie… right? The same could be said for The Sixth Sense. I don’t know about you but scary + gore + ghosts = horror to me. Just don’t tell the Academy that, or they might not watch it.

Foreground: Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense)
Foreground: Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense)

 

David: It’s certainly not wrong to call a horror film a thriller film, but does it mislead? Like Dan said about the Silence of the Lambs or the The Sixth Sense. These are both clearly horror films, meeting every criteria for that genre, including themes, visuals, gore, and film style. But as they both were critically praised, “horror” has mostly dropped off the list of how they are marketed and categorized. The current Wikipedia page for Silence of the Lambs calls it a thriller with elements of crime and and horror and The Sixth Sense is strictly called a psychological thriller. There’s a reason for this of course. Horror is not associated with quality and like a banjo in an orchestra, not particularly thought of as part of the group.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 4.03.03 PM
BEST PICTURE WINS. Chart made by David for TMI, (Source IMDb)

The Witch is not typical horror, like I wrote in my review of the trailer, it is more in line with The Babadook in its approach. Horror has its own host of subgenres and all can be called thrilling for those drawn to any of them. The issue is the marketing and the purposeful wording. Let’s consider The Babadook (My review here). It too, as its respect and praise grew, shifted from horror to thriller (For example, The Guardian called it, “A superbly-acted, chilling Freudian thriller” in the headline of their review). It is both an excellent thriller and a true horror film (in my opinion, one of the best of the year), but there is the sense that calling it horror is beneath it somehow, as if the term is strictly meant for movies with cabins in the woods with scantily clad girls getting chased and hacked to bits. Take that headline from The Guardian, if the writer had put “horror” where “thriller” is, would it have the same effect? That’s a tough question. I myself would judge it differently, I am sure. There is an image in my head of what those two definitions conjure, and they are distinct and separate.

80s Horror icons:
80s Horror icons: Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorees

None of this wrong, to be sure. Filmmakers and especially studios, want theater seats filled. “Horror” has a stigma to it that has lingered, deservedly so, from the 80s slasher cult hits and continues to be populated by gore and terrorizing killers. But what constitutes horror? Something frightful and shocking, terrifying and fearful, so says my dictionary. That’s a lot of ground and could describe what any movie audience feels while watching any number of films not categorized as such. We love labels and movies studios rely on them to pigeon hole their marketing. They need broad themes in order to stick their movies into so audiences can dutifully select the kind of entertainment they want. I’m not suggesting that a James Bond film should be addressed as a comedy or a horror film, but there is no doubt that the series has equal amounts of both. Maybe it’s time to reconsider horror and not be so quick to think of the word in association with a machete-wielding, hockey-masked psycho killer. We can experience horror and be thrilled and let both be positive ways to indicate the kind of films we enjoy.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

¹David Ehrlich,  TIME OUT NEW YORK; ²Rodrigo Perez, THE PLAYLIST; ³Adam Chitwood, COLLIDER
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