Saving Private Ryan, The Godfather, and The Exorcist are all extremely popular films that were not without controversy. In the case of Saving Private Ryan, its loss to Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture left many fans angry or confused. Brando’s win for The Godfather was overshadowed by his own gimmick—having Sacheen Littlefeather take the stage to decline the award. And when The Exorcist was released, it angered many members of the Catholic Church and caused some audience members to be scared sick.
All three of these films were nominated for multiple awards and are often regarded as some of the top films of all time. But one notable difference is how we refer to these three films. Saving Private Ryan is a war film, and while some people who might not be fans of the genre were surprised they liked the film, for the most part when people express their love for it they say Saving Private Ryan was a great film. The Godfather was a great film. But The Exorcist is a great horror film. It is this qualifier that speaks volumes about the overall reception of the genre.
It is no secret that horror is my favorite genre, but there are plenty of years where my best-of lists include other genres, maybe even no horror films from the year make my top ten. But within the last year three of my favorite films are categorized, at least partially, as horror: The Witch, Bone Tomahawk, and It Follows. For me, these films are just great films, no genre qualifiers needed, but the general reception of horror, and the high quality of these three films, made me question whether horror is truly experiencing a renaissance or if it has always been an unfairly criticized genre.
A Genre Divided
If horror is experiencing a renaissance, then when did the genre first experience a decline? This question is not easy to answer. First, some beloved horror films were not always loved. Tod Browning’s Freaks is only one example of a film ahead of its time and therefore not appreciated during its initial release. There’s also the fact that while horror overall includes enough films to warrant its own genre, it is the subgenre of the moment that tends to define the genre each decade. Monster movies, creature features, slashers, torture porn and even the catch-all subgenre of found footage horror all saw their own peak moments in the history of horror cinema.
It is this issue that seems to create one of the greatest divides within horror’s history. Fans of creature features might argue that horror declined as far back as the ‘60s, whereas fans of torture porn might argue that horror only recently found its strongpoint. This divide once again shows how the genre is always burdened with qualifiers. When talking about films in general, there are people who say “Films of this decade sucked,” or, “Films of that decade were the best,” but when talking about horror films, we often throw all movies of each subgenre into one pile. Horror is bad because monster movies are cheesy. Horror is bad because slashers are formulaic. Horror is bad because possession films are unrealistic.
That is not to say horror films are the only genre that face similar criticism. A fan of slapstick might hate gross out comedies, and the genre really gets criticized when the romantic comedy subgenre is mentioned. But comedies are still more likely to receive awards and nominations than horror films, and artists known for the genre tend to be bigger names outside of devoted genre fans than artists known mostly for horror. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons comedies fare better than horror is that more films from the comedy genre get wider distribution than horror films, which brings me to the next issue.
Too Hot or Too Cold: The Distribution Problem
When a horror film released in theatres bombs, we tend not to think another thing about it and automatically assume it wasn’t very good. When a horror film with a theatrical release succeeds, it is often turned into a franchise many would consider unnecessary. The franchises end up creating more disdain for the genre. If you think complaints about remakes and sequels are new, you haven’t been following the horror genre very closely. So the ones that are getting the most attention tend to be the ones people quickly tire of hearing about. Insidious was a successful horror film that received a wide release in 2011. Within only a few years two more Insidious films were made. The Conjuring’s success quickly resulted in a spin-off movie, Annabelle, and the upcoming Conjuring 2. The original was released in 2013. This need to immediately make franchises out of successful horror films might be why Robert Eggers’ announcement that The Witch would not be followed by The Witch 2 created a great sense of relief for many fans of the film.
That not as many horror films get wide releases does not mean that there are not plenty of horror films distributed every year. More get distributed as direct-to-DVD or streaming. These films tend to be quickly forgotten, if they are even noticed in the first place. Though more films in general are receiving non-theatrical releases, there is still a stigma attached to many of them that they are low quality. As a fan of the genre, I have to admit I fall in the trap of overlooking many of these releases. I then usually hear about one from a friend, watch it, and wonder how in the world the film didn’t get more love.
Contemporary Horror: The Verdict
What is interesting about the three newer horror films I love is that they are all in some way callbacks to other eras of horror. While watching It Follows, I constantly thought about the John Carpenter era of horror. The “It” following Jay and her two sexual partners felt very much like Michael Myers. Not in the sense that “It” was wielding a butcher knife and complacent with killing anyone in its way in order to kill Jay, but there was something about the slow, calm stride that the many forms of “It” took to reach Jay. The tension was amplified thanks to a phenomenal score by Disasterpeace that had me instantly thinking of the style of Halloween III’s score. It Follows is a contemporary film that is also decidedly an homage to a past era of the genre.
While these new films seem to be adding new life to the genre, another medium is also a key factor. One reason comedy is likely more widely distributed than horror is that more fans connect with comedy in two main formats: film and television. Horror has its place in television history, but it seems like the small screen is embracing the genre more than it ever has, and with that embrace comes a wider fan base than the genre has experienced in quite some time. Whether playing as straight up horror, or blending the horror genre with a more popular genre, these shows are rapidly popping up. Without even taking a moment to look anything up, I can think of the following current shows that are at least in part connected to the horror genre: Supernatural, The Walking Dead, iZombie, Fear the Walking Dead, Scream Queens, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, Teen Wolf, and Scream.
The horror genre is in the midst of a renaissance, but that is not to say it needed saving in the first place. It is a genre that has often faced criticism as second rate. The divides are not just from vocal haters of the genre. Much of the divide comes from so-called horror fans who voice their disdain for entire subgenres. The Witch, It Follows, and Bone Tomahawk are not closely distributed enigmas. They are beautiful films that showcase how great the genre has always been, even if they just so happen to be released during a time of horror’s revitalization. In order to bring more attention to some recent horror gems, my “In Defense of” series will dedicate the next few articles to these films in the hopes that not only will more people watch them, but they will watch them and say, “That was a great film.”