The views of this blog and its corresponding podcast segment are strictly the views of Jay of the Dead. The sentiments contained herein do not necessarily (or probably don’t) reflect the feelings of Wolfman Josh, Dr. Shock, Dr. Walking Dead or Horror Movie Podcast and its community.
But if you love the Horror genre, I hope you will read this article, or at least, listen to its accompanying audio podcast segment here in Episode 121, starting at [ 00:57:14 ].
By Jay of the Dead | Horror Movie Podcast
You’re not going to read this entire article, so you might as well stop now, unless you’re Dead Serious About Horror Movies. Otherwise, settle in and prove your allegiance to the genre here and now. Below are three topics tackled within one article, because they are all related.
I. Yes, We Keep Fighting but for Good Reason
In classic Horror movie siege-narrative fashion, there are monsters at the gates, trying to get in to reach the Horror genre and its fans. That may sound dramatic, but “guard duty,” as with any regular duty, can be equally as tedious as it is important.
Recently, my friend Jeff Hammer, in essence, said that Horror film critics and podcasters do their audiences a disservice by constantly rehashing the arguments over whether a film is Horror or not.
Alas, this article technically isn’t about judging whether a film is horror. It is, in part, about the crucial importance of always trying to make such assessments. We Horror fans tend to instinctively make these value judgments for the genre, and like any other inherent survival trait, our tendency to revisit this same old discussion, again and again, is for a good purpose: We are merely being Guardians At The Gate.
Please permit an odd but parallel illustration of this phenomenon from recent history: It was in April 1985 that The Coca-Cola Company made some drastic changes to its flagship product, Coca-Cola, and introduced “New Coke,” or as it was later renamed, “Coke II.”
The Coca-Cola Company’s intentions seemed innocent enough. They were simply trying fend off their competitors in a crowded marketplace by presumptuously “improving” their product and discontinuing the original version. Having lived through this marketing misstep in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I remember the critical outcry from consumers.
In fact, my memory of these events can vouch for the accuracy of Wikipedia’s entry that reads, “The American public’s reaction to the change was negative, even hostile, and the new cola was a major failure.”
Though The Coca-Cola Company kept the New Coke on the market for a remarkably long time (until 2002!), it was within three months of the New Coke’s release that the company reintroduced the original formula to the market again, rebranding it as “Coca-Cola Classic.”
Sales for the returned original formula improved significantly, leading to conspiracy theories that the cola giant’s miscalculation was actually a “Don’t Know What Ya Got ’Til It’s Gone” marketing ploy… But as mentioned above (and I believe this), The Coca-Cola Company has always held that it was sincerely trying to improve and replace the original product. “Nope, nothing wrong here…”
Naturally, art is somewhat different from soft drink sales, but I think similar principles still apply. Filmmakers in the United States enjoy a wide range of creative and artistic freedoms through our country’s Constitutional rights, so I would never suggest that the Horror community try to restrict any artist’s vision through any sort of taste-making or gate-keeping. To clarify, the objective is not to “keep out,” rather, it is to identify.
I’m recommending that we continue to stand watch and be aware of what’s coming through our gates. As a Coca-Cola Classic lover myself, I can’t imagine a world in which The Coca-Cola Company produced Coke Classic, Coke II, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, etc., all in the same can, without any sort of distinguishing labeling. Even though I don’t personally enjoy any other incarnation of Coca-Cola, I’m not suggesting that all the other variations be discontinued … I’m simply saying it’s important to be able to differentiate between this flavor and the next, prior to purchasing.
So, while I love and respect my insightful friend and fellow Horror fan, Jeff Hammer, I must disagree that rehashing this same old argument is a disservice to the Horror community. In fact, I think it’s both healthy and helpful to our beloved genre (and its fans). What you’ve read thus far is a long-winded preface to a couple of important examples of the value in assessing the Horror genre.
II. Horror Isn’t Over Or: Making Up New Names for Things That Have Already Had Names for Decades
I must take issue with a recent, well-meaning article by Steve Rose that appeared at The Guardian.com on July 6, 2017. Go ahead and read the entire article linked above for yourself, but to summarize it, in short, Steve Rose suggests that “a new breed of horror” is creeping into and taking over the cinema. He says this new horror replaces jump-scares with existential dread, and he appears to have created a term to describe this new breed that he calls “Post-Horror.”
Now, I don’t know Steve Rose, but he seems to be a Horror fan who loves and appreciates the genre. Clearly, he thinks a lot about it, so he’s “my kind of people.” And in fact, I respect many aspects of what he tried to say in writing his article.
Unfortunately, I vehemently disagree with his term “Post-Horror,” and I think that designation could actually prove harmful to the genre. I would go so far as to recommend that we Horror fans reject that term and not use it. (Sorry, Steve.) I will explain why.
Upon reading the entire article, Mr. Rose doesn’t elaborate on why he chose the phrase “Post-Horror,” but I have a few theories… I wondered if he means “Post-Apocalyptic Horror” and has simply shortened it. Yes, Horror cinema has naturally undergone various transformations over the decades, reflecting the sufferings of societies around the world, whether it’s been the Great Depression, the Nuclear Age, myriad wars, or our new millennium’s worldwide “War on Terror.”
Not just in the United States, but all over the globe, the world changed after September 11, 2001. And I believe the glut of zombie, infected and other Post-Apocalyptic Horror narratives has been a reflection of that change. But even I’m not so ethnocentric as to suggest that we should call this film movement “Post-9/11 Horror.” That’s too narrow. Post-apocalyptic fears are universal the world over, and real-life horrors have been global long before 2001. Therefore, I could accept calling some of this new millennium’s era of horror movies “Post-Apocalyptic Horror.”
But Mr. Rose could have meant other things…
I uncomfortable with the ambiguity of his term Post-Horror. So, if he’s using the prefix “post,” which means “after, subsequent, later,” then I really have a problem with that usage. Horror isn’t over. We are not in an era that is “after Horror.” And to suggest that we are — or to try to push that forward — is not good for our genre.
Perhaps Rose was trying to coin a genre-specific term that’s something akin to the phrase “postmodern,” but I’m happy to report once again: Horror isn’t over, so that doesn’t work, either. We are not in an era where Horror no longer exists. IT’S ALIVE and well.
If Rose is referring to Post-Horror as “the aftermath of Horror,” or the remains of what’s left after Horror has already taken place, then that’s not Horror at all; that genre is called “Drama.” At the risk of being redundant, because I want to be clear: If a film begins when the victim-survivors are picking up the pieces after the Horror has all gone down, and they’re simply trying to cope and recover after a traumatic experience, that is no longer Horror. It’s Drama.
In Episode 081 of Horror Movie Podcast, I attempted to delineate the Horror genre into a classification system that encompassed all its sub-genres into three main categories: Classic Horror, Hybrid Horror and Primal Horror.
Classic Horror includes traditional monster movies with vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.
Hybrid Horror includes films that blend Horror sub-genres or other non-Horror genres with traditional Horror.
And Primal Horror is my category for housing realistic, universal fears such as we find in the Survival Horror sub-genre. This last category fades out into the fringes and eventually crosses over into non-Horror genres, such as Thrillers and Dramas.
In his article, Rose lists a few films that he would consider to be a part of this new breed of Post-Horror, and they include “It Comes at Night,” “A Ghost Story,” “The Witch,” “Personal Shopper,” et al. In my review of “It Comes at Night,” I called it a “pure” survival Horror film because it is grounded in cold, gritty reality and speaks to primal, universal fears of self-preservation. To me, “It Comes at Night” is clearly in the Primal Horror category.
Some people don’t consider “It Comes at Night” to be a Horror movie. They might classify it as a Thriller or a Drama. But regardless of where you categorize “It Comes at Night,” the terms Horror, Thriller or Drama can all sufficiently describe the film and no made-up, ambiguous term such as “Post-Horror” is necessary.
Consider the case of “The Witch.” That’s easy! Classic Horror. It has an actual witch in it who is terrorizing a family in the woods. Simple. It’s a Horror movie. It’s a “witch movie.” We don’t need to confuse matters by calling it “Post-Horror” or “Coke II.”
Is “The Witch” grim? Yes. Is it bleak? Yes. Is it about a hidden enemy who stealthily infiltrates and destroys a family from within? Yes. Is “The Witch” reflective of our modern fears of having terrorist cells within our country, trying to destroy us from within? Yes. Well, that’s just good, old-fashioned Horror, my friends. While it is representative of the times we live in, it isn’t solely applicable to our era. We had the same themes in the ‘70s with “The Exorcist” or even in the ‘50s with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and so on.
While I will be the first to admit that it’s fun to try to coin new academic phrases to try to analyze the Horror genre, I propose that we outright reject the term “Post-Horror,” because it is ambiguous, imprecise and incorrect. I personally prefer my phrase “Organic Horror” to describe a film like “It Comes at Night,” where the events of the film are not fantastical, but instead, are ultra-realistic and authentic in their verisimilitude, imitating our own natural world and everyday life experience. But again, I don’t need to make up a phrase like “Organic Horror,” because the designations Horror, Thriller and Drama are already sufficient.
Let’s continue to analyze the Horror genre, its new releases and any types of film movements that we can identify, but I propose that we reject and discontinue use of the term “Post-Horror.”
III. Don’t Let Them In (Unless You Know What They Truly Are)
First, a little context…
There is an ancient, Latin epic poem (that I’ve never read) called the Aeneid, written by Virgil sometime between 29 and 19 BC. Supposedly, this is the primary source for the tale of the Trojan Horse. But most people probably learned about the Trojan Horse in Humanities class while reading Homer’s Odyssey.
In short, the story goes, during Greek mythology’s Trojan War, the Greeks built a gigantic wooden horse and hid a small team of soldiers inside in order to breach the strong walls of the city of Troy.
After the Greeks feigned retreat, the Trojans saw the horse outside their gates and brought it into the city as a victory trophy. But at night, the soldiers escaped from the horse and admitted the rest of the Greek army into the city. This shady horsing around led to the fall of the city of Troy.
I titled this article “Trojan Horses at the Gates of Horror.” As a devout Horror fan, I am concerned that something very similar to this equestrian stratagem is being employed to gain access and exploit the faithful Horror community. This trend is something that reinforces my feeling that we need to continue making determinations about what’s Horror and what’s not — or at least, what sort of sub-genre of Horror we’re dealing with.
We all know that many marketing entities and distributors have blurred the lines of genre to tempt Horror fans to rent or buy films that appear to be Horror. We are often disappointed when this happens, and I’m happy to say, I think the Horror community’s debates about what’s Horror and what’s not have helped to sound the alarm on the most egregious cases. Good.
But now I think there’s something even more insidious happening, where films will actually feature some of the trappings of Horror cinema (which is helpful for cutting Horror-looking trailers), but in reality, the film is something else entirely.
I predict we will see more and more films like this, because Horror is such a profitable genre with its loyally purchasing community. But for now, let’s consider one interesting case, a Trojan Horse of a film called “The Beguiled” from 2017, directed by Sofia Coppola.
The first thing I should mention, before we proceed any further is that this is a remake from a 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Now, I have not seen Don Siegel’s original version of “The Beguiled” from 1971, but from what I can tell through my research, this new Coppola version appears to be the same story with little variation from the original.
Both films, 1971 and 2017, were adapted from a Thomas Cullinan novel, though this new incarnation credits the 1971 screenwriters, as well. At any rate, observing the aforementioned influences, Sofia Coppola took her own pass at writing this new version for the big screen.
Now, I’d like for you to watch the trailer for “The Beguiled” (2017) and pay attention to its tone, its lighting, its soundtrack, and its red letters on pitch-black screens. After watching its trailer, “The Beguiled” ostensibly seems like a Horror film. At least, I believe it has been marketed as such. (By contrast, compare the trailer of the 1971 version.)
Well, Horror fans, I’m here to tell you that “The Beguiled” (2017) is not a Horror film. It’s actually a dark, Jane Austen-flavored, period piece Drama that could also be argued as a feminist film. “The Beguiled” is set during the American Civil War, when a Confederate women’s finishing school discovers a wounded Union soldier. They take him in to nurse the soldier back to health. This awkward arrangement leads to some romantic intrigue and other unpleasantness. That’s the premise.
I know many Horror fans, including me, were anxious to see this film, but what we have here is a classic bait-and-switch situation. And unfortunately, “The Beguiled” even goes farther beyond a marketing bait-and-switch… “The Beguiled” actually spends some of its runtime masquerading as a Drama Horror film. We all know that Horror movies are usually dimly lit. Heavy shadows cast an uneasy feeling of impending doom that lends to the paranoia of something hiding, ready to attack.
Since this is a realistic period piece set in 1864, Coppola uses candles and natural lighting. Upon watching the trailer of the 1971 film, however, you can see it is also a period piece. And yet Coppola’s version more closely resembles the modern Horror cinema of our day. I believe this was a deliberate choice.
In “The Beguiled,” there’s darkness in the cinematography, as well as in theme. There are a couple of disturbing, tragic and violent sequences that I suppose one could cite for arguing that “The Beguiled” (2017) is at least situated on the fringes of what I might refer to as Primal Horror or Organic Horror.
But honestly, I think most of the Horror community would just view this as a Jane Austen drama with a little bit of morbid grit.
I mentioned that I could argue that “The Beguiled” is a feminist film. (And one could certainly argue that it’s not.) I won’t get into that debate here, but assuming for a moment that it is a feminist film, I have a wild conspiracy theory… It’s probably bogus speculation, but my theory feeds into my Trojan Horse analogy.
What if Sofia Coppola intentionally chose to adapt this story specifically for its feminist slant? And what if she wanted to target the Horror genre and its viewers because Horror, unfortunately, is infamous for its objectification and violence toward women? (Have you ever had to administer a pill to a dog by coating it in peanut butter?) Well, in similar fashion, what if Coppola dressed this feminist “antidote” up in a Horror Halloween costume, Trojan Horse-style, to sneak “medicine” through the gates and into the Horror community?
I’m telling you, with Paul Revere-like earnestness, Trojan Horses are at the gates of Horror.
While I completely support gender equality and any sort of education or advocacy against chauvinism and violence toward women, I would condemn a Trojan Horse, “pill-in-the-peanut-butter” approach to getting messages through particular gates. I think important messages should be delivered, and I think their delivery should be bold and forthright.
To be clear, if Coppola ever read this article, she would think I’m as loony as you do. She was probably doing no such thing and just trying to make a great film. (Side note: As Dramas go, “The Beguiled” is a fine film. I rate it a 7 out of 10 and think people who appreciate dark Dramas should rent it.) But the fact remains, some films are being disguised as Horror now, and they are exploiting our community.
I have just acknowledged above that in modern cinema the lines between genres are blurring and are not nearly as distinct as they once were. Fine. But don’t market a Drama to me as a Horror film. It’s false advertising.
Of course I support artistic expression, freedom of speech, etc. As far as I’m concerned, filmmakers have every right make whatever kind of film they want — even a cinematic stillbirth like “Unfriended” (2015). But we Horror fans also have every right to therefore “call ‘em like we see ‘em,” which in the case of “The Beguiled,” it is a Trojan Horse at the gates of Horror.
In conclusion, let’s come full circle and finish where we started: Yes, we’re still fighting about the Horror genre, and I hope we always will because that’s exactly how we continue fighting for it.
Filmmakers, if you have a message in your film that you’d like to present to Horror fans, deliver it. One non-Trojan Horse, exemplary film is Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017). That important film is replete with social commentary and insightful themes, but it’s also unequivocally a Horror movie.
If studios have a motion picture that they want to market to the Horror community, they just need to be straightforward with us. All I’m asking of studios, distributors and marketing departments is that you make sure the marketing represents the film.
And all I’m asking of the Horror community is to keep debating what’s Horror and what’s not; reject genre-undercutting, made-up words like “Post-Horror”; and help me publicly identify and properly characterize what’s coming down the pipeline in the Horror genre.