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How to Fix Horror
July 8, 2011 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Jason Zinoman, author of the newly-published Shock Value, a study of horror films from the late 1960s/early 1970s, presents a four-part essay in which he diagnoses the ills of the modern horror film and presents a few solutions. (1 2 3 4)

Also from Zinoman: A slideshow of horror's goriest scenes

NPR's Fresh Air interviews Zinoman about Shock Value: Audio Transcript
posted by kittens for breakfast (39 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Horror isn't just for perverts and lowbrows anymore.

Nothing is, unfortunately.
posted by stinkycheese at 3:48 PM on July 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


Perhaps I didn't read the article closely enough, but what exactly are Mr. Zinoman's prescriptions for fixing horror? I don't diagree that it needs fixing, but I didn't see any obvious 'filmmakers should do more of this and less of that' in the piece.
posted by Fraxas at 4:03 PM on July 8, 2011


Horror can certainly be discreet and cerebral and deeply moral. But it's more at home being impolite and gross and borderline unethical. We needn't be embarrassed if we prefer the movies that favor splatter over politics or poetry.

Kinda yea, you should. Nobody's actually forcing me to watch this stuff and those who watch it aren't necessarily hurting anyone either so blah blah blah. Fair enough, but I guess this is why he calls A Serbian Movie "envelope-pushing" and I call it "a movie for people I hope are segregated from the rest of society for everyone's sake."
posted by basicchannel at 4:05 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Perhaps I didn't read the article closely enough, but what exactly are Mr. Zinoman's prescriptions for fixing horror? I don't diagree that it needs fixing, but I didn't see any obvious 'filmmakers should do more of this and less of that' in the piece.

You didn't read it closely enough. You missed the titles, apparently, and all the stuff underneath them.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2011


Zinoman, at least based on this excerpt, seems to very frequently want things both ways.

For instance, he decries horror films which aspire to more than scaring their audience, accusing recent efforts of "pretentiousness" or "thematic baggage" - but then goes on to praise Cronenberg's remake of The Fly for its "new resonances" (read: AIDS metaphor).

My first instinct upon starting to read the article was: what about all the horror films that aren't made in Hollywood? What about the amazing films coming out of Asia or Europe? Zinoman dismisses these "small-scale extreme horror" films for their "limited releases... so ghettoized that the audiences who seek them out expect to be shocked, often responding with as many smirks as squirms."

Except: "Directors making scary movies today, even modest ones, can realistically imagine that their films will reach a huge cross-over audience." So... which is it?

I do agree with him however that The Strangers was a good 'un, and that Alexandre Aja is one of the better directors working in the genre today.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:15 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Basically, he wants less pretentiousness, less backstories, more inventive remakes, and gore and shock are good. Probably a fan of *shudder* Eli Roth then.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:18 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love horror movies. I disagree somewhat on the gore thing. I don't find movies scary that really too much on gore, I just find it a series of repulsive images that turn my stomach. If it serves some purpose other than gore for gore's sake, sure, go for it. But like the King quote implies at the beginning of that section, gore is often a substitute for scary, and it's often an unpleasant one at that.
posted by Hoopo at 4:28 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


crap. "I don't find movies scary that rely too much on gore"
posted by Hoopo at 4:29 PM on July 8, 2011


Horror isn't just for perverts and lowbrows anymore.

Nothing is, unfortunately.


Wasn't there a post here once about a Simpsons parody porno movie?
posted by Hoopo at 4:35 PM on July 8, 2011


As a horror buff, the state of the genre makes me want to weep -- not because there isn't good stuff out there, but because there's so much good stuff, and it's all under the radar and no one gives a shit. 2011 has been an absolute banner year for horror films. I can think of more than half a dozen top-notch horror flicks from the first half of the year off the top of my head: Stake Land, Absentia, Midnight Son, Attack the Block, Insidious, Vanishing on 7th St. (which a lot of people disliked, but whatever), Black Death. With the possible exception of Insidious, who's heard of any of these?

Craft and intelligence and ambiguity in the horror genre gets no play. It's all noise and gore (which I don't oppose, but which does nothing for me in isolation) and PG-13 teenybopper bullshit.

Stake Land comes out on DVD August 2, please watch it.
posted by eugenen at 4:35 PM on July 8, 2011 [29 favorites]


I think he's got a lot of good points to make but some of the weird inaccuracies were, well, weird. Like saying that's Vincent Price's head on a fly's body at the end of The Fly. Normally I wouldn't care if someone said that but he's presenting himself as a scholar of the form. I think it's kind of telling that each page (except the fourth, for now) has a correction at the bottom. When I read the page about remakes yesterday it said that Courteney Cox played Sidney in Scream. And, like, what? These are tiny and insignificant mistakes to anyone who doesn't really really love horror, but if you are in that group, they're some pretty big fuckups. The Fly isn't exactly high art, but he also holds up that last scene as an example of how ridiculous the movie is, when honestly it's a completely unsettling and haunting scene that still works, despite the age of the film and its effects.

But one thing he touched on which was good but maybe not the universal solution he might be painting it as: If your film doesn't need a backstory, cut it. In my super-humble opinion, the most effective scene in the first Halloween movie is when Laurie unmasks Michael Myers, and the camera gives the viewer the first full-on look at the fact of an adult Michael. And...he's just some guy. He's not hideously disfigured, he's not revealed to be someone important from earlier in the movie - there's actually nothing special about his appearance at all, apart from the look in his eyes. That moment crystallized the idea at the center of the movie, and the ideas which made it scary: that this guy just kind of cracked in a way that no one ever managed to understand fully, and that although he may have had some sort of reason for picking the victims he did, those reasons were utterly opaque to anyone but him. The idea that horror could come from anywhere.

But nevermind my nitpicks, I love seeing good explorations of the ideas of horror movies, and this was a good read. Thanks for posting it!
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:36 PM on July 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


Probably a fan of *shudder* Eli Roth then.

I think I actually joined MetaFilter to defend Hostel Part II, so I guess this is me, too. Semi-relatedly, though, Zinoman recently wrote a profile of John Carpenter (that I might've linked here were I not cautious about prompting people to inadvertently use up their NYT links) that includes Mr. Carpenter (jokingly?) referring to Roth as "that bum" with "his Hollywood hair," for what that's worth.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:38 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he's got a lot of good points to make but some of the weird inaccuracies were, well, weird. Like saying that's Vincent Price's head on a fly's body at the end of The Fly. Normally I wouldn't care if someone said that but he's presenting himself as a scholar of the form. I think it's kind of telling that each page (except the fourth, for now) has a correction at the bottom.

To be fair, this is a lot of Slate articles lately. I agree that Zinoman should probably know this stuff (it's not like he couldn't IMDB it!), but I get the feeling that people are writing for Slate with an expectation of getting fact-checked that is...um...not warranted.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:42 PM on July 8, 2011


Well, I'm going to be pedantic here and insist on the term 'horror'.

Guts and blood and violence are definitely entertaining, and I'm not going to decry movies that take that tack as being lowbrow or whatever, but I know enough biology that I'm not horrified by representations of humans as chunks of living meat. That's just obvious, and I've never been so civilized as to be horrified by the fact that I find this stuff entertaining. (I grew up on a farm)

Movies like Rosemary's Baby, The Thing, and (my favorite) The Wicker Man (with Edward Woodward) really horrified me. Portrayals of the naked mechanisms of socialization are waaaaaaaay scarier to me than those of the body or 'the unknown', let alone devices like startling jump cuts, or Xenakis/Ligeti-sounding music while someone walks down the stairs. Revelling in gory ultraviolence (on-screen) is a fun time. I know that my enjoyment of the depiction doesn't make me a monster, and I certainly don't 'get any ideas'.

But, considered a certain way, there are scenes in my life in which I see how I acted as a part of a collective awfulness; that connection for me is skin-crawlingly horrific. Nothing is more horrifying than the perception of truth you don't want to believe about yourself. In most horror movies, there is a scary other that does all the work, freaking you out with alien bogeyness. Beyond early adolescence, the movies that haunted me were the ones that made me think about my own unwitting complicity a variety of bad things.

Horror isn't broken. Like anything, it has to be done right, which is hard, and doesn't happen very often.

Honestly- a horror movie shouldn't just scare you. It should fuck. you. up. for. life.
posted by Casimir at 5:06 PM on July 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


>>Horror isn't just for perverts and lowbrows anymore.

>Nothing is, unfortunately.

I know America is way ahead when it comes to ways to pay to see ladies getting nekkid, but when I was growing up there was only one cinema that showed R- rated adult movies [X-rated was, and still is, illegal] and one strip joint, and they were dead-set for the raincoat brigade. Only devos patronised them.

I am utterly flabbergasted how mainstream porn has become in such a short amount of time.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:12 PM on July 8, 2011


basicchannel: "Kinda yea, you should. Nobody's actually forcing me to watch this stuff and those who watch it aren't necessarily hurting anyone either so blah blah blah. Fair enough, but I guess this is why he calls A Serbian Movie "envelope-pushing" and I call it "a movie for people I hope are segregated from the rest of society for everyone's sake.""

So I never heard of it. Don't care to watch it after reading about it on the ol' wikipedia. That said, I find it a bit dissonance inducing when I read the following line...
"the festival's director Ángel Sala has been charged with exhibiting child pornography by the Spanish prosecutor who decided to take action in May 2011 after receiving a complaint from a Roman Catholic organization over a pair of scenes involving the rapes of a young child and a newborn"
posted by symbioid at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2011


I am firmly in the corner of saying that suggesting and hinting at things is much more frightening. After time, all special effects seem hokey, but the thing you can't see in the dark is always going to be the THING YOU CANT SEE IN THE DARK. Of course, the chestburster scene in ALIEN is a great exception to the rule. Every time I look at my pregnant wife, I can't help but think about it.

The first time I saw it I was four and I ran out of the living room screaming and crying, which my Dad found hilarious.
posted by Renoroc at 5:26 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've had the pleasure of reading through Shock Value twice (though I haven't read the Slate series yet) and I have to say it's one of the best books and critical pieces on Horror I've ever read. I'm saying this as someone who has read a lot about horror. If you're a fan of the genre, or if you love movies from the 70's, 80's and early 90's, I strongly suggest checking it out.

I really could go on and on about the book and everything that's great and illuminating about it, but I'll just be brief and say that I'm incredibly picky, ridiculously opinionated, and rarely identify fully with most critical takes on the genre in which I make my living, but reading Zinoman's book is like looking at a map after running around a maze for 3 decades. It just makes sense of everything.

A brief indication of what the book is about: he astutely notes that a defining facet of the figures of the New Horror era (Carpenter, O'Bannon, Hooper, Craven, DePalma, etc) was that they worshiped Hitchcock but hated the ending of Psycho. I don't know why, and I feel like I always knew this, but seeing it put into a structured (and entertaining!) analysis was a revelation.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 5:28 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, and there's a whole "SHOCK VALUE" series at BAM in Brooklyn next week featuring movies by Dan O'Bannon, including some very influential (on the scene) short films from film school, introduced by Zinoman. They're showing Alien, Dark Star, Invaders from Mars, etc.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 5:33 PM on July 8, 2011


Kinda yea, you should. Nobody's actually forcing me to watch this stuff and those who watch it aren't necessarily hurting anyone either so blah blah blah. Fair enough, but I guess this is why he calls A Serbian Movie "envelope-pushing" and I call it "a movie for people I hope are segregated from the rest of society for everyone's sake."

Whatever. A Serbian Film isn't very good and isn't "for everyone," but it's angry and profoundly political and has a lot on its mind. I don't need to be embarrassed about watching stuff you can't stomach.
posted by eugenen at 5:35 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Honestly- a horror movie shouldn't just scare you. It should fuck. you. up. for. life.

Never thought of it like that. That's a great rule.

I was much too young when I started consuming horror movies. I had fairly strict parents, and looking back I'm sure they didn't realise how much they'd, erm, improved since they were young, otherwise I wouldn't have been allowed.

The Shiningscariest movie ever – fucked me up for farking ages. Hallways freaked me out for years, and going to large empty bathrooms in places such as shopping malls... well... I'd be absolutely shitting my britches. I think the guy I saw it with was even more affected.

Although I have developed a peculiar skill because of them. During the BOO! scary moments it wasn't cool to let your mates see you jump. I eventually trained myself to sit still even though a wave of fear would pound my guts.

To this day, if someone tries to give me a fright, or if I'm confronted with a dangerous scenario where emergency action needs to be taken, I'm the supreme ice man. On the outside.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:36 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't get freaked out by gore films. I think things like Jason and Freddy and Pinhead are silly (though they seem cool as shit). I use the term terror to differentiate between the "thing in the dark that no-one can see" and horror as the usual hollywood killer with a mask film. Scream was probably the best of those movies, IMO.

Anyways, for some reason I was reminded of a bit of footage that I absolutely refused to watch, and when I learned of it and posted about it, one of my friends online said he'd "take the bullet" for me. He came back not much later and posted, very visibly shaken. Whether he was putting me on or not, I'm not sure, but... Based upon his reply, I believe he watched it. And it confirmed my inability to watch it. And I've watched a lot of things - stonings in Iran being probably the most gruesome video.

But this video. This is horror. I'm not gonna seek it out and link it, but I'll link to the wiki article about it.

Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs 2 young violent psychopaths who filmed a very very very torturous murder. Real murder. Real torture.

I can accept a fictional rendering. It's fantasy. But that. That right there. That is the scariest thing of all, to know that there are real killers who do shit like that. And perhaps even scarier is to know that evil is banal. And one step away, one small breakdown in social mores. One bit of people feeling social pressures to turn on each other, and you have a whole society dedicating itself to such monstrosities.
posted by symbioid at 5:38 PM on July 8, 2011


I can accept a fictional rendering. It's fantasy. But that. That right there. That is the scariest thing of all, to know that there are real killers who do shit like that. And perhaps even scarier is to know that evil is banal. And one step away, one small breakdown in social mores. One bit of people feeling social pressures to turn on each other, and you have a whole society dedicating itself to such monstrosities.

Well, I mean, of course. Who wants to watch snuff films? The difference between the gruesomest fictional renderings and actual snuff is fundamental, and I never fail to be infuriated by attempts to equate the two. (Not saying that's what you were doing).
posted by eugenen at 5:43 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


But this video. This is horror. I'm not gonna seek it out and link it, but I'll link to the wiki article about it.

Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs 2 young violent psychopaths who filmed a very very very torturous murder. Real murder. Real torture.


Another one started doing the rounds yesterday. Ditto, I'm not going to link it, but Google russians stabbing hobo if you're keen. I'm not going to watch it myself, I became aware of its existence, that's all.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:49 PM on July 8, 2011


But this video. This is horror.

No. It's not. I haven't seen that and won't see it, but horror in the sense that it's being written about in these essays is something else. Horror is art. Someone videotaping a murder is a murder that has been videotaped. It's horrible, but it's not horror. It's a record of a crime; if it's art, so is CCTV footage of a car being broken into.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:50 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah seriously, eww. In my opinion horror movies should have a sense of fun to them, and most of the classics of the genre do even when they're truly terrifying and don't give things the comedic treatment in the least. Snuff videos are totally different. They're sick and cruel.

Thanks for the homeowrk, eugenen. I loved Insidious even though the ending was a bit weak. If anyone else has any recommendations, I for one am all ears. My recommendation is and always will be The Changeling. Medak was able to scare me worse with a rubber ball than any other horror movie trick I've ever seen before or since.
posted by Hoopo at 6:49 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't get freaked out by gore films. I think things like Jason and Freddy and Pinhead are silly (though they seem cool as shit).

Jason and Freddy sure, although I'll say the first (and second to a much lesser degree) of the Hellraiser films were unusually imaginative for what they were, and the cenobites like the Chatterer and Butterball were legitimatley creepy before the series started getting a bit too silly. A DJ demon who throws CDs like ninja stars? Ugh.
posted by Hoopo at 6:58 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Changeling

Oh god yeah- that ball scene was bad. I saw it prior to seeing E.T. When the ball came out of the shed I almost lost it in the theater.
posted by Casimir at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thirding The Changeling. I just introduced my daughter to it recently, and it held up great for me - probably my favourite haunted house film.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:20 PM on July 8, 2011


stinkycheese, I hope she's old enough that she won't have to sleep in your bed tonight. When I first watched it I was 14 and lived in the basement. My bed was next to the furnace room. For months after, every time the furnace kicked in with a loud thud, and I would nearly shit myself. I could practically hear "JOSEPH, MY MEDAL"
posted by Hoopo at 10:04 PM on July 8, 2011


That is the scariest thing of all, to know that there are real killers who do shit like that.

Real kids killed fellow students in Columbine. The Nazis actually experimented on humans before killing them en masse. We all know there are killers who do this. What you linked to is this:

pornography

3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction


That's not me misusing a word. That is what the word means. The video those kids shot is a literally a porno film. This real/borderline snuff shit is more about sex and titillation for the killers than arousing any fear.


Likewise the gore porn crap that hollywood turns out is basically transgressive pornography. The audience gets excited watching the body be mangled. Hostel et al aren't that far off from Two Girls One Cup.

This has absolutely nothing to do with horror. Horror is the psychological. Halloween is great horror, and only 3 people die, nearly bloodlessly. How many people die in The Shining. Inland Empire was brilliant and horrifying.

Good horror film conjure images and contexts that bypass the rational and social apparatus and infect the unconscious. The gory shit and the snuff shit do the opposite of that. They slam headlong into the social filters, and therefore only appeal to the broken people who respond to those triggers with excitement and glee.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:29 PM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


BTW, these russian snuff videos you guys are linking are further proof of the theory that when a country loses a war, its pornography goes totally batshit crazy. See also A Serbian Film.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:36 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's not me misusing a word. That is what the word means. The video those kids shot is a literally a porno film. This real/borderline snuff shit is more about sex and titillation for the killers than arousing any fear.

No you're not technically misusing the word, but you may be taking the 3rd meaning from Merriam Webster's online dictionary and running with it too far. The same entry lists the etymology of the word as related to prostitution. I think in common film parlance "Pornography" tends to be sex, "Horror" tends to be monsters and ghosts and killers, "Snuff" tends to be real or faked footage of terrible crimes that might get some sicko off somehow, and "Killers' home videos of acts of murder" is exactly what it says on the tin.

BTW, these russian snuff videos you guys are linking are further proof of the theory that when a country loses a war, its pornography goes totally batshit crazy

Are you talking about the Cold War?
posted by Hoopo at 11:14 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


symbioid, it seems dangerous and potentially traumatic to watch this kind of stuff on a dare.

Just reading the description totally horrified me. I can't get it out of my head and I wish I'd never read it.

and now I need a hug.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:07 AM on July 9, 2011


Yeah - well. There's a reason I didn't watch it. I certainly didn't dare anyone, either - my friend said he'd watch it of his own volition.

But I feel sorry for the derail, really, because it's a distraction from actual horror films that the thread is supposed to be about.

and *hugs*

So, speaking of nazis and that kind of real horror - anybody recommend a sort of "banality of evil" type film that might work to scare someone?
posted by symbioid at 12:20 AM on July 9, 2011


Eden Lake was an excellent recent horror film in that "banality of evil" way IMHO.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:26 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is always interesting to read people reflecting critically on a genre and I would not want to discourage it.

That said, I'm not sure that this was an article that I found particularly engaging because it seems too prescriptive to me about unimportant things. There are clearly a number of different ways to be scary or to explore things that are horrible and disturbing. Partly this is because different things frighten different people; partly this is because the territory of fear is large and there are many different routes one can take through it and many interesting and troubling things that one can see along the way.

The one thing that I require from horror films is that they be doing something, not just ripping off somebody else's work. Intelligence, possibly emotional intelligence, is much more interesting to me than genre fidelity.

Aside from that, I am not sure that there is a particular, surface feature that really matters very much. You can do a horror film with gore or with no gore, a political message or no message at all...

The thing that is making a lot of modern horror dull isn't so much the fact that it is too serious or not serious enough, too gory or not gory enough. It's the fact that the drivers that lead to it getting made are not drivers of thoughtful work: the article does touch on this when it discusses remakes, but I think it is more important than Zinoman believes.
posted by lucien_reeve at 4:38 AM on July 9, 2011


Horror is art. Someone videotaping a murder is a murder that has been videotaped. It's horrible, but it's not horror. It's a record of a crime; if it's art, so is CCTV footage of a car being broken into.

Sorry, but if a person sets out to actually torture, mutilate, and murder another person and videotape it so that it can be viewed and appreciated later, that must qualify as art in a way that CCTV footage of a parking garage does not.

The camera-wielding murderer is an artist. Where is the artist in the CCTV example?

Perhaps it makes one uncomfortable to admit that REAL MURDER can be art. Does the habit of mentally defending horror films as Art and Not Immoral make it difficult to see that a videotaped murder can be Art and Immoral?
posted by General Tonic at 12:36 PM on July 9, 2011


Perhaps it makes one uncomfortable to admit that REAL MURDER can be art. Does the habit of mentally defending horror films as Art and Not Immoral make it difficult to see that a videotaped murder can be Art and Immoral?

I'm not really concerned with what is or isn't moral here; I don't have any particular hang-up about being seen as a bad person because I've watched Alien sixty times or whatever. I think stuff like that only becomes an issue when special interest groups start making it their mission to launch a crusade against evil in the arts, and that hasn't really been a big problem for horror movies in a while. All those assholes are too busy attacking video games right now. Left to his or her own devices, unmolested by those who are perpetually concerned for the welfare of people who mostly wish they'd go the fuck away, the average fan of horror (or violent video games, or hip-hop, or heavy metal, or of dancing the Charleston or what have you) doesn't worry too much about the morality of it all, I figure, since s/he knows they're okay.

Anyway, it doesn't make me uncomfortable to "admit" that REAL MURDER can be art, because real murder is real murder first and anything else a distant second. It's a tasteless argument to have, and it's also kind of cliche (in horror tropes terms). If what you wrote were something someone said in a horror movie, I would roll my eyes and turn it off.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:59 PM on July 9, 2011


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