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[Year End] What Counts As “Horror”?

Oh hey, I didn’t see you there!

What is horror? What counts as horror? You guys might have noticed a few films in my “Best And Worst” that don’t necessarily fit the conventionally accepted mold for a genre film. Chronicle and The Grey for example, are two movies that more than likely would not be filed on the “Horror” shelf at Blockbuster or under the “Horror” tab in iTunes.

The reason they’re featured here? Sometimes it’s fun to write about movies that, while they have horror elements, stretch the scope of the content we feature on the site. It’s fun to have more colors to play with and, more importantly, it’s fun to expose you guys to this stuff. I like talking to the readers about it, conversing with you in the comments about what does or doesn’t turn you on about any given film. It’s not for hits, believe me. If you think something like The Grey pulls in more traffic than Maniac or Texas Chainsaw 3D you’re wrong. I feel that discussing films that might seem tertiary to the genre improves the quality of the overall conversation. It provides a better context in which to discuss the nuts and bolts of the pure horror films that drive 95% of our “movies” page.

It’s also incredibly entertaining to talk about movies that skirt genres rather than embrace them wholeheartedly, since it allows us to look at the very criteria we use to define those genres. Let’s talk more inside (spoilers within)…

A few days ago I was having a debate with a couple of my good friends on Twitter. One of them I know in real life, Brian Collins. As a BD alum and the creator of HMAD (along with Collins’ Crypt at Badass Digest), you probably already follow him and respect his opinion. If not, get on it – he’s a great writer with a great voice. The other participant was Matt Serafini, who writes for Dread Central. I only know him online and by reputation but I also like him, respect his opinion and have had nothing but positive interactions with him (even when we disagree).

They were discussing year-end horror Top 10’s that included stuff like Chronicle, and – I’m paraphrasing here – why they felt there was no place for a movie like that on one of these lists. Now, I can sort of see their point.* Like I said, depending on who you are you might not file that movie under the “Horror” section of Blockbuster. At one point during the discussion, Brian wondered why I just didn’t include The Avengers on my list, seeing as both films are “superhero movies” and that The Avengers is a superior piece of work.**

It’s certainly a worthwhile question so I figured I’d examine my own motives here, and I came to the conclusion that I don’t particularly think of Chronicle as a superhero movie at all. Sure it has some superhero tropes, chief among them being the fact that the three leads acquire telekinesis. They can move things with their minds and eventually they learn to fly. Fine. I’ll also grant that it covers more than a few “origin story” beats. But I’d still argue that any relation Chronicle has to the superhero genre is far more tenuous than its connection to horror. For starters, the three leads don’t do anything remotely heroic. They don’t save anybody, they don’t team up to fight a greater villain, and they don’t seem particularly interested in using their powers for anything other than furthering their own interests. They’re not even that good at flying seeing as one of them gets struck by lightning and killed while pretty much doing nothing. This is a film where our protagonist/antagonist uses his powers to pull teeth out of a bully’s face. Where his inner torment combined with his new abilities enable him to exact revenge on those who have tormented him. By the end of the film Dane DeHaan’s Andrew is a bloodied monster hellbent on destroying anybody who gets in his way.

Where’s the line between something like this and Carrie? Tone? I’ll grant that while both films end in mass telekinetic carnage induced by a severely troubled outsider with an unstable home environment, Carrie introduces its foreboding tone right at the start, while Chronicle descends into its character’s madness. Fine. But don’t tell me that a slow burn precludes something from the genre since Chronicle spends a greater percentage of its runtime dealing with horrific concerns than something like The Innkeepers (which I included on my best of ’11). Even if this doesn’t tonally feel like a horror movie during much of its runtime, it feels even less like a superhero movie.

Is it scale? Is Chronicle a superhero movie because of the destruction wrought upon Seattle during the finale? If so, then is Carrie a superhero? In the book she destroys the whole town. If Brian DePalma had kept the scale of the book would his film have been a superhero movie? Of course not. Or do we judge horror movies because of the elements contained within them? ParaNorman is on a lot of year-end horror lists. Rightfully so, it’s a movie with zombies and a witch so it’s absolutely fair game. But it also lacks a sense of menace and isn’t scary. If we’re going by what would be filed under “Horror” at Blockbuster, I don’t think ParaNorman belongs there either. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong on your list if you want it there.

When it comes to something like The Grey, I feel like the answer is a bit more simple. It’s a film about the unflinchingly punishing nature of the universe, where death is literally around every corner. A movie where our characters are subjected to the horrors of winter and are hunted and torn apart by wolves. Is The Grey not horror just because it stars Liam Neeson? If so, is Frozen horror just because Adam Green directed it? Because one could argue they have more than a few things in common. 

All of this being said, I’m not fighting for Chronicle or The Grey to be classified as 100% horror. I’m fine with them filed under whatever genre pleases you. I recognize that this is an inherently messy argument, one with no winners. But there are also no losers. That’s the great thing about film discussion. It’s always messy. And we carry on within that messiness because the conversation, rightfully, never ends.

*It should be noted that Serafini argued that he hates seeing a slot wasted when legitimate horror films are struggling for attention. I see where he’s coming from, but I also don’t think there were a lot of “legitimate horror” films this year that were top 10 material. If anything, I would have put Sinister on my Top 10 in lieu of Chronicle. Neither of those films really “needs” my attention.

**I don’t want to put words in Brian’s mouth here, it’s more than possible he made the analogy as an offhand comparison that wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. Still, it’s what got me thinking abut this piece in the first place.



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