Part of what unites us all as horror fans is our love for something not generally held in high regard. While many dismiss this genre as being populated by cheap cash-grabs, we keep enough of an open mind to approach even the newest splatter sequel hoping for great things. In addition to the horror everyone seems to laud, i.e. The Shining and The Silence of the Lambs, we get a kick out of the ridiculous heights of the Friday the 13th or Final Destination franchises, even while fully aware that they are hardly deserving of any Oscars. Their faults, from over-the-top storylines to subpar acting, only add to the charm. Movies such as these are often described as guilty pleasures, meaning we know they’re bad but we nevertheless derive enjoyment from them.
This is a concept that needs to be retired. There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, and horror enthusiasts of all people should recognize that.
Many devotees of all things blood-soaked got into the genre for similar reasons, although our origin stories vary. Aside from a pursuit of the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared, we relish venturing into the unexplored depths of the film community, dredging up some forgotten B-picture from the back of the Blockbuster and raving to friends about how crazy it is. To do that requires a willingness to accept movies for what they are; admiring something like C.H.U.D, for instance, means the viewer must abandon their preconceived notions of what makes a “good” film, i.e. one that might be featured in the Academy Awards’ yearly highlight montage meant to showcase the power of celluloid.
No, we are not assessing a C.H.U.D. with the same criteria by which we judge a Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Depending on the subgenre, we are probably hoping for some spooky set pieces, gross-out gore effects, or crazy plot twists; if we find these elements and are entertained throughout the entire experience, the movie was a success. Whether it scared us or made us laugh, that little Blockbuster hidden treasure has now made our list of oddities that absolutely must be screened for all those unaware of its existence. “Dude,” we might declare to a friend the next day day, “you have got to see this movie.” It’s not that we like it ironically. Quite the contrary: we have genuinely found some solid filmmaking on display. It just happened to be lurking in the unlikeliest of places and surrounded by some questionable storytelling decisions.
This scenario was especially prominent before the proliferation of the internet. These days, when we mention a movie to an acquaintance, they can instantly look up the IMDB page, and they now bring to the discussion the belief that this picture has been declared objectively good or objectively bad. Really, it’s hard not to let the critical consensus color our perception of things. But there was a time when discovering information about horror, particularly obscure entries from many years ago, was not so easy. Unless you read something in a book or heard of it via word of mouth, basically all you had to go on was the back of the VHS. As a result, every movie carried with it an aura of secrecy, and to pop a tape in the player was to open up a mystery box that we could form a completely unbiased opinion of.
Remnants of that childhood appreciation of the strange and unexpected remain in every horror fan, yet as we grow up, our critical eye widens, and it becomes harder to embrace the same films we once wore out the VCR with. Confronted with the internet’s unanimous take on a movie’s quality, whether it’s the IMDB rating or Metacritic score, a small part of us begins to doubt our sanity for fancying something the public has declared terrible. How can we not look like clueless idiots for so thoroughly adoring a movie with a 5% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes?
The solution is to classify it as a guilty pleasure, a term which makes it possible to retain our original positive gut reaction while not having our critic card revoked. If we know it’s bad, we tell ourselves, then we can still like it and be free from judgement!
Screw that. Our younger selves had it right: if we dig a movie – whether it’s a John Carpenter classic or an aggressively stupid slasher sequel – we should have no hesitation advocating for it, no matter what anyone else thinks. No guilt is required.
To fully understand why, let’s take a look at some common examples of guilty pleasures and examine the reasoning that is traditionally provided. One category of guilty pleasure is the “movie with an admittedly dumb storyline,” one where the premise alone leads most logical human beings to shake their heads in disbelief. If we find ourselves eating up the picture – not ironically, mind you, but with total sincerity – any recommendation apparently must come with a caveat.
Take Jason X, the Friday the 13th installment that infamously sends Jason to space. The premise is absurd, but the film is a complete ball and is endlessly rewatchable. By this point, it became clear that the Friday series had gotten out of control, so James Isaac just decided to go wild with this one and create something light and hilarious. It features basically everything we would expect from a Friday the 13th, including over-the-top deaths and just enough camp as to not take things into comedy territory.
Does that not, then, make it a good entry into the series? If you enjoyed yourself while watching the movie, then it’s good in your eyes. Its job was to entertain, and it succeeded at that. Why must guilt factor in? Read any review of Jason X, though, and you’ll be met with all sorts of hedging language, as if the writer is afraid to commit to their own favorable opinion. “Okay, I know Jason X is absolutely awful, but I have to admit, I really enjoyed it,” they’ll write. “It’s a terrible movie, but it sure did entertain me.” But if a movie’s primary goal is to entertain, then those two ideas completely contradict one another, do they not?
Roger Ebert always argued that movies should be judged based on what they were trying to do. Typically, what critics who use the guilty pleasure label mean is that compared to some horror films that are a bit more well-rounded, Jason X might fall short. The acting is subpar, and the storyline is quite unrealistic. If director James Isaac’s goal was to make a completely straight-faced and scary Friday the 13th, then Jason X could safely be considered a failure. But that clearly wasn’t his goal.
To summarize, then, we have a movie that accomplished what it set out to accomplish and that enthralls its audience at every turn. If you agree with that statement, and the positives overwhelmed the negatives, then something like Jason X is not your guilty pleasure. It is a good, if highly flawed, film, and you should feel perfectly comfortable defending it as such.
Next, there’s the category of “movies that are probably bad for society but that we still kind of like,” which is why the Saw series frequently comes up in the guilty pleasure discussion. These kinds of movies are like fast food; we don’t necessarily feel bad while we’re eating it, but the negative effect it has leaves us with a belly full of shame and regret. With Saw, we can recognize that the later sequels are absolutely vile and an example of the industry in the 2000s focusing on making films shocking rather than making them scary. Some therefore feel uncomfortable defending films so gross that most friends and relatives shy away from or view as utter filth. We nod along with others who rail against the movies and say, “I know, they’re awful, but I just love them for some reason.”
But don’t stop at “for some reason.” Take a closer look at why you love them and ask yourself whether you ought to feel guilty at all. One reason many are drawn to the series is the increasingly inventive traps, which remained quite clever all the way into the final installment. Never do we get the sense that the crew behind-the-scenes is just phoning things in. They clearly put a lot of thought into the elaborate death sequences, and there’s something magical about listening to Jigsaw explain the rules of a new game as we smile at the ingenuity on display. The storyline is also, at times, genuinely interesting and surprisingly intricate. Who could forget the insane twist ending of Saw II, or the way some of the subsequent entries unexpectedly mess around with our perception of time?
These are all qualities that make for compelling movies, yet we are too often unwilling to voice those positive attributes due to the negative stigma that comes with espousing the fifth sequel in the Saw franchise. Why feel ashamed of appreciating a movie for its creativity and surprises, even if it might indulge in violence more than we’d like? We shouldn’t be saying, “The Saw movies are terrible, but I like them; they’re my guilty pleasure.” We should be saying, “The Saw movies can get a bit over-the-top and self-indulgent, but I’m a fan of the series for its inventive traps, intricate storyline, and surprising twists.”
The third category consists of films like Pieces and Birdemic: Shock and Terror, movies that are objectively poorly made but that we love to make fun of. This is the type of picture for which the phrase guilty pleasure makes the most sense, but it’s still not entirely accurate because, deep down, there is a small part of us that likes what we’re watching. After all, there’s a clear difference between a fun bad movie like Troll 2 and a boring bad movie like The Last Exorcism Part II. While the latter is uninspired and generic, the former attracts us to it thanks to the spectacularly cheesy acting and the baffling storytelling decisions. Can anything we enjoy so much be considered bad? It’s more that it’s good in a different, unintentional way, some sort of strange beast that fails to meet the filmmaker’s goal but fulfils another purpose entirely.
The proliferation of the term guilty pleasure may be in part due to the Rotten-Tomatoes-ization of the world, where society feels the need to classify every single movie as being either completely great or completely awful. It’s either rotten or it’s fresh. It’s amazing or it sucks. Especially in horror, a genre infamous for its inconsistent quality, the situation is typically far more nuanced than that. Some of our favorites are full of dumb genre tropes or stupid decisions made by the characters, but we love them all the same because we can judge a movie’s overall package without letting individual missteps detract. We could when we were kids, at least. Now, there exists tremendous pressure to justify our admiration of “rotten” movies, and the guilty pleasure excuse is an easy one.
But by framing things that way, we are playing into the idea that straying from the critical consensus necessitates guilt, a wrongheaded notion that must be done away with. Each viewer should determine their own criteria by which to assess movies based on what entertains them personally. Then, if a film reaches those heights, even if you are the literal first human being to ever find something positive there, don’t feel guilty. Instead, declare your love for it loud and proud and enthusiastically embrace the subjective nature of storytelling. Say goodbye to the cynicism of adulthood and become that kid in the video store again.