By Jerry Chandler
I’m a fan of horror movies. That’s the understated way of saying it. I’m also, of course, a fan of other genres. But, yeah, I tend to really enjoy horror, science fiction, and fantasy. You could also throw superhero into that list, but I’ve always considered that just fantasy with a sometimes small twist of science fiction mixed in and given a new coat of paint. After all, as has been pointed out by others, some modern superhero storytelling is essentially just the modern evolution of the tradition of the telling of ancient myth stories.
I’m also the type of geek who has always loved to learn about the ‘why’ of the things I enjoyed. When it comes to these genres. I would never compare myself to an academic or a historian when it comes to the level of knowledge I have about the ins and outs of the history of the genres across the various mediums or how the genres can be used to tell very meaningful human stories in disguise. However, I do try to learn as much as I can about these things. As such, I think I’m in a good position to be able to say that stories have been told and still can be told in these genres that rise above the level of disposable entertainment. Indeed, all of those genres have been used to tell stories that have touched on important social commentary, made huge political statements, addressed the human condition, and even ventured into the realm of the deeply philosophical. They’ve also all been able to and still can produce absolute classics of storytelling.
Apparently, having the opinion that some of these genres are capable of this kind of thing has me not only on the other side of a debate with many in the mainstream of American pop culture these days, but also with some in fandom who somehow or another claim they love some of these same genres I do.
Horror has always had an interesting relationship with some mainstream critics- both professional and armchair -for most of my life. If it was horror, they would tell you, it was likely crap. It may be “enjoyable crap” in their view, but it was still, at best, most often a form of mindless, disposable entertainment. What’s worse, fans from back in the day shared and promoted that view. Even worse than that, some still do.
He’s a fan of horror films. He just doesn’t want you to think he thinks they’re good. He wants you to know he likes them, but he’s smart enough to know they’re crap. He’s actually the type of fan that may be far more common these days than I would like him to be. He’s still embarrassed to be a genre fan, so he slags on genre to try to keep hanging out with the cool kids.
Probably one of the most divisive of the films in my lifetime that are in fact horror but are denied any grounding in that genre by many in the mainstream and far too many in horror fandom is Silence of the Lambs. Silence of the Lambs is many things with regards to its pedigree and it has its roots in multiple genres, but, despite the desire by many to deny it, one of those genres is absolutely the horror genre.
It’s absolutely amazing to see the extremes people will go to in order to deny Silence of the Lambs has a place in the horror genre as a horror film. It’s a film where the good guys need the help of an insane cannibal genius in order to find and defeat an equally insane lunatic who kidnaps women and makes clothing out of human skin. There are scenes that are constructed in gloriously horror genre related fashion. As the Decades of Horror crew pointed out when looking at the film, there are a host of reasons why this film is absolutely a film of the horror genre.
Is it a crime drama and a thriller? Well, yes. Nevertheless, it also happens to be a horror film. Films are allowed to be more than one or two things when it comes to checking off boxes. Shaun of the Dead and Fido are both horror films. That doesn’t stop them from also sitting in the comedy and romance genres. Silence of the Lambs is a horror film for a number of reasons. But rather than go over all of the arguments that have been made before about why Silence of the Lambs belongs in the horror genre, I’m going to take a slightly different track on this.
1980’s Friday the 13th is a horror film. Under the larger umbrella of the horror genre, it falls under the ‘Slasher’ category. No one ever disputes this. As a matter of fact, if you stood up in a room of film fans of any stripe and started insisting that Friday the 13th was not a horror film, the odds are good that everyone else in the room would treat you like the village idiot. The same can be said to a large degree for 1974’s Black Christmas. But the funny thing is, both of those films share things in common with Silence of the Lambs.
In both Friday the 13th and Black Christmas we ultimately see killers who are not supernatural entities but are instead mentally deranged individuals. They’re not ghosts or monsters or the result of an ancient curse. They are people who are mentally unwell (to say the least) and they act out in homicidal ways.
Moreover, the lion’s share of the stories focus not on the characters that are deemed the threats of the stories, but rather on everyone else. To greater or lesser degrees (depending on which of the two films you cite) you even get some police procedural in the mix. As a matter of fact, if you look closely at Friday the 13th and how it’s constructed, you’re not that far away from an Agatha Christie story where a bunch of people go someplace nice for the weekend and one by one are picked off by a killer until the big reveal of the killer’s identity at the end. Tone down the gore, nudity, and profanity that was allowed by an R rated motion picture vs what was allowable on television back then and it could have easily been retooled as a summer murder mystery film for one of the major three networks.
But it’s absolutely and almost universally inarguably considered a horror film by most people in and outside of horror fandom. You can find few people who will even bother to try to dispute its place in the horror genre. Why? Is it maybe because it wasn’t embraced by the mainstream?
Friday the 13th was successful enough when it came to the audiences, becoming the 18th highest-grossing film that year. But what about the critics? Outside of the Fangoria crew and other genre critics, it wasn’t always that well received.
The film was nominated twice at the 1981 Golden Raspberry Awards for the categories of Worst Picture and Worst Supporting Actress for Betsy Palmer. Three of the biggest mainstream critics of the time ripped it to shreds. Leonard Maltin derided it as a bomb and gave it one star. Siskel and Ebert devoted an entire show to trashing the film and other like it, and Siskel declared director Sean Cunningham to be a despicable creature who was infesting Hollywood rather than working there. He would go on to give out the address of the owner of Paramount as well as give out the name of Betsy Palmer’s hometown while encouraging viewers to send them mail that expressed their disdain for the film. Varity also got in on the act, savaging the film and declaring that there was no discernable talent involved in the making of it.
In other words, it was not seen as a good film by the mainstream nor embraced by those who declare such things as noble and worthy creations of art. Black Christmas failed to be embraced by many of those types as well.
But could it really just be that? Could it really be that the mindset of not only those outside of genre but some inside it as well has become one of seeing films deemed as “worthy” and of merit not being able to be called actual horror films? Has it really become an issue of even some horror fans deciding that under no circumstances should a film be sullied by the horror label if it gets such recognition?
I really wasn’t sure why some horror fans seemed so adamant about denying the horror film status of some films before now and certainly wasn’t sure that was a big part of the reason for it. After all, many in horror fandom have wanted to see some big horror films come along and get recognition. Certainly, we’ve said for years that an artist like Guillermo del Toro deserved his due and then some. But, apparently, not everyone saying it meant it in quite the way others of us did.
In the last year, we’ve seen some very interesting things happen with theatrically released horror films. Stephen King's It became a success beyond what anyone thought it would be. By the year’s end, It became the 7th highest grossing film of the year. The film outperformed by some fair amount films that were originally predicted to be bigger box office draws by industry experts who were looking at the year to come back at the end of 2016. Hell, even genre fans might have been surprised by its performance. I know more than a few people who would never have predicted It doing better than Justice League or a Marvel film.
Then something funny happened as It became a box office smash. Despite the novel having long been considered a horror classic and the original adaptation having long been considered a part of the horror genre; there began faint rumblings by some about how It wasn’t a horror movie. What was funnier was seeing some of those same people declaring that they loved horror while explaining that It wasn’t a horror film. Oh, sure, it had some horror trappings mixed in here and there, but they were really just window dressing. It was so successful because it was really a small town America coming of age story. The film drew people in because of that aspect of the story and the horror was just like dessert after a meal but by no means the main course.
But, as I said, the rumblings on that score were relatively faint. It was a bit difficult for those who wanted to deny horror a mainstream success embraced by audiences and critics alike when the story had a 31-year history of being embraced as a horror story by genre fans and the mainstream alike. But those who wished to do so didn’t have long to wait to try again.
Get Out and The Shape of Water have a few things in common. Both were discussed as upcoming horror films being greatly looked forward to by genre fans well before their release. Both were getting a lot of positive buzz in the horror community just before their release. Both were embraced by horror fans as great horror films when they finally hit theaters. Both were discussed by horror fans as the types of films that deserved broader recognition due to their quality.
Then both films started getting that broader recognition. That’s when both films suddenly had more voices from both inside and outside of horror fandom patiently explaining to anyone who would listen that these high quality films, while good and deserving of getting their due, weren’t actually horror films.
It was an interesting thing to see. Both Get Out and The Shape of Water went from horror films to something else more and more with each passing bit of mainstream recognition and then award nominations. Now, I expected that from those outside of the greater horror fandom, but it was surprising to see how many in fandom seemed to want to disavow the horror roots of these films the minute they started becoming darlings of the mainstream. It was as if this one fellow’s mindset of declaring how he knew the genre to be crap in order to still be one of the cool kids was one held by far more members of horror fandom than I might have previously thought.
It’s an interesting thing to see. It’s not unlike what’s been seen with followers of underground or obscure musical acts. Something is the best of its kind when it’s still underground or obscure, but the moment it breaks big- even if the act hasn’t changed a thing about its sound -it’s suddenly abandoned by a segment of that music crowd. Pop culture success equals mainstream and mainstream equals shit and thus the new music by the band is automatically inferior and no longer worth following.
But where this deviates from how this seems to happen in horror fandom is in how there’s an old vs new mentality with music. These types of music fans will still hold up the original works of the band as being the only really worthy works even as they shun the newer works because there is a line- usually a particular album -in between obscure favorite and mainstream success. With these types of horror fans, there is no such line. It’s literally the same movie going from horror to not horror in their minds.
It’s a mindset of saying that since it’s successful and even seen as worthy of recognition and reward by the mainstream than it must be too good to still be horror. Horror is allowed to be trashy, disposable entertainment. But if it’s not? Well, then it just can’t really be horror anymore. But at least horror fans aren’t the only ones who have factions that hate or disparage their own fandom like this.
In late January, the word came out that Logan managed to pull off something no other superhero film before it has done. It was announced on the 23rd that the 2017 swansong story for the character landed an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. This set off discussions about this somewhat monumental feat on any number of genre boards across the internet. What was funny (or sad) was seeing how many members of such boards and groups rushed to explain- rather than cheer the fact that a well-made superhero film nabbed such a nod –how Logan wasn’t really a superhero film or at least wasn’t a superhero film in any significant way.
I have to say, I love the one person’s comment about how District 9 blurred the lines between science fiction and political drama as if it hasn’t been long established that things could be both. It makes you wonder just how much science fiction this person has actually bothered to read or watch other than District 9. In all my years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of science fiction, and, going back well before I was even born, a lot of the good science fiction out there incorporated elements of drama based on real world political or social issues given a (sometimes very transparent) sci-fi disguise. Anyhow…
That’s just a small sampling. I could have pulled hundreds of such comments from dozens of conversations on the topic and from boards filled with genre fans.
I particularly like the lines of argument how, well, you know, if you’d just take out all of the superhero stuff from the film you’d realize you have a western or a sci-fi, so it’s not really a superhero film. Yeah… And if you took all of the superhero stuff out of Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Ant-Man you’d have a war film, a spy/espionage thriller, and a heist flick rather than three superhero films. Additionally, if you take all of the supernatural elements out of The Exorcist you have a tragic story about a mentally disturbed child and two con men taking advantage of the family rather than helping them get the child the help she needs.
But, you know what? Those alternate takes weren’t the films that were released into theaters. The Exorcist had the supernatural elements in it when it was released, and Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and Logan all had very prominent superhero elements in them. Logan was even flat out a comic book story based superhero film. Are there aspects of Logan that can be said to have been pulled from other genres? Can the story be reshaped and retooled just a little bit to make it a film that’s entirely of another genre? Well, yeah, but you can say that about a small ton of films from damned near any genre.
What’s interesting here is seeing how fast people claiming to be fans of the genre are willing to throw the genre under the bus at exactly the time they shouldn’t. But, as is apparently the case with some horror fans, they seem to want to believe that a superhero film that’s given the recognition and praise of the kind Logan has been given is suddenly too good of a film to be a superhero film. They will even take up the argument that “real” superhero films are basically just enjoyable, disposable crap, but any film that rises above that level transcends and then leaves the genre to become something you can’t really call a superhero film anymore.
That’s nonsense. That’s absolute and utter nonsense. Not only is it nonsense when talking about the stories shown in the movies, but it’s nonsense when talking about the stories that can be told in the medium that made the superheroes famous. There have been stories told in comic book form and using superheroes that have been deep, complex, and compelling works of fiction. There have been stories told in comic book form and using superheroes that have touched on the human condition and told stories that can reach deep inside a reader. There have been stories told in comic book form and using superheroes that have been true epics. Some have even reached the level of being modern classic mythology.
But if you say anything even close to that about what stories can be told with superheroes in these discussions?
That was posted by someone who kept insisting they were a fan of the genre, but their view of being a fan was in line with the view of the screen capped horror fan I posted earlier. Sure, the superhero genre is likable, but don’t mistake its likability for it actually having the ability to be any good. I look at fans like this and just shake my head at what comes across as an odd form of self-hatred. I don’t know any way to describe it other than an odd form of self-hatred, because that’s how it comes across.
What would you call it? These people claim- legitimately and not as trolls –that they’re fans of a genre, but they refuse to acknowledge or allow the idea that the fandom they claim to love and be a part of has the ability to be more than enjoyable, disposable crap. What would you call it when someone claims they love a genre and are a part of that fandom, but the moment a film gets wider mainstream recognition for quality starts to explain how that film isn’t really part of the genre and is just too good to be sullied by being seen as a part of that genre?
Silence of the Lambs is a horror film.
Get Out is a horror film.
The Shape of Water is a horror film.
Logan is a superhero film.
Yes, they all still play with the trappings and tropes of other genres and, yes, they all may be standing in more than one genre besides the genre that birthed them creatively. Yes, you can label them as both X, and Y genres and sometimes even as Z genre as well and be equally right with each label. That just makes them very much like so many other films over the decades in so many other genres.
If you are a horror fan or a superhero fan, you should be the last person to want to deny films like these a place in the genre you claim to love. You certainly shouldn’t do it with the argument that is being frequently put on display in more and more of these discussions as it creates false limitations on the genres.
The arguments some put forward not only disparage the genres they claim to love, but they express a form of hatred towards them. You would have to hate them to want them to be so limited. Some of the arguments around Logan put forward cite (in a rather negative manner) the most broad-brush stereotypes of superhero storytelling, cite the fact that Logan has little or none of this, and thus proclaim that Logan is therefore not really a superhero film while saying it rises above such things and gets into real human drama and emotion. You’ll find similar arguments as to why some horror films aren’t actually horror films. The reality isn’t that these films transcend the genres or are only nominally of their genres. The reality is the genres are quite capable of being the homes of films of higher quality just as they are capable of being the homes to entertaining but forgettable films.
It really does come across as if some self-proclaimed fans are still embarrassed by the labels that come with their genres. It’s also something you rarely (if ever) see with many fans in other genres. I’ve yet to meet the western fan who claims that Old Surehand is a western, but an Oscar winner like Unforgiven is just too good to be a western and transcends the genre. I‘ve never seen a fan of sports films declare that Necessary Roughness is just poor enough quality to be considered a film of the genre, but an Oscar winner like Rocky is too good for the genre. I’ve never seen a fan of mysteries declare that 1965’s The Alphabet Murders is just pedestrian enough to stay in the genre, but Oscar nominated films like Double Indemnity and Anatomy of a Murder were just too well written and directed to belong in the mystery genre.
However, I run into self-proclaimed fans of the horror and superhero genres who act so self-conscious and embarrassed about the genres they love that they can’t wait to disown almost anything from the genres deemed good enough by the mainstream to be given their deserved due. Some of them act so embarrassed about admitting to the wider world they love these genres that they seem to feel the need to excuse their love of them by putting them down and, well, being this jackass.
Stop it. Seriously, knock it off.
Stop it. If you’re a fan, be proud of it and be proud of what your genre can do with the storytelling tools available to it. If a film from the genres we all love makes a big splash in the mainstream, we welcome them to the fold even if only temporarily. We don’t point to the film that’s getting mainstream recognition and reward, explain that we like it too, and declare that liking such a film and seeing it as well crafted, quality entertainment is totally acceptable because it’s actually one of their films and not really one of ours.
Seriously, knock it off. I grew up during a time when fans of genre were ridiculed for being fans of genre. Outside of a few properties that broke the pop culture glass ceiling and were deemed “acceptable” to like by the mainstream, people who really dug various genre properties were considered the geeks, the dorks, and the nerds and put down for it. Well, the cracks in that glass ceiling became big holes a long time ago now, and mainstream pop culture has been becoming more and more like the smaller, isolated genre cultures of old. More and more with each passing year, they- including the people our age who used to be the ones ridiculing us and others for liking what we have always liked –are coming to us and our genre entertainment for their mainstream pop culture entertainment.
Way back when, when it came to the genre stuff I liked, I refused to be embarrassed about what I liked or to hide my love of it. I refused to play the game of going along with pretending just the big properties that went mainstream were acceptable to like and were better than the genre as a whole while pretending all the other stuff was just so far beneath those properties as to be ridiculed or be treated as entertainment for idiots. I’m damned sure not going to do that now when the same people that used to ridicule the works of our favorite genres are making them the biggest hits of the year and while still other works are being recognized for award nominations if not actual wins due to the high quality of the material.
No one else should either. These films and so many other like them are absolutely films that blend multiple genres in the telling of their stories. However, these films also absolutely belong to our favorite genres. These films and others like them are absolutely superhero films, horror films, science fiction films, dark fantasy films, etc. This does not change just because they’re of high quality or because they’re recognized by the mainstream as being works of high quality.
These are our films from the genres we love and they happen to be amazingly good and worthy of praise and award even to the muggles in the mainstream. Be proud of that fact.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.