In a recent polemic editorial by film critic Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, he makes abundantly clear his feelings about modern horror and why it is “not entertainment.”
He claims the deaths of George Romero and Tobe Hooper got him to thinking about why he feels this way. That coupled with the recent box office support of the genre has him second-guessing his personal beliefs and why critics are applauding “horror movies over “Oscar-type heavyweights.”
Holy Siskel and Ebert all over again!
First, let me address the Oscar “heavyweights” criticisms and how they awkwardly fit into his proclamation. The highest grossing film of all time and a multi-Oscar winner too happens to be a horror movie.
Unless you Google it, I won’t give the title away until the end, but here is a synopsis:
Bear with me here, a young woman must endure, on her own, a hateful horde who not only kill thousands but invade her home terrorizing her family, burning down her entire city in the process. Oh wait, there’s more; under the surface, our heroine is also guilty of human exploitation based on her own privilege.
Here’s another “non-horror’ Oscar winner: an indestructible vessel carrying thousands crashes because of human error, leaving passengers to select who will be saved and who won’t. In the end, 1,517 people would die horrifically in various ways including drowning, hypothermia or falling into huge rotating blades.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the first movie is Gone With the Wind, and the second is James Cameron’s Titanic. By the way, Titanic is the second biggest Oscar winner of all time.
You can accuse me of manipulating the themes of the above films to fit my own needs. But honestly, these storylines, situations, and conflicts are formulaic in today’s “horror” films: people are put in horrific situations, they must survive and in the end, almost everyone dies. But tag a glossy romance at the beginning middle and end and you have an Academy Award winner.
I don’t know what Turan’s critiques of these movies are, but claiming that his ilk is embracing horror films lately over Oscar contenders blurs a fine-line between what is horror in one’s opinion and what is not in another’s.
He quotes Nick Pinkerton, “’The genre film isn’t just competing with the prestige film for accolades now, but is actually becoming the prestige film.'”
“Now” being the key word in that statement I guess, for whatever reason, modern times are recognized as a turning point in the genre whereas “classics” aren’t.
But to be fair Turan does say he was enamored with Lon Chaney’s silent “Phantom,” and producer David F. Friedman (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!). And he even gave a positive review to Night of the Living Dead when he saw it, saying “’so completely in its grip,” he wrote, “that it’s shocking to walk out of the theatre and discover people walking around as if nothing special had happened.’”
“’You get what you pay for in The Night of the Living Dead, a horror film that has the power to literally horrify. How sweet it is.’”
Little does the critic know, that is exactly what horror fans want to come away with when they watch a film today.
But he says it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) that changed his mind. Tobe Hooper’s classic low-budget film was “going for the jugular,” and since then filmmakers in the genre are taking “a sadistic approach to their work.”
He even quotes a British Board of Film Classification obit of Hopper whose film was the beginning of “the pornography of terror,” of which he now claims to understand.
I am not sure if “pornography” is being used in a stylized definition or not since it means to stimulate someone sexually by displaying sexual organs in an erotic way. I believe “Titanic” had more nudity that “Texas Chainsaw,” but I get the essence of what he means.
Turning that finger toward displays of visceral carnage is a valid point. But again, I must also remind Mr. Turan that his praised Night of the Living Dead had more gore than Texas Chainsaw (1974) and Carpenter’s Halloween combined.
It was 1980’s Friday the 13th that changed all of that thanks to the meticulous work of Tom Savini, thus inspiring closeted make-up effects boys and girls to keep playing with fake blood and Silly Putty to hone their dreams
Turan says that these images get to him as a critic on a personal level, he is empathetic to the plights of the characters “…I am strongly susceptible, even vulnerable, to the images on the screen; they go in deep with me.”
He is uncomfortable with the images of these films, “they scare me too much in the middle of the night, and I don’t enjoy the sensation.”
Mr. Turan, we get it. Yes, we do. We as fans are not entirely comfortable with those feelings ourselves, but it is that feeling we crave. We know it’s not real. Let me emphasize the point again, we know it’s NOT real! In fact, I don’t think any adult who goes to the movies thinks what they are seeing is real, but a good one can make you forget for 90 minutes that it isn’t.
Horror fans don’t leave the theater discussing the current state of violence in the real world and how Jigsaw accurately depicted the effects of an Iron Maiden. Give us a little credit.
The discussion about special effects is a part of what we talk about as we exit, but more importantly, we try to find the correlation between the gore and the message. “Jigsaw” for example explores how far humans will go to save themselves from dying, especially if you have committed a crime yourself and gone unpunished. The traps are symbols of retribution, the satisfaction of seeing someone held accountable for their crimes. It’s an extreme way to do things, but it’s cool to look at. Just like Cameron’s giant ship sinking beneath the waves sucking down living passengers in its wake.
Every horror movie ever made is an exploration into what we fear and how we react. Our protagonists are faced with same situations most non-genre heroes encounter. But we go a step further and make the Nazis and Streep pay for her decision in “Sophie’s Choice,” rather than allow them to take the easy way out. We too are empathetic at what she did at the hands of things beyond her control, but in some way, her end feels too cowardly. “Jigsaw” takes those same conflicts and says, “make your choice,” and it’s about as evil as the Nazi’s game, but nevertheless creates a discussion, in the same way the Oscar-winner does.
Whether placing an Oscar before the title makes it more entertaining or reverant remains to be seen because horror movies rarely get that opportunity to contend in the main categories, but do reap accolades in others, i.e special effects, the lifeblood of a horror film. Thanks, Friday the 13th for starting that in the modern genre and An American Werewolf in London for winning.
In the end, Turan says, “For some people, presumably, watching horror serves as a roller coaster-type distraction from that reality, a challenge to be mastered and survived like eating the Japanese delicacy fugu, a fish that might kill you if your luck isn’t good.”
Mr. Turan in the words of the one-sheet for Craven classic Last House on the Left, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a move” keep repeating that.
Admitting that age may play a part in his disdain for the genre is an honest answer on Turan’s part. Yes, I too am guilty of passing judgment on things which have changed over time. Hip-hop music to me today just sounds like a string of blatant sexual misogyny and violence, but I also, as a critic, look at its musical composition, that beat which gets my feet to tapping or my fingers snapping. From there I move outward realizing that if there is quality to one aspect of the song, chances are there is some genius at work. .
I guess that’s the entertaining part. Being able to appreciate the different components to the medium even if I don’t agree with some of its parts.The entertainment is in the deconstruction of not only the model but every detail that glues it into place.
Turan says, “No hard feelings for the creators, no problem with the fans; for me, I just need to stay away. Far, far away.”
That is a sad statement, a limiting one I think. Look, IT isn’t about a scary clown killing kids. It’s not. It’s about a band of misfits coming together, not allowing their fears to control them and ultimately using that power to defeat evil. The jump scares and torn limbs are there as fat: A satisfying jolt of feelings we often suppress in the real world, but in the dark, among others, it’s finally okay. And after that, we laugh, not because the premise is silly, but because we “get” the joke.
We go to the movies for one thing and one thing only: Ironically in contrast to Mr. Turan’s opinions about horror, to be entertained.
If a movie carries with it a message, is able to tap into our fears using graphic make-up effects or good old-fashioned tension; is able to jolt us out of the real horrors of the world and make us laugh for whatever reason. If these criteria are met, I think the horror film deserves the accolades.
Emotions and discomfort are a part of the game, without those we would be looking at a blank screen. Horror definitely addresses both of those things and some do it very well.
And that as they say, is entertainment, and as God is our witness, our bloody hearts will go on and on.