Scream Theory: What Makes a Horror Movie a Horror Movie?
A Days before Halloween, the @NetflixFilm Twitter account made an appeal, “Which movie is technically not a horror movie but looks like a horror movie to you?” Included was a photo of a bizarre-eyed Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Twitter being Twitter, some of the responses were reversed, like It’s a wonderful life and Cats. But there were also some big hitters like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Parasite. Children’s films, including Pinocchio and Bambi, made the cut. It shows that horror is what scares you, not me.
Horror has always been an elastic and refreshing genre. It draws inspiration from and mixes with all types of cinema: comedy, science fiction, action, romance, fantasy, documentary. Its flexibility dates back as far as the monstrous love story in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and as current as the bloody melodrama of Smart.
But how do you know if you are watching a horror movie when there is no killer or monster, exorcism or blood? It’s a decades-old question that arises about new movies that blur the line between a horror movie and a horror movie. horror movie.
Among them are Humans, Stephen Karam’s dark, comedic family drama set over a Thanksgiving dinner; The lost girl, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s next eerie character study of a college professor at a Greek beach resort who becomes obsessed with another vacationer and her daughter; and maybe unexpectedly, Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s speculative and dreamlike psychodrama about Princess Diana.
The film follows an unstable Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) as she spends a Christmas vacation on the precipice of madness that may not be real. In his review for The New York Times, AO Scott called it a Christmas movie, a psychological thriller, a romance, and “a horror film about a fragile woman held captive in a spooky mansion, tormented by sadistic monsters and their treacherous servants.”
Read the reviews and these movies sound like Shudder originals. In The temperature, critic Jeannette Catsoulis used the words “monstrous”, “desperate”, “strange” and “sinister” to describe Humans, concluding that the family was stuck in a haunted house. IndieWire said the drama “blurs the line between Chekhov and Polansky – Broadway and Blumhouse” and is “the first true horror film on 9/11”. (Two of the family members were at Ground Zero that morning.) The Guardian noted The lost girl tells the story of a woman who “haunts the station like a ghost while other ghosts haunt her”.
For some directors, putting the word “horror” anywhere near a film that they do not consider to be a horror film would be a mistake or a provocation. Not Karam. He was fascinated by horror films as a child in Scranton, Pennsylvania; his gateway drug was Disney’s ghost story The lookout in the woods (1980), with Bette Davis as the owner of an English mansion who mourns her missing daughter.
Now 42, Karam remains an avid horror fan, citing Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski as inspirations for Humans, which he directed and adapted for screen from his 2016 Tony award-winning play. Karam takes pride in the horror elements of the film as they help viewers visualize “how people conquer or deal with their fears in a scary story ”.
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“It’s important for me to think of a movie, a play, or any story that I tell as having a strong, confident personality,” Karam said in a video interview. “I’m not wondering if this is a horror movie or a family drama, because the definitions can upset people who take ownership of what a horror movie is. “
Humans takes place in a better days duplex newly occupied by Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). The working parents of Brigid, Erik and Deirdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) come from Scranton; and Momo, the mother of Erik (June Squibb), who suffers from dementia. Brigid’s sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), who lives in Philadelphia and has just broken up with her girlfriend, also joins her.
At the family table, there’s good-natured turkey and baby back ribs, but also tough conversations about work, love, and depression. It’s a family filled with love, but also resentment and sorrow. Typical Thanksgiving dramatic stuff.
But from the start there is a feeling of unease, as if something terrible is on the way. Parts of the walls ooze and bubble with pustules like growths on a David Cronenberg mutant. There are weird portraits of scary people, like the art of a possessed castle in a Hammer movie. Frightening jumps, loud sounds, darkness, stillness: they are all thrilling. Horror movie stuff.
So what style and form in Hollywood slasher movie. Horror movies, he said, tell audiences “to be uncomfortable, unstable and disturbed.”
Sometimes all it takes is an antagonist or a terrifying mood, not an entire movie. Think of Robert Mitchum as a villainous preacher in the nightmarish fairy tale the hunter’s night (1955), Faye Dunaway as Toxic Joan Crawford in the Dark Camp Dear Mum (1981) or Robert De Niro as a time bomb Travis Bickle in Taxi driver (1976).
Are they horror movies? Not enough. Are they scary? You bet.
“In each of these movies there are moments, scenes and sequences that are so precisely and skillfully designed to make us feel unsettled, horrified and scared,” Clayton said. “We are forced to feel this even though there is nothing obvious onscreen, or as far as we know offscreen, to be afraid.”
What else is scary Humans and Spencer? They both take place during the winter holidays. Andrew Scahill, assistant professor of film at the University of Colorado, Denver, says it’s no coincidence: For many people, shameful family reunions and year-end evaluations are terrifying. It’s no wonder that in his Christmas cinema class he includes both the wellness musical White christmas (1954) and the heartbreaking proto-slasher Black christmas (1974).
“Some genres are more elastic than others,” says Scahill, author of The revolting child in the horror cinema. “A mystery is to surprise your audience. A romantic comedy wants to meet all expectations and not violate the gender contract. Horror forces itself to continue to innovate.
This conversation about definitions will continue, and that’s a good thing, as young filmmakers take horror in unexpected directions and forge new, shape-shifting films. When Scream (1996), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Get out (2017) each made waves, they said: It’s time for a jerk.
Another reason this discussion is going nowhere is that the old debates still have legs. Look at what happened earlier this year when writer Elle Hunt tweeted: “Horror cannot be defined in space”, and horror fans got all kinds of pissed off, responding with examples like Extraterrestrial (1979) and Jason x (2001).
“Horror,” writer Cory McCullough tweeted, “can be anything.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times