Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

What is a horror film?

The question is prompted by the arrival of Ben Wheatley’s genuinely extraordinary Kill List. As Ms Brady explains in today’s Ticket, the picture is unquestionably one of the best of the year. Beginning in Mike Leigh territory, it steadily drifts …

Fri, Sep 2, 2011, 22:52

   

The question is prompted by the arrival of Ben Wheatley’s genuinely extraordinary Kill List. As Ms Brady explains in today’s Ticket, the picture is unquestionably one of the best of the year. Beginning in Mike Leigh territory, it steadily drifts into extreme violence, unsettling conspiracies and, eventually — we can be no more precise — somewhere very strange indeed. Here’s the thing. Is it a horror film? Well, the people at Bloody Disgusting reviewed it. So I guess it must be. On the other hand, the quotes on the poster (see above) cautiously refer to it as a “chiller”, a “thriller” and a “hit-man movie”. To analyse Kill List any further would be to risk giving too much away. Let’s just say that it feels like a horror film — you’ll jump at the twists; you’ll vomit at the quite staggering violence — and leave it at that.

So, anyway, to get back to the more general question. How do we know a horror film when we see one? Let’s not pretend we don’t head to Wikipedia in such situations. The opening paragraph in the relevant (pretty well written) article offers the following definition:

“Horror films are unsettling movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, disgust and horror from viewers. They often feature scenes that startle the viewer through the means of macabre and the supernatural, thus frequently overlapping with the fantasy and science fiction genres. Horrors also frequently overlap with the thriller genre.”

The opening sentence is certainly indisputable. You’d have to work very hard to unearth a horror film that didn’t dally in fear, disgust and (d’uh!) horror. But you can find the same things in the films of Ingmar Bergman or Michael Haneke. Just think of Ms I Huppert hacking away at her private bits in the latter’s The Piano Teacher. Actually, don’t.

The second, highly qualified sentence does seem significant here. “They often feature scenes that startle the viewer through the means of macabre and the supernatural.” I would argue that to count as a horror film a picture should appear to feature elements of the supernatural or the macabre. My italics are significant. Cast your eyes across the great horror films that preceded the blood-drenched silver period of the mid-1970s and virtually all (we’ll come back to that qualification) feature elements that satisfy the criterion. Dracula, The Wolfman, I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, Rosemary’s Baby: perversions of nature abound in each of those classics.

What of Psycho? Well, that’s obviously not  horror film. There are elements of horror in it. But the film is, for most of its duration, an exercise in sustained tension. Heck, nobody gets stabbed until halfway into the movie. The real problem arrives with the slasher boom of the mid-1970s. Surely, a film about a guy killing promiscuous teenagers with a carving knife can’t be called a horror film. Look, here. That’s just a bloke with a chainsaw. There are no actual monsters, for God’s sake. Hold your horses there, imaginary sceptic. The very invincibility of Michael Myers, Jason and Leatherface nudges them into the pseudo-supernatural. Consider the end of Halloween. Donald Pleasence looks at the space where Myers should be, but is not. “It was the boogieman,” Jamie Lee Curtis  suggests. “As a matter of fact it was,” the world’s second-greatest bald Donald replies. See? See? My definition holds up. The slasher-movie villain is, for all intents and purposes, every bit as “supernatural” as a vampire, a werewolf or a cat person.

Of course, you can find exceptions. What about the Wicker Man? Well, if you will allow me the stretch, the film still hangs around supernatural matters. The cult very clearly believe in the existence of otherworldly powers and are prepared to kill to satisfy those entities. The supernatural hangs over that great picture.

Thinking about it (now we get to that earlier raised eyebrow), the problem in definition really concerns that bit of the Venn diagram where science fiction crosses over with horror. If asked to list five horror films (does anybody else really like Pointless?) a large number of random persons would nominate Frankenstein. Yet, by any sane definition, all versions of that Mary Shelley novel count as science fiction flicks. Good Lord, this really could go on all night.

Look, just go and see Kill List. Okay?  Since you didn’t ask, Ben does not appear to be any relation of the earlier Mr Wheatley.

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