I’ve been doing a sort of movie scavenger hunt the past month called HoopTober, which has several "quick easy" rules; different categories and directors and such that you have to find horror films to fit into. The event is named after Tobe Hooper, probably most well known as director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but also the nominal director of Poltergeist, and the director of one of my (non-)guilty pleasures, Lifeforce, a.k.a. “Space Vampires.”
As I've made my way through the month of horror movies, I've been disappointed to find myself enjoying far fewer movies than I didn't. So, I've been trying to sort out what it is that I like about horror. I feel like most of the stuff is a hyphenate. Comedy-horror, sci-fi-horror, adventure-horror (Is that a thing? I think it is.). Most of the good stuff has to have a sense of humor, even if it's not a comedy, per se. Monsters are great. Supernatural stuff is pretty good. But I don’t like slashers, people hurting each other, hunting people, torture porn.
I like stories that make sense, that have a solid internal logic. This is kinda like why I don’t like much of fantasy, where it likes to change its rules in mid-stream, because “magic”. Okay fine, magic works in your world, but it still has to have rules, right? Let's set some rules at the outset and stick with them. Same for any supernatural horror. You can't just give your monster (or protagonist) crazy new powers in the middle of the film without making me feel like they've earned it.
Out of my ★★★★★ rated horror films (there’s only 22 of them), what do I like? Let me try to figure this out.
- The Conjuring 2 is a straight up old fashioned ghost story and it scared the bejesus out of me, but even then it has a sense of humor, if a very subtle one.
- What Lies Beneath surprised me at the time with Harrison Ford playing against type, and I just like Zemeckis’ aesthetic in general. I might not rate it as high these days, and Crimson Peak is climbing up my list, so that's probably a good replacement. Either film is a ghost story that is beautiful and surprising; even touching.
- The Devil’s Backbone is another GDT ghost story, complex and surprising and touching. Sympathy for the monsters is a big thing in my horror love.
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one where I'm just drawn in by the beauty of it. Definitely a recurring factor.
- Let the Right One In is yet again beautiful, and one where you're made to have sympathy for the monsters.
Other Supernatural / Demon / Monsters
- The Mill at Calder’s End is a short film, made with intricate and beautiful puppets. It feels like a Poe short story, and maybe the historical drama aspect of it draws me in.
- The Descent is almost a slasher, but the creatures in the cave aren't really human so it feels more ok?
- Jaws is a monster alright, but it's getting to know the characters in the town, and more so, the characters in the boat, that make it such an incredible watch.
Most of these are monsters of some sort, but the comedy outshines the actual horror aspect of the film. If I can laugh at the monsters, or along with the protagonists, I'm usually on board.
- The Cabin in the Woods
- Shaun of the Dead
- Deep Rising
- Army of Darkness
- Alien is probably the first serious horror I ever saw, and getting to know the characters is again the thing that completely sells the concept here, even if they do get picked off one by one. Something that so many horror movies skip is getting you invested in the people that they're going to off later in the film. If I don't care about the people, I'm not going to care about what happens to them.
- Aliens is really a military film with sci-fi and horror aspects, but once again, it's the characters that sell everything.
- The Thing (1982) is one where I feel like I don't get to know the individual characters especially well, but the sci-fi concept is so good, and gives so many opportunities for inventive moments of suspense and body horror that I'd never imagined before, that it really takes a lot to top this for me.
I don't know, what is this?
- 28 Days Later is a movie that apparently I need to re-watch, because even thought I gave it five stars, I don't remember hardly anything about it.
- Psycho is the only slasher on my list. I often feel like the reason I watch horror is to get the chance for humans to come together and defeat an "other," and feel some sense of catharsis at the end. (This may not actually be true — please see every other note for films in this list.) Pitting human against human in a film just makes me feel worse about the whole human race. Somehow, Psycho is an exception, again, mainly because we get such a good chance to know the characters, and it's not just a bunch of people we don't care about getting offed one-by-one for no discernible reason (hello, Friday the 13th).
So, looking back at these notes about why I liked each one, it seems like the real reason is they're well-made films that I would like if they were any other genre. Good characters, beautiful sets and costumes, deep stories with sympathetic villains. It seems like a lot of horror fans forgive a lot in a flick if it has a good dash of gore or something else salacious, but I guess I am not so forgiving.