There is a lot of talk about horror movies in the non-horror-movie-watching community. Many of its films are simply kept at a respectful distance, non-horror fans politely avoiding them on the basis that they just do not see the attraction in voluntarily frightening the life out of oneself. But over the last ten years or so, certain types of film have gained a different sort of notoriety among non-horror audiences. These are, of course, those films whose content is noticeably extreme; films such as The Hills Have Eyes, Saw, Hostel and various remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are among the most obvious titles. Aversion to the graphically bloody, the excessively violent and to the dependence on worryingly disturbing storylines has grown, with concerns that such movies are losing regard for the boundaries of decency echoing frequently through the film world. The advent of horribly descriptive terms such as ‘torture porn’ hasn’t exactly helped, either.
But there seem to be two things to say about this. Firstly, it is a complete misconception that gratuitous gore and violence is new to horror films– a quick whistle-stop tour of the last sixty years of the genre with which to verify a few details on this left me wanting to wash my own eyeballs. Also, gore features in many other areas of film without causing the sort of reaction that it is designed to have in the horror genre. The finale of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained rivals The Shining for the most amount of blood ever seen in a hallway, yet Django is not a horror film.
Somewhat unavoidably referencing another Tarantino non-horror, the House of Blue Leaves battle scene in Kill Bill appears in black and white, meaning that the astonishing level of blood shed is to some extent disguised (Tarantino’s actual reason for including black and white sections in Kill Bill was to pay homage to the method of censoring Japanese martial arts films that were screened in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, but the point about the volume of blood still stands – over 450 gallons worth of point, to be precise).
Natural Born Killers was also shockingly grisly but again, this is not counted as a horror film. Most people could have probably made a pretty passable attempt at a human anatomy exam after seeing the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan but this is an entirely different genre, again. Clearly then, horror movies can’t be dismissed on the basis of having an exclusive monopoly on the sickening and the disgusting, right?
This leads neatly into the second point, which is that some of history’s all-time most frightening films actually contain very little that is visually graphic: Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist and Psycho are among the most obvious examples here. The sorts of gore-fest that tend to cause the most offense are not generally the ones that have achieved the most lasting and recognized ability to provoke horror. What all this seems to suggest is that there are in fact two distinct things that are important to horror movies – and that this is clearly recognized by both horror fans and non-horror fans alike. At their very basis, these two things could be defined as that which we don’t see, and that which we do.
But given that its nature is to include some of the most extreme concepts in cinema, the horror genre also has a wonderful and complex ability to flirt with the boundaries of what it can cover; the funny and the serious, the real and the supernatural, the ridiculous and the realistic – every aspect of the human experience from life to death seems to feature in here somewhere at some point.
On closer inspection then, it turns out that we might even be able to see a sort of spectrum that spans between those two basic points – a sort of scale on which horror films of whatever type, nature or level of success will have a justified place. What follows here is a brief experimental journey along that spectrum, beginning with those films that depend on keeping much unseen and moving the whole way along through to those films whose intention is to show as much as (in)humanly possible. Being as wide and as diverse as the field of horror is, it is with enormous reluctance that so many titles have had to be left out. But the hope is to have covered at least a couple of decent representatives from every area of this most weird, clever, daft, distressing and ultimately versatile of all movie genres.
Strap in, folks, this is a long one…