Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Man, I hated this movie.

I'm not a big fan of torture porn in general, and when I heard that Otis was a black comedy take on the sub-genre I was excited to see it. Torture porn, for all its peccadilloes, has a lot of tropes that could be mined for laughs if done by someone halfway clever. In addition, the big fishies in the internet horror fan scene sang this movie's praises.

Otis commits the most unpardonable crime a black comedy can commit: it's vile without being particularly funny.

I guess that the sense of humor is supposed to come from the bickering, dysfunctional family who loses their daughter to the pizza-delivering maniac. I think we're supposed to be amused by the domineering mother, the milquetoast father, the sleazy teenaged son, and the heartless Fed assigned to the case.

I really hated the family. I hated spending time with them. I hated the fact that someone thought it was funny to name a family of idiot vigilantes the Lawsons. I hated the fact that we're supposed to find it amusing that they torture Otis's asshole brother when five seconds of brainpower could have avoided this hilarious gaffe. Oh, the comedy that ensues! There were a few moments that rang clever, mostly the humorously vicious tone the media would use to describe Otis's actions, but occasional shock-funny moments don't really redeem the movie.

I think a big part of the problem I had with Otis was the schizophrenia of its intent. Watching the trailer, you get the sense that the movie is trying to be sold as a straight up, justifiable-revenge red state fantasy. Then the story goes on and you're told that it's a parable of misplaced vengeance and the consequences of unchecked fury masquerading as righteousness. But wait, isn't the victim a complete asshole? So isn't it kinda justified what they do to him? If so, why is the scene where they dispose of Elmo's corpse played (poorly) for laughs. The scenes where Otis and Riley are enacting scenes from his fantasies set against his shoddy backdrops have a strangely tender turn, as if the characters are forming genuine connections, but then they're jarred by shockingly graphic moments of sexual hostility.

There's the usual torture porn subtext of sexual violence against the female lead, but it's much more up front in this movie. When Otis starts pulling Riley deeper into his "Kim" fantasy, he keeps asking her how wet she is. When Riley shows resistance to playing along with Otis's fantasies, the threats become very sexual. When Riley finally escapes, her family fixates on the erroneous possibility that she was raped. While I get that sexualized violence is part and parcel with serial killer lore, and that Otis may only feel comfortable acting out his sexual drive in the context of his fantasy with a captured victim, it becomes a bit too much of the focus of the story for my taste.

Also, it's a fundamentally ugly movie. I get that Otis is a low budget film, but it's shot like a porn and it has that sleazy jazzy porn soundtrack. People have done much more with much less.

The one thing that held the movie together for me was Bostin Christopher's performance as Otis. I can't imagine this would be an easy role for an actor to take. Otis, as written, seems to require both innocent, bashful sorrow, and barely suppressed rage. Bostin has the right baby face for the role but he does a fantastic job imbuing Otis with a strange and genuinely sweet mix of pain and rage. I've seen a lot of torture porn films and the murderers tend to be portrayed as disembodied intellectuals or creatures of incandescent misanthropic fury. Otis, with his silly high school fantasy and crippling shyness, seems just as trapped in his cheap little dungeon as the poor girls he drags down with him. I like Bostin Christopher and I will keep an eye out for any future projects he gets involved in.

Generally speaking, I thought the performances were good. The actors simply aren't given enough to work with, particularly Jere Burns as unsympathetic FBI Special Agent Hotchkiss. Hotchkiss could have been a neat creation, a glib and heartless counterpoint to all those smooth feds we're used to seeing. Instead, the filmmakers turned the character completely insufferable, delivering smarmy lines while chewing gum in every fucking scene he's in.

Hated, hated, HATED this movie. Still, I'm now a Bostin Christopher fan. Check out his blog.

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Who, in the absence of any good horror flicks this season outside of Quarantine, will probably see Saw 5.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

House Trailer

Okay, I'm not easily weirded out, but a Christian horror movie?

There's always been a puritanical streak in horror stories that I've never been comfortable with, but that's an essay for another time. Alls I know is that certain elements of this trailer set off alarm bells. On the surface House looks like another goofy haunted house flick, but I did some research and found that both authors are heavily steeped in contemporary Christian literature and the movie will feature Christian heavy metal.

Alarm bells. Great, something else telling me I'm going to hell.

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Oh, man. I wanna be Alfred Hitchcock when I grow up.

Okay, writing a review of Psycho is an act not entirely dissimilar to reinventing the wheel. It's been decades since the movie terrified people out of their showers and a thousand commentaries have been written about the movie. Nothing I say, nothing I observe, hasn't been studied more thoroughly by wiser heads than mine. So alls I can do is tell you a story.

I met Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano when I was seventeen. I had just graduated high school and a bunch of friends and I decided to drive down to the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Pasadena, CA. There was a bunch of razzle dazzle around the various franchise horror flicks coming down the pipeline, and a bunch of odd fliers appeared about the disappearance of three amateur filmmakers in the woods outside of Burkittsville, MD, but somewhere lost in the commotion was an ill-attended appearance by the man who wrote Psycho.

I don't recall why I went to the panel or what burning question I had that compelled me to the podium, but I remember that sweet old face smiling down at me from the stage and saying "I think monsters should be beautiful."

Damn. I was very deeply affected by that. Even to this day that accidental little piece of poetry stays with me. The notion that the embodiments of our lusts and our terrors and our animal passions could hold a strange dark beauty was something I responded to. Obviously, I am not talking about the real monsters of the world, the sick and mean among us that go out and do real harm to real people. But those things we create, the stuff that affects us as deeply as a proper monster can, there is something genuinely seductive in that.

Anyway, Psycho. I assume you all know the history of the book, the case it was based on, and the ties to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's a lot of interesting background to the story but generally speaking horror movies play fast and loose with the stories they are inspired from. I would rather get into my views on the movie than go on about some nutjob from Wisconsin and the ways he decorated his house.

It drives me nuts when people call Psycho the first slasher movie. Yeah, a naked broad in a Bad Place gets done in through the gross misuse of kitchen cutlery But aside from a couple of frightening murders, it fundamentally doesn't feel like a slasher movie. Slasher movies, as I've come to understand the term, require the murderer to be a cipher. Norman is painfully, painfully human.

I like Norman Bates. Norman Bates breaks my heart. People tend to fixate on the justifiably famous shower murder, but my favorite scene in the movie is the parlor scene between Bates and the ill-fated Marion Crane. In the darkly shadowed room, trapped by his own obsessions, this lonely little weirdo shares his misery with the increasingly uneasy Marion. It's heartbreaking. Psycho came along before the serial killer archetype calcified into what we understand it to be. Norman Bates isn't a cold, calculating, misanthropic genius. He isn't even aware he's killing people. He's just deeply fucked up.

Psycho, in a weird way, is almost a ghost story. Norman's mother is, in a very real sense, haunting the Bates motel. The atmosphere of isolation and decay, the very tangible sense of claustrophobia and loneliness, and the looming, tombstone-like presence of the old house on the hill, all add a nearly supernatural air to the events that occur.

Then there's the shower scene.

There are three things that work really strongly for me. I like the fact that the violence happens so suddenly, that she's attacked with such brutal speed and viciousness in the sanctuary of the shower. I like the graceful way that Marion Crane slides down the wall, hand reaching out to us as if for help. Finally, I really like the slow pull away from the lifeless eye. It's a horrible image, and Hitchcock forces us to linger in on it in silence.

As for the rest of the movie, the discovery of the corpse in the Bates home still freaks the shit out of me. The big reveal of Mrs. Bates is still genuinely scary and Hitchcock forces us to linger on the image, this grotesque parody of life, poorly preserved and staring back at us with hollow eyes. It's a shocking image, especially considering the era this was filmed.

I don't really have a problem with the Psycho remake. I listen to cover bands, too. I even thought that Vince Vaughn did a pretty good job as Norman Bates. My big issue was the simple fact that he's physically too imposing for the role. Anthony Perkins had a more boyish look to him, which fit better with a character in arrested development. He's more unassuming, more innocent, and his final descent into madness becomes all the more chilling in his guiltless features.

I've always wondered about the final monologue, which comes as a chilling counterpoint to the false reassurance offered by the forensic psychologist. How deep was Norman into his own lunacy? How unaware was he of his mother's actions? Or was he even there at all, a hollow man from the start, his mother's skeletal smile superimposed over his features as the movie ends.


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Creature (who thinks Janet Leigh was quite a hottie in her day)

Let The Right One In

Sorry for the delay, y'all. I've been caught up in various wild and sexy activities, like the death of my computer and the coming war with my neighbor over their "Yes On Proposition 8" lawn sign.

I'm very excited about this one. I think horror is rooted in childhood fear and to do a horror movie with children protagonists that isn't campy or safe is a very exciting prospect. Plus, y'know, it's Swedish.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

A word on reviews

I created this blog to get involved in the discussions going around the webs, particularly the Final Girl Film Club.

I don't really have a lot of genre fans in my personal life. None of my friends or loved ones are brain-damaged enough to really love this stuff. Furthermore, I'm always the one guy in my group who, after leaving the movie, wants to pick apart the stupid thing. Everyone else is thinking about dinner and I'm griping/ranting/praising the thematic stuff going on within the story. Once I start going on, I can see my friend's eyes begin to glaze over.

So, I figured, I might as well put this junk on the interwebs, let those of you who want to engage in this sort of thing come and find me.

On my end, I'm going to do my best not to ape professional film reviewers. It's been my experience that a lot of cats who are doing this thing with me tend to follow the format laid down by the critics we grew up with. The critics are writing for people who are still deciding on whether or not they want to see a movie. I'm a special-interest blogger. I'm writing for people who've already seen it.

Which means no synopsis, unless I need one for whatever point I'm trying to make. There's not much point in me explaining what happens in Dawn of the Dead. You've seen it. That also means SPOILER ALERT!

I say that again. SPOILER ALERT! I get that you don't want your experience and appreciation of a work ruined by some mouthy idiot spilling secrets. I cover my ears and LaLaLAAAA whenever people start talking about Dexter. Consider yourselves warned.

Also, obviously, I'm not a professional film/book/vidjya game reviewer. I didn't study film or English or Vidjya Game History in college. I will probably miss a lot of the technique and craftsmanship that goes on behind a work. I can only discuss what resonated with me.

Finally, I'm gonna try not to review crap unless it's something that really demands my vitriol. We horror fans are a sad, sad bunch of people. Our interests pretty much require that we wade through an ocean of shit to find the rare diamonds. Frankly, life's too short to talk about every lousy thing that's out there.

Think that's it. I'm working on reviews of Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, and the novel Heart Shaped Box. Thanks for sticking around. If you got a unique point of view on something, chuck it into my Comments box. Like I said, I'm here for the discussion.

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Heart Shaped Box

Man, I didn't expect to be jumping into the reviews so early. I thought I had more essays to write, more nonsense to cheerfully babble into the ether, before I got down to the hard task of letting people know my opinions on stuff. But I had a weird week this week, and insomnia came part of the package. At sometime around 5:22AM this morning, I finally finished Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart Shaped Box and I got some thoughts on it I want to share.

I've been really excited about reading this one. It's probably no secret by now that Joe Hill is Stephen King's kid, and while it's not necessarily fair for me as a reader to be bringing expectations to his work based on my experiences as a Constant Reader of his father's books, I'm only human. King had a strong effect on me as a young teenager and I wanted to see what's been distilled into him, and what he's made his own.

By and large, Heart Shaped Box succeeds. Joe Hill's got game, and it's very much his own. Heart Shaped Box passed my two basic tests for genre work: Does it successfully create a strong atmosphere of dread and does the story/characterization stand on it's own without the horrific elements.

I found myself genuinely engaged with the leads. My general problem with most horror fiction is that the characterization tends to be painfully bland: Brooding But Capable Guy With A Dark Past, Plucky Yet Strangely Conservative Girl, Likeable First Victim, Irritating Complication Character The Villain Later Uses Against The Protagonists. Washed up heavy metal icon Judas Coyne, the unfortunate Danny Wooten, and the damaged Georgia are unique creations, their lives framed with tragedy and their dialogue deeply Southern in inflection. Put bluntly, I give a shit about these characters and strong reader identification is much more essential in horror fiction than in horror films.

One thing that I particularly appreciated was the evolution of Jude and Georgia as the story progressed. Judas Coyne is clearly depicted as a man who both carries and welcomes pain into his life, both from his guilt at outliving his bandmates to his intense immersion within his childhood trauma to his constantly rotating harem of damaged goods runaway girlfriends. I really appreciated the fact that the guy Jude is at the end of the story isn't the same selfish, disconnected, emotionally abusive prick that he was at the story, and that the transformation felt natural and not like some I-Have-Seen-The-Light moment. I dug the fact that Georgia (later Marybeth) can start out as a stereotypical shrewish, grating rawk star groupie and become sweet and sad and strong by the end.

As for the ghost Judas foolishly purchases off the interwebs.....ooooh. The ghost of Craddock is one creepy, creepy dude. He creates a very strong presence in the work, and his rage works in very cool, clever ways. He tends to pop up a little bit too often, and the bit about Craddock's spirit using tricks on Jude that he picked up while serving as a psychological warfare officer in 'Nam is kinda goofy, but otherwise I think he's a worthy boogeyman to add to the horror field.

A very intense southern gothic sensibility fills Heart Shaped Box and I dug these elements. The character's melancholy and family strife brought me into their world very effectively.

The story was not perfect, by any sense of the imagination. The story is so lean and so intensely focused on the leads that it feels at times like a drawn out version of a shorter piece. As such, certain passages feel longer than necessary. While I thought the early haunting in the book were more effectively scary, I would have liked to see Jude and Georgia get on the road quicker, if that's where they're truly meant to find salvation.

Jude and Georgia become much more interesting on the road. Unfortunately, putting them on the road eliminates the claustrophobic effect that Craddock's ghost has inside Jude's home. While the lyricism of the Craddock's frequent threatening broadcasts over haunted radios and TVs offers some of the best chills in the book, I felt his vengeful spirit became less threatening as the narrative progressed.

One of the more effective elements of my favorite haunting stories is the idea of characters who have to confront the things from their past as they're fending off the supernatural. Jude's alcoholic, abusive father looms heavily in Jude's characterization, yet the inevitable final meeting between father and son fails to hold much confrontation or catharsis, as the dying man becomes yet another vessel for Craddock to attack Jude. I would have liked to see this scene expanded, especially since Jude's childhood was profoundly affected by the abuse he suffered at the man's hands.

Oh, and a quibbler's note: the definition of "goth" that Hill uses tends to be pretty far away from the Gothic subculture as I've experienced it. Black nail polish and sour faced tales of childhood trauma does not a goth make.

Anyway, give this one a look-see. I dug it for the traditional ghost story elements and the unique and energetic prose.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

The First Horror Movie I Ever Saw...

...was Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

What? Do I have to turn in my horror card now? Am I not cooooool enough for the cool kids anymore? Whatevs.

As a little kid, my mom would take me to Diamond Video in San Francisco, which was a tiny little store nestled in the upper class strip mall a few blocks from Twin Peaks. All the original boxes were shrink-wrapped and displayed in the front. You took the box up to the surly teenagers at the front and they'd pull the cassette from a wall of black boxed videos behind them. You weren't allowed to take the original boxes home, but instead you got this ugly little boxes with the name printed on a little slip of paper.

I loved that place.

I think I was simply predisposed to escapism. I had a big imagination, and anything that sparked it could hold my attention forever. When I was really small, I watched Wizard of Oz over and over, every day, for a year. A couple of years later, it was Return of the Jedi. I wasn't necessarily a sedentary kid. Rather, exposure to fantastic worlds gave me a framework to base my imagination off of. When my parents or my au pairs took me to the gigantic playground near my house, I'd build entire games and adventures based on what I'd just seen or read about. One week, the play structure was the second Death Star's throne room, the next week it was Captain Hook's pirate ship, the next it was Voltron's battleground, and so forth.

All these bright, fun, kid-friendly stories could be found on the right side of the store, lined up bright and neat and shiny, like toy soldiers in formation for inspection. But what about the left side, behind the wall partition? What about the boxes lined up in the towering shelves, in the shadows away from the windows?


I remember sneaking away from my mom and wandering down that aisle, looking at the boxes and their lurid cover art, studying the back cover summaries carefully, trying to get as much as I could of the story from the still photos on the back of the boxes. I remember being fascinated by the multi-sequel series, particularly the maddeningly vague, beautifully designed Friday the 13th box art. Inevitably, my mom would either come looking for me or I'd see something so scary that I'd leave the left side of the store and go back to Family or Comedy or Sci-Fi.

I didn't watch a horror movie for most of my childhood. This is probably a good thing. It took next to nothing to scare Little Creature. Scary stories, the scary songs my classmates sang in Halloween music class. Shit, I saw this scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was eight and it TRAUMATIZED me!

Anyway, time passed, I got a bit older, and my intense attraction/repulsion to the genre only grew. We moved, there were other video stores, and eventually I picked up Freddy's Dead.

For the life of me, I can't remember why I started with this one. Maybe someone recommended it to me, or I heard it wasn't very scary, or maybe I just had some brand recognition thing going on. But I loved it.

I just rewatched it again last night, for the sake of this posting. Freddy's Dead is, by most standards, a failure as a horror film. It's absolutely not scary, full of now-dated pop-culture references, and it has Breckin Meyer getting killed in a video game while he's banged around a cartoon version of Freddy's home.

The weakest link of the movie in undoubtably Freddy. By this point in the series he'd been essentially neutered, with his cringe-inducing puns, his drag show costume changes, and the campy, cartoonish overacting that later directors forced poor Robert Englund to do. Because he was so de-fanged, this made a perfect entry point for me to get into horror. Sure, bad stuff happened, but it was so hokey and over-the-top and completely harmless that it wasn't going to keep me up at night. Better still, the universe Freddy operated in was strange and exotic and magical. I was absolutely hooked.

Coming back to the movie years later, I still really dig about Freddy's Dead.

I really liked the dream sequences. Sure, they're completely bereft of anything even remotely scary, but they're visually imaginative and entertaining. I liked the use of sound in Carlos's dream, the creepy echoes that move through the scene as he gets killed. I liked the cheesy exploration of Freddy Krueger's memories. And, Cthulhu help me, I liked the video game death scene, especially the bit where the room changes around Spencer as Freddy appears in the TV.

I also dig the fact that the lead protagonists all come from an at-risk youth juvenile care facility. Freddy movies tend to have slightly better defined characterization, if only so the viewer can know what vulnerabilities the characters have that Freddy can attack. Granted, this idea was done better in The Dream Warriors but I still like the environment of the facility, with the overworked and understaffed councilors, the edgy, angry kids, and the decay that filled the backdrop in every scene.

I also really liked the effect Freddy's work has on the town of Springwood. With all the teenagers dead, the town is essentially haunted by the living. People speak to imaginary children, offer cryptic warning to the doomed travelers, and generally act batshit psycho. It is implied that Freddy has become significantly more powerful since the start of the series, as Dr. Billy Zane's Sister discovers when she tries to report the death of her charges, only to find that they've been erased from the universe.

I dunno if I can actually recommend this movie. The fact that I lost my horror virginity to Freddy's Dead taints my objectivity. The jokes are pretty goddamn stupid, the Wile-E-Coyote sounds that Spencer makes when he demolishes the house are as ridiculous as clown shoes, and Freddy has the poor taste to die in 3-D.

Still, the movie does have a cameo by Johnny Depp. It can't be all bad, right?

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

So What Is Horror?

Horror, to me, is any form of art that is created with intention of instilling dread and/or revulsion in the viewer. It's a dangerous, outlaw, gruesome medium that has been ghettoized as a backwards, lowbrow form of entertainment.

My definition of a GOOD horror story is anything that can create a proper sense of doom and dread while telling an entertaining and engaging story. The stuff that sticks with me, the stuff that I come back to over and over again, are the stories that click with my imagination, slip under my skin and keep me up at night, listening for things that can't possibly exist.

People like me, the nutty minority who identify ourselves as genre fans, are a strange bunch. We like getting our bell rung, we like that jolt of adrenaline, we like the sense of taboo and the safe exploration of the forbidden that comes with being a fan of this stuff. This sort of thing especially appeals to the young. Every time I go to a horror movie I always check out the audience. Without fail, there is always the group of teenage girls, conspicuously without any boys present, who jump all over each other, shrieking and laughing in terror.

Obviously, people have different levels of tolerance for this stuff. One man's endurance limit ends at the original Halloween and another is unaffected by anything short of Cannibal Holocaust. By extension, the stuff that triggers different people's sense of dread varies. Torture porn, for example, really doesn't do anything for me except make me feel mildly sleazy and uncomfortable, but The Blair Witch Project scared the bejeezus out of me. A lot of people, especially people in this generation, don't really connect to the supernatural, off-camera scares of BWP but they can easily identify with the body-mutilation scenarios of the Saw and Hostel franchises.

I think interest for the horror genre tends to start early with most people. Remember when Goosebumps used to take up whole sections of the bookstore? Kids ate that stuff up, mostly because fear is a universal component of childhood. I remember always feeling overwhelmed and afraid as a kid, and these emotions are very easy to tap into, to explore, and ultimately to control.

Maybe I'm being presumptuous here, but I think that characterization is almost secondary to the genre. Horror is first and foremost about setting mood, about engaging the audience directly. The characters in horror fiction are the cyphers the creators use to affect the audience. We can't be in the story, opening the door to the Evil House On The Hilltop(tm) so we have some stand-ins do it for us.

On the flip side, the horror genre tends to be full of grotesquely overdone stock characters. The virginal survivor, the unbelieving knucklehead, the cop-on-the-edge, the burned out mystic, cryptic warning dispenser. Shit, it's become a cliche.

Find the middle ground. Create characters I can care about, but don't forget to scare me. I will love your work forever.

Death's Rich Pageantry

One of my favorite books from when I was a kid was "Cut: Horror Writers on Horror Films." Some day I'll get around to writing an I-Dig-It post on it, but basically it's a collection of essays on the horror genre, written by the major writers of the early nineties. The writing styles and subjects ranged from the thickly academic work of Katherine Ramsland to the folksy, conversational tone of Joe R. Lansdale. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Go buy it.

One of the essays in the book is the highly entertaining "Death's Rich Pageantry" by splatterpunk authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. The core idea that they present is that horror is the engine that powers every movie you've ever loved. The anxiety that drives the story forward, that compels the characters to act, comes from the emotion of dread.

I used to really back this theory. When I saw No Country For Old Men I categorized it as a horror movie. How can I not? Anton Chigurh is as cold, as uncommunicative, and as motiveless and purposeful as any slasher movie killer, and the story is as bleak and nihilistic as any early Romero piece. My girlfriend accused me of wanting to shoehorn everything into the horror genre just because certain tropes are present. In the end, the movie is not about us being afraid of Chigurh but it's about the characters in the film and their spiral into annihilation. It's not a happy piece and anxiety abounds, but it doesn't have a lot of horror as I understand the emotion and how it relates to the genre.

horror, lower case, is a very broad emotion. I feel a minor sense of horror every time I look into my bank account or when I have to clean up after my pet rabbit. Anxiety exists for all of us on a daily level. Horror, capital letter, is a specific genre. The anxiety is not a side effect of the drama, it's the meaning of the piece.

Besides, stuff that wants to be catagorized as horror tends to be fairly obvious. Blood, death, shadows on the box art, bloody lettering on the dust jacket, vampires, ghosts, chainsaws, and the other tropes of genre. Good, bad, or just banal, horror tends to wear it's heart on it's sleeve.

I do think that it's important that horror pay attention and assimilate stuff from other genres, particularly the emphasis on story and character development, but if the work compromises the end goal of scaring the audience, it becomes a less effective hybrid. It becomes a horror comedy. Or it becomes a thriller.

The Fine Line Between "Horror" and "Thriller."

Man, I love Hannibal Lector. He is so dangerous, so utterly without conscious, they have to keep him locked away behind plexiglas in the deepest, darkest crypt they could find. He's erudite, cerebral, and so utterly devoid of morality that he's essentially alienated from the rest of the human species. He eats people! Man, could this dude be any more a monster?

No, my friends say. Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller. Calling it a horror movie is so base, so vile, so....wrong.

There are some obvious bullet points between the two genres that can be compared.
  • Thrillers tend to have a stronger basis in "reality", especially police-procedural thrillers. Horror tends to play fast and loose with the rules of the world, especially when it comes to the supernatural.
  • The antagonists in thrillers tend to be better developed characters, their actions most often triggered by intense obsession. Horror antagonists tend to be much more linear; they simply are. They are outsiders, problems to be solved, situations to be overcome.
  • Thrillers tend to emphasize the slow building of tension, placing their characters in isolated, claustrophobic, stressful situations and then roasting them slowly. The "average" horror tends to go for a wider variety of emotional engagement, using everything from tension build-up to jump scares to ghastly displays of body violation.
  • Thrillers are "respectable." By and large, they are marketed to an older, more mature, more educated audience as a way for intelligent people to get the shivers. Horror is marketed to kids, the immature, and the maladjusted.
This last point seems to be the most contentious when I bring up my theories to my friends, but I stand by it. The vast majority of thrillers seem to star middle class white people in peril, suburbanites who find the sanctity of their homes violated by madmen who, gosh darn, just don't listen to reason.

Look at Lakeview Terrace. You have a young, successful couple who just want to move into their successful little house, and suddenly some madman comes around being all irrational. And he's black. And he's a cop! Oh noes!

I want to show a couple of scenes from my favorite movies. The two I've chosen are strong examples of the different philosophies and techniques of their respective genres. Check them out, see what kind of fears they are trying to play on, and see how they go after the emotions they are trying to engage in the viewer. Turn the lights off first.

The tension from Silence comes from the setup of the scene, the performances, and the strength of the dialogue. Clarice Starling is alone, inexperienced, and vulnerable, manipulated by her supervisor in an attempt to get Lector's assistance. She's left alone in a gloomy little pit, sitting across from a man who is still a threat despite the safety precautions taken to keep him caged. Lector, with his vast intellect and contemptuous mannerisms, psychologically assaults her, probes her insecurities, and dismisses her. Is it any wonder that Starling breaks down in tears almost immediately after this scene?

Now, let's look at a traditional horror scene, one of my favorites: the death of Noah in The Ring.

In The Ring, the threat is more supernatural, something the human mind is fundamentally not capable from understanding. The scene begins to immediately build dread as Aidan poetically informs us that Samara is still a threat, that the steps the heroes took to lay her spirit to rest failed to address her boundless rage. After all, she never sleeps. The spirit of Samara Morgan crawls out of the TV, does her thing, and I don't get a good night's sleep for a week.

Both scenes, as you can see, have very different constructions and very different outcomes. The entirety of the Silence piece takes place on a single set and involves nothing more than a dialogue between the characters. By this point in the film we've gotten some degree of insight into Clarice Starling, and the way Hannibal Lector goes right to her vulnerability shows just how capable and brutal a monster he is. Conversely, the scene in The Ring is a culmination of the journey Rachel and Noah have taken to protect themselves and lay the angry spirits to rest. It's a classic campfire ghost story, and the scene is more visceral and primal than Clarice's encounter with Lector.

Soooo, what's your point, cousin?

I think a lot of entertainment marketed to the thriller audience has elements that cross over into stark, bleak horror. But I can't really include them in the category any more that I can buy Skipp and Spector's horror engine theory. In the end, I think thrillers have their toes too deeply into other genres. It's not fundamentally a bad thing, obviously, but I think it limits a thriller's ability to generate that primeval creeping dread that I enjoy in works of horror. I'm too detached, too aware than I'm watching characters in a drama. Thrillers are a different thing, marketed to a different group, feeding to a different sense of anxieties.

I'm still claiming Hannibal Lector as one of ours, though.