Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 24, 2012
Movie genres are notoriously malleable things. We all know what a western is until someone mentions that Star Wars is a horse opera in space or Outland is a remake of High Noon in a futuristic setting, and suddenly it doesn’t seem as clear anymore. Genres also cross streams constantly. A crime film can be a noir (Out of the Past), an epic drama (Once Upon a Time in America), a gangster film (Public Enemy), a comedy (Some Like it Hot, which also manages to work in rom-com while it’s at it) or any other number of multiple genre mash-ups with “crime” as the umbrella covering all the different subsets. In the end, horror is no different but no matter how many subgenres of horror there are (and there are plenty), horror can be efficiently broken down into two categories: Natural and Supernatural. Which side are you on?
What do I mean by natural and supernatural? Simple. Psycho, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs – Natural. Dracula, The Cat People, The Shining – Supernatural. The nebulous middle-zone comes in the science-fiction/horror combos. Frankenstein, The Thing from Another World and Cloverfield don’t deal in the supernatural (junk science and alien encounters, yes, but not the supernatural) yet they are fanciful and don’t deal in strict realism by any means. So where do they fall? For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to throw anything not normally encountered in the real world, i.e. attacking aliens and monsters and reconstructed people, into the supernatural category. That doesn’t mean those things couldn’t happen in the real world, just that, so far, a massive monster from outer space hasn’t attacked New York City while countless sharks have attacked people swimming in the ocean throughout history.
As to where I fall, it’s not so much a matter of which I like better but which I think defines horror for me personally, and that’s the supernatural. As far as quality goes, both sides have superb entries with both the supernatural The Shining and the natural Psycho occupying not just high positions in the horror canon but high positions in the general film canon as well with both making their way into the most recent Sight and Sound poll’s top 250 films. And I like both films equally well so it’s not an apple to orange match game of which side gets more votes. It’s just a general feeling that, frankly, I like my horror completely unreal and unrelated to my experiences here on the planet. We’ve all read stories, or watched news reports, of psycho killers cutting up some poor, unfortunate victim but not many of us (certainly not me) have come across a hotel that possesses its caretaker and visits the horrible visages of the dead upon the living. Supernatural horror takes me to a place of which I have literally no real-life experience, not even vicariously, and to me, that makes it all the more appealing.
So while I can certainly appreciate that a movie like Jaws has many horrific elements, I get a little annoyed when I see it listed as horror. Sure, gruesome things happen in it to several people but it’s not a horror movie by my math, rather, it’s an adventure/thriller. By the same token, I would consider The Birds a horror film and that makes no sense at all by the logic I just applied to Jaws, i.e., animals, including birds, do occasionally attack people. But The Birds has a supernatural element to it, a feel that something’s not right and the world is at stake. Jaws, on the other hand, has no supernatural feel because the characters describing the shark’s behavior plant it firmly in the soil of realism.
But animal attack movies aren’t high on the list of popular horror anyway so to really deal with supernatural versus the natural we have to turn to the mad killer/psycho/slasher movie for the most popular of natural horror there is. And personally, I’m just not a fan. It’s not that I don’t love some of the work, like the aforementioned Psycho, it’s just that when I think “October,” and by extension, “Halloween,” I think ghosts and vampires, not guys with butcher knives. And it’s not the gore that’s the problem, either. Many a supernatural horror film is filled with bloody and gruesome deaths. But the gore in a natural horror film is undeniably married to a gritty realism that, perhaps, brings it all a little too close to watching real people die to make it entertaining.
See, when I watch something like The Ring, the victims have a connection to an unreality that removes their existence from a real-world frame. It’s horrifying to watch a young person cut down in the prime of their life but since I’ve never known anyone to have the life sucked out of them by a vengeful spirit, there’s a distance that’s built into the story as I watch it. When I watch Hostel, on the other hand, especially as a parent, I know that plenty of young people, and women in particular, are viciously killed every day and will continue to be for the sadly foreseeable future. I can’t take pleasure in watching their deaths because it feels too much like something that actually happens and if it is something that can actually happen then, dammit, I want there to be a focus on the aftermath. Like M.
M is considered one of the greatest films ever made and rightfully so. It deals with a deranged child killer but the movie takes no pleasure in the killings. Instead, it focuses on the manhunt for him and, when caught and “tried” by gangsters, the moral questions that arise over what he is or isn’t responsible for as human being with free will. I wouldn’t qualify it as a horror movie necessarily, even though all later serial killer movies would be, and maybe that’s because it doesn’t make the killings a game of one-upmanship and doesn’t turn the killer into a charismatic, charming cad.
Silence of the Lambs is a serial killer movie that does exactly that. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is presented as a charming, charismatic anti-hero that the audience kind of roots for, in a back-handed way. For instance, the final scene, of Lecter joking he’s going to have an old friend for dinner as we see his former warden stroll by, is intended for laughs. Ha, ha, the man who was “mean” to Lecter is now going to be horribly killed and eaten by him. Ha, ha. Oh wait, that’s not funny at all.
Even though I could never claim to “enjoy” watching it, if I had to recommend the best serial killer movie ever made, it would be Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Frankly, I’ll probably never watch it again because I’ve seen it twice and that’s enough for me but it portrays the killings as brutal and disturbing, not “exciting” or “fun,” and the lead character of Henry (superbly portrayed by Michael Rooker) is as far from charming and charismatic as you can get. It’s about a deranged and disturbed man who kills and it does not glamorize or take pleasure in that notion once for the sake of cheap hoots and catcalls from the audience.
The dividing line between supernatural and natural horror is a fine one. If the horror you’re portraying is rooted in the real world, it takes its chance that the audience may be too put off unless levity or irony are thrown into the mix. One of the reasons Henry never took the box office by storm is that it truly is a deeply disturbing movie filled with real horror. I don’t prefer to watch that kind of thing very often, but I’ll take it over the flippant portrayal of a teenager’s death any day of the week. Of course, it’s the spooky supernatural stuff that I prefer over either one of those anyway so that’s what I’ll stick with. I’m happy that all kinds of horror films are made to suit all tastes and if bloody murdering psychopaths float your boat, by all means, go crazy (but not psychotic). Me, I prefer Dracula to Henry, mummies to psychopaths and ghosts to mad slashers. Give me “not of this world” over “happens every day” and I’m happy. It’s understandable because, when you think about it, in a world where reality invades our lives every second of the day, liking the supernatural is the only natural thing to do.
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