Collins’ Crypt: We Need To Talk About ‘Stealth’ Horror Movies

Brian takes a look at the unpredictable turn horror films have taken of late.

As we’re now in the middle of Sundance (and by we I mean Devin), it’s officially been a full year since Kevin Smith unleashed his long promised “horror movie” Red State, which debuted at the 2011 festival before his obnoxious publicity stunt about “auctioning” the film to the highest bidder. As we all recall, that turned out to be just him announcing his own distribution arm which would allow him to four-wall theaters and overcharge his fanbase to watch the movie AND listen to him talk about it, as if he was some recluse that didn’t tweet 24 hours a day. Wow, 80 bucks to watch a low budget horror movie AND hear a guy that never shuts up? I’ll buy two!

Of course, that also means it’s been a year since folks have been debating over whether or not Red State truly IS a horror movie in the first place. It’s kind of amusing; it’s not uncommon to hear guys like William Friedkin trying to tell us that The Exorcist isn’t really a horror movie (it’s a “theological thriller”, he says), but I think this is the first time that the filmmaker claimed it was horror only for a good chunk of the audience to go “Not really…” I mean, it certainly STARTS like a horror movie, with our (alleged) protagonists going off into the middle of nowhere only to run afoul of something bad, but within twenty minutes or so the three of them are reduced to the background as we watch a violent drama about a religious cult having a shootout with the ATF. And when Smith has the chance to return it to something a little more supernatural, he chickens out.

However, that’s just one example of what I’m encountering quite a bit of lately – movies that take horror movie scenarios and concepts but apply them to films that are more dramatic than scary. I took a look at my pal Scott Weinberg’s “”Top 20 Horror Films of 2011” list, and nearly every film around the top was one that I had to query some friends to see if it could count as a horror movie, something I certainly didn’t have to do for Shark Night or The Devil Within. His number one pick, for example, is We Need To Talk About Kevin, which features not one shot of on-screen violence (save for a slap in the face), but is, for all intents and purposes, a “killer kid” movie (and a damn great one at that). There are no traditional scares, there aren’t any “cat and mouse” type chase scenes… basically, if you took any one scene on its own you’d never have any inkling that you were watching a horror movie. Yet, the film as a whole gets under your skin and upsets you – something a horror film SHOULD do but almost never does. The day before I saw Kevin I went to see Underworld 4, a movie about the war between two of horror’s most iconic monsters (werewolves and vampires), yet it doesn’t have a single scare in the entire movie, nor did I leave the theater still thinking about it, like I still am about Kevin. Yet ask anyone in an Evil Dead shirt which one of them is a horror movie and Underworld will win by a landslide.

Another one on Scott’s list was The Skin I Live In, which like Kevin took a sort of standard horror movie plot (in this case, a “Frankenstein”/mad scientist type) and applied it to a character-driven drama. Again, nothing in the film was meant to scare the audience, but I felt unnerved by it on more than one occasion, and if you think about what is really going on in the film’s second half, it’s infinitely more disturbing than anything that you’ll see on the cover of Fangoria in the past couple years (note – Skin I Live In was actually featured in the bottom corner of a cover to a recent issue of Fangoria. But you know what I mean). That one I had a bit of trouble qualifying as horror for Horror Movie A Day; had I seen it earlier in the day I might have opted to watch something else to be “safe”. But that’s a personal feeling – certainly a number of people considered it one (as always, I queried my Twitter followers – all but one said “yes, it’s definitely a horror movie”).

There are other recent examples that toe the line – Black Death, Undocumented, etc. Even Bloody Disgusting released Phase 7, a post-apocalyptic tale without a lot of bloody or disgusting moments (it was mostly just about some folks in a building yelling at each other). In all cases, I was only watching them as horror movies because someone told me they were – had I just caught one of them on cable, totally ignorant, I probably wouldn’t have said “OH, this is a horror movie!” at any point, unlike The Exorcist, of which there can be no doubt. Sorry Friedkin, you’re insane – even if I somehow knew nothing about the film when I watched it for the first time back in 1999, I would never believe your claim that it doesn’t belong in the horror genre.

And so I am curious – is this a “trend” of sorts, or is it just coincidence that I’ve found myself questioning a film’s placement in the genre so often as of late? Is there some sort of subconscious thought amongst filmmakers that we’ve officially exhausted all ideas and approaches in the genre and it’s time to think WAY outside the box? When I started doing Horror Movie A Day, people frequently asked “Why?” and “What’s wrong with you?”, but then they’d follow it up with “Aren’t you going to run out of movies?” And the sad fact is, no, I haven’t. Nor will I. I recently set an end date for the site, and I have almost enough movies in my Blockbuster queue to last me that long, so once new releases, festival entries, and stuff I obtain on DVD budget packs or whatever are counted in, some of those titles are just going to be deleted off the queue as I fill it up with all those “normal” movies that I’ve missed over the past five years.

That’s a bit of a tangent, but the point is – there are obviously TOO MANY traditional horror movies out there, and thus we need more of them that don’t stick to any conventions. Would I have enjoyed The Skin I Live In more if Antonio Banderas was laughing maniacally and killing random people off the street to conduct his experiments, like many of his fellow cinematic peers have done over the past 70-80 years? Maybe, maybe not - but I know for sure that I wouldn’t have been as surprised or as interested in it. And as much as I love killer kid movies (my third favorite horror sub-genre after slashers and zombies), Kevin wouldn’t have impacted me as much as it did if the little shit was the focal point, with the movie depicting his increasingly dangerous activities like in The Good Son or whatever. No, it was just a simple switch of point of view (Kevin’s mom – Tilda Swinton – is in nearly every frame of the film, as the movie is told from her perspective) and a unique structure (with most of the movie taking place after Kevin has done something terrible; flashbacks providing most of the answers) that made me love it as much as I did. In less capable hands, it would be something I would say “Ah, it was good, but it was no Orphan” before writing my usual joke-filled, reference laden review and forgetting all about it in a week or so. Instead, Lynne Ramsay and her cast/crew delivered a truly terrific film - and as a bonus, it also fits in the horror genre.

Thus, I encourage this “new wave” of not-horror horror movies. Obviously I still enjoy formulaic movies done right just as much (my own top 10 horror movies of last year included Final Destination 5, after all), but I’d love to see this sort of approach to maybe a slasher or even a supernatural-based story. And hell, someone could even do an Exorcist movie without the horror elements, if for no other reason than to show Friedkin the difference (Paul Schrader’s version of the 4th film comes closes, but still has some good jolt scares). They might disappoint the gorehounds in the audience who think anything called a horror movie has to include buckets of blood (“This shit isn’t scary, there’s no blood at all!” – actual response I’ve read, re: John Carpenter’s Halloween), but for those of us who actually take the genre seriously and are constantly disappointed at the lack of imagination in modern horror films (on either side of the camera), these “stealth” horror movies are just what we need. The greatest asset the genre has is its freedom to basically do anything – it’s time to exploit that benefit.