Horror Movie Criteria

The horror genre title has been slapped on many more movies than actually deserve it. If there is blood and a knife (or axe) then they market the film as “horror.” This is too bad because it is like saying that if two people kiss in a film it is a “love story.”  

The definition of “horror” is a “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.” Based on the definition one could argue that if a film has that effect on even one person than it is a horror movie. In my opinion, there are some strict criteria for a movie to qualify. It may be a suspense film, it may be a slasher film, but it is not a horror film unless it meets the following:

Impossibly possible – Man is crazy, man has a knife, and man kidnaps or kills people. In today’s world, you can pick up any number of news articles and read that story. In fact, by this definition the CBS show, Criminal Minds, is a weekly “horror series.” A horror film should deal with the “Impossibly possible.” In other words, the central focus of the story should not be on someone or something so common. This is not to dismiss every slasher or psycho film, but there should be at least a little bit of surprise in the source of the terror. By the way, a phone call from a dead friend that then leads to my death just seems impossibly impossible…and dumb.

Normally inescapable – under “normal” conditions the viewer should believe that for the lead film character the situation is inescapable through normal actions. I thought the film The Strangers was a pretty good horror film up to the point where the guy and girl give up their defendable position in the bedroom – with a shotgun – to run around the woods. Really? What reasonable person would do that? Compare that to a zombie movie – where are you going to go? Or the exorcist – can’t leave your daughter to escape the possession. One of the things I enjoyed in Evil Dead 1 was that the characters at least attempted to leave. The bridge was out – so they had to go back. So for me there are no feelings of dread if I can quickly see a way out of the situation…even if the characters cannot.

Defendable but inevitable: Much like inescapable, the situation should be “defendable” but without further action inevitable. Again, a good zombie movie allows that you can defend yourself, but that eventually you are going to run out of bullets. In 3o Days of Night, you can hide for a while…but not for 3o Days. Imagine how boring Jaws would have been if they were on a battleship? The formula should allow that you can survive for a while, but you need to find a solution or this will end badly for you.

Common Sense not convenient:  I am not a fan of films where a convenient script replaces common sense.  If a person is going to dismiss a loved one’s testimony, is going to stay in an obviously haunted house, or is not going to call the police when their friends go missing…one by one…then please give me, the viewer, some plausible reason for their action.  In Rosemary’s Baby, the husband dismisses Rosemary’s concern…because he is one of them. Okay that makes sense. In Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t realize everyone is dead…makes sense.  In the Devil’s House, the friend pulls over in a cemetery at night to have a cigarette…what? No one would do that…ever. And one more very big pet peeve – everyone knows the rule of “two in the head, one in the chest.” When the psycho killer goes down, a reasonable person either-  a.) Runs like hell or b.) Chops him up into little pieces. A reasonable person does not sit with their back to the killer and have a good cry….cuz he always gets back up. That kind of stuff is just insulting to the viewer…and way too convenient.

More scare than shock: Shock is too easy. Someone jumps out, blood spurts, a loud noise. It definitely makes you jump in your seat but that does not make it horror. Scary is much harder and great horror filmmaker’s work hard in the script to achieve it. That scene in the Grudge where the “thing” is crawling under the covers and the girl lifts the covers and sees the face…now that is scary. A body falling out of the closet – shocking, but not scary.  In the Exorcist when little Reagan does that upside down crab walk down the stairs…that’s the scary shit that stays with you long after the film is over.

Slasher, psycho v supernatural: I am okay with classifying slasher and psycho films as horror provided the filmmaker/writer could achieve the rest of the criteria.  Let’s compare two “horror” films that are of the slasher/psycho type, the original Nightmare on Elm Street (NES) v. Sorority Row (SR)

Impossibly possible:

NES: Could a ghost get in our dreams? Well we know that scientifically the mind can wreak havoc on the body – so with the correct amount of rage (as Freddy has) it seems possible.

SR: Is it possible that the brother would stab a girl he believes is already dead? Stupid and unlikely. Is it possible that a girl involved in a cover up would date a psycho? Maybe. Is it possible that a group of college friends would hide the accidental death of their friend? A stretch. For me this movie starts out with a violation of impossibly possible.

Normally inescapable:

NES : Other than waking up how would you escape a dream?

SR: I know, don’t hide your friends dead body, don’t split up, call the cops, don’t go to the party…I can come up with a lot of ways to escape the situation.

Defendable but inevitable:

NES:  Certainly. The characters try to stay awake and sound science (and our own experience) proves out that the strategy will not work forever.

SR: Watch your back; get a weapon…it’s just one guy who can die like anyone else


Common Sense not convenient:

NES: The film could have violated this one by not having the friends discuss their strange dreams…that would have been bad. If any of us had a dream that scary and that vivid not only would we tell our friends…we’d put it on Facebook.

SR: Let’s see, someone knows what you did. Someone had told you that they know. You’re in college so you probably saw “I know what you did last summer.” Seems like a no-brainer to me, but all the characters were stereo types (the slut is the first to die) so I am not surprised by the movie’s formula.

More Scare than Shock:

NES did a great job of building the scare. It takes a few moments to realize the landscape of the dream, but as you get it, you just know Freddy is around…somewhere. He doesn’t need to just “pop out.” True they throw in some shock, but it is scary first.

SR: The violation of common sense just makes it difficult to find anything “scary.” The film is all about the “shock.” Hell a group of us spent more time “guessing” about the order of  the characters’ deaths…which we knew were coming…then being “scared.”

In my opinion, NES gets five stars and sorority row gets zero.


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