Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More on The Horror Top 50

Yesterday, I linked to Vault of Horror's new list of The Cyber-Elite's 50 Greatest Horror Films of All Time. I believe the list is pretty darn great, but I did notice some comments under the post suggesting that, perhaps, the participants had shorted "new" horror films (say from the year 2000 - present). Gazing at the titles that made the list, it's difficult to deny that's the case. Yet there are good reasons. And I'm not talking about the relative quality (or lack thereof) of 21st century age horror, either.

In weighing and determining the best horror films of all time, there are many important factors to consider. Among those:

1. Was the film scary at the time of the original release, and does it continue to be scary today (in other words, does it stand the test of time?) Gazing at the list quickly, I would judge that Halloween, Blair Witch Project, The Haunting and many others meet that benchmark with flying colors in 2008, even years and in some cases, many decades after the initial theatrical release. I know that I steadfastly refuse to watch either Halloween or The Exorcist when I'm alone in the house.

2. Can the film in question be interpreted in more than one way, meaning that -- again -- it survives beyond the original context or time period? If you study a few examples, say Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (original), you can see that they all spur various interpretations. Is Chain Saw merely surreal savage cinema, or a statement on vegetarianism? In Halloween, is Michael Myers the Bogeyman, or physical externalization of Laurie Strode's repressed id? Is there any witch present at all in The Blair Witch Project? Alternate readings of these films mean that they are more than merely scary...they are timeless. They float above the original context and become...universal.

3. A great horror film not only reveals something important (social or economic) about the context in which it was created, it can actually come to embody that time period...and become a touchstone. Consider Night of the Living Dead (1968), which perfectly captures the Vietnam War Age, or Cronenberg's The Fly, which was released just as America's awareness of AIDS was growing and taking shape. You can't talk about horrors of the 1960s or 1980s without mentioning these films.

My point, I suppose, is simply that the horror films of relatively recent vintage may or may not stand the test of time. We just don't know yet. Therefore, to praise them on points 1, 2, 3 and is, perhaps, premature. I have very, very high regard for recent examples of the genre including The Ring, Hostel, Silent Hill, The Descent, The Strangers, Cloverfield, Vacancy...even, to some degree, The Ruins.

But since we are still locked in the 2000s; since we are still entrenched in the Bush Era Mindset (at least for a few months...), it's near-impossible to stand back and objectively look at these films as touchstones or time-capsules of the era. Because we don't really know, ultimately, what we will carry out of this turbulent era. Maybe it'll be Snakes on a Plane. We need distance to rightly assess these recent works beyond the value of these questions: "does it scare me now?"; and does it relate to how I see the "today" right now?

The fact of the matter is that time can also wash away the tidal wave of bad reviews for fascinating, individual, quirky, yet much-maligned films like Ghosts of Mars, The Happening or X-Files: I Want to Believe. It is entirely possible that is one of those films -- the ones which most critics hated or missed the boat on (historically, think The Exorcist...) -- that will emerge as the "new classic" of the age. Perhaps the real value of these films will be excavated. Who knows, perhaps the new classic horror film is the very one I missed the boat on, such as Diary of the Dead, or High Tension.

Only time will tell...and that's the reason those films didn't make the list, in my opinion. It's just too soon.


  1. You've hit the nail on the head. Time is an important factor to consider when judging top this or that lists that are framed with "of all time."

    I'm sure many recent films will be added to the list, but it is just too soon to tell.

  2. IZ:

    Right on! I think that as horror lovers we're all pretty open-minded -- and dare I use the word "liberal" -- in our acceptance and definition of horror.

    I think we're always looking, hoping and questing for the next great horror movie, the next great horror experience.

    ...but it's another thing to land something new on a list meant to cover a vast swath of decades.

    When you're covering a hundred years of cinema, 50 slots is not a lot of room, actually, and even us liberals will want to be conservative in filling those slots, being certain that we acknowledge trend-setters, transgressors, trail-blazers, etc. from each epoch.

    It's just too soon to say what's a trailblazer right now, in the 2000s. BWP (1999) is the last one, honestly, I feel I can champion on that front (especially since the themes and style have been co-opted as a trend by efforts like Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, and I guess, REC.)

    But I agree with you, IZ, these lists are great for discussion and debate. That's what this game is all about.

    And, finally I sure am glad it's your name at the top of the list! When you disappear...I go into hiding! :)


  3. I agree, and said something to that effect in the epic comment thread on my own page, as well. Time provides perspective. The Mist happened to be the only film made this decade that consistently popped up on a lot of folks' lists, which may say something about that movie (haven't seen it yet). As a further experiment, I'm debating doing a list composed solely of films post-1990, just to see where everyone's head is at regarding more recent efforts.

  4. Hey B-Sol!

    Yep. You said it well: time provides perspective.

    The Mist's ending was "spoiled" for me by someone who'd seen the film before I did, so I never saw it. Seeing The Mist's placement on the list, I feel I must see it now since it has registered such a powerful reaction among the horror knowledgeable.

    You have done an amazing service here, B-Sol, compiling and broadcasting this list, so the last thing I'm going to do is say that you should create ANOTHER list (a post-1990 list).

    But yes, that would be interesting! :)

    Easy for me to say, right?