The Townhouse of Ideas

Barb vs. Arthouse Horror Films

I hate modern arthouse horror films.

There, I’ve said it, and I’m glad.

Look, I can understand what motivates people to seek out arthouse horror films. Modern horror films are a mess. The direct-to-video films don’t even try to do anything good. Most of the found-footage films are wastes of time. (The only exception I can recall is Trollhunter, which is of course fantastic and excellent, the exception that proves the rule.) Many of the modern Hollywood horror films are either vying for a franchise or are simply a conglomeration of old ideas we’ve all seen a thousand times before (or both).

An alternative must be found. I get that. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that. I’ve watched everything from Korean web series (Nightmare High was quite good) to made-for-TV films from the 1970s (The SpellWhen Michael Calls, even the insane Bad Ronald). I’ve watched obscure Asian films from the Criterion Collection. I got into Mario Bava and Italian giallo films. I’ve watched horror films from Mexico. They’re not all “wrestlers vs. monsters” films. Carlos Enrique Taboada (Mexico’s answer to Mario Bava) is an underrated genius of slow, atmospheric horror. So, yeah, I’m with you all. Modern horror isn’t delivering the goods.

However, modern arthouse horror is also not the answer. I have tried many of these critics’ darlings, and I have ended up angry and frustrated with them. They are pretentious wastes of time.

Now, I can understand why many fans, frustrated by modern horror, wish to champion arthouse horror. Having seen a lot of them, I understand how they might have a superficial appeal. Every last one of these films has tone and atmosphere! They have wonderful cinematography! (Of course they do– half of them have ripped off Stanley Kubrick’s directorial style.) But, tone, atmosphere, and cinematography mean little if there’s not a good story involved in the film. I’m nuts for good cinematography! I watch a lot of old film noir! The camera work in all of those classic films contribute to telling good, interesting stories. But there must be a story, or else who cares? If the filmmakers would take the same time and effort with the scripts of modern arthouse horror (let’s shorten that to MAH) that they do with trying to make their movies look stylish, I would really like MAHs. But MAHs don’t take that same time and effort with their scripts.

And that is where my hatred begins. Modern arthouse horror films have about 15 to 20 minutes of actual plot stretched out over ninety frustrating minutes of film watching—and they’re increasingly creeping toward 180 minutes! (If and when I choose to watch a movie that’s 179 minutes or more, by the end of it, Rasputin, the mad monk better be dead, Anastasia better have screamed in vain, and the provisional government better have a 5-year plan.) I equate watching a modern arthouse horror film to getting on a rollercoaster ride and having the ride not go anywhere until the last few minutes. Imagine the ride going forward, but not having any ups or downs, just flatness. Boring, huh? Well, that’s what you get with modern arthouse horror films.

MAHs are storyless wonders. Let me be clear about what I mean by story: stories consist of plot (events that happen), characters (who these events happen to), characterization (who these characters are and what they want), character interaction (characters reacting to and responding to other characters), dialogue (how characters communicate with other characters), and backstory (who these characters were before the story began). We need most of these elements to care about characters (sometimes backstory can be brief or non-existent). If we don’t know who the characters are, what they want, how they respond to other characters or events… then we don’t care about the story. And if we don’t care, we get bored. These elements of storytelling matter to every story, be it horror, comedy, or tragedy. Horror adds something special to the mix, though. Horror is supposed to add the element of suspense. Horror is supposed to ratchet up the tension of a plot. But there must be a plot, or else there’s nothing to ratchet up.

With the exceptions of Trollhunter and Let the Right One In, MAHs do not have the above-mentioned elementary requisite elements of storytelling. We rarely get backstory. We don’t get to know MAH characters. They are mostly two-dimensional beings that slowly meander through a movie. They don’t relate to other characters (who also mostly meander through the movie). They rarely talk to other characters. The characters rarely react or respond to events because, in the main, events don’t happen.

But, man, the movies look good. Shouldn’t that count for something? Well, to me, these films are like a gift box you see in a department store window. “Oh, how pretty the wrapping is! I want what’s inside that box!” you might think. So, you open the box, and there’s nothing in it. So, yeah, darn’ right, you’re disappointed. You wanted something to be inside the box! You were lured in by the pretty wrapping– but without a gift inside, well, you’ve been rooked! You’ve been conned! You’ve been had! Cinematography is wrapping on a present. You have to have a story.

Now, if you dare to say that you don’t like MAHs, you’ll be attacked. It’s just a fact of life. Maybe you won’t be attacked in a typical internet way, where you get cursed at, told that you are a dumb **** or the R word. The attacks about not liking MAHs are often more subtle… but they’re just as ad hominem as any troll on any forum. If you don’t like storyless wonders, it’s all your fault. Your intellect, educational level, and sophistication level will all be called into question.

These attacks fall into the following categories:

1/ You’re just not smart enough to appreciate these films.

2/ You just like blockbuster films.

3/ You don’t understand arthouse films/You don’t understand or appreciate arthouse horror.

4/ You just don’t like slow moving, deliberately-paced films.

5/ You want everything in a film explained to you. You want plots “spoon fed” to you. You don’t understand ambiguity.

6/ You don’t want good, thoughtful horror films.

7/ You ain’t nothing but a gorehound.

8/ It’s not really a horror film. It was marketed wrong. You’re stupid to approach it as a horror film.

In short, you have to, at every junction, show your hip cred resume. So, fine, I will.

1/ I am not stupid. I have a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies (and my husband is a PhD).

2/ Actually, I haven’t seen a modern blockbuster film in years.

3/ I saw my first arthouse horror film when I was a tween. It was Don’t Look Now, and I loved it. I saw my first arthouse non-horror film when I was fifteen. It was Shoot the Piano Player, and I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced toast. I’ve seen about 250 films in the Criterion Collection. I’m nuts for foreign films, especially foreign horror films. I can talk to you about film directors from Akira Kurosawa to Joseph Losey. So, yeah, I appreciate and understand arthouse films. In fact, it’s my appreciation for arthouse films that gives me the experience to say that modern arthouse horror films are a cheat. They are sound and vision signifying nothing.

4/ I’ve seen Wings of Desire four times. I’ve seen Celine and Julie Go Boating. These are snails’ pace films, and I liked them very much. I don’t mind slow, deliberate pacing if I care about the characters, or if I feel there’s a legitimate reason for slow pacing. Using slow pacing to cover up for a lack of story is not a legitimate reason for anything.

5/ I love ambiguity. I can talk for hours about films such as Performance or The Innocents. I’m crazy for stories that stay with me and make me think. But underwritten, vaguely-written stories are not ambiguous. They are simply empty experiences.

6/ See number five. I desperately want thoughtful horror films. Silk, The Others, The Haunting, Curse of the Cat People. I collect thoughtful horror films like kids collect Pokemon.

7/ I don’t mind gore at all, but I don’t consider myself a gorehound. But whether I like my movies bloody or light on the carnage isn’t the point. I’m not into horror films for the violence nor the gnarly kills. I’m into them for the tales that only the horror genre can tell. Horror films can tell great stories if the filmmakers actually care enough about their scripts to tell real stories instead of drifting from scene to scene without any intention of telling a coherent, worthwhile tale.

8/ If a trailer and a bunch of critics lead one to believe that a film is a horror film, then it is not stupid for an audience member to expect a horror film.

But let’s say, for a moment, that the trailers aren’t the film’s fault. Even if a film isn’t really a horror film, it has to be something else. It has to be a good, interesting something else. For instance, I once saw a Thai film called Dorm. It was marketed as a horror film. It wasn’t really one at all. In fact (SPOILER here), it was a very sweet, funny, well-written slice-of-life film with horror elements. I didn’t mind the bait and switch compared to what I was expecting, because the story was really involving. But if you were to pull a bait-and-switch on me and you had nothing else to offer except pretty cinematography, then not only would I be angry, I think that I would have every right to be.

So, I guess what I’m saying, arthouse horror fans, is that I (technically) am one of the gang you’re in with. And, even then, sorry-not-sorry, I cannot, even in the name of wanting better horror films than found-footage garbage, call shit shinola, as the saying goes.

I look at modern arthouse horror, and I gotta say, this ain’t shinola.

The MAH emperor has no clothes– he’s naked as a jaybird. Modern arthouse horror is boring, not scary, and not a damned thing happens in it. It isn’t horror, it’s a con. If the future of horror is tedium that’s prettily filmed, then horror has no future.