The impetus is THE WITCH, an extraordinary new film. The subject is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. The subtext is Sometimes People Don't Know When They're Well Off.
I wasn't planning on discussing this; it's been covered quite thoroughly on the Internet by various pundits and genre publications. But since seeing the film several thoughts occur, and although I've addressed some of this in the past, I decided to tackle this at least one more time. In the words of Andre Gide, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said, but, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
Place two or more genre fans in an enclosed space together, and arguments (or debates, or impassioned discussions) will ensue. Voices will raise, opinions will fly, and tempers will occasionally flare. Who was the better Dracula, Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee? Which John Carpenter (or Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper) film is the best? Who's the most beautiful Scream Queen? When did George Romero's (or David Cronenberg's, or Eli Roth's) career begin to falter.
Much of this energy is exerted in the name of pure silliness, but I suppose it's the same for all genres. Quite probably there are groups of Western fans who proclaim Gene Autry as superior to Roy Rogers, or Mystery fans that contend Sherlock Holmes can't hold a candle to Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple. For the most part it can be fun and harmless, although with the advent of cyberspace and the advantage of anonymity, civility is often tested in the extreme.
Some debates are more serious in nature, and define the foundations of the genre itself. As an example, there is a current rethinking in Dark Fantasy over Howard Phillips Lovecraft and some of his more distasteful personal opinions. Can he be excused as a product of his time? Do his prejudices cancel his extraordinary talent and place as a father of modern Celestial Horror? Much of your perspective may depend on where you are in Mr. Lovecraft's view of humanity; many genre writers of color and different sexual persuasions are coming out against his deification.
H. P. Lovecraft
Certainly many of his views on races and religions are troubling, and I can sympathize and concur with many that find his viewpoints beyond the pale in modern society. On the other hand, as troubling as I find some of his thoughts, they were very common in the times when he lived, with only the truly enlightened looking beyond what most believed. I don't think him an exception, and I don't think those views dilute his impact on the literature…but I'm not personally affected by those views, so I have a luxury.
(Much the same discussion ensued some years ago when certain authors spoke out against same-sex marriages. Now that they have become more commonplace and no apocalypse has befallen humanity, much of those debates have been forgotten…but at the time, the heat generated by the controversy was intense.)
Another popular debate topic is the Gaming and Comics Communities, of which Horror is a general subset. There is a deeply divided fandom that decries the casual misogyny that so often is found in both the products (where women are victims to be killed or trollops to be used for male pleasure) and the artists that create them, and a hardened male boys club mentality that pushes back with vitriol and vileness against any perceived criticism from ‘feminazi' corners, to the mortification of many. (And it shows little sign of diminishing anytime in the immediate future.
During the 1980s, when HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH paved the way for the Slasher subgenre in Horror, many critics and fans , most notably Harlan Ellison, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, decried the cheapening of the field with stories that were all basically the same and focused on carnage instead of characterization. Naturally these critiques were greeted with howls of protest from those who enjoyed the Slasher format, and much hand-wringing and cat-calling commenced. To this day, Siskel and Ebert are synonymous in the minds of many fans with general genre-hating, Horror-bashing critics, even though both these gentleman sang the praises of such classic as HALLOWEEN, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, SCANNERS, ALTERED STATES, BLUE VELVET and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, none of which mollified the defenders of the blood-spilling.
FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH
Among the many complaints about Slasher films were their suggested (and often defiantly up-front) misogyny, with the victims being primarily female, often in sexually-submissive positions. The protests have continued today with the advent of Torture Porn, where the horror is derived from the pain and suffering caused to the individuals (again, primarily female, and often targeted by forms of sexual humiliation and brutality) rather than a coherent narrative. Apologists have defended these films as ‘realistic', ‘honest', ‘uncompromising' and ‘mirroring today's world events'. Others scoff at their contentions and maintain that these films lower the bar for subject matter already unpleasant and increasingly dismal.
Some of the fiercest debates concern the very nature of the genre itself. They may, on the surface, appear silly and picayune to the mainstream, but they are often fought as if the existence of the field were at stake. (And I suppose, to the combatants, it often is.) Usually they emerge when a new type of story or subgenre appears, either to be embraced or denigrated by the establishment, or quite often both. When the so-called “splatterpunk” movement briefly reared its head, readers and authors took to the pages of periodicals to defend or condemn its practice.
(For those too young to remember, “splatterpunk” was a style that emphasized extreme and graphic violence and situations, practiced by writers such as John Skipp, Craig Spector and Rex Miller; it was seen at odds with the more cerebral efforts of M. R. James and Edgar Allen Poe, as two examples.)
Again, such arguments aren't relegated simply to the Dark Fantastic; when the “New Wave” of the 1960s was born, many of the SF community reacted with revulsion at the sudden influx of sex, violence and experimental writing. The same occurred when the “cyperpunk” movement of the 1980s emerged. And mystery fans have long discussed the relative merits of the Drawing Room Mystery, the Police Procedural, and the influx of Horror-themed Serial Killer tales in their particular field.
The latest skirmish, similar to the “splatterpunk” controversies, is the debate of R-rated Horror versus PG-Horror. These, of course, refer to the film rating system. The argument is that PG and PG-13 movies are hamstrung and cocooned by the regulations that require a film's material be more family appropriate, and that R-rated Horror is much more unencumbered by censorship and free to explore the dark and often taboo domain that Dark Fantasy excels in. Many fans have gone so far as to proclaim that they'll never view a PG or PG-13 Horror film, and that those films can't really be considered Horror.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
There is, I suppose, some small merit to their theory, if they didn't overlook certain realities. First, the criteria for what determines what is or is not PG or R can be extremely arbitrary from one film to another; critics of the ratings system have decried this for literally decades. (In the most famous instance, George Romero refused to submit his masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD to the rating board because he knew it would be rated X for its violent context, despite the fact that in many filmgoers minds, the X rating referred to graphic sexual content instead of violence. He released the film unrated – which meant it couldn't be viewed in many theater chains – and instead created his own parental warning : "There is no explicit sex in this picture. However, there are scenes of violence that may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted." Which was not only accurate, but much more specifically helpful to parents.)
Another issue is that many filmmakers will include scenes of shocking graphic violence in their films, even though those scenes are not required by the storyline , just to achieve an R rating. Note the italicized phrase in that last statement. I have no argument with graphic violence if the story actually requires it; as an example I offer THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, a film I admire. (Although it is actually much more subtle and less graphic than its title suggests and many critics assume.) But to add footage to achieve a rating is pandering to the audience, and just as I wouldn't want a filmmaker to delete scenes simply to get a lower rating, I find it reprehensible that they add such scenes to raise the rating. The story should determine what's in the film; nothing more or less.
(An example of this is the first SAW film; although I think Mr. Wan an extraordinary director and am a huge fan of his movies, I'm still troubled by this and find his actions there rather distasteful.)
The final argument against this is the number of classic Horror and Dark Fantasy films that have been rated PG. These include JAWS, POLTERGEIST (the original), TOURIST TRAP, NOSFERATU (the 1979 remake), THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, BURNT OFFERINGS, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (both the 1956 and 1978 versions), ASYLUM, TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE STEPFORD WIVES (the original). Looking over this (very partial) list where the creators didn't feel a need to push the envelope greater than what the story itself demanded, I rest my case.
Along these same lines is the matter of what constitutes unnecessary or gratuitous violence. As with everything else discussed above, much of this can come down to personal opinion and taste. Even professionals in the filed can disagree about any or all of these debates.
THE OMEN (1976)
When the original film version of THE OMEN was released (as well as its sequels), there was much talk about the shocking violence and deaths that occurred in the films. Award-winning author Harlan Ellison wrote a long essay decrying the carnage as well as the audience's enthusiastic response to it as appalling, excessive and needless. Celebrated author and critic Gahan Wilson, on the other hand, saw the violence as symptomatic of the theme – this was the Antichrist making his presence known, and the excess of the violence lent credence to the satanic powers inherent in the story. While I admire both these gentlemen immensely, I tilt more towards Mr. Wilson's interpretation of the events than Mr. Ellison's in this case. The violence in these films has never bothered me as much as in some others that I found offensive.
I, as with many, enjoy personal preferences in the Dark Fantastic. There are authors and directors – King, Barker, Matheson, Ellison, Lovecraft, Poe, Jackson, Lansdale, Serling, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Romero, Wan, Argento, Whale – that I admire and seek out, while there are others that leave me cold. I enjoy most literary adaptations, and also have an extreme distaste for needless remakes. (This last I've regaled my companions with to the point of weariness.) I have little patience for excessive gore for the sake of gore, and have matured beyond the need to simply enjoy bloody special effects for their own sake. I demand stories that move or intrigue me, and three-dimensional characters that do the same. I have no interest in Slasher or Serial Killer movies (relegating them to the Suspense or Thriller genre instead of permeating the Dark Fantastic with their presence, as has been the case in the last two decades) and abhor the Torture Porn and Rape Revenge subgenres for their nihilistic cynicism and adamant misogyny. (And no, I don't care to argue the point.)
But I like to believe I'm open to all experiences, and can find at least one or two examples of the above that I dislike that have found favor with me. I try very hard not to disparage anything without a valid argument or reason, and am delighted when a film or book that I feel has little to offer surprises me and causes me to reassess my own prejudices.
And for the most part, many of these so-called “controversies” can be relegated to simple differences of opinion and personal preferences – as they probably should be. And yet, in the past few years, in the minds of many fans (and sadly, some genre authorities and critics as well) they've become more. There are instances now where some are questioning the integrity of certain individuals and works, dividing the genre into what is “real” Horror and what isn't, and who is a “real” Horror fan.
Much of this seemed to come to the forefront regarding the popularity of the TWILIGHT series. Many long-time fans of the genre reacted with dismay when their beloved vampire icons became translated into sparkling romantic images of teenage angst and devotion. (There was a shadow of this when Anne Rice first published her “Interview with a Vampire” and began her “Lestat” series.) The hue and cry continued as the films were released, and many fans began appearing at Horror and Dark Fantasy conventions to share their enjoyment of the field – which centered on TWILIGHT. Other fans, resenting this invasion of an unwelcome subgenre, pushed back quite harshly in many instances, and the result was ill feeling all around.
This was saddening on so many levels. Excluding anyone from our genre limits us in a myriad of ways. Fresh insights should always be welcome to keep the templates of the field fresh and invigorated. New Blood should always be a sign of a healthy interest, of keeping the enthusiasm alive and growing instead of insulated and dying, even if you may not always agree with or appreciate as deeply these new-found enthusiasms. After all, someone who enjoyed the TWILIGHT films may turn towards some of the Hammer classic with Christopher Lee or some of the Universal oeuvre and become an even greater fan. And it's just mean to disparage, and meanness in this world has contributed to tensions and turmoil that are completely unnecessary.
(The best response to this, in my opinion, was that voiced by filmmaker Kevin Smith at a SF convention in 2009: "People will come to a convention, stand there in a Spock costume, look at someone in a Chewie costume, and say, 'Look at that…geek.' How dare you pass judgment on those 12-year-old girls who like vampires!"
Well spoken, Sir. Very well spoken.)
This mindset has again come to the forefront in recent years with self-proclaimed pundits loudly denouncing this film of that television series or comic with the exclamations That's not what real Horror is! I've been a lifelong fan, and I know Horror, and that'd not Horror, and anyone who likes this sort of thing isn't really a Horror fan!
Spare me. Please.
Just as an example, and as an individual with first and signed editions of several literary masters aligning my shelves, I rather resent the implication that because I don't fall down in supplication to the latest gorefest from a young Kubrick wannabe that I am somehow less than invested in my genre. And yes, I intended that to sound as snotty as it did.
As a wise philosopher once intoned, “That's why there's chocolate and vanilla.”
Differences of opinion can keep the field fresh and vital, if only because it forces people to completely examine and verbal the many facets of the genre that attract them to it, leaving things open for consideration by others. This is often the best defense of critics in any field; it allows others to experience a point of view other than their own. It's not by any means necessary to agree with everyone all the time; many opinions are indeed purely subjective.
Yet, although some will deny it, there are objective measurements to be made in any art form. You can argue the boundaries of these, but they do exist. Intent, experience, professionalism, presentation – in all or some of these delineations we can achieve objective standards. (And of course, there are exceptions that shake the definitions of these standards and redraw our boundaries, but I believe they happen far less frequently than some would have us believe.)
Ingmar Bergman's HOUR OF THE WOLF
We can acknowledge certain standards while indicating personal preferences. I can state emphatically that I prefer the musical stylings of Mozart and Bach over Rachmaninoff, or the painting styles of Picasso and Seurat over Monet, and not be accused of being less than a devotee of classical music and art. I can agree about the quality of the work of a filmmaker or author while stating that their style or subject matter may not appeal to me personally.
Our genre has a long and rich history that goes back to…well, to the dawn of storytelling itself. As I've stated many times, the first stories told were ghost stories; stories that explained the workings of the world and the mysteries of the cosmos. Tales of Horror and the Dark Fantastic can be traced back to the Greek and Roman legends, of Odysseus battling the Cyclops and Persephone in the Underworld.
Our field has attracted authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, Bierce, Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Twain, Updike, and Oates, and filmmakers as diverse as Hitchcock, Polanski, Antonioni, Bergman, Kubrick, Frankenheimer, and Fellini. It runs the gamut from “Dracula” and “Nosferatu” to “Varney the Vampire”, from “Hamlet” to THE HILLS HAVE EYES, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to E. C. Comics.
Some works are consciously ‘literary' of ‘highbrow', and some ‘lowbrow' or ‘common'. This is not a judgment, simply a demarcation of the breadth of the landscape. Whichever form of entertainment you choose is your own. You can be enthralled both by the witches in “Macbeth” as by the giant creatures of GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. It becomes a matter of personal preference, so long as respect is paid to all forms of the genre. Bear that last in mind.
I can, for example, acknowledge the work of the late Wes Craven and its influence on the field, even though my personal tastes may run towards his work on the TWILIGHT ZONE revival as opposed to his own films. I can admire the efforts of author Peter Straub, even though, with the exception of his masterpiece “Ghost Story”, his works leave me cold. I can acquiesce to the quality of the television series HANNIBAL even though the show itself holds little interest to me.
I would hope that others would be able to do the same. Yet even the most cursory examination of the Internet seems to indicate that isn't the case. One need only see the posts indicating that IT FOLLOWS, THE BABADOOK, and many other films are “not really Horror” to understand with eye-rolling exasperation that some of the cathedrals are overrun with gargoyles, mucking about and making a mess of things yet again.
Which brings us to THE WITCH, the new film written and directed by Robert Eggers.
I'll not mince words; as I stated earlier, this is an extraordinary movie. Superb in its recreation of colonial times, authentic to the point of the dialogue being spoken in Jacobean English, rich in its imagery and cinematography, flawlessly acted by the principals involved, most notably Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw, it is one of the finest works of the past several years, and a high-water mark in the filmography of the Dark Fantastic.
Naturally enough, it's controversial.
Many if not most of the major genre periodicals both online and in print have endorsed the film, including “Rue Morgue”, “Bloody Disgusting”, and “Shock Till You Drop” as well as mainstream critics from “Newsday”, “The Guardian”, “USA Today” and NPR. And yet, there is still some rumbling in the Horror community. The film is “slow”; it's “boring”; there “weren't enough scares”; it “wasn't scary”; it was “more like an Art film”; it “wasn't really a Horror film at all”. And on and on.
The film is deliberately paced; I found that engrossing and unnerving in its slow build and careful delineation of things going terribly wrong. It evokes the period flawlessly (but many found the language hard to understand or silly) and things did move deliberately then. Who says that all Horror films have to fly like a wounded bat down a tight corridor anyway? Besides, it build soon enough into some genuine shocks that will leave you exhausted.
It does look like an Art film, and a gorgeous one at that. In many ways it reminded me of an Ingmar Berman film (and as the creator of THE SEVENTH SEAL, SHAME and HOUR OF THE WOLF, he is an artist very comfortable with creating period dramas filled with foreboding and the Dark Fantastic.) Why is that a detriment? Why must all Horror resemble the carnival or industrial nightmares of THE DEVIL'S REJECTS or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET?
Personal preferences are one thing; they are all well and good. Yet if someone who truly loves the genre can't at least appreciate the artistry that goes into a handsome work such as THE WITCH (as, among other things, an astonishing first effort); if one can't say “Well, I didn't care for it myself, but it certainly looked amazing and I understand why many people enjoy it”…well, then I'm afraid I'm forced to questions their credentials in the genre, as loathe as I may be to do something like that.
For those who know my tastes, and even for those who see things differently yet respect my opinion, I say again: THE WITCH is an extraordinary movie. I urge you to see it, for I consider it a major work in the field.
And as for the naysayers…as someone remarked, “This is why we can't have nice things.” Too often the genre has been relegated to a ghetto of cheap exploitation and grim carnage. We're better than that, and it seems a shame not to acknowledge that once in a while.
A NOTE: Because of the enthusiastic word-of-mouth about the film, and the impressive box office, THE WITCH has been rereleased across the country as of April 1, 2016. Do try to see it in the theaters rather than online or through Netflix, so that you can capture the full experience.
Also beware of the new trailer for the film, which gives away many of the secrets. Click on the image below to see the original theatrical trailer.