"A B movie, that's all you are to me..."
-Elvis Costello, "B Movie"
In the song "B Movie," Mr. Costello dismisses a lover with the insult that
she is nothing more than a "B Movie," a cheap, low-grade enterprise. The B movie
also happens to be one of the most successful of all types of films.
Encompassing horror pictures and low budget exploitation pieces that feature
more T & A than plot, the B movie is maligned, disrespected, and relegated
to grindhouses and sleazy theaters that make the basement in The Blair Witch
Project (1999) look like a Martha Stewart dream house. It is, to be kind,
considered the lowest form of art, if it is even considered art at all.
Is such a designation appropriate? In this paper I will focus on horror films
and their designation as low art. I will not be so gauche as to make the
argument that all horror films are equal. As Stephen King says in his analysis
of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, "few horror movies are conceived with
'art' in mind; most are conceived only with 'profit' in mind." Yet somehow both
types of horror film (the profit minded and art minded) mingle within the realm
of popular culture. A quick perusal of the shelves of Blockbuster Video proves
this as lowbrow exploitation fare like Juan Simon's Slugs (1987) sits
next to Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), considered a watershed horror
movie. Many of the low-end horror movies only come close to art in their campy
William Castle-style advertising. These exploitative shockers are lumped in a
category along with atmospheric exercises in terror and the oft-used pet phrase
of critics and analysts everywhere "psychological horror." There is a collusion
of the artful and the artless.
However, in this paper I will not be the champion of the underdog and say
that every cheesy horror movie is and should be considered art, I will, however,
hypothesize as to how these designations between what constitutes artful horror
and artless horror come about. I will examine foreign horror films and American
horror films and form some reasons as to why foreign horror seemingly gets
greater respect than American horror and then proceed to analyze American horror
films and their designations between artful and artless. In doing so I will
examine what I feel to be the underlying cause for this distinction between the
artful and artless-and that cause is rooted with the human body and the
collective fear of its senseless violation. More so I will demonstrate that what
constitutes artful horror is how much a viewer or critic can justify what is
occurring on the screen.
Dancing About Architecture: Attempting to Define
Someone once said that "writing about music is like dancing about
architecture, it's just not possible." Before I draw a distinction between the
artless and artful, it will be necessary to attempt form a working of definition
of that elusive, lucid as bog water term-"art." For the purposes of this paper I
will use a rather liberal definition of art.
Stephen King writes that "art is any creative work from which an audience
receives more than it gives." A nice definition, sure, but a bit too liberal for
our purposes, so I will add an addendum. The addendum being: not only does the
audience get more than it gives, but it also is encouraged to have a reaction,
and that reaction causes thought, disgust, laughs, et. Al.
Now that that is settled let's move on.
Those Crazy Europeans: What Makes European Horror
A common complaint about many film critics is that they tend to fall over
themselves in praising anything with subtitles, regardless of quality. For most
critics it seems there is a simple equation in analyzing foreign pictures:
subtitles=great moviemaking that is not exploitative. When the borderline
hardcore French film Romance (1999) was released critics were effusive
with their lauding of a film that deals (arguably) with sex in a realistic
manner. Even respected guys like Roger Ebert confessed to "not really enjoy[ing]
it, and yet I recommend it." Apparently Ebert was not aware of the fact the
movie uses filmmaking techniques similar to hardcore porno (the editors cleverly
cut away from scenes before the "money shot" can occur) and follows the
trajectory of many pornographic films in which a nubile young lass goes from man
to man in an effort to find orgasm.
The same pattern also applies to foreign horror. Foreign horror is "moody"
and "atmospheric" while American horror is "cheap" and "exploitative." What many
fail to notice is that both foreign and American horror use many of the same
images and devices. In the distinct universe that is the horror film both the
higher end pictures (in this case the foreign horror movies) find themselves
amongst the so-called exploitative low-end (American horror). Frequently in film
analysis it is, as Joan Hawkins writes, "overlooked or repressed...to the degree
to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes which
characterize low culture."
A fine example of the separation of foreign and American horror can
be found in a comparison between Dario Argento's Suspiria and Sean
S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980). Both films take place among
a group of teens, in Suspiria the focus is on young, nubile females while
Friday the 13th has greater mix of males and females. When it comesdown
to brass tacks, however, both movies revel in the visceral shock of illustrating
murder. In Suspiria one of the queasiest scenes comes when the killer
stabs a young woman, with the camera lingering on a close-up of her still
beating heart as it ejaculates blood. In Friday the 13th a young
Kevin Bacon is murdered with an arrow through the throat, all while the
camera pays close attention to the dripping of blood and squishy sound
effects of the arrow plunging into flesh. Both films are working with
one goal in mind and that is to directly engage the viewer, mostly through
the gag reflex. But why does Suspiria garner the kudos while Friday
the 13th draws the jeers?
First, Suspiria is arguably a better-made picture. Dario Argento is a stylist
of the first order and his "floating" camera technique (oft copied by Stanley
Kubrick, most noticeably in Eyes Wide Shut (1999)) allows the audience to
know that we are simply watching a film. The reality is so heightened through
self-conscious camerawork and Argento's blinding, explosion at the Crayola
factory color schemes, that we as an audience can engage ourselves (we know we
are supposed to be scared), but give ourselves enough distance to not let the
film invade in our personal space too much.
On the other hand Friday the 13th is a low-budget picture, shot on a
shoestring with relatively crude techniques. In fact the movie is basically a
series of scenes staged like snuff films. Characters engage in sexual activity,
and are killed or are simply slaughtered as the camera looks on without a sense
of self-consciousness. There is nothing going on from behind the camera to
mentally stimulate the audience, it exists only to provide visceral shocks. So
what the audience takes away is simply shock or disgust.
Carol Clover calls these kinds of movies "body genre
films." The "body genre" picture is the kind of celluloidal enterprise designed
to service sensation and nothing more. Films of this type (like porn and
melodrama, according to Linda Williams' definition) are about watching the body
caught in a moment of intense emotion-either death in horror or orgasm in porn.
With most foreign horror films, the filmmakers seem to not to want to deal with
realism per se, they want a hyperrealism. Of course, American horror movies are
not what one would call paragons of realism, but in comparison with their
foreign counterparts they aim for more realistic settings and situations,
without the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" self-reflexivity of foreign pictures.
What I really think makes Friday the 13th more of an object of
ridicule than the equally gory and equally exploitative Suspiria is
Friday the 13th's emphasis on physical violation. Suspiria also works
toward creating fear through physical torment, but it is set in what could be
best termed a "dream world," whereas Friday is set in a more realistic (to
American audiences at any rate), non-dreamlike setting. Therefore the physical
violation in Friday is made more urgent, it hits closer to home, than much of
the surreal killing in Argento's piece. In watching Suspiria the audience is
permitted to know that the filmmakers know that all they are doing is playing a
head game, while in Friday the 13th the audience is stuck in their chairs
watching killing after killing occur without benefit of a psychological
explanation. There is a lack of what Williams terms "aesthetic
distance...viewers feel too directly, too viscerally, manipulated by the
American Horror: An Elaboration on Aesthetic
What then do we make of American horror movies? In the
canon of horror pictures they almost always come second in respect to foreign
horror movies and any American horror film that is considered to be artful is
the one with the most aesthetic distance. Upscale slashers like Johnathan
Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or David Fincher's Seven
(1995) are both gruesome and bloody borrowing many of the same shock techniques
as their lower budget counterparts (for example, Russell Mulchahy's
Sevenish thriller Resurrection (1999)), both focus on the body and
its violation, either through sexual means or violent means, and both feature
villains who fit easily into Carol Clover's assessment as "distinctly male; his
fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression."
The logic behind heaping plaudits on the upscale slashers and highbrow horror
pictures lies, as with foreign horror, with the concept of aesthetic distance.
Film analyst Ken Hanke theorizes that many critics simply praise so-called
highbrow horror films because the acclaim comes from "people with little or no
knowledge of the genre...What seemed so fresh and creative to them was largely a
reshuffling of a very old bag of tricks."
While Hanke's thesis is logical, I think the real reason
these pictures get such acclaim is (you guessed it) their aesthetic distance.
Both The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are considered to be more
psychological in nature, as they present killers whose motivations are
explainable. The unexplainable is infinitely more terrifying than the
explainable so in elucidating the motivations to their gruesome behavior the
audience is given an easy out. Believing that evil has a root cause, the
audience does not have to accept the shocking hypothesis that evil can simply
exist without rhyme or reason. Even in the masterpiece Halloween (1978)
we are tossed a half-hearted psychological explanation as to why Michael Myers
does what he does. The psychobabble that Donald Pleasance spouts is simply that
Myers is "pure evil," and there are some vague connections made between Myers
witnessing his sister engaging in premarital sexual activity and his
slaughtering tendencies. Director John Carpenter then gets to have a killer who
seems like a force of nature, yet is still explainable within the realm of
Carpenter also gives his audience a sense of aesthetic distance through his
numerous in-jokes and references to other horror films. Obviously casting Jamie
Lee Curtis, a scream queen whose mother (Janet Leigh from Psycho) is the
original scream queen, is a nod toward the audience. Additionally with a
character named Loomis, after a character in the classic Psycho(1960) and
showing clips of horror movies like Howard Hawks' The Thing (1951),
Carpenter has created a world that exists primarily in the realm of reality.
This world is realistic enough so that the audience can relate and associate
with the characters, but also has enough of the self-referentialism to always
keep the audience aware that they are watching a movie, not an accurate of
representation of reality.
This aesthetic distance extends to other American horror
films like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series and George Romero's living dead
pictures. Raimi gives his audience distance through pitch black, Three Stooges
style humor (in Evil Dead 2 from 1987, a severed hand attacks its owner
much like Moe would assail Curly) and hyperactive camerawork that features
strange point of view shots, Panaglide shots, and visual puns. Raimi's film is
simply an exercise in style and not "the ultimate experience in grueling terror"
as the print advertisements proclaim. Even the "experience in grueling terror"
line seems to createsome form of aesthetic distance. It is an ironic comment on
the film itself. On the flipside Romero's living dead films are positioned more
as social commentary about the haves and have nots as well as tapping into
nuclear fears and paranoia. It is precisely these distances that engage the mind
so the horror of bodily violation can be put on the backburner.
Conclusions: The Artful and Artless
Returning to my earlier definition of art as a creative work in which the
audience gets more than it gives while causing some kind of reaction be it
physical or emotional, we see that there is a tendency among most critics and
audiences to view a horror film that gives them something to think about or uses
filmic techniques or psychology to explain motivations are considered to be more
artful. These are motion pictures that engage the mind and disengage the body.
The audience is encouraged, in an artful horror film like The Silence of the
Lambs to have an intellectual response that justifies and explains the
physical response, thereby diminishing the horror that stems from watching a
character being slaughtered.
On the other hand the artless horror film is considered to be one that simply
engages the body and our sensations. We are not invited to think, but rather to
feel. I believe it is the prospect of having an intense emotional response that
scares people more than an intense intellectual response. If we can think about
and justify the slaughter we are able to go home from the theater content in
knowing that what we just saw was only "a movie" or that in the real world
murder and the specter of evil can be explained. In a horror film that does not
allow the audience the aesthetic distance given by the upscale, highbrow horror
pieces, the audience is given a dare not to flinch or not feel sick at much of
the sights illustrated on screen.
In the final analysis, both the artful and artless have their place within
the world of horror. Both exist to frighten and terrify, albeit for different
reasons. Does that necessarily make one form better than the other? I do not
think so, we watch for different reasons and sometimes those reasons are for
visceral stimulation and sometimes they are for mental stimulation. Either way
in popular culture the artful and artless mix, and borrow many of the same
images, themes, and motifs. It is just that one form (the artful) wants to give
the audience some degree of distance so when they come face to face with images
of evil and bodily violation it can be explained away. While the other form
wants to smother the audience in images of horror and violence that are
unexplainable and hopefully (for the filmmakers sake) more terrifying.
To Volume1 Issue 1
King, Stephen, Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley Press, 1981) p. 129.
Ebert, Roger. "Romance." Chicago Sun-Times 12 Nov. 1999.
Joan. "Sleaze-Mania, Euro-Trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films
in American Low Culture." Film Quarterly Vol. 53 #2 Winter 1999-2000, p.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror
Film (New Jersey, 1992).
Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, genre,
and Excess," Film Genre Reader II, Barry Keith Grant, editor.
A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series, (New York, Garland Publishing, 1991), p.