"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 the Impossible

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 so Artful?

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 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 text."

American Horror: An Elaboration on Aesthetic Distance

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 psychology.

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.


Back To Volume1 Issue 1

Works Cited

King, Stephen, Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley Press, 1981) p. 129.

Ebert, Roger. "Romance." Chicago Sun-Times 12 Nov. 1999.

Hawkins, 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. 14.

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.

Hanke, Ken. A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series, (New York, Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 281