If you scroll down far enough on any given genre page on Netflix, things start to get pretty interesting. Interesting isn’t quite the right word. Things get weird.
Case in point:
Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver – “After cleverly escaping the maximum-security research institute of Homicidal Baked Goods, the Gingerdead Man stumbles upon a time machine and finds himself sent back in time, where he slaughters the contestants of a 1970s roller boogie contest.”
Rodentz – “A medical experiment gone awry causes a lab rat to turn homicidal, develop psychic powers and balloon to the size of a human.”
Hellevator – “In a futuristic world, elevators shuttle riders not only from floor to floor but also from town to town. En route, they’re roped into a dangerous game that pits one against the other, and only the strongest come out alive.”
These are, almost unquestionably, terrible, terrible movies. I say almost because they are a lot of fun, if only for existing (Gingerdead Man 2’s subtitle? The Passion of the Crust). But really, they’re difficult to watch for more than five minutes.
What I like about this echelon of film, though, is that seems totally impervious to criticism. These movies are unquestionably bad—we know it, they know it. No one’s making a play for Best Picture here, or even hoping to net some quick cash at the box office. These movies almost certainly cost some people money. The late, great Roger Ebert wouldn’t have touched them with a ten-foot pole (for an example of something Ebert had no problem prodding with what I can only imagine was pure, childlike joy, check out his review of 1998’s Armageddon: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”). There’d be no point.
Maybe it’s something about the horror genre in particular (the Netflix category under which I discovered all of the above) that allows for, or even refuses pretention. Even the most critically acclaimed among them aren’t aspiring to much. The blurbs pulled for publicity are never “The Best Movie You’ll See All Year!” or “A Game-Changer!” but rather, “You’ve Never Seen Anything Like This!” or, at best, “This Movie Will Scare The Hell Out Of You!” At their most self-deceived, they only think they might make you jump a couple times.
(To be fair, some people are more jump-prone than others. When I saw Gravity in IMAX this fall, a high school-age girl sitting next to me was literally curled up into her seat to the point that it began to fold back in on her. Serves her right for actually buying movie theater nachos.)
It’s for this reason, I think, that horror movies are so difficult to judge. How do you rate something that’s highest purpose is to make you double-check your closet at night, or think about leaving a light on? Are movies successful insofar as they succeed at what they’re trying to do, or are there independent standards by which we can hold some up and push others down? It sure seems like the latter come award season.
In the days around Halloween this year I watched a few horror flicks to be festive. At a loss for where to start, I found a list of “The Top 100 Horror Movies of All Time,” scrolled straight to the top ten, and picked one from the last decade just to see where things were at. The movie was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. I was skeptical, but—whatever you think of Rotten Tomatoes’ rating system—a 92 percent critic’s score is hard to argue with. Other movies sitting pretty at 92 percent: The Departed, The Fellowship of the Ring, Boogie Nights, Rocky, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I thought I was in good hands.
I ended up being pretty disappointed (SPOILER ALERT: Not as much Hell-dragging as you might expect). It didn’t do anything for me. I called my friend, the photography degree-holding, fan-of-the-strange-and-obscure film buff for an explanation, and I could hear a familiar frustration in his voice.
“I don’t get it either,” he said. “They play by their rules.” Whatever he meant, I came away from the conversation thinking that enjoying these movies is something akin to being on the inside of old, persistent in-joke. “Don’t you know the rules?” Randy says in Scream, defending the over-the-top performances of 1978’s Halloween from his heckling peers.
I guess I’ve got some homework to do.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.