More Horror Than Horror: The Trouble With Genre
If you’ve seen films like The Road or We Need to Talk about Kevin or the more recent Nothing Bad Can Happen, you likely know that there is bleak and then there is black-hole bleak, films that are so dark they make you lose faith in humanity. When bleak films have classic horror elements such as supernatural entities, classifying them as “horror” is easy enough. What happens, however, when they are firmly set in reality?
1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is considered a “psychological horror film” by Wikipedia. Tony, directed by Gerard Johnson in 2009, is described as “British social realist comedy/drama” on Wikipedia. It’s also based on a serial killer, one Dennis Nilsen. Although there are definitely comic elements, it’s a nasty bit of work, one with enough gore and grime to make you feel like you need ten hot showers.
So where do we draw the line? Is realistic horror somehow less horrific than vampires, zombies, or masked serial killers who can’t be killed? That scene in The Road where Viggo Mortensen’s character discovers the people in the basement is burned forever into my brain as a genuinely horrifying moment. Most of the time I spent watching We Need to Talk about Kevin my stomach was in knots because I knew something terrible was going to happen and that no one would believe Eva when she tried to warn people about Kevin.
Nothing Bad Can Happen consists of a series of increasingly awful scenarios set into motion by Benno (an adult) to torment Tore (a teenager). If you’ve seen that film, you’ll remember the cat scene, the garbage scene, or the scene in the trailers. How are the egregious acts depicted NOT horror?
These kinds of movies often get tossed into the “genre” category which is a polite way of saying “we know this movie is scary but we don’t know what the hell to do with it.” Not that movies like the ones I’ve mentioned need to be categorized to be good (or effective), but imagine how difficult it is to market these or get them distributed.
That’s the real problem. These are the kinds of movies that tend to be ignored, vilified, or forgotten altogether. Although We Need to Talk about Kevin snagged a BAFTA for Tilda Swinton, The Road received only limited release and its box office returns were only slightly higher than its budget. Nothing Bad Can Happen received both boos and cheers at its Cannes premiere, and to date has earned a paltry $4K worldwide from its purported half-million budget.
No matter the budgetary limitations, these kinds of frightening, unclassifiable films will continue to be made, but in a cinematic landscape dominated by blockbuster franchises, it’s become increasingly difficult to get them financed. By opening up the horror landscape to more varied fare, from both critical and audience perspectives, we can, however, ensure that that they don’t get lost in the shuffle and that those who want to make them are able to do just that.