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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

on ‘Time’ magazine’s list of great horror movies

Time magazine has named its Top 25 Horror Movies, and for a publication not exactly known as a bastion of all that is hip and cool, the list is surprisingly adventurous. (Fair warning: Time.com has organized the list in such a way that you cannot see the entire list or navigate it easily: you have to click from one film to the next down the list. Sure, I could have daily page views in the millions if I pulled crap like that, too…)
The list starts out an exercise in frustration: Time’s No. 1 horor flick, Shaun of the Dead, a brilliant choice, but that is followed at No. 2 by Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, a remake of Manhunter, which only makes me wonder how big a bribe Rattner needed to grease Richard Corliss’s palm with. But then it gets interesting. Bambi, from 1942, is on the list. Corliss writes:

Amazing that the first movies parents took their tots to in the 30s and 40s were the early Disney features. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo all exploited childhood traumas. Parents disappear or die; stepmothers plot the murder of their charges; a boy skips school and turns into a donkey. Kids were so frightened by these films that they wet themselves in terror. Bambi, directed by David Hand, has a primal shock that still haunts oldsters who saw it 40, 50, 65 years ago.

I don’t remember wetting myself in terror when I saw this movie only 30something years ago, but maybe I should ask my mom.

And then there’s the final film on the list: 1896’s “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.” Corliss again:

The brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created the first publicly shown movies, the first documentaries and, with this one-shot, 50-sec. film shot at a Provence railway station, the first horror picture. It is said that as the Paris spectators watched the train chug toward the screen, they believed it was about to crash out of the frame and into the auditorium, and ran out screaming. True or not, the story indicates the power the medium would wield over its audience. The film can be seen on YouTube.

And here it is:

Corliss’s choice of these two films (as well as some of the other choices on the list, which span the entire history of cinema) as being among the greatest horror movies today raise a fascinating question: Should we continue to consider movies scary (or funny, or suspenseful) if they no longer elicit those feelings in us today? Of course they must be considered when you’re talking about a history of horror (or comedy, etc), but if you were recommending a scary movie to an audience today, would you suggest Bambi?

I might just watch Shaun of the Dead again tonight, though…

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  • misterb

    Assuming your question wasn’t rhetorical, No, I wouldn’t recommend Bambi or arrival of a train or even necessarily Shawn of the Dead as a horror movie. But my definition of a horror movie is something that would scare me (I’ll admit it, I can be a fraidy-cat at the movies) today. That said, something that would have scared me when I was a kid would probably still scare me today. But Bambi and Dumbo made me sad, not frightened. The original Frankenstein – that frightened me- but then so did Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein – so I guess I’m a little braver than I used to be.
    And Saw really scares me when I think about what’s going through the head of the audience who would choose to watch it.

  • MBI

    “And Saw really scares me when I think about what’s going through the head of the audience who would choose to watch it.”

    *rolls eyes*

  • MaryAnn

    I’m with you, misterb: I wonder about the people who actually, genuinely enjoy torture porn. It does in fact really scare me that so many people seem so desensitized to such imagery, and what it means, in the long run, in our culture that appears to have given a stamp of approval to the actual torture of real, not-in-a-movie people.

    I also wonder about people whose response to such a worry is to roll their eyes.

  • MBI

    Well, see, “Saw” and its sequels are part of a genre known as “horror.” The point of such movies is to be unpleasant, and it’s actually very popular in Japan and parts of Europe.

  • t6

    Well….may I answer this in multiple ways?

    Do I think we should include things that were important at the time but we may not see as important at the moment in our teaching of history/making of lists? Absolutely. I’m always annoyed when MTV/Rolling Stone/VH1 makes a list of the 100 best songs of all time, and 90% of them are from the 60s and early 70s. The Rolling Stone people should try to look beyond their own boomer-blinders and recognize the importance of other people besides the people they liked in college.

    Similarly, when being the TA for the 19th Century part of the Music History sequence, students were getting upset that they had to learn Rossini and Meyerbeer–they wanted more Beethoven and “important” music…but we had to explain to them that the 19th Century considered French Grand Opera the important music…and quite a few folks found Beethoven just sort of ugly to listen to. We did Beethoven, but we also did the Russians and the Italians and the French and all sorts of people besides the people that we today think are the most important.

    (As an aside before I make the turn in my argument like the last six lines in a Shakespearian sonnet–I want to point out the high rediculousness of when one only looks from a presentest viewpoint: Billboard named Mariah Carey artist of the millineum…you know the best artists spanning 1000-1999…according to Billboard Mariah Carey is better than Ethel Merman, Edith Piaf, Schubert, Hildegard von Bingen, Marie Lloyd, Rameau–who was important in finalizing tonality as we use it…I mean…come on!)

    So as for my turn. While I do think one should indeed avoid presentism and include Horror films that were scary and important at the time, even if they aren’t scary now–I think the author is wrong to include Bambi and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Mainly because, while those films scared people, they weren’t horror films. The horror film is a genre (albeit a loose one), and it seems to me, that if you are going to do a piece on the greatest Horror films, then you need to actually list horror films. If the piece were titled–The Top cinematic moments that frightened audiences…that should include the train (though I still think he’s projecting with Bambi).

  • t6

    Just to add, I think he did a good job of not only going for American films and for spanning multiple decades…dropping Bambi and the Train could allow you to include one of the Hammer horror films (which were important for the British film industy in the 1960s–I mean, one of those flicks should be there)…and you could pick up some of the other great classics not represented: The Innocents, Rosemary’s Baby, M.

    I’m not quite sure I like his only one film per director rule.

    I certainly agree with putting Alien up there, by the way.

    Now, I was out of the country for the 90s–but wasn’t Scream an important Horror film in the bringing back of the slasher genre, but with a new 90s meta vibe?

  • They wrote this about Phantom of the Opera:

    “This film was remade many times, most recently as V for Vendetta.”

    Say whaaaaaat?

  • GWB

    It seems very odd to be that Red Dragon would get on the Top 25 Horror Films list when it’s not even the best Hannibal Lecter film. It was certainly good, but nowhere near as effective as Silence of the Lambs.

  • Brett

    I still think the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the scariest effing thing I’ve ever seen.

  • The list appears to be in reverse chronological order, which gives Red Dragon a prominence that it might not have merited otherwise. (I don’t think it would stick in the craw so much if it were ranked, say, #23. You could chalk that up to individual eccentricity… or Brett Ratner slipping an unmarked envelope under your door.) It’s certainly a curious choice; I don’t dislike the film, but it’s clearly a distant third-out-of-five as far as Hannibal Lecter movies go. Did they perhaps mandate at least two horror films that were released in the last five years? If that were the case, what would folks put in that slot as an alternate? Most high-profile choices, rightly or wrong, are torture porn. Maybe The Devil’s Backbone?

    I could certainly support the inclusion of Bambi or Arrival of a Train on a list like this. Not being scary to today’s audiences cuts out a lot of horror classics that Corliss might have felt were necessary (like Jame’s Whale’s Frankenstein, which I absolutely adore, but which, let’s face it, isn’t going to freak people out the way it did in 1931). You could make a case for other irregular choices like The Wizard of Oz (which people frequently cite as the first film they saw that scared them) or Willy Wonka and the Choclate Factory (“There’s no earthly way of knoooooowwwwing… which direction we are goooooing…”), and if you open that door even a little, then Bambi becomes a legitimate option.

    Of course if you go too far, then genre boundaries start to break down and you’re recommending United 93 and Schindler’s List as sufficiently “horrifying” to be included. Like so many lists of this nature, it’s just a question of individual peccadillos.

  • t6

    Rob Vaux,

    For me, Bambi, Willy Wonka, Arrival on a Train, Wizard of Oz…just aren’t horror movies (though they may be scary). And adding them moves in that direction of United 93, Schindler’s List, Apocalypse Now, etc. Whereas Frankenstein is part of the Horror genre.

    But you ask a question about horror films released in the last five years that might take Red Dragon’s place. That is a good question. It sort of depends if you are thinking about importance/significance to the Horror genre. In which case Saw should probably be on there (as setting off the torture porn subgenre)…even though I’m not a fan of that sub-genre. Other options might include: The Ring (as bringing Japanese horror to the Western masses). And even though it is 1999, The Blair Witch Project might also be an interesting addition based on the interestingness of the hype surrounding it. One could even make a (less strong) case for Silent Hill as the video game horror translation. Or that australian one about the spelunker women?

    I mean, there are so many significant horror films that are generally not on the list…it seems wroing for Red Dragon or Bambi to be taking up spots.

    And lest you think that I just have a thing about kid’s movies, there are kid’s movies that seem to fall more squarely in the horror genre: Something Wiked This Way Comes, Escape to Witch Mountain…films like that.

    I mean, I was freaked out by Evilyn’s finger being bent backwards in The Wiz…doesn’t make The Wiz a horror film.

    The Omen…that is also missing from the list. For more unconventional films…I think I’d be more likely to go with the character driven creepy films like The Bad Seed or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

  • MBI

    “Red Dragon” isn’t even the best “Red Dragon” movie. It is not just undeserving of its spot on the list, it is undeniably a terrible film. Career-worst performances for Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, utterly botched fright sequences, and a complete and utter failure on the part of Brett Ratner to even understand what the story is about. Its placement is infuriating.

  • MaryAnn

    MBI wrote:

    Well, see, “Saw” and its sequels are part of a genre known as “horror.” The point of such movies is to be unpleasant, and it’s actually very popular in Japan and parts of Europe.

    There’s a difference, clearly, between “being unpleasant” and “pandering to the audience’s basest instincts.” The overall trend in horror films of the past few years has shifted from “sympathizing with the victims” to “sympathizing with the homicidal maniac.” To simply dismiss this criticism and concern of pop-culture watchers as “hey, it’s just a horror movie!” is overly simplistic, and does not address the issue at all. If everything is always “only a movie,” what’s the point of talking about movies at all?

    t6 wrote:

    wasn’t Scream an important Horror film in the bringing back of the slasher genre, but with a new 90s meta vibe?

    True enough, but is *Scream* actually scary? I’d argue no, that it’s not very scary at all. *Shaun of the Dead,* on the other hand, is actually as horrifying as it is funny. In my opinion.

  • MBI

    *To simply dismiss this criticism and concern of pop-culture watchers as “hey, it’s just a horror movie!” is overly simplistic.*

    I know, but you hadn’t stated your full argument yet, and I didn’t want to put words in your mouth.

    You write that it panders to the basest instincts. Now I disagree that that’s a bad thing in and of itself right there. Good art isn’t always good for you, otherwise all the movie critics would be sitting around reading Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets or whatever. You can’t say you’ve never rooted for the bad guy.

    Moreover, I reject the notion that we sympathize with the killer in torture porn. The fact that it’s so graphic and gross is actually what keeps us from sympathizing with Jigsaw; the graphic nature of it cuts through the irony. And I don’t buy that torture porn fans are the ones supporting torture. The deaths aren’t real, they’re makeup and prosthetics. If all they wanted was gore, they’d watch the Nick Berg beheading online, which I imagine would make a lot of horror fans vomit.

    What genuinely does scare me is shit like “The Brave One,” which legitimizes what should not be legitimized by putting the gun in the hand of nice, sympathetic people rather than a homicidal maniac, and downplays the actual violence. That’s where your torture supporters are coming from, not Saw. If people are rooting for Jigsaw, he’s still an antihero and not a genuine hero.

    Besides, the Saw sequels usually have at least one sympathetic victim (not including the first one; Cary Elwes couldn’t cut his leg off fast enough for my taste). In the other big horror porn franchise, Hostel, the torturers are clearly repulsive and not even good anti-heroes.

  • Rykker

    While Shaun will remain one of my most favorite films until the day I die, I have trouble seeing it as one of the top horror films, simply because the humor defused that aspect of it for me.

    When I think “good horror flick”, I think The Exorcist, especially The Version You’ve Never Seen… when she walks down the stairs, bent over backwards on all fours… Holy Hell.

  • MBI

    Now, if I can backpedal a bit, I understand your complaints with Saw II. The whole point of much of it is killing the victims. I don’t think the fact that we root for them to die is reason alone to call it a bad movie, but there’s got to be a good reason that we want them to die. Jason kills his victims because they’re mindless, worthless hedonists and they have to be killed because they’re wasting valuable air. We find out nothing about much of the Saw II characters, and that’s the worst thing about it. They represent nothing, and they have to represent something for their deaths to matter. I do think it’s partially redeemed by the Donnie Wahlberg plotline, though.

    And regardless, I maintain that your inflight movie as you’re rendered to a secret prison will be something like “Walking Tall,” not “Saw II.”

  • Mark

    I agree with Rykker about Shaun. I LOVE that movie, but due to the humor, it does not count as a right proper horror movie to me.
    Also, The Exorcist does nothing for me. Not scary in the least. Granted, I haven’t seen the “Version You’ve Never Seen” but I doubt it would make a difference. I always thought that people found that movie scary because they actually believe there is a Satan who could possibly do such a thing. As I am quite positive that none of that BS really exists, the movie doesn’t scare me.
    I think the inclusion of Bambi and the train “movie” is ridiculous. Maybe a separate list for frightening moments in not so frightening movies?

  • MaryAnn

    Good art isn’t always good for you

    MBI, are you suggesting that the *Saw* movies are “good art”?

    As I am quite positive that none of that BS really exists, the movie doesn’t scare me.

    I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in Satan, either, but that’s never stopped me from finding *The Exorcist* — or, even moreso, *The Omen* — terrifying.

    I don’t believe in Sauron, either, but he sure scared the shit out of me.

    What matters is whether you can believe in the villain *within the context of the story.*

  • Rykker

    What matters is whether you can believe in the villain *within the context of the story.*

    Yep, the ability to do that is what makes it work. I, too, am an atheist, but The Omen and The Exorcist are two of my favorite horror films.

  • Mark

    Yeah, I realized after I wrote it that what I said didn’t make much sense. You don’t have to believe in something for it to scare you. I’ve always found the original Nightmare on Elm Street to be pretty scary, and I sure as hell don’t think Freddy is waiting for me under my bed. Same for Michael Meyers.
    That being said, I’m not sure WHY The Exorcist doesn’t work for me. hmph.
    I didn’t like the Omen either. I found it boring, and terribly UN-scary.
    I think the last thing in a movie that scared me was in The Ring when the girl came out of the TV. Too cool.

  • misterb

    Here’s my theory of horror:
    There are 2 kinds of scare -> 1) suspense 2) shock.

    As was mentioned previously in the blog, your generation has an impact in how you view movies – boomers like me were raised on Hitchcock and crave suspense where the younger generations don’t have the patience. They want their shock after shock after shock. So when I’m dissing “Saw”, I’m really just outing myself as an oldster. Actually, I’m fine with that – I stand by my original statement.

  • t6

    Hey now Misterb!

    My mom is a boomer and a big fan of horror…and I learned quite early on that boomers had a bunch of shock horror movies as well as suspense thrillers. Just as today there are still suspense thrillers in addition to shock horror. Let’s not throw around generationalist stereotypes.

    As for hitchcock…he started making films in the 1920s…well before the baby boom…and after 1960’s Psycho, he stopped making films so regularly (only making 6 more). The baby boom is generally considered ranging from 1946-1964…which makes a whole bunch of boomers not actually old enough to have “grown up” with him. He directed 66 films, and 40 of them were before 1946. The boomers are as much, if not more, Hammer Horror than they are Hitchcock.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, I’m an Xer, and I infinitely prefer Hitchcock to *Saw.*

  • Mo

    I think those generational comments are really interesting, actually.

    When I was in about fourth or fifth grade, all of a sudden everyone was obsessed with these kids horror books like Goosebumps and Fear Street, and with TV shows like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” (not sure if that one was only on in Canada or not…) I never liked them, but many of my classmates devoured them- kids who didn’t even like reading went through hundreds. Every possible situation, hokey or genuinely terrifying was old news by the time they were 10 or 12, and much younger kids started reading and watching at the same time too.

    The thing is, I’m in my mid 20s now, and those people still love horror every bit as much as they did, but nothing scares them anymore- they were completely desensitized before they were even teenagers.

    Only a theory I have, there may be nothing to it, but I can’t help but wonder if that may have something to do with the origins of torture porn (awesome term for it, by the way) especially where the core audience is in their early to mid 20s from what I understand. The same age as the little 8-year-old kids who were reading Goosebumps in the early 90s…

  • Signal30

    As someone that literally grew up at the drive-in being weaned on horror, I’d almost agree about the desensitization aspect… but not quite.

    Occasionally, a horror film will still sneak in, chew me up and spit me out. Last one to put me through the wringer was 28 Weeks Later. The last half hour of The Descent before that.

    But they’re rare and have been since the Empty-Vee style of editing kicked in, which is conducive to jolts, but not really for suspense. The two films I cited still use that approach, but in the hands of filmmakers who know what Teh Scary is.

    Without a grasp of basic psychology and a reliance on flash, horror films pretty much fail to be scary anymore. They fail not because the audience is too jaded, but because the filmmakers assume the audience expects a horror film to be bad.

    Maybe the problem is that it seems that most people making horror anymore just don’t seem to have creative minds housed in their tiny little skulls.

  • Henry Poask

    Shaun of the dead’s got nothing on Dawn of the dead ’76.
    My problem with Shaun being number 1 is, when you finish watching it, your smiling.When the movie finishes,you know the film did its job, when you turn the lights off at night and you don’t know whats going to happen.I like my horror movies to give me nightmares.As far as Bambi goes , just proves it isn’t a regular horror list. Must be like movies that have scary subliminal messages.

  • Henry Poask

    Come to think about this whole disney thing. I thought Monstro in Pinocchio was scary when I was 4.That was then this is now. I don’t like “Saw” , but I give up ,I go see the saws because I rather see saw then this Oscar stuff that the media forces me too view.
    However you cant say heres a horror list then be like “heres some scary movies, and did you know disney movies are secretly fucked up”. You write stuff like that in the next episode of time.
    Then be like ” oh yeah best horror movie ever, “Shaun of the dead” you know the one thats hardly a horror movie, the one that makes a mockery of the whole genre”.
    I’ll take Evan Rachel Wood hostage, and I’ll keep her till they start making some serious films Much like the ones John Carpenter and Tobe Hopper made. I’ll take her hostage, and she’ll be like “are you a fan? did you see my movie a cross the universe” and I’ll be like “no i didn’t bitch”

  • MaryAnn

    I was gonna delete Henry Poask’s comment as being both nearly indecipherable and ickily threatening, but then there’s this:

    I go see the saws because I rather see saw then this Oscar stuff that the media forces me too view.

    I love this kind of idiocy. “Oscar stuff” movies of late are tanking at the box office while shit like *Saw IV* makes a ton of money, and yet Henry feels that he is somehow being “forced” to see movie he doesn’t want to see.

    If “the media” is holding a gun to heads of folks like Henry, who just want their torture porn and not any of that serious crap, then “the media” is doing a piss-poor job of it.

  • Henry Poask

    Its not that i feel the media is holding a gun to my head. The feeling is more mental.Like going to a see movie that would seem to keep my attention makes me dumb.I’m not trying to defend saw. Thats why I mentioned better horror films. Halloween, dawn of the dead, my name ” Henry Portrait of a serial killer “. Movies that should have toped that list. Not some Simon Peg fun fest. Thats like saying 40 year old virgin is the top romance movie of all time. Since it is equally funny as it is romantic.
    Now if I could explain the “icky” part, with Evan Rachel Wood, she is like the poster person for sundance. Sundance used to take risk and make new stuff. But now they just make smug stuff. Movies where the rich fall in love and get more rich and the poor get castrated. hence Evan Rachel wood movies and Wes Anderson films

  • Yes, that list definitely left a lot to be desired.

    As much as I liked “Shaun of the Dead”–and I happened to like it a lot–putting it on a list of top horror movies is like putting the original “Young Frankenstein” on a list of top movie musicals.

    Oh, well. At least Time Magazine didn’t list the top ten top-grossing horror films of the last decade and pretend that they were the best of all time like some periodicals are all too prone to do.

    And in honor of the previous comment, a lost quote from the 20th century:

    F. Scott Fitzgerald: The rich are very different from us.
    Ernest Hemingway: Yes,they are. They have more testicles.

  • henry

    Too the person quoting in my favor, Those quotes don’t serve my post any justice.Honoring me with The great Gatsby wont cut it.I guess in a way Evan Rachel Wood is kinda like Daisy. A gold digger with no heart. So your quote is some what Justifying.
    I dont see why young frankenstein cant be on the list, as long as the original was higher on the list.

  • MaryAnn

    Not some Simon Peg fun fest. Thats like saying 40 year old virgin is the top romance movie of all time. Since it is equally funny as it is romantic.

    Corliss is NOT saying that *Shaun* is the best horror movie ever because it’s as funny as it is scary. He’s saying that it is notable because it takes the horror movie in a new direction and find new stuff to say within the genre. And I agree with that, and not just because it’s both funny and scary — that’s been done before, as with the Evil Dead movies — but because it’s funny and scary *and* actually touching. That is quite a feat.

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