Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Call of Cthulhu: Gimme That Old-Time Religion

"The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
                                                                                                                        - H.P. Lovecraft

I've been on sort of a downer lately - two posts criticizing movies I felt fell short (or apart), and then a post praising one of the most disturbing and bleak films in recent history. I want to lighten things up a bit, so this week I want to talk about an adaptation of a story by H.P. Lovecraft.

Yes, H.P. Lovecraft is "lightening things up a bit."

The Call of Cthulhu is an adaptation of the short story by the same name, and is easily one of the better adaptations of Lovecraft's work I've seen. I have a soft spot for his particular brand of cosmic horror - the idea that there are monolithic alien…things…lurking out there in the dark, really resonates with me. It's a good spin on the "things are much worse than you originally thought" approach to horror, upping the stakes from the merely supernatural to something bigger and less easily comprehended. Ghosts? No problem - put their soul at rest. Werewolves? Pshaw - make some silver weaponry and you're all set. Vampires? Crosses, garlic, sunlight…or, in the case of the Twilight stories, puberty.

But ancient creatures from beyond time and space, waiting on the fringes of reality to devour us all? You are straight-up fucked.

Unfortunately, Lovecraft's stories haven't always aged well - they are a product of an older, more genteel time (albeit with some pretty appalling ideas about race and gender roles), and their florid prose and tendency to dance around the monstrous details can make them more quaint than frightening to the modern reader. Attempts to bring Lovecraft's stories into film usually involve a modern setting, and in my (limited) experience tend to suffer as a function of low budgets - it's hard to scare people with monsters from beyond time and space when you can see the strings and zippers. The ideas themselves are pretty timeless, it's the aesthetic and technical constraints that limit their impact.

The people who made The Call of Cthulhu found an inventive way around both of those. The film is made in the style of a silent film - it is The Call of Cthulhu as it would have been presented at its time of publication, neatly circumventing the problem of language and making budgetary constraints entirely period-appropriate. We're seeing a horror film as it would have been in its time, had it existed - like a piece of speculative fiction come to life. So that's pretty ambitious.

Equally ambitious is the story they're tackling - The Call of Cthulhu takes place mostly within nested flashbacks as three separate narratives, each of which occurs as a piece of a larger story being assembled by a narrator as he reviews the notes of his deceased granduncle. A strange sculpture made by a delirious artist in Rhode Island,  a bizarre, primitive ritual in New Orleans, a narrow escape from death on an expedition to Greenland, a drifting, derelict ship, occupied by a sole surviving crewman - what connects all of these things? As the narrator reads these accounts, we see them played out on the screen. As he pieces it together, so do we, coming to realize what the implication is -  what horrible thing is waiting to rise out there. We are even allowed to share in the narrator's nightmares and hallucinations.

The use of a silent film style here isn't quite note-perfect - there are still a few little things here and there which give away its more modern origins, but not many. The acting is appropriately over-expressive, the titles and captions equally hysteric. The makeup and lighting are stark, expressionistic at times. Everything about the aesthetic was absolutely necessary in the age of silent films; in a modern context it lends everything a slightly alien feel (only too appropriate for the subject matter). When the story really picks up steam (with the tale of the derelict ship), the effects used to depict the intrusion of another world into our own are both period-appropriate and inventive - it would have been the Lord of the Rings of its time. As I watched the climax, I found myself saying "man, people would have been shitting themselves at this in 1928."

This probably isn't the result you want for a horror movie - admiring detachment isn't the same thing as fright, and this is not the scariest movie I've ever seen. "Spooky" is probably a better description.  But as a diversion from more direct, intense, uncompromising modern films, it is refreshing. As a silent film, it marries form with intent, it handles an ambitious narrative economically, and it brings a classic horror story to life in a way that a modern adaptation couldn't.

It takes us on a journey - a glimpse into an alternate past where the latest from H.P. Lovecraft was the most-anticipated horror film of the year.  And after a couple of really shitty movies (both of which borrow from Lovecraft to varying degrees of formality) and one which, while a solid, worthwhile piece of art, is horror as far from cosmic as you can get, illustrating every ugly corner of the human psyche - well, this was like settling in with a glass of wine and a favorite old book or radio play. A reminder of another time, comforting in form as discomforting in intent. The peace and safety of a new dark age.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Srpski Film: How Much Art Can You Take?

I am writing this minutes after watching Srpski Film (A Serbian Film). I should probably give myself some time and distance to really think about the movie before offering my opinion, but I'm equally compelled to get this all down while the experience is fresh in my mind.

This is one of those rare movies that gets tagged as "truly transgressive" - comparable language as that used to describe Martyrs, À l'intérieur, and Antichrist in recent memory. Lots and lots of people saying that once you've seen this, you will wish you could un-see it. I have, as I'm sure some others do, a perverse attraction to that - how bad can a movie be? Not in the sense of "it can't be that bad" as much as  "what are the limits of what we can put into a film?" Can I bear witness to what this movie has to offer? Assuming that what is on offer is in the service of artistic expression - and the argument over whether this movie is art or exploitation comes up a lot - then I'm willing to take a look. I would submit to you that, as ugly and multiply obscene as the events of this movie are, it is not mere exploitation. This movie communicates some deeply felt ideas in a very direct, primal way. It is painful and hard to watch, but it needs to be. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be watched, but it probably won't.

Srpski Film is the tragedy of Milos, a former porn star who lives in his native Serbia with his wife and son. Milos was apparently a legend in his time, the Dirk Diggler of Eastern Europe. But that was then. Now, he lives a quiet life of "early retirement" on the money he saved before getting out of pornography. When the movie opens, the money is starting to run low - Serbia's economy is not great. Milos' wife Marija does some translation work, but it doesn't seem to be enough to pay the bills. In the past, Milos has taken quick jobs doing porn, but they're cheap, low-rent affairs compared to past work. Times are tough, and as much as Milos would like to stay out of the game, he still sometimes revisits his past glories, bottle of whiskey nearby. Milos drinks a lot of whiskey.

Enter one of the actresses with whom Milos used to work. She tells him about a job opportunity working for an eccentric director who is trying to make high-end "artistic" pornography. He wants Milos because he was the best. We don't find out how much money he's being offered, but it's enough that Marjia encourages him to do it. So it's a one-last-job story, where the guy who tried so hard to get out gets pulled right back in. Milos meets with the director, the director seems a little nuts, but it's a job, right? He's going to get a lot of money, and the only condition is that Milos will not know what the movie is about. The director doesn't want him getting distracted. He's very valuable to the director - a legend in the world of pornography for being able to achieve and sustain an erection regardless of what is going on around him.

Of course, when the cameramen are all wearing body armor and carrying sidearms, Milos notices. When Milos realizes he's going to get all of his direction through an earpiece, he gets curious.

And when he finds out that the movie is being filmed at a state home for abandoned children, Milos suspects that he's gotten himself into something very, very bad. And he's right.

I don't want to say much more than that, because people should go into this movie blind. It should hurt and shock and stay in your head. It should not be reduced to a series of "scenes" or "gross parts." Suffice it to say, terrible, terrible things happen to people in this movie. People are completely broken and ruined in this movie, in no uncertain terms, under the unflinching gaze of one camera or another. It is as Roger Ebert described The Human Centipede (First Sequence) - "It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine." I don't know how else to put it.  But there are specific themes and ideas to explore here beyond the atrocities.

Calling this movie A Serbian Film stakes its place - it says that this is what happens in Serbia. It also places itself in opposition to Western filmmaking traditions. American slasher films place violence as a response to sex - go into that cabin in the woods to make out, and you'll be the first to die. In Srpski Film, violence and sex are inseparable - the sex is rough and impersonal and given as much screen attention as the violence, and the violence happens during sex or as a consequence of sex, not as a response to it. Children - all but sacred in American filmmaking - are not spared here. Horrible things happen to them too, and nobody is there to make it all better. Perhaps worst of all, everything is presented without the shoddiness or amateurishness you could use to dismiss it as exploitation. This is a well-made, slick-looking movie. This was not a quickie to appeal to a lowbrow audience of gorehounds. This movie was made with technical and thematic care. They wanted to do this. That might be the hardest part of all.

This is a world in which men have been reduced to beasts - actresses work with both with little distinction, Milos is restrained like a penned bull, actors are dosed with horse aphrodisiac. Milos the porn star is a quiet, intelligent man, gentle and loving with his family, but capable of violence in an instant. His brother, Marko, is the more respectable one - a police officer (albeit corrupt), but he brims and seethes with repression. His desires break through to the surface in odd, stunted ways. None of these surface characteristics matter in the end. Ultimately, they are bodies to be used as weapons. Civilization doesn't last. Women populate this movie, but have little power - they are mostly naked, mostly interchangeable, and even those with influence, with a role beyond victim, end up violated, sometimes even by their own hand. Men with guns and nightsticks are around every corner, cameras in hand, keeping everyone and everything under surveillance, servants of silent men in nice suits.

And into this world come the children of these men and women, only to be victimized themselves. This is the point the director of the film-within-the-film makes, and it is the point Srpski Film makes. We are fucked, this movie says without coyness or allusion. We are fucked from the cradle to the grave.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Autopsy: Lots of Bits All Sewn Back Together

Immediately after I wrote my post on Mortuary, Autopsy came to mind. They work well as a set, as an exercise in comparison and contrast.

Both are reasonably low-budget horror movies with some solid mid-tier talent involved.

Both evoke part of the normal procedure for handling the dead.

Mortuary went straight to video, Autopsy got theatrical release as part of Horrorfest.

was generally panned by the enthusiast press, Autopsy got a positive reception.

The contrasts bug me. Not because I thought Mortuary deserved better (it really didn't), but because I think Autopsy is also a big mess. Mortuary was a narrative mess - it couldn't settle on one story to tell. Autopsy has a single story to tell - a reasonably clear narrative line - but tonally, it's all over the place.

The movie opens with a bunch of teens partying in New Orleans' French Quarter - establishing shots are presented as photographs, interspersed with the action they are in the process of capturing. It's more inventive than what I usually see from what I loosely think of as teens-in-trouble movies. So we have a group of friends - a boyfriend, a girlfriend, two female friends, and a guy they've just met, and they're all drunk or high as shit.

One thing leads to another, there's interpersonal drama, and they're driving down a rural road when a man, clad only in a hospital gown, steps out in front of their car, promptly getting flattened like you do. Panic and arguing about what to do with the body sets in, but before anyone can make a decision, along comes an ambulance. The orderlies in the ambulance agree to transport the kids back to the hospital - they're pretty banged up themselves and need medical care. Pretty convenient, there being an ambulance…right there…in the middle of nowhere, Huh.

Once they get to the hospital, they see that it's pretty much deserted - one doctor, one nurse, and the two orderlies who, on closer inspection, look all kinds of sketchy. Like just-finished-serving-their-debt-to-society-that-morning sketchy. Apparently, the hospital has been running on a skeleton crew since Katrina. The kids are triaged by the nurse, who sends them to different exam rooms, leaving the less injured impatient in the waiting room. Why is it taking so long for the doctor to see everyone? Why is the hospital so empty?

And for that matter, why are there insensate, apparently-lobotomized patients roaming the hallways?

The plot is pretty straightforward - hospital empty, kids trapped, orderlies criminal, doctor and nurse batshit insane. Kids want to get out, doctor doing horrible experiments. That's the thesis, and it's not really spoiling anything. The hook for something like this isn't what's going on. It's who gets out, how, and why they're trapped there to start.

I don't have a problem with a simple narrative - case in point, Rovdyr - but even within the confines of the narrative, you need to strike a tone. Different types of movies have different types of tone - is it going to be cool and menacing? Raw and frenetic? Spare? Haunting? Brutal? Mortuary struck a tone - cheap and awkward, but still a tone - but Autopsy really feels like a few different movies stuck together. The hospital is all long, empty, echoing hallways, silence, shadows, and deserted examination rooms, like in a good haunted house movie. The protagonists are wary, argumentative, like in the sort of movie where everyone needs to stick together and whose inability to do so costs them their lives. Their interaction is tense, there's a potential for misunderstandings, betrayal. The orderlies are hard and brutal, right out of something like Hostel, and have the piles of body parts to match. Their interactions with the protagonists are casual and ugly in their violence. The doctor (Dr. Benway - that's subtle) and the nurse are histrionic - almost operatic, like something out of an Argento movie, and they provide an equally stylized climax that bears little resemblance to the rest of the film.

The setting and some of the characters lend themselves well to a grounded, realistic survival story - people disappear every year, and the idea of an abandoned hospital forgotten in the wake of Katrina is ripe for something plausible and truly harrowing. On the other hand, you have a really out-of-place drug-trip sequence and a climax as completely bonkers and improbable as the antagonists which drive it. The character of the doctor has some promise on his own - there's one sequence involving a lumbar puncture that takes an already-painful procedure and adds all kinds of layers of creepy to it - but although his motivations make sense in the context of the movie, its treatment and specifics really need to be in a much crazier movie than this one. It takes you out of whatever investment you already have, and investment - the acceptance of the film's world and a desire to see events through to the end - is critical for the movie to be effective. We follow these kids from the French Quarter down a dark backwoods road, and end up getting lied to about where we're going.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Mortuary: Meanwhile, In Yet Another Movie…

The title for this post is from one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and is best said in an exasperated tone of voice when you have no idea where the movie you're watching is headed. Not in the "I can't anticipate the next plot twist" sense, but in the "wait, where did this come from…I thought they were…what? What?" sense.

This sort of confusion isn't the only problem with Mortuary, but it's one of the big ones.

Part of any well-made horror movie  is a clear thesis. That is, we should have a good idea of the movie world's internal logic, narrative rhythm, and (within reason) a sense of what threat or types of threats the protagonists are going to face. There's always room for surprise and unusual juxtapositions, but these are effective because they riff on a set of rules that are clearly established at the start. Yanking the rug out from under someone doesn't really have the same surprise if they'd never gotten their balance in the first place.

Mortuary starts off simply enough - single mother and her two children (son and daughter) move to a small town so she can take a job as the town undertaker. It isn't really made clear what happened to the last undertaker, but it's been awhile since the town had its own (which has to suck - if there's any work you don't want to have to ship to the next nearest town, it's the handling of your dead). Mom and the kids seem a little on edge - you get the sense that this wasn't their ideal situation, the kids don't want to be in such a small town, but Mom seems glad to have the job. The fish-out-of-water trope is probably not enough to carry an entire horror movie, but it can definitely add edge to the central premise, so okay. Mom doesn't have much time to get the mortuary ready for business, so that becomes a priority.

The initial premise isn't bad, and the first look at the titular mortuary is promising as far as mood and setting go. The family will be living above the business (of course), and it's a big, old house with all of the necessary equipment in the basement. Everything has been left neglected for some time, so it's suitably decayed and creepy. Getting that sense of long-term abandonment can be tough, because it takes more than dust, cobwebs, and sheets over the furniture. This place really does look like it's been unattended for some time - there's even icky black mold on the walls and, for some reason, a lot of old bags of salt.

So, mortuary with a mysterious past, some mother-child tension, a small town. There are a few different places you could go from here. So maybe it's one of those small towns with a secret and a dislike of outsiders. The kids do have a bit of a run-in with hostile local kids, but they are so cartoonishly douchey that they break any sense of menace. You're immediately taken out of the movie with a reaction along the lines of "Jesus, who actually says or does that?" Actually, the acting is a weak link throughout. Movies don't always require subtle, nuanced, deep performances, but they should at least be un-shitty enough to not be an active distraction. There are more than a few points where I'm not just aware that I'm watching actors, but I'm actually cringing. Tough to maintain the mood like that.

Fortunately, before we can dwell on any emerging silliness,  we learn that the black mold in the mortuary basement has some interesting properties - it makes people who come into contact with it violently ill (no surprise there), as well as hostile to the point of homicidal and focused on infecting other people with the mold. Ahhhhhh, so we've got sort of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type thing where the kids and mom aren't going to know who to trust while they try to eliminate the threat! Okay...

No, wait…the mold also makes the dead come back to life. So there are also zombies.

So we've got evil mold that both brings the dead back to life and mind-controls the living. So there's this tug-of-war between what should be the paranoia and tension of a trust-nobody type story and the more direct terror of a holy-shit-the-dead-walk type story. Add to this some disruptively overwrought acting, and the whole affair feels not just disjointed and cluttered, but also tonally off - scenes that should be fraught and upsetting are somewhere between gross and comic instead. We don't feel scared, not just because we can't buy into the events at hand but also because it's too hard to know where to focus - who cares if the live people are a threat? There are dead people walking around and that's way worse. Eventually, the source of the evil mold is revealed, introducing a supernatural element (oh, did I mention the clumsy allusions to H.P. Lovecraft throughout?), and the whole thing wraps up with a cheap, incoherent jump scare that makes no sense even in the admittedly scattershot context that came before. It almost felt like the filmmakers said "well, how are we going to end this?" and then just…did, leaving the viewer to wonder both what sort of movie they were supposed to be watching, and what the point of any of it was in the end.

And, oh yeah…the director was Tobe Hooper, responsible for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Something tells me this one won't be going on any demo reels anytime soon.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Technical Difficulties - Please Stand By

I apologize for the lack of recent posts - it's not for lack of motivation or material, by any means - my home internet connection has decided to crap out at lengthy, irregular intervals, and work is very busy, so I have time but no internet, or internet but no time. I'm writing stuff online and waiting for an opportunity to bring it with me to work to post, but the whole thing is very annoying. More soon.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Living And The Dead: Things Fall Apart

Horror movies don't just evoke horror, as I probably beat to death in my last post. Horror is sometimes described as a combination of fear and loathing, and if you break that down into its component parts, there are a lot of variants and nuances on those two feelings. Maybe it's more tension or anxiety, or maybe it's more disgust or revulsion. It could be a sudden realization, it could be slow comprehension.  There are a lot of ways to be scared.

What The Living and the Dead does - and does very well - is use escalating feelings of helplessness and disorientation, along with sharply drawn shame and tragedy, to broaden horror's vocabulary.

The film opens with a graying, stubbled man staring blankly out of a window. In the distance, an ambulance approaches. We will keep returning to this moment throughout the movie. It takes the entire movie for the ambulance to reach the man at the window. The Living and the Dead operates in a space where time and experience are out of joint. It is a world in free fall.

The man at the window is Donald Brocklebank (the former Lord Brocklebank). He is staring out the window of the ancestral stately home, Longleigh House. Something terrible has happened. There is no light in his eyes. This is a man surveying ruins. Before we can ask even the first question about this man, the scene shifts to a more vital Donald, trying to make arrangements and conduct business while leaving his house for a trip. Donald is the former Lord Brocklebank because his family's estate is very close to being bankrupt. All he has left is the ancestral home, his wife, and his son.

The home is stripped bare - empty, echoing rooms, scuffs on the walls mark where paintings once were. The estate has been sold off piece by piece, and Longleigh House will go soon. His wife, Nancy, is gravely ill with what seems to be terminal cancer. Their lack of money means that Nancy cannot get an operation and Donald is going into town to sign away Longleigh House to pay for her surgery. Before he can, though, he must arrange for someone to look after his son, James. James is fully grown, but profoundly mentally ill. He requires a great deal of care and medication on a strict schedule. James is incapable of caring for himself, but insists on being allowed to act as the man of the house while his father is away, a grown man whining and throwing a five-year-old's tantrum. Donald explains, with the patience of a man who has said these same things over and over and over again without end, that the visiting nurse will be taking care of both him and his mother while he is away.

If this were some sort of commentary on Britain's class system, it would be so obvious as to be painful: The stately home with nothing on the inside, the lord with nothing left but a title, the dying mother and the idiot son. But that isn't the point, fortunately. It's just the setting. It could be any family in dire straits. It could be a far-flung McMansion in a half-developed planned community after the housing bubble burst. What's important is what comes next.

The visiting nurse is running late but Donald has to leave to get to town before offices close. So, reluctantly, Donald leaves before the nurse arrives, after carefully and patiently explaining to James that he is to let the nurse in when she gets there. Instead, James locks the nurse out, so that he can prove to his father once and for all that he is capable of being the man of the house.

Nancy - close to terminal and bedridden - is now at the mercy of a man who cannot even function at the level of a small child without powerful doses of antipsychotics and sedatives.

This is when things go very, very bad, and our understanding of conventional time and narrative begin to slip. James has little to no sense of time, and once the doors are locked, we are in his world. Time does not move, unless it moves at a manic blur. It is not a world of dosing schedules. It is a world where James cannot remember if he took his pill or not, or if he gave Mum her pills or not, so maybe everyone should get more pills, just in case. Maybe Mum should get James' pills too, because if they help James, they should help Mum too. Nancy is barely hanging on as it is, and in a series of hours, in a few rooms, she is tortured by the last person who would ever want to hurt her, and nobody can do anything about it.

Everything spirals further and further away - time peels away, causality peels away, rationality peels away, until all that is left is feverish psychosis, a tortured scream, and the still center. If this were the entire story, it would be horrifying enough, but there are twists and then there are twists, and throughout, we return to Donald, a face at the window, a man for whom everything has fallen away in one moment. There are no ghosts or monsters here, but the house and the man within are no less haunted. And we are no less frightened by all of it.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

What We Like: The Difference Between Horror Movies and Thrillers

"I have excellent news for the world: There is no such thing as New Wave.
It does not exist.
It's a figment of lame cunts' imagination, there was never any such thing as New Wave, it was the polite thing to say when you were trying to explain that you were not into the boring old rock and roll but you didn't dare to say punk because you were afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party and they wouldn't give you coke anymore...New Wave doesn't mean shit."

                                                                                                   -Claude "Kickboy Face" Bessy

So here's a thought exercise.

Picture a movie in which people are disemboweled and hung from cages, faces are cut off and worn like masks, people dance around in wigs made from human hair and scalps, and women are kept in pits in preparation for being starved, murdered, and skinned.

Straight-to-DVD gorefest? No, it's a thriller which won a bunch of Academy Awards.

How about a movie in which people are forced to eat until their stomachs rupture, wired to beds until they wither away from neglect, made to cut hunks of flesh from themselves and weigh them, fucked to death with bladed dildos,  and mailed their wives' severed heads?

Cheap torture porn exploitation trash? Nope, critically acclaimed thriller.

Hmmm. Okay, how about a movie in which a couple of people are kidnapped by a doomsday cult and struggle to escape?

Taut, suspenseful thriller? Nope, straight-to-DVD horror.

Well, crap. How about a movie in which a group of college students run afoul of some criminals in Moscow and have to escape their clutches, despite corrupt and ineffectual police?

Political thriller? No, low-budget indie horror.

So then what distinguishes a horror movie from a thriller?

I am of the opinion that although there are some characteristics which traditionally separate thrillers from horror movies, these distinctions have become less definitive of each type of movie over time, and as a result, this distinction is now more semantic and rooted in cultural expectations than anything else.

Seems to be a pretty handy way to segregate types of entertainment and maintain some sort of classist status quo as well, but I don't blame you if you're rolling your eyes at that bit.

So where to start? Where do the distinctions hold up, and where do they fall down? I'm going to talk about these two types of movies in terms of three things - what they're about, what responses they evoke, and who they are for.

Let's start with what they're about. Horror movies are customarily the province of the supernatural - ghosts, monsters, possessed objects, fantastic beasts, demons, and other assorted agents of the great beyond. There's some sort of threat, and it's a threat that a conventional, reasonable view of the world would or could not predict. The irrationality of the threat even figures in in many cases, as the threat is multiplied by the unwillingness of other people to believe that it is indeed real. The supernatural nature of the threat can also be extended to the extraterrestrial (e.g., Alien) or an otherwise natural agent with an apparently supernatural resistance to harm (e.g., Halloween, Friday the 13th) or supernatural abilities (e.g., Carrie). What's important is that the threat isn't realistic.

Conversely, thrillers deal with realistic threats. Spies, criminals, killers, etc. The exact capabilities of these assorted bad guys might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, the plots may be unrealistically complex, but unlike ghosts and werewolves and devils, spies, criminals, and murderers exist. There are still people in jeopardy, and the jeopardy (as in horror movies) may be on anything from an intimately personal to global scale, and the film's protagonists may also expect doubt and resistance from other people, but it's based on "your situation is highly unlikely", not "the threat you say exists cannot possibly exist."

The problem with this distinction is that increasingly, realistic threats are the centerpiece of horror movies as well - Hostel is at least as plausible as any spy thriller, the first Saw film stretches plausibility a little, but there's nothing supernatural about the traps Jigsaw constructs. Even going back to the late 60s, Last House on the Left is not at all supernatural. But none of these movies are generally thought of as thrillers. For that matter, some thrillers stretch the ability of their antagonists into almost supernatural territory. Serial killers, in reality, are not omnipotent criminal masterminds like Hannibal Lecter or John Doe. They don't set up elaborate tableaux like Doe does in Seven or like the killer in Anamorph. To make things even more complicated, one of the most realistic portrayals of a serial killer - Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - gets talked about more in horror terms than thriller ones. So what the movie is about isn't a reliable distinction.

So what type of response does each movie evoke? Hell, that's right in the names to start. Horror movies presumably are meant to inspire horror in viewers, and thrillers are meant to inspire thrills. There's a little bit more of a positive connotation to "thrills" than "horror" - thrills can also imply excitement. Horror doesn't really have a positive connotation.  But either way, there's a sense of rising tension and fear associated with a threat to the film's protagonists, which could also be described as dread. Whether it's Jason Bourne eluding assassins or Laurie Strode eluding Michael Myers, we simultaneously root for escape and dread finding out what failure to escape will bring.

Now, arguably, we don't always root for the protagonists in some horror movies. Maybe we are watching otherwise unsympathetic characters get slaughtered and enjoying it. But there are also revenge films where an antihero goes after the people who might otherwise be the good guys - I'm hard-pressed to find a big distinction between a bunch of callow asshole teenagers getting picked off in a horror movie like Shrooms and callous asshole cops getting picked off in First Blood. So either way, the audience is presented with an opportunity to watch what is generally a mortal struggle and invited to respond to the life-and-death events with the appropriate emotions, knowing that what we're watching is fiction, making our experience of these emotions safer than if we found ourselves in the position of the protagonists. I'm hard-pressed to find many distinctions between the two types of movies based on our response to them.

So finally, for whom are these movies made? This is where my introductory quote (from the fantastic documentary The Decline of Western Civilization) comes in. I began by saying the difference between the two types of movie is primarily semantic, but semantics are important. What we call something helps to determine what place it occupies in our culture. I already touched on this a little with the implications of calling certain types of horror movies "torture porn", which is probably apropos considering one of my favorite examples of semantic distinctions is that between erotica (whatever I like) and pornography (whatever you like).

Horror, as a genre, often carries a stigma. The term "horror fan" implies that one is a consumer of horror as entertainment (as opposed to appreciator of horror as art), and so by extension that one is entertained by the things that happen in horror movies. Since what happens in horror movies is often, well, horrifying, this suggests something unsavory about the person, and the idea of entertainment (specifically as opposed to art) also carries class connotations, to the extent that art is associated with the elite and entertainment is associated with the masses. This understanding of "horror fan" then is one of someone low-class who delights in unpleasant things. That appeals to horror fandom often hinge on some variant of this interpretation, ironic or not, doesn't help things any. Horror movies don't win awards, and are rarely acclaimed by mainstream critics.

On the other hand, thrillers often contain similar content and evoke similar feelings, but don't share the same negative connotations. Thrillers may not be appreciated as art either (and any distinctions between horror film and art - or whether there should be any or not - is yet again a whole other post), but I'd argue there's no cultural construction of the "thriller fan" that relegates them to some sort of unsavory cretin class. At worst, thrillers are a guilty pleasure of the elite. They push the same buttons as horror films, but without the same specific stigma. Call it the difference between cocaine and crack.

So, then, maybe it's the degree to which cultural elements approved of by an elite - specific actors, directors, etc. - are involved in a movie that might in some cases get them labeled as thrillers. All of the stuff that happens in The Silence of the Lambs or The Sixth Sense is straight-up horror shit. But Jonathan Demme doesn't make horror movies. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins don't star in horror movies. Bruce Willis doesn't make horror movies. So these are thrillers instead. It's the polite thing to say when you are trying to explain that you like movies that scare, upset, or disturb you but you don't dare to say horror movies because you are afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party.