Why Are Horror Movies Never Critically Praised?

I was flicking through the movie channels yesterday when I came across the classic cult ‘Carrie’ (1976) starring a very young and terrifyingly terrific Sissy Spacek as well as John Travolta pre Saturday Night Fever fame. The flick is not only a perfect horror movie, but it ticks all the boxes for the American Film Institute criteria on what films should be selected for the prestigious Top 100 Films Of All Time List. It was a critical and box office hit, but most importantly it has lasting influence – there is not a Halloween that goes by when someone doesn’t dress up as a blood covered Carrie and most movie enthusiasts are aware of the iconic scene where she gets covered by pigs blood when accepting her prom queen win. So why did this AFI top 100 nominated movie fail to make the list?

Spacek gets her revenge in ‘Carrie’ 1976

Generally movie critics (who I assume make a large proportion of the American Film institute voting body) have a distaste for horror movies – well when you have crass films like Piranha 3DD (2012) or unimaginative flicks like Freddy VS Jason (2003) it’s not hard to understand why the genre has a bad rep. So unsurprisingly horror films get little representation on the 1998 and 2007 AFI Top 100 Movie List. Can Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece Psycho (1960: AFI 1998#18, 2007#14) or the epitome of the classic gothic story Wuthering Heights (1939: AFI 1998# 73) be considered horror? ‘Psycho’ has a strong case as does ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991: AFI 1998#74, 2007 #65).

The nineties sleeper hit may technically be a thriller/ crime movie, but there are so many elements of horror that I think it can be lumped in that category plus I was shit scared for the most of it. It’s also one of those pictures where you think you’ve seen it before because you remember all the iconic scenes like when Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins creepily tells Clarice how he ate one of his victims. But I thought I must completely watch it from start to finish because there are some parts I can’t piece together.

After viewing the first ten minutes I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen it from the beginning. I didn’t realise that Clarice, played by the ever versatile and Oscar-winning Jodie Foster, was a rookie FBI agent who had reluctantly been persuaded by her superior to get in the mind of cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter to help solve a case of serial killer Buffalo Bill. I’m not sure if in realty the FBI would seek help from a psychopath, it seems pretty far-fetched to me, but then again so are most horror films.

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in their Oscar-winning roles 

Over the years Hannibal Lecter has a comical and somewhat camp persona, I first introduced to him when I watched the prequel Hannibal (2001) in the cinema and vividly recall the audience laughing when he murdered is victims, especially when he ate the brains off Ray Liotta whilst he will still conscious and at the dining table – so to say his character gave me a sleepless night in this 1991 Best Picture Winner is perhaps an over-exaggeration, but then again he was truly frightening when he escapes his incarceration, which suggests why he was voted the Top Villain Of All Time 

‘Silence Of The Lambs’ trailer 

Perhaps the supporting character Buffalo Bill terrified me more, not only was he truly disturbed for killing woman for their skin in order for him to make a body suit, but he was loosely based from real murderers –  Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy and Ed Gein – with the latter also inspiring Norman Bates in ‘Pyscho’ (1960) and Leatherface in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'(1974). Nothing thrills a horror geek more than believing some of the plot is based on true events – although that term is used so loosely in almost all movies of this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if a scary movie about a giant people eating dinosaur would have a ‘based on true events’ disclaimer.

Hopkins gets into character on the set of ‘Silence ff The Lambs’

‘Silence of the Lambs’ may not be a traditional horror movie, in fact it combined traces of horror, thriller and crime to create its own genre which inspired movies like ‘Kiss the girls’ (1997) and even television programmes such as CSI (2000 – 2015). For inspiring a string of thoughtful and psychological thrillers that came after I give it a 3.5 out of 5.

Ted Levine plays the disturbed ‘Buffalo Bill’

Perhaps in the Twentieth Edition of the Top 100 Films of all time the AFI committee could consider more classic and traditional horror movies like ‘The Shining’ (1980), ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) or the amazing and perhaps my personal favourite ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) to feature in the coveted list.

Hitchcock’s Leading Men At Their Best

In the UK we have recently been treated to Saturday matinée showings on BBC2 from the master of suspense. I have made it clear from my previous blogs how much of a fan I am of Alfred Hitchcock’s so my expectations were once again high when watching ‘Rear Window’ and ‘North by Northwest’. Both films appeared on the 1998 and 2007 AFI top 100 movie list and starred perhaps my favourite leading men of the Golden Age period Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant.

Once again I made my brother Sati watch them with me, I’m trying to rope in my Dad but for some reason he doesn’t seem too bothered in going through the list. I think he is upset that none of the Dirty Harry movies or Westerns starring Clint Eastwood are featured in the ‘Hundred years, Hundred movies’ countdown so dismisses it as rubbish. To think of it the only Eastwood movie included is ‘Unforgiven’(#98, #68) which was made years after his prime – I’ll let Dad know when I get to it.

Before I played ‘Rear Window’ (1998 #42, 2007 #48) I told Sati ‘You’ll know the story’ – obviously I was referring to Simpson’s tribute in ‘Bart of Darkness’ when Bart breaks his leg, is confined to his room and suspects Flanders of killing his wife, which is pretty much the synopsis of the 1954 original. Although Stewart is a photographer and not a yellow 10-year-old cartoon character and rather than having Lisa as his sidekick he has the ever glamorous Grace Kelly who Sati refers to as ‘Boom’ which I think is a good thing. Perhaps my favourite character is Stella the maid played by Thelma Ritter who like the two main characters has her suspicions the whereabouts of the wife of neighbour played by Raymond Burr. So what if she is a carbon copy of her character in ‘All about Eve’ her sharp one liners brings humour to the screenplay which is much-needed in this rollercoaster of suspense.

The Simpsons pay homage to ‘Rear Window’ in ‘Bart of Darkness’

Kelly is as usual competent in her supporting role and despite the huge age gap between her and the protagonist their romance is believable. It doesn’t seem creepy – It just works. The film is a shot in a typical Hitchcock stylish manner – his love for panoramic wide shots is evident in this movie as wells as his fascination for voyeurism which is explored further in Psycho (1960). It is the epitome of a Hitchcock movie so if you have never been fortunate to see one of his movies then start with this. The pace of the movie is faster than ‘Vertigo’ (#61, #9) so you are at the edge of your seat throughout. I give this 4 out of 5 stars.

James Stewart gets nosey

Last night I finally managed to view ‘North by Northwest’ (#40, #55) which is dubbed as the blueprint for all the James Bond movies that followed suit. Rumour has it that Grant (who was a Bristolian) was first asked to play the iconic double agent, but turned it down because he only fancied playing it once and didn’t want to get bogged down in the franchise. I and Sati agree it was a right move; it would ruin his legacy if he was always associated with the famous Martini drinking English man – although it may save me from explaining to the youngins who he actually is when I mention him. Either way the role fits Cary like a glove – he is perfect as advertising executive mistaken for a double agent who is pursued across the country by an organisation hoping to prevent him from interfering with their plans to smuggle government secrets. Like Ritter his charisma and wit bring some light relief to the film.

Timeless Style Icon - Cary Grant's photo in a barbershop in South West London

Timeless Style Icon – Cary Grant’s photo in a barbershop in South West London

The plot is more complex than any Hitchcock movie I’ve seen but it makes even more exciting. Eva Marie Saint speaks about North by Northwest of ‘On the Waterfront’(#8, #19) fame and still going strong at 90 years old play his love interest. Perhaps she can be viewed as the prototype for the typical bond girl we have come to know and love in modern cinema – she possess as the qualities of one: extremely beautiful (Hitchcock sure loved his blondes) but with a dark secret and extremely untrustworthy. You never know if she is on the side of Grant or out to frame him until the end.

The budget for this was a whopping $4.2 million which seems like pennies today, but in 1959 it took you a long way. This movie is as close as Hitchcock got to a full-blown action blockbuster and he put the budget to good use in the famous plane chasing scene and the climax at Mount Rushmore where the two leads are chased by the perpetrators to the historic landmark. There are moments in final scenes when even I was feeling like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. My only complaint is that like most Hitchcock movies the ending seems abrupt – 4.5 out of 5 for this.

69 seen – 54 left to go