Horror Cinema—Cult Fiction
Horror movies first broke into the film scene well over a hundred years ago, with the earliest monsters being the evergreen Dracula, Frankenstein, and the like. Devout horror fans claim that the experience of facing their most primal fear without any consequences or danger whatsoever was strangely cathartic. However, this sentiment is shared only by a handful of people.
Horror films began to draw a cult following primarily in the 70s with the rise of midnight movie screenings and cinema revival houses. Film enthusiasts specifically visited repertory theatres for the aesthetic and artistic nuances of the films screened—a majority of which went unappreciated by the mainstream audience. A movie is often considered a cult classic if it has been rescued from obscurity and has gone to develop a large, devoted fan base. The horror genre has seen quite a few films that have garnered a huge fan base due to their transgression from cultural norms—these films often contain excessive violence, gore and strong language that brought about the initial backlash.
Many a time, it is purely the controversy surrounding the films that sensationalise them. Horror films routinely delve into taboo topics that irk the general audience and more importantly, the censor board. The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that came out in 1974 was banned in many countries for its gory imagery that included slicing, dicing, and bone-crushing. Director Tobe Hooper insisted that most of the horror was implied and there were hardly any actual bloody visuals—it all lay in the brutally realistic feel of the movie. The impending sense of doom, particularly in the disturbing cannibal dinner scene, was too palpable for viewers then and there were reports of people fainting at theatres or even just leaving halfway, unable to stomach the horrors.
Cannibal Holocaust hit the big screens in 1980 and is often regarded as one of the most controversial films ever made. The director, Ruggero Deodato, faced a murder charge in Milan with a supposed body count of three actors, but he was let go on account of the actors presenting themselves in court, without so much as a scratch on them. The court summon came in as a result of unsettling and downright alarming depictions of female genital mutilation as a punishment for adultery, male dismemberment, animal mutilation, and people being ripped apart flesh from bone. It later came to light that the animals were indeed harmed, there were no SFX involved for these scenes and that turtle did have all its organs splayed out on display. Both of these films are still banned in many countries but have made their way into horror fans’ hands by word-of-mouth, DVDs, and now easily available online streaming. The widespread rage against such socially offensive movies was counter-productive as piqued fans’ interests had popularised the movies.
A majority of horror films are made with a low-budget and an uninspired storyline, often resulting in the production of a repetitive experience without much to offer in terms of ‘scares’. For this very reason, the genre as a whole is treated with a dismissive hand by critics and award shows alike. On the rare occasion when a horror film does manage to gain mainstream recognition for its storyline, acting, or technical brilliance, it gets categorised as a different genre— a psychological thriller, extreme drama—anything but horror. ‘Silence of The Lambs’, a serial-killer horror film was critically acclaimed as a technical masterpiece. However, it is more often than not written off as a conventional thriller. Of late, the film industry has received backlash for its use of the term ‘elevated horror’ to distinguish good horror films from the bad, particularly with the recent successes of films such as A Quiet Place and Get Out. Dan Berlinka, a BAFTA-winning writer-producer, recently admitted to pitching his new supernatural tv show The A-List, as a thriller-chiller to avoid having to deal with the negative connotations that come with the ‘horror’ tag.
This continuous condescension has led to the formation of cult followings that take pride in their enjoyment of films shunned by the mainstream. There is a strong sense of elitism that fans gain from seeking out bizarre, underappreciated films. Suspiria, for instance, was both loved and criticised for its campiness and remains a classic to date. The film’s strikingly colourful cinematography and surrealist appeal brought a whole new dimension to the genre that not many have been able to replicate ever since.
Moreover, many horror movies are enjoyed not as the severe scare fest they were made to be—but as a parody, instead, with the outright absurdity of their special effects and questionable acting. In fact, the ‘so bad, it’s good’ formula is a known route to cult success. Wicker Man came out in 2006 and was an unintentional horror-turned-comedy with its endlessly hilarious scenes.
Although, this is not always the case, as Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘The Shining’, was a glowing exception. Even though, Shelley Duvall’s eerily realistic portrayal of wide-eyed, trembling Wendy and Jack Nicholson’s maniac dad act was done to near perfection, this Stephen King book-adaptation, initially received several damning reviews. The author himself went so far as to say that Wendy Torrance was presented as a “screaming dishrag,” unlike the character in the book. However, in retrospect, critics were much warmer and began to appreciate the underlying slow burn terror that doesn’t make the viewer jump but stirs a deep sense of discomfort all the same.
“The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.”
– Variety, 1980
Horror’s fanaticism extends across several languages and regions. Movies from different places from all over the world have various intriguing methods of storytelling that draw heavily from their respective religious and cultural backgrounds. For instance, Japanese horror has had a steadfast influence on the West for the past few decades, with several adaptations of films that were a hit with the Japanese audience. It has even led to the birth of a new subgenre, J-horror. The success of Hideo Nakata’s 1988 film ‘Ringu’, on the regional and international level led to Hollywood looking to the East for some much-needed inspiration. East-inspired films gave viewers a respite from the body horror and jump scares as they started to explore psychological fears. The Ring remake, however, wound up reverting to its American ways, having more jump scares than subtle beneath-the-surface horror. Both the films were commercially successful as they received immense praise from the critics and fans alike.
Over the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of horror movies that rely on the more authentic, deeply terrifying societal anxieties that hit too close to home. The relatability of these fears that transcends beyond visual scares now resonates with a wider audience and has begun to shed light on the versatility of the horror genre. Whether this new wave of unconventional films will make it to the cult Hall Of Fame is yet to be seen, but they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve, which in itself is a commendable feat.
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