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Horror & The AFI List: Live from the Overlook Film Festival

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What horror films should be added to the AFI's signature list? Do films like The Sixth Sense or Psycho count as horror? Paul and Amy debate these questions live from the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, with special guests Sam Zimmerman from Shudder and Phil Nobile Jr. from Fangoria! They ask whether fast zombies are superior to slow zombies, discuss when meta-horror films become too meta, and wonder whether a horror film needs to be a little bit trashy.

 

Next week we return to the list with 1969's Midnight Cowboy! Follow us on Twitter @Unspooled, get more info at unspooledpod.com and don’t forget to rate, review & subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. Photo credit: Kim Troxall

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I think it's weird out of all the things people used to describe a horror movie, I don't think anyone said "scary". I think that's the only real prerequisite is intending (successfully or not) to scare you.

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I was a little bit disappointed in this episode.  It's never a good sign when the panel is displaying more recency bias than the audience.  (Phil seemed to throw Amy under the bus a bit for not mentioning the dearth of horror films on the AFI list, and perhaps that explains Phil's pick, but Paul has no excuse.)  I think Amy expected people to pick classics like The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or one of the Karloff/Chaney/Legosi Universal monster movies.  Instead, she got three films that she has already covered on The Canon.  (To be fair, she also already covered The Exorcist, at the Overlook festival a year ago.  If you're keeping score, out of ScreamThe Blair Witch ProjectGet Out, and The Exorcist, all four were inducted into the Canon.)  So as it turned out, the "vote" was pretty elementary: of COURSE Night of the Living Dead would deserve a place before the other three, simply because it has stood the test of time and is as brilliant today as it must have been 50 years ago.

And pushing back against Paul's statement, I don't know if a list would need Get Out if it has Night of the Living Dead.  Look, I like Get Out as much as the next guy.  I would have voted for Get Out for a third Oscar if I could. Best horror film in my lifetime, hands down.  But it's a film that draws heavily from the racial politics of Night of the Living Dead, which did it better and more subtly in my opinion.  (Speaking of the influences of Get Out, I can't believe this episode on the best horror films doesn't even mention Rosemary's Baby.  I know, I know, the Polanski of it all, but still, how is it not worth talking about?)  And while they mentioned that AFI made a separate list, 100 Thrills, they don't go into just how shitty that list is, since it combines horror, thriller, action, and adventure films all into one hodgepodge list (Lawrence of Arabia is #23, Night of the Living Dead is #93).

While it's tempting to come here and just say, "Why wasn't the film I care about mentioned?" (in my case, that film is The Shining, which I will forever call the best horror film of all time), the fact that so few got the benefit of an in-depth discussion is disappointing.  The fact that 3 of the featured films were made in the last 25 years is a disservice to Alien and Carrie and The Thing and The Fly, not to mention all the movies from the silent era that showed how to build dramatic tension in the film genre, all the Universal monster movies, and even through the B-movie exploitation era of Castle and Corman.  I'm not the biggest horror fan, but it's a historically important and significant genre, and I know Sam Zimmerman and Phil Nobile Jr are vastly knowledgable about that history, so to not put that on display here was a bit of a bummer.  Also, obviously The Shining deserves to be on the list.

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55 minutes ago, bleary said:

I was a little bit disappointed in this episode.  It's never a good sign when the panel is displaying more recency bias than the audience.  (Phil seemed to throw Amy under the bus a bit for not mentioning the dearth of horror films on the AFI list, and perhaps that explains Phil's pick, but Paul has no excuse.)  I think Amy expected people to pick classics like The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or one of the Karloff/Chaney/Legosi Universal monster movies.  Instead, she got three films that she has already covered on The Canon.  (To be fair, she also already covered The Exorcist, at the Overlook festival a year ago.  If you're keeping score, out of ScreamThe Blair Witch ProjectGet Out, and The Exorcist, all four were inducted into the Canon.)  So as it turned out, the "vote" was pretty elementary: of COURSE Night of the Living Dead would deserve a place before the other three, simply because it has stood the test of time and is as brilliant today as it must have been 50 years ago.

And pushing back against Paul's statement, I don't know if a list would need Get Out if it has Night of the Living Dead.  Look, I like Get Out as much as the next guy.  I would have voted for Get Out for a third Oscar if I could. Best horror film in my lifetime, hands down.  But it's a film that draws heavily from the racial politics of Night of the Living Dead, which did it better and more subtly in my opinion.  (Speaking of the influences of Get Out, I can't believe this episode on the best horror films doesn't even mention Rosemary's Baby.  I know, I know, the Polanski of it all, but still, how is it not worth talking about?)  And while they mentioned that AFI made a separate list, 100 Thrills, they don't go into just how shitty that list is, since it combines horror, thriller, action, and adventure films all into one hodgepodge list (Lawrence of Arabia is #23, Night of the Living Dead is #93).

While it's tempting to come here and just say, "Why wasn't the film I care about mentioned?" (in my case, that film is The Shining, which I will forever call the best horror film of all time), the fact that so few got the benefit of an in-depth discussion is disappointing.  The fact that 3 of the featured films were made in the last 25 years is a disservice to Alien and Carrie and The Thing and The Fly, not to mention all the movies from the silent era that showed how to build dramatic tension in the film genre, all the Universal monster movies, and even through the B-movie exploitation era of Castle and Corman.  I'm not the biggest horror fan, but it's a historically important and significant genre, and I know Sam Zimmerman and Phil Nobile Jr are vastly knowledgable about that history, so to not put that on display here was a bit of a bummer.  Also, obviously The Shining deserves to be on the list.

I have to agree with you. I enjoyed the episode fine, and I like all their picks well enough (I would definitely put them all on a Top 100 Horror list), but only Night of the Living Dead comes close for me to making it on the actual “all movies/all time” AFI list - and then, only because the other proffered movies were (in my opinion) weak contenders. There’s no way ANY of those movies deserve to be on a list with Citizen Kane or 2001 or most of the movies on the AFI list. I think, in terms of an honest shot, you have to be talking about movies like The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, or Rosemary’s Baby. Frankenstein (which was on the previous list) or Bride of Frankenstein are also worthy of consideration. But Blair Witch and Scream? Really? I like them both, but on a list of “all time greats” I just don’t see it. Fun and scary? Yes. Great? No way.

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I'll cut Phil Nobile some slack, since he said he came up with his pick very quickly (Get Out) before checking the actual list and didn't realize stuff like The Exorcist wasn't already there.

Otherwise, yeah, most of these picks (except Amy's) shouldn't get bumped to the front of the line over the likes of The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, Halloween, Rosemary's Baby, etc.

As to what defines a horror, I've had as my rule of thumb that there must be some kind of malevolent physical threat to the central human characters in the story, and that threat is what drives the narrative. The threat can be something supernatural (ghosts, aliens, etc.) or it can be a human killer (a "slasher"), but it's got to be something out of the ordinary. That's kind of what rules out The Sixth Sense and why the applause seemed tepid for that one: it has ghosts, but they are not an actual threat to the central human characters. I'm not sure where serial-killer narratives fall here, since sometimes they definitely are about the horror (Halloween has got to be considered a horror movie), but sometimes they are crime dramas and mysteries without a direct threat to the main characters hanging over the story (I personally would say Seven isn't horror, since for the bulk of the movie they're just investigating crimes that have already happened, not under direct threat from the killer).

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1 hour ago, Cameron H. said:

I have to agree with you. I enjoyed the episode fine, and I like all their picks well enough (I would definitely put them all on a Top 100 Horror list), but only Night of the Living Dead comes close for me to making it on the actual “all movies/all time” AFI list - and then, only because the other proffered movies were (in my opinion) weak contenders. There’s no way ANY of those movies deserve to be on a list with Citizen Kane or 2001 or most of the movies on the AFI list. I think, in terms of an honest shot, you have to be talking about movies like The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, or Rosemary’s Baby. Frankenstein (which was on the previous list) or Bride of Frankenstein are also worthy of consideration. But Blair Witch and Scream? Really? I like them both, but on a list of “all time greats” I just don’t see it. Fun and scary? Yes. Great? No way.

I think what holds me back on Blair Witch is that it's influential but not necessarily good. They continually talked about seeing it at the time. If we're talking top 100 ad campaigns, Blair Witch deserves a spot. But it's central ideas have been done better.

Cannibal Holocaust (which I hate hate hate) used found footage nearly two decades before Blair Witch and is weirdly more believable in spots. Paranormal Activity uses it better and doesn't rely on marketing tricking you into believing it was real (it's marketing was also fantastic though).

Blair Witch really only might belong because it popularized a new genre of found footage horror.

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On 6/6/2019 at 10:25 AM, grudlian. said:

I think it's weird out of all the things people used to describe a horror movie, I don't think anyone said "scary". I think that's the only real prerequisite is intending (successfully or not) to scare you.

Probably because most people, at least the ones at a horror convention, aren't really scared by the movies as adults and watching most horror movies as an adult, it doesn't feel like what they're actually going for is actually to scare you. 

Movies like Jaws, Psycho, and Blair Witch might have succeeded the most in causing fear in adults, in the sense they made some feel anxiety or vulnerable when doing every day things they always took for granted.

Then there's the whole horror-comedy issue.

Though, if we don't go with the whole categorical schema thing we do with everything, then I'd probably go with, "anything that would have scared me when I was 6, or as an adult disturbed, unnerved, or unsettled me." But I'm sure that's incomplete as well.

On 6/6/2019 at 5:10 PM, sycasey 2.0 said:

As to what defines a horror, I've had as my rule of thumb that there must be some kind of malevolent physical threat to the central human characters in the story, and that threat is what drives the narrative. The threat can be something supernatural (ghosts, aliens, etc.) or it can be a human killer (a "slasher"), but it's got to be something out of the ordinary. That's kind of what rules out The Sixth Sense and why the applause seemed tepid for that one: it has ghosts, but they are not an actual threat to the central human characters.

How would psychological horror fit into this? i.e. the horror of losing one's mind?

I know usually these either spill over into physical violence (Repulsion, The Driller Killer) or manifest the psychological uncertainty as a physical manifestation (Bug, Take Shelter, Repulsion). 

ETA:

Trying to define horror movies in the abstract might be futile, but maybe taking more edge cases and debating those.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer came up during the Silence of the Lambs discussion. I consider that a horror film. Running against your presented definition above, I'm not sure how much of a threat the main characters are under (except to each other) since they are the threat. 

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14 hours ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

Probably because most people, at least the ones at a horror convention, aren't really scared by the movies as adults and watching most horror movies as an adult, it doesn't feel like what they're actually going for is actually to scare you. 

Movies like Jaws, Psycho, and Blair Witch might have succeeded the most in causing fear in adults, in the sense they made some feel anxiety or vulnerable when doing every day things they always took for granted.

Then there's the whole horror-comedy issue.

Though, if we don't go with the whole categorical schema thing we do with everything, then I'd probably go with, "anything that would have scared me when I was 6, or as an adult disturbed, unnerved, or unsettled me." But I'm sure that's incomplete as well.

Just because the audience isn't scared doesn't mean the movie isn't trying to scare the audience (I'll admit "scare" is limiting but frighten, disturb, unsettle, etc.). The hardcore horror audience may respond to things commonly found in horror differently but I think the intent of the film is what matters. If a horror convention attendee watches a horror movie and gets excited/happy/whatever, that doesn't negate what the film tries to do. If I watch Tootsie or The Graduate without laughing, the movies are still confused whether or not I find them funny. That's at least my take on it.

As for horror comedy, I think the line is blurry (as are all genres). A true horror comedy, to me, would be something like those middle period movies in a slasher franchise. Nightmare On Elm Street is a horror movie. By the fourth one, Freddy is still trying to scare us but he's also doing one liners. By the time we get to Freddy Vs. Jason, we're just cheering him on and laughing. So, I don't consider that horror at all even though it's bloody and violent.

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On 6/6/2019 at 5:10 PM, sycasey 2.0 said:

Otherwise, yeah, most of these picks (except Amy's) shouldn't get bumped to the front of the line over the likes of The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, Halloween, Rosemary's Baby, etc.

Right, John Carpenter's The Thing being contained in that etcetera.  I listed most of those in my far too long voicemail.

I think that of the suggestions, Night of the Living Dead would be the likeliest entry, because it would top a list factoring in both earliest with most currently influential or guiding.  It doesn't feel like a 51 year old movie, because it's too modern to have come only a year after Dr. Dolittle and King Kong Escapes, but in fact, Night of the Living Dead is closer in time to Freaks and Frankenstein than it is to us.  For that matter, Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari are closer cousins than we are.  Its line in the sand is a deep one, and that's an area that gets escalated above many other criteria on lists of this sort.

 

On 6/6/2019 at 5:10 PM, sycasey 2.0 said:

 

 

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On 6/8/2019 at 1:28 PM, grudlian. said:

Just because the audience isn't scared doesn't mean the movie isn't trying to scare the audience (I'll admit "scare" is limiting but frighten, disturb, unsettle, etc.). The hardcore horror audience may respond to things commonly found in horror differently but I think the intent of the film is what matters. If a horror convention attendee watches a horror movie and gets excited/happy/whatever, that doesn't negate what the film tries to do. If I watch Tootsie or The Graduate without laughing, the movies are still confused whether or not I find them funny. That's at least my take on it.

As for horror comedy, I think the line is blurry (as are all genres). A true horror comedy, to me, would be something like those middle period movies in a slasher franchise. Nightmare On Elm Street is a horror movie. By the fourth one, Freddy is still trying to scare us but he's also doing one liners. By the time we get to Freddy Vs. Jason, we're just cheering him on and laughing. So, I don't consider that horror at all even though it's bloody and violent.

I think intent has reasonably strong bearing.  Like how "scared" might be limiting, intent to "scare" might also be limiting.  Allowing in the disturb, unsettle, (I guess we could also include 'disgust' and 'wince in pain' for body horror - both cerebral and non-cerebral) also gets us closer.  But I think there's also some other goals that filmmakers are going for with a lot of horror movies that is in some weird area.  Lots of franchise sequels fall into this category.  I think it's the blood/kills that makes one wince - which is the reaction I think someone said was in their criteria, is really what those movies are going for.

Granted, I take a fairly expanded definition of horror, and also fine saying a film has horror elements.  And talking how much of a horror film is it, while still classifying it as a horror film.

I think David Lynch gets name-checked a lot on the, "horror elements" in movies that are not necessarily horror movies.

I think a more interesting one to consider was Silence of the Lambs.  I think the scenes where Clarisse goes down to talk to Lector, when examined would qualify as a horror movie.  After a bit though, you get the sense she's playing with psychological fire which is a type of danger, she is not in physical danger from Lector, which is probably why it's difficult to cleanly define it as a horror film.  And the physical danger, from Buffalo Bill, is undermined since Lector seems like the more supernatural presence.  Making the craziness of his basement less horrifying.

This might be apocraphyl, but I recall reading Tobe Hooper thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was hilarious and didn't get why people were so terrified by it - and I think that was why he did what he could to make TCM 2 so over the top, it would be more clearly ridiculous.  I don't know if he thought that way about all of TCM or just the end or what, because the first couple of kills in that movie were disturbing to me in a way that I didn't really see in other slashers that would follow in the 80s.

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On 6/15/2019 at 10:48 PM, ol' eddy wrecks said:

I think intent has reasonably strong bearing.  Like how "scared" might be limiting, intent to "scare" might also be limiting.  Allowing in the disturb, unsettle, (I guess we could also include 'disgust' and 'wince in pain' for body horror - both cerebral and non-cerebral) also gets us closer.  But I think there's also some other goals that filmmakers are going for with a lot of horror movies that is in some weird area.  Lots of franchise sequels fall into this category.  I think it's the blood/kills that makes one wince - which is the reaction I think someone said was in their criteria, is really what those movies are going for.

Granted, I take a fairly expanded definition of horror, and also fine saying a film has horror elements.  And talking how much of a horror film is it, while still classifying it as a horror film.

I think David Lynch gets name-checked a lot on the, "horror elements" in movies that are not necessarily horror movies.

I think a more interesting one to consider was Silence of the Lambs.  I think the scenes where Clarisse goes down to talk to Lector, when examined would qualify as a horror movie.  After a bit though, you get the sense she's playing with psychological fire which is a type of danger, she is not in physical danger from Lector, which is probably why it's difficult to cleanly define it as a horror film.  And the physical danger, from Buffalo Bill, is undermined since Lector seems like the more supernatural presence.  Making the craziness of his basement less horrifying.

This might be apocraphyl, but I recall reading Tobe Hooper thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was hilarious and didn't get why people were so terrified by it - and I think that was why he did what he could to make TCM 2 so over the top, it would be more clearly ridiculous.  I don't know if he thought that way about all of TCM or just the end or what, because the first couple of kills in that movie were disturbing to me in a way that I didn't really see in other slashers that would follow in the 80s.

I think Tobe Hooper thinking Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a comedy has to be an anomaly of intent more than anything. I'd believe he thought that because I've read he thought he could get a PG rating for it which also seems insane to me.

I'd be curious to hear of other filmmakers who completely missed the missed the genre they intended (outside of gross incompetence resulting in an unintentional comedy).

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