Monday, December 22, 2008

Stuff: He's making a list . . .

So not too long ago, I got caught up in the list-o-mania response to HMV's "50 Greatest Horror Films of All Time" list. B-Sol, of Vault of Horror fame, approached several bloggers and asked us to participate in creating a response list.

"But isn't that dangerous?" I asked. "I heard that once you start making lists, you get caught up in it."

"Nah, that's just what the squares say to scare people off," B-Sol replied. "Making lists feels good. And you like to feel good, right?"

"Well, I do enjoy feeling good," I said. "But what if the response list ends up containing things like the video to Michael Jackson's Thriller? We could end up a laughing stock."

"No way. We'll get good stuff. You just got to know you're list-makers," B-Sol purred. "Besides, all the cool kids are doing it."

"All the cool kids?"

B-Sol smiled and nodded.

"The cool kids have never steered us wrong before," I said. "And the uniformity of response gives me real confidence in the soundness of their collective decision. But still . . . "

"Look, try it once," said B-Sol. "Just once. If you don't like it, you never have to try it again."

So I did it. I contributed to the Vault 50. Then I put down list-making and went on my way. And, for a few weeks, I was fine. But then I started jonesing again. Where were the contextless titles arranged in neat numerical rows, where was the group-think, where was the odd sense of importance semi-random data gets when it's ranked? I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. My wife left me when she caught me in the kitchen, ranking the utensils in the silverware drawer.

But God help me, here I am again, contributing to another list. Damn you B-Sol, I can't live without your lists! You've made me a monster!

That said, B-Sol's latest foray into canon-building was a deliberate answer to a criticism that many readers had regarding the Vault 50: the post-slasher era was pretty much completely ignored. The new list, again compiled by polling a handful of horror bloggers, including yours truly, focused on ranking the best horror flicks from 1990 to now.

Why the random 18 spread? B-Sol didn't want to step on the toes of anybody pondering a "Best of the Noughts" decade dealie at the end of next year. Thoughtful is how B-Sol rolls.

Here's the top 10 of the new list:

1. The Descent (2005) dir: Neil Marshall
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) dir: Jonathan Demme
4. The Ring (2002) dir: Gore Verbinski
5. Scream (1996) dir: Wes Craven
6. The Mist (2007) dir: Frank Darabont
7. 28 Days Later (2002) dir: Danny Boyle
8. Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992) dir: Peter Jackson
9. Inside (2007) dir: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
10. Shaun of the Dead (2004) dir: Edgar Wright


For the complete list in all its listy glory and for a rundown of everybody who contributed, make with the clickitiy-click and check out the original Vault story, with added post-game analysis goodness.

Now before you get all "The Descent, WTF? D, that's TFR, Y! I've got HAM 2 PMFBWTSDS, S!" on me, I was seriously in the minority when it came to this list. Only two of my selections made the cut. If you've got a problem with these selections, I recommend you look at the contributors list and flame everybody on it but me.

As for the results, the consensus so far seems to be mild agreement. Sure, there are quibbles with specific titles and few seem to be really happy with Marshall's chicks vs. troglodytes horror/actioner sitting on the top. The prevailing explanation is that it was a widely supported second-tier flick, but in a weighted voting system the widely supported second-tier flick beats the strongly supported idiosyncratic selection.

Honestly, my issue with the list is how mundane it is. One commenter on Vault made the observation that nobody could object to the flicks that made the list. B-Sol responded with something along the lines of "that's the point." Still, I kinda get the poster's point. What's the point of asking horror experts if the results are exactly what you'd expect if you ask anybody? Where are the surprises? Where are the overlooked gems that only "real" horror hounds would know about?

Already a bit of conventional wisdom is congealing around these lists: List-makers favor older flicks because it takes time for a film to become a classic. There is probably some truth to that, but I think that is not what's going on in the Vault lists. Instead, I propose that horror bloggers aren't so much experts as they are cultists.

What's the distinction? The expert is a recognized and reliable source of information and judgment. Though the attention grabbing part of that definition is "information and judgment," the kicker is actually the fairly innocuous "recognized and reliable." Experts become such by making the esoteric useful to the non-expert. Their judgments, while based on special info, share the same broad ideas of what is or is not valuable. Where the expert and the non-expert differ in their overall value-paradigm, the expert can back up their judgment using arguments that make sense to the non-expert.

Cultists, on the other hand, are best distinguished not only by their deep knowledge, but by an idiosyncratic set of critical standards. Take devotees of 1970's grindhouse cinema (please). Certainly, hardcore fans of the subgenre know metric pantloads of data about their favorite slice of the horror superstructural genre, but their judgments aren't recognizable or reliable in the terms of the non-expert. To understand the judgments of the cultists, you have to be one of the faithful. Unless you've bought into the "genius" of Jess Franco, it all looks like cut-rate sub-skinemax pseudo-porn. To understand it, you've had to already agree to adopt critical standards that are, for the non-expert – in this case the film-goer who watches plenty of flicks, but has no particular love for the genre – simply nonsensical. This happens to me whenever I read about a film that is good mainly because it is some variation of "batshit crazy." To the cultist, that apparently means something. To me, especially since it seems like every other poorly made piece of Nixon/Carter Era garbage gets the same label, it simply signals that I'm going to suffer a plotless, pointless, poorly-executed montage of stupidity. I lack the cultists' carefully developed, if somewhat off-kilter, critical criteria.

Even if you grant that distinction, what's it got to do with this list? I suspect that outside of the realm of cult fascination, horror bloggers don't have much to say that any casual horror fan doesn't already know. When you take the restrictions off the list, everybody can dabble in whatever weirdo stuff they dig and you end up with a list that, while utterly lacking in clout or authority, is at least interesting. Restrict the list in any way, and you undercut the cultist tendency of bloggers. The result: you get a list everybody can generally agree on, but it also a list anybody could have made.

21 comments:

houseinrlyeh said...

I'd say the conservative streak of the list has something to do with the law of averages: those idiosyncratic movies don't make the cut on lists compiled from many voters.

B-Sol said...

In all fairness, I didn't find this to be a conservative list. I think if you asked the average moviegoer, they've never heard of The Descent. Had this been an "HMV" type list, number-one would almost certainly have been Scream. Or MAYBE Silence of the Lambs, if enough ppl considered it horror.

CRwM said...

B-Sol,

In even more all fairness, Descent was in the top 25 of the HMV list and it beat out Scream, which appears on both lists below Descent.

In fact, our top five all appear on the HMV list and very nearly in the same order: Blair beat out Descent, but both beat out Silence of the Lambs and Scream came last.

I take that back, they picked the original Ring, as they're adverse to remakes in a way the we don't seem to be. They put the original Ring before all the other flicks.

CRwM said...

Oh Rlyeh,

I suspect your right. That's the prevailing thought on how Descent topped the list - odd heavily-weighted one off votes wash out while consistent middle players can stay in the game.

Though, to speak to my point, that's going to be true of any weighted poll system. If B-Sol had picked HMV shoppers instead of horror bloggers, the same dynamic would hold. The idea that our poll would have been more interesting, but the math screwed us could be said of any group.

houseinrlyeh said...

CRwM: You're right, of course - in the end the individual lists for polls like this will always be more interesting.

(By the way, I haven't got a problem with The Descent's first place myself, seeing that it's a film I usually describe using words like "brilliant". On the other hand Scream excellently embodies everything I find loathsome about modern horror - the empty irony hiding plain laziness etc)

CRwM said...

House,

I thought The Descent was pretty good too, but is it really better than Silence of the Lambs? Academy Award winning, Jodie Foster having, Hopkins's as Lecter being all iconic showcasing Silence of the Lambs? That's a classic film period, let alone a classic horror film.

As for Scream, I only think that made the list because people can't be bothered to watch flicks with subtitles and therefore missed out on the explosion of brilliant foreign horror flicks that happened in the 1990s. I re-watched it recently and the experience was painful. It has aged so poorly it is almost hard to believe anybody watched the first time out.

spacejack said...

Egads, The Mist? Inside? Maybe if it were the top 10 hardest-to-endure movies.

Re: Silence of the Lambs - hard to beat the original movie theatre experience for this. All that attention to detail of the day-to-day life of a young FBI agent really immersed you into an incredibly tense story - even though the protagonist was put in very few dangerous situations.

Hopkins performance may seem a bit hammy today, but otherwise I think its biggest flaw is being so famous and imitated. That Demme guy sure knows how to direct a movie.

I came up with the following top 10 a while back when we were comparing the 2000s to the late 70s/early 80s. After thinking on it a while, I decided the decade hasn't been too bad to us after all.

28 Days Later
American Psycho
The Descent
Dog Soldiers
Hard Candy
Hostel
P2
The Ring
Silent Hill
Wolf Creek

Nate Y. said...

Some of the participants come from specialty blogs/websites. My own site, Classic-Horror, tries to keep a keen focus on older horror, so my perspective on new horror tends to be slightly conservative.

I did put Cemetery Man as my #1, though, because that's a damned fine film and one that deserves more recognition than it gets. I'm really pleased it made the final cut.

Shon Richards said...

Descent is one of my favorite movies so I am pleasantly surprised to see it in top place. I think I like it for the simple fact that it transforms the most sympathetic character into the most dangerous.

I am more intrigued by Shaun of the Dead because it tells us how encompassing horror is as a genre. It's a romantic comedy at it's core, and a parody of zombie movies in general yet it makes a top ten horror list.

My own personal nerd rage comes from #17: the Dawn of the Dead remake is on the list, and not the original. Sheesh. One is a loud action movie while the other is a reflection on the human condition. It's got me mad enough to want to blog lol.

Shon Richards said...

Duh, I just noticed it was a list for the modern age. Oops. In that sense, I can tolerate the Dawn of the Dead remake on the list.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I can't find the list I sent, but I purposefully restricted myself to the 1990s in an effort to counteracted what I felt was a strong anti-90s vibe in the reactions I was seeing. I had a bunch of foreign stuff to, but I don't remember the order: Tesis, The Kingdom, Cronos, and something else.

Anyway, your list is very nice. I disliked American Psycho, but that's because I think it missed the punchline of the books which was, I think, the only thing that redeemed the violence. And I must admit to having avoided seeing Silent Hill out of a dread of video game adaptations (I blame Resident Evil). Otherwise, all solid choices. I'm just going to let you vote for me on the next go around.

CRwM said...

Nate,

Thanks for swinging by. I liked Cemetery Man when I saw it, but to be honest nothing of it stuck to me after I left the theater. At the time, the art house theater was running all this out-there anime stuff too, and I remember thinking that CM wasn't emotionally involving enough to hit me in the gut and it wasn't crazy enough in comparison the rest of the stuff being shown to make much impact.

Perhaps I should give it another chance now that I'm not up to my eyeballs in gonzo anime. Maybe it's like tasting wine, I needed to clean the palate to really taste it.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

I actually don't know why people practically sprain their wrists trying to come all over the Dawn remake. I enjoyed it and all, but it strikes me as odd how elevated that movie's become. There's a handful of boss scenes and a couple of nice "oh, a zombie [fill-in design type]" moments. But that's what drives every zombie film these days. I just don't see it as that special.

Maybe it's just the fact that people were expecting a disastrous remake.

OCKerouac said...

A weighted opinion list works the same way that averaging a group of averages does. Sure, you'll end up with a number, or in this case, a list, but that list isn't likely to actually provide any compelling data.

As a self-professed-list-junkie, I have come to the understanding that the purpose of a list is less about defending your 'Number 1' as it is about inspiring conversation. Subsequently, the best way, IMO, to do a group-consensus style list is through good old fashioned lobbying.

If you want to make a top 50 list, you ask everyone to e-mail the group their top-25, and then let the sparks fly until you can all agree on a 50. If you want my vote on your Reanimator, you'll have to throw a vote toward my Bad Taste, etc., etc. and so on...

Of course the easiest thing to do is avoid forum-listing and go it alone... That being said, my top 13 holiday/winter songs list will be posting tomorrow... ;-P

CRwM said...

Doc OCK,

Rest assured that any snub of Ertha Kit's "Santa Baby" will drive me to the Interwebs to immediately register my discontent.

Curt Purcell said...

Nine out of my ten didn't make the list at all, and that tenth ended up toward the bottom, which leads me to wonder, why does everyone else's taste in horror suck so hard?

CRwM said...

Curt, MC of the Groovy,

You've got to be the only voter whose flicks performed worse than mine. What was on your list?

Curt Purcell said...

1. ONECHANBARA
2. RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE
3. UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION
4. SILENT HILL
5. GRINDHOUSE (PLANET TERROR in particular, if we're counting separate movies)
6. UROTSUKIDOJI 2: LEGEND OF THE DEMON WOMB
7. JASON X
8. DOG SOLDIERS
9. MR. VAMPIRE
10. SLEEPY HOLLOW

As for eurotrash horror and even Franco, I bet I can explain my appreciation of it in a way that would make sense to non-fans--maybe not enough to make believers of them, but enough that they'd see what I was getting at if they rewatched something that didn't impress them so much on a first viewing.

gil mann said...

As for eurotrash horror and even Franco, I bet I can explain my appreciation of it in a way that would make sense to non-fans

Judging from your blog, I'd say that's a pretty safe bet.

Explaining numbers 2, 3, 4, 7, and 10, though? Now that would be a challenge.

CRwM said...

Curt,

I don't know, I've been reading your blog for more than two years now and some of your critical positions are still pretty opaque to me.

I mean, I understand them on a literal level and I could probably explain to somebody else what you see in many of the films, books, and comics you dig.

But I understand it all in the same way I understand that some people have a foot fetish. I can tell that's true, but actually understanding why somebody thinks that's sexy is beyond my abilities.

As an example, after you, Kate, and the Vicar went on Paul Naschy kicks recently, I rewatched a couple of his flicks. I thought they were horrible. Not only horrible, but what was described as "stylish" came of as heavy-handed, what was supposed to be sexy was merely embarrassing, and what was meant to be exciting caused unintentional giggles. It was like walking in your out of shape roomie and his not too pretty girlfriend doing something that they thought would be kinky and sexy, but they're doing it wrong and it just looks strained and kinda uncomfortable.

You can tell me that you find it awesome and I can process that and even believe you believe that, but I can't really identify with why you would think that.

[Maybe we need a distinction - as they have in French - between knowing (savoir) facts, data, and procedures (which is how I understand your claims) and to know (connaƮtre) on a personal level.]

That's what I mean by the break in critical criteria.

I should add, in case I didn't make it clear, there's naught wrong with being a cultist. That's why they made the Internet so darn big, so we can all wave our freak flags without taking out anybody's eye.

Curt Purcell said...

Gil Mann, I won't attempt it in someone else's comment section, but the way I compiled my list was, I looked at my collection--why would I pick something if I didn't consider it worth buying?--and roughly determined what gets the most rewatches.

CRWM, there's no doubt that euro-horror is plagued with low budgets, poor effects, narrative sloppiness, wooden acting, boring filler, etc. I understand that's an awfully dark glass to have to peer through to see anything worthwhile in it--maybe so much so that you're right after all, and there's no explaining what those of us who love it see through all those flaws.

I won't presume to speak for Kate or anyone besides myself, but I've never not gotten it. From my first Bava flick on through all the rest, I've always caught glimpses of what I most want to see in horror, that I don't find anywhere else, and it's those glimpses that keep me coming back. Basically, what I see in, for example, the gothic monster movies, are the outlines of a colorful, darkly beautiful, magical world filled with sex, violence, and unabashedly supernatural horror. I guess thresholds will vary for different viewers, but Naschy movies usually deliver just enough of that to draw me into the fantasy.

The novel I'm writing is actually something of an attempt to create my ideal version of this experience, to deliver everything I see and want to see in euro-horror as vividly and sharply as I can, with strong characters, a strong story, and none of the atrocious production values that so badly mar the movies.

Well, it looks like you may be right, since I'm not saying much more than, "You see it or you don't." Glad I didn't put money on that! ;-)