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.