It’s strange; I’ve watched a lot of movies in my time, but I’m having trouble clearly defining what constitutes a horror film. Granted, I can usually identify a horror film when I see it, like when a masked man chases teenagers around with a chainsaw. The elements all speak to our fears as human beings. Fear of the unknown. Fear of death. Fear of being dismembered by a power tool. However, I couldn’t immediately explain to you why, for example, a film about a child being kidnapped doesn’t fall into the horror genre when losing a child in this way is probably more horrific. The explanation probably lies somewhere around the idea that horror is about primal fears. We can all understand kidnapping in an intellectual and emotional way, whereas we understand pain and death in an instinctual and reflexive way. With that said, I like horror, but only a small slice of it.
Horror stories, in general, are at odds with good storytelling. When I think back to the scary stories I was told as a child, they were never fully developed stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Nor did they have protagonists and antagonists in the traditional sense. Instead, the stories were always open ended to remind listeners that the killer/monster/spirit was roaming free and could attack at any moment. There were no heroes or villains, just victims and their attacker. So, translating this formula to film usually doesn’t sit well with me since horror is mostly about feeling helpless, while movies are about characters proactively working towards a goal. This is why I don’t care for films about supernatural forces, like spirits and ghosts, because they are usually impossible to combat in any kind of practical way.
What I do enjoy are zombie movies.
The zombie horror sub-genre is all about practicality. Sure, a zombie apocalypse is an overwhelming force and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but with smart choices and rigid determination can be survived. For this reason, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead will always be one of my favorite zombie films. For those who haven’t seen it, a handful of survivors take a helicopter and land it on top of a deserted mall and attempt to weather the zombie outbreak there. What draws me to the film is its procedural showing of the survivors taking practical steps to secure their hideout. They expand from their small storage room to a few shops until finally blocking off the mall entrances with big rig trailers, making the mall completely safe. They even build a false wall to hide the entrance to their living quarters, just in case. These actions all speak to the inner prepper in me who hates watching characters do stupid things in horror movies.
The other reason I enjoy zombie horror is that the threat is readily comprehensible and combatted. There’s no need to consult experts on the occult to find the specific ritual or incantation to defeat zombies; just crack them real good over the head! Zombies aren’t going to possess your child or kill you in your dreams. Instead, they have physical properties that can be prepared for, which gives characters something to work toward. As such, I don’t enjoy just zombie movies; I also enjoy zombie-like movies.
One of my favorite zombie-like movies is Pandorum. In that film, a resource-depleted Earth sends an Ark on a 100-year journey across space to a new Earth-like planet to start humanity over. All of the passengers stay asleep in stasis pods except for the flight crew who wake up in intervals to pilot the vessel. When the current flight crew rotation wakes up, they discover that humanoid lifeforms are running wild on the ship, killing and eating any humans they find.
The monsters in Pandorum are much hardier, faster, and more intelligent than zombies, but they’re also fewer in number. Nonetheless, the elements are still the same, except in different ratios. As such, the methods that the survivors use to deal with the threat are familiar and practical.
The zombie-like film that I’ve been returning to on a consistent basis recently is a little-known film titled Pontypool. In the film, a radio shockjock and his small production staff are working through their normal live show when reports of zombie-like violence begins erupting in their small city. Trapped in the basement of a building, their only connection to the outside world are the people that call in and their field reporter.
What’s odd about this is that it doesn’t have any of the practicality that I enjoy so much from the genre. There’s no preparation among the survivors. There’s very little combat. In fact, the “zombies” are barely shown. What I enjoy about it are the standout performances and the ability of the filmmakers to tell a compelling story with a very limited set. Most of the horror happens in the mind’s eye as audiences must imagine the horror outside from reports given verbally by callers. On paper, it sounds like this would never work as a movie, but somehow it does, proving once again that there’s nothing scarier than our imaginations.
In these specific films and films specifically like them, even if the protagonists don’t survive, at least they understood the situation, understood the limits of the opposition, and knew what had to be done to live through it. Those trying to survive may have been hapless, but they weren’t helpless. And that’s the most important part of any story, horror or otherwise. And that’s mainly the reason why I was turned off so much by the season premiere of The Walking Dead. There’s nothing satisfying or entertaining about helpless people being slaughtered.
On a side note, I’ve heard horror movies compared with amusement park rides, and I think there’s something to that argument. There is a very real sense of helplessness as both the movies and the rides make their audiences feel uncomfortable and frightening experiences with no control over them whatsoever.
This is probably why I don’t seek out amusement park rides either.