The Ghettoization of the Horror Genre

Rumours that Criterion, pioneers of bonus features and original aspect ratios back in the LaserDisc era and a company that has perhaps undeservedly managed to hang on to its reputation as the premiere home entertainment distributor, are considering creating a "cult movie" spin-off label have sparked fierce debate as to what this says about what Criterion thinks of such films. At its heart it brings to light an issue as old as the hills: the so-called ghettoization of the horror genre. Horror has, for as long as anyone can remember, been regarded by many as the film industry's equivalent of the black sheep of the family, the badly-behaved child that has to be hidden away whenever guests are expected. Much in the same way that animation is commonly regarded by the uninformed as a children's medium, there is something about horror and the way in which it is characterized that leads to many viewing it as somehow unworthy of the same kind of critical attention that is lavished upon more "respectable" genres.

Fundamentally, phrases like "cult", "exploitation" and "genre movies" are essentially derogatory terms used to marginalize a certain type of film that many high-brow critics would rather did not exist. Although these terms have entered into common lexicon and are frequently used in an endearing way, there is still a stigma attached to them and many of the people who enjoy such material only seem to be able to admit to this by referring to it as a "guilty pleasure". So as not to single Criterion out for this criticism, it should be pointed out that many of the so-called "cult labels" do the same thing. Blue Underground, for instance, refer to themselves as the company "dedicated to guilty pleasures for adventurous movie lovers", and the recently-established NoShame Films, whose entire proposed catalogue seems to be comprised of movies that could be described as "cult", even seem to be making an apology of sorts by virtue of their name.

When attempting to elevate horror movies to a level where it is considered acceptable to discuss them critically, bizarre new terms are created such as "psychological thriller" and "supernatural thriller". The whole "thriller" category, seemingly, has been created as a more superficially acceptable offshoot of horror that allows high-brow critics and filmgoers to admit to enjoying such films without the embarrassment of being associated with the likes of Hammer Horror and slashers. (Actually, I believe I once heard a fairly esteemed critic refer to Halloween as a "horror thriller", grudingly admitting its true origins but softening the blow somewhat by creating a meaningless double noun. Another favourite of mine is the review that claims that "film X is a great horror movie, but it is also a great motion picture" - y'know, I kind of thought that the former made the latter fairly self-evident.) Films like The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and The Sixth Sense would, in my opinion, fall under this label. At their heart they are all horror films, but they didn't get the acclaim they receive today by admitting to this.

Ultimately, I am glad that companies like Blue Underground exist, releasing titles that few other distributors would touch, and if Criterion launching a dedicated "cult" wing means that more obscure titles will see the light of day, then I definitely welcome the move. It does nothing to help these films' acceptance among the masses, however, and essentially means that they are forever going to be known as the movies that one does not confess to liking when in polite company.

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