Friday, November 20, 2009

The Horror of Hype

Genre fans tend to feel a little unpatrioritc pledging allegiance to the same mass-produced flag saluted by 80% of the general public. We’re far more comfortable digging our way through dusty, sometimes crusty DVDs in questionable basement or neon lit video stores than we are sitting amongst the Friday night crowd at the week’s big release. 

It’s no wonder then that movies like Paranormal Activity throw some of us for a loop. How, you ask, could I possibly enjoy the same film that my coworker with the Twilight screensaver has been raving about all month? At the same time, we also get stuck trying to evaluate our own opinions amidst the chokingly thick fog of fanboy enthusiasm that surrounds new cult favorites like Hatchet and Grace

So how, you ask, can one navigate the dead-end, it’s-not-as-good-as-people-say labyrinth that is viewer hype? To find a map, we first have to consider the type o’ hype, and I don’t just say that because rhyming is fun.

1.  Long Awaited Hype 

Admit it: you drooled like an overly hydrated zombie when details surrounding Land of the Dead surfaced, just as you giddily brushed off your boomstick at the sound of Sam Raimi returning to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell. When our childhood heroes reupholster their bloodstained director’s chairs, our own expectations can grow to unreachable heights. Thus, when George Romero makes a decent, if weirdly clean smelling zombie film with a happy ending in the 21st century, we put aside the flaws of the obnoxiously acted Day of the Dead and its own cheat of a final shot in order to blast horror’s indie king for seeming to sell out for CGI and Canada. 

As hard--or maybe impossible--as it is, any film needs to be seen on its own terms and unless it’s in 3D, with no tinted glasses to fog our sight. Sure, it’s depressing to watch Dario Argento continue to roll down a hill of film quality and near impossible to not look up the address of the actress narrating Diary of the Dead in the hopes of slaying her puppies and tearing our her vocal chords, but I promise you that these directors didn’t make these films simply because they hate you. Maybe they’ve lost touch or maybe their visions were simply more startling in another era. Either way, the main thing to remember is that a film should be judged against itself, not your memory of its older brother.

2.  Defensive Hype

There’s a reason nobody makes feel good features documenting the NY Yankees. We don’t care about winners born into luxury, and while not all genre fans can latch onto a sports analogy, everybody loves an underdog. 

Hence, horror loyalists stand on virtual soapboxes to warn passerbys about studio-backed cash cows like Saw while gleefully catching rides on The Midnight Meat Train. Is it fair? In theory, yes, but this comes from a long-suffering Met fan well accustomed to disappointment. Likewise, Lions Gate earned genre fan disapproval when it failed to give a wide release to 2008‘s public transportation terror trip, and I waved my fist in solidarity. 

Then I saw the movie.

While it wasn’t nearly as awful as some recent remade offerings (I’m still washing out my eyeballs for the stain imprinted by Black Xmas)Midnight Meat Train just....wasn’t good. Well-acted and polished, but dank, oddly plotted, and ultimately, quite uninvolving. Aside from battle ready horror fans and Cliver Barker bookworms, would full price ticket buyers really have wanted to spend their Friday night allowance on such an unlikable film? The same could easily be said for Repo! The Genetic Opera, a polarizing rock opera that amassed an army of devotees alongside a migraine suffering horde of conflicted haters.

The best solution I can conjure is to assume nothing. Praise the idea of an original film and support its release for people to actually see, but don’t force yourself to love something that simply isn’t your taste pallet. This leads us to ...

3. But I’m Supposed To Love This, Right?

What do you mean, you didn’t want to marry Hatchet and have its pickaxe babies? And really: what are you doing going out to a Halloween party when you could be home rewatching Trick ‘r Treat, aka The Greatest Horror Film Of All Time, for the ninetieth time this week? 

Of all the hypes out in the cinematic universe, this may be the most difficult to overcome. After two years of nearly universal ravings about a little unreleased horror anthology, it’s hard to watch a film without feeling sadly underwhelmed, angrily disappointed, or unconsciously bullied into submission (remember: Alllllllllllllll the boys love Mandy Lane). 

We could certainly try to build our own Skinner boxes and block out any rumblings from around the genre community, but in the age of blogs, podcasts, and bootlegs, that’s about as realistic as Martyrs getting an Oscar for best foreign film (what, you agree? you didn’t like Martyrs? What kind of fan are you?) Ultimately there is no such thing as a universal opinion, even in a more isolated specimen like the horror community. There’s nothing wrong with not loving a film that makes Fangoria swoon, but try to not let your dislike grow with the positivity of others; don’t hate it more just to match the positive intensity of those who enjoyed it. The best way to handle this is to return to the film several months--or years--after its buzz has been died down. Sometimes, you can only discover what your genuine thoughts are after they don’t seem to matter anymore.

4.  Mainstream Mania

In many ways, Gore Verbinski has earned a rigidly uncomfortable seat for himself in the filmmaker realm of hell. No, the mini pirate boom of the 00s wasn’t that bad, but his fairly big budgeted Americanized take on Ringu is the heavily botoxed grandma when it comes to remakes, aka the Scourge of 21st Century Horror. And to think, most of 2002‘s The Ring‘s impressive box office return came straight out of the pockets of...well...everyone. Men, women, eighth couldn’t throw your popcorn without hitting someone raving about that randomly scary film they caught in the theaters, much as
Paranormal Activity and 1999’s The Blair Witch Project commandeered a normally neutral audience immune to the haunts of quiet horror.

So where does that leave you? You can’t be the only one in the office without a take on why Michael was standing in the corner, and more importantly, you may be the only one with the sense to explain that no dear, Heather, Michael, & Josh are NOT still lost in the Burketsville woods. Plus, if you avoid a film just because everybody else didn’t, you might actually miss a good movie.

Think of the experience like dining in a fancy, highly recommended but seemingly overrated restaurant you’ve yet to patron. You have to make reservations. Wait 45 minutes and still end up in a less than desirable seating area, then deal with rude waiters. After all that, even a decent meal can’t live up to the hype. Likewise, when watching a too-talked about film, one must be careful to judge it on its own terms. Any extra effort only adds to the aggravation and inevitable unmet expectation. 

In other words, wait a month into a film’s run and hit up an economy priced matinee. Make sure that when you give the film your less-than-premium-price dollars, you can judge the film on its own merits, rather than the experience that surrounded your viewing.

5. Late-to-the-Party Classics

We’ve all hear our parents and grandparents wax nostalgic on how Frankenstein lurched through their nightmares and Psycho made Janet Leigh swear off showering, but depending on your initiation process into genre cinema, many older classics can fall flat on modern eyes. Some timeless films work in any era, but when you’ve eaten cereal shaped like smiling vampires, it’s hard to accept that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was once a force to be feared.

In order to enjoy a film that’s been written about for 30+ years, it helps to understand why it’s still relevant in today’s cinematic universe. Something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for example, may seem rather--well, silent--upon a blind watch, but pop in the special edition after after Blade Runner, Total Recall, or Dark City and note some of the architectural inspiration. From Birth to JoshuaRosemary’s Baby as the matriarch of eerily sterile NYC thrillers. Sometimes, the only way to fully appreciate an older, possibly dated film is to go backwards and watch with your head, not heart.

So which films have you hated due to humongous hype, or felt never had a true chance in the face of overexposure? Share your thoughts but remember: don’t get too excited. Then I’ll have to figure out what the Hype-Over-Hype-Type-Hype means, and that gives me a bigger headache than hearing Bill Moseley duet with Paris Hilton.

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