What Makes a Horror Film a Classic?

What makes a horror film a classic? That is a good question.

I’m old school. That is to say I generally prefer analog to digital. I like the crackling sound of a vinyl LP plumbed through the guts of a vacuum tube amplifier. I like the mechanical simplicity of an old Leica camera loaded with black and white film. My favorite football team entered the NFL as the Decatur Staleys 93 year’s ago, and they haven’t had a reliable QB since Sid Luckman won championships in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946. People from Detroit ask me why I don’t cheer on the Lions. I respond that I’m not a Lion’s fan. I’m a Bear’s fan. Growing up in the Calumet Region, I’m also a fan of Svengoolie and the Bert I. Gordon film The Beginning of the End (1957) that features giant mutant grasshoppers descending upon downtown Chicago. Peter Graves even coaxed the strigulating locusts into Lake Michigan.

Yes, I was there to see the original Svengoolie (the late Jerry Bishop) and Screaming Yellow Theater. I like monsters rendered out of a combination of varying media, including but not limited to collodion, yak hair, cut up rabbit fur coats, latex, Karo syrup, red dye 40, glycerine, chicken wire, polystyrene, clay, fuller’s earth, cast and machined metal, glass, gelatin and mayonnaise (makes good slime).  I like a Godzilla fabricated by talented people with a gifted actor playing Godzilla. Give me Mosu Goji anyday. I dislike monsters rendered out of terabytes. That is to say I am old school and I like the classics. I like monsters derived from human handiwork. Sorry, I’m not buying into pixel-punching as handiwork.

What do I consider a classic horror film? By distinction, a classic is a perfect example of a particular style that has stood the test of time. Sometimes we hear the term “an instant classic”.  Ah, rubbish.  I’m suggesting around 25 years as the test of time, allowing for a new generation of film-goers to appreciate a film. I also think it is too soon to call the landmark fast zombies film 28 Days Later (2002) a classic, while Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a classic —well, at least in my book. The film holds up today for several reasons. First off, the film is funny and satire displayed during an economic recession in the late 1970’s still holds up in a recession in the 2010’s.  The late film critic Roger Ebert called Dawn of the Dead “brilliantly crafted, funny…. and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society”.  The film also succeeds in shocking us with one remarkable set piece after another, from Tom Savini’s exquisite cosmetic head explosion, to the demise of the helicopter zombie, and the fate of the unfortunate biker who decides to check his blood pressure.  The film is wickedly observant in depicting zombies as just wanting to be human. Maybe we are all zombies?  To me, Dawn is George Romero’s masterpiece, even surpassing Night of the Living Dead (1968), but sending out a political message.  Both films are classics in being definitive zombie films that changed how other filmmakers approached the subject.  Dawn also falls under the difficult classic category of “horror comedy” of which there are few and far between.

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Let’s look at another classic. For my money, Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959; dubbed in English as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus) might be the most beautiful horror-fantasy film ever made.  It defied French cinema with one particularly gruesome in-your-face (no pun intended) sequence (reproduced here), which led one critic to surmise that Eyes Without a Face was actually film noir masquerading as a horror [film].  Yet, Face is horror and director Franju has openly stated his interest in the cinema fantastique.  The film was highly influential, spawning countless imitations and probably at least one Twilight Zone episode.

Like James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and David Lynch’s bizarre Eraserhead (1977), which comes as closest to a nightmare that I can imagine, there are no horror films quite like Eyes Without a Face. Chef Anthony Bourdain even picked the film in his top 10 list. Anyone who has seen it will remember certain scenes.

So why is the film a classic? For me a film’s atmosphere or imagery goes a long way. I think that is why I liked both Blade Runner (1982) and Prometheus (2012), even though both films had questionable scripts.  Yes, I consider Blade Runner a classic. Time will tell if Prometheus holds up to repeated viewing.  I also like the look of Orson Welles’ brilliant Touch of Evil (1958), but nothing on this planet will convince me that Charlton Heston was well-cast as a Mexican narcotics agent. Thankfully, Welles made a terrific and imposing Hank Quinlan.

Face is also suspenseful and Franju keeps the viewer off-kilter. After the face transplant anything could happen.  Anthony Bourdain said it freaked him out.  By the way, both Bill Warren and Tom Weaver, noted genre film historians and contributing editors for Leonard Maltin’s “Classic Movie Guide” omit both Dawn of the Dead and Eyes Without a Face, but include with one and a half stars Beginning of the End.

However, to me, Eyes Without a Face is not only a classic but a masterpiece.  These are the finest films in a director’s canon. Can we say that Bride of the Monster is Ed Wood’s masterpiece?  Maybe. But, I don’t consider Bride of the Monster to be a classic —it’s a fun b-movie starring Bela Lugosi in one of his best last performances.  Coining a horror film, or any film for that matter, a classic is highly subjective and personal.

However, I’m proposing a few criteria for a horror film to be a classic:

  1. Film falls under the horror genre
  2. Film is at least 25 years old
  3. Film holds up to repeated viewings
  4. Film has influenced the way industry or directors make subsequent films
  5. Film stands on some artistic merit (e.g. cinematography, acting, casting, dialogue, story, direction and so forth)
  6. Film may or may not be critically received

Well, that’s just my input.  Responses in a constructive manner as usual are appreciated.

One Response to “What Makes a Horror Film a Classic?”

  1. Well said, Barry.

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