Some comments on my website made me realise that the way I rate and grade horror movies might be quite confusing for some people, which makes sense, since I never publicly clarified it – except maybe here, but very briefly.
I understand an article like this one, where I don’t review horror movies nor I specifically discuss about a film, might seem very self-referential and boring, but I do really need to clarify certain aspects of my reviewing methods for future criticism. Don’t worry, though, I’ll try to do so by quoting examples and linking some of my previous reviews every here and there. So, whenever you get bored, you can read one of those and come back later.
As every person who read at least one article on the Horror World & Reviews website knows, my grading system is based on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is the lowest grade possible and 10 is the highest.
Every movie critic has a different way to intend these numbers. It’s important to understand that, for me, the final grade is just a summary of both negatives and positives I found in a movie. For example, my favourite horror film of 2017 is The Blackcoat’s Daughter: that film, which I obviously loved, scored 7.5/10 on my scale. That same year, I gave higher grades to three other horror movies (Mother!, Gerald’s Game and The Eyes of my Mother).
What does that mean? It simply means that I found Blackcoat’s Daughter to be objectively more flawed than the other three titles I mentioned. In other words, when I review a film I try to do so in the most objective and professional way possible, hence I try to remove my personal enjoyment of the movie from the equation.
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As a person who loves 70s exploitation, cheesy 80s slashers and the occasional “so bad it’s good” movie, I simply can’t give positive grades to horror movies that don’t meet the basic requirements of a good film purely because I personally enjoyed them. It’s a luxury I can’t allow myself with. For instance, I find flicks like The Bye Bye Man and Nereus, House of Wax (2005) and Happy Death Day to be extremely entertaining (whether that’s intentional or not on the movie’s part). Still, when you dissect them, there are very few elements of quality to be found: therefore, I grade them accordingly to their objective value rather than the enjoyment I got out of them.
However, when talking about cinema there are only a few aspects that can be considered almost scientific. For example, camera work, sound design, audio mixing, lighting and continuity do not depend on the viewer’s opinion. You can’t say “the camera work was good, in my opinion”: there’s no opinion that counts here, only facts. In film class you learn what’s acceptable and what isn’t in a film on a technical level, and there’s no escaping that. I recently reviewed an experimental horror/sci-fi film called High Life: I didn’t like the movie, but there’s no denying it nails every technical aspect almost perfectly. As a result, I gave the movie 7.5/10 (all things considered, including fantastic acting, perfect pacing, great effects).
Most of the elements a critic talks about in their reviews are quite subjective, though: even aspects such as score, characters, acting, tone, dialogues, story and so on, can be judged as either positive or negative depending on the person who’s reviewing the film.
How do I look at horror movies, then?
The first and foremost element I look at when I review a horror film is the intent. Superficially, one might say that the intent of every horror movie is to frighten the audience, but fear is a very subjective feeling that can’t be judged from an unbiased perspective. In addition to that, throughout its long history horror cinema had developed many ways to instil fear in the audience: spooky faces, identification, jump-scares, blood and violence, creepy atmosphere, disturbing content, squeamish images, weird and unfamiliar scenarios and so on. Plus, horror has been increasingly “bastardised” by other genres, such as drama, comedy, sci-fi, war, western, biography and even superhero (right, Brightburn?), making it impossible to define horror films as scary movies as they used to be known until the mid-90s.
This is why, for me, figuring out the intent of a horror flick is imperative to understand whether the movie succeeded or not in what the filmmakers were trying to achieve.
Besides that, another key element is the target audience. For example, I don’t review a movie like Mandy the same way I do, say A Quiet Place (or Bird Box… they are the same movie, right?!): regardless how they were wrongfully marketed, one of them is targeted towards fans of arthouse horror (Mandy), the other one aims to please the masses (A Quite Place). I gave both these movies 7/10 (although I would lower them down to 6/10, both), because they achieved that much in relation to the goal they respectively set for themselves.
Other three aspects that matters a lot when I review horror films are the filmmaker’s experience, the studio or studios behind the project and the budget. First-timers get, in my book, more credits than experienced directors. It’s pretty obvious: if you have little to no experience, the reviewer should be more forgiving towards your movie. The budget, obviously, matters a lot too: I would never criticise too harshly a $100,000-budget film for its perhaps unconvincing effects, whereas I can bash on big-budget flicks that look like student film for the same reason. Budget is, however, a double-edged sword. In fact, when a horror flick has a low budget I expect more from the writing, therefore I’m more severe in judging the script. The production company that backs up a horror film is also important in the same vein as the two aforementioned elements: I’m always going to be less forgiving with movies produced by Dimension Films, A24, Blumhouse and IFC Midnight, because they have all the resources and finances to allow for great production values, to avoid stupid plot holes and to fix mistakes in post-production.
Speaking of production values, an element I hold in high regard is the visuals. Listen, cinema is a visual form of art and, unlike literature, good characters and interesting stories aren’t enough to make a film good. Heck, if those were enough I would just read the script and get the same experience I would get sitting through however long the film is! No, the visual presentation is extremely important for me when judging a horror movie and, in some rare and extreme cases, it can make up for a lack of good story (A Cure for Wellness comes to mind) or even any kind of proper story (like Braid).
I’m aware that, nowadays, many regarded movie critics don’t even talk about technical and visual elements of a film. It’s, also, notorious how some of them include their political view as a factor in assessing a movie (you know, all those films with a political agenda that get a pass only because the reviewer agrees with the subtext).
As little as this website counts in the wide world of movie criticism, I like to review films in the most objective way possible. I don’t care if a movie matches my personal political or social opinions: if the movie is objectively and technically flawed, I’ll underline that anyway. If a horror film is pushing values that I don’t agree with, I might unknowledge that in my review but I wouldn’t take points away if it’s overall a quality product.
This is basically all I have to say about my way of reviewing and rating horror movies. But there’s one last thing I want my viewers to be aware of: I love horror films. Horror is my favourite genre and that’s why I like to be so critical and nit-picky about it. I feel that I push and encourage filmmakers to do better by being so critical and, at the same time, I like to give credits to those directors and people involved in the horror business who actually care and try their hardest to make something memorable.
Hopefully, this long and boring article helped some of my readers to have a better understanding on how I assess horror cinema. I hope the fact that reading the review is more important than focusing on the final grade (which, I repeat, is only a summary of negatives and positives) came through. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask them in the comments and I will gladly reply.
May horror live forever, improve and develop with each year and with each movie!
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