Top Horror Films Controversy: Definitions, Biases, and Criteria

Ask a group of people what the “best of” may be in any given category and you’re likely to get a diversity of answers. Along with that may come a good deal of disagreement, and possibly controversy, especially if the answers are shared in a public forum. This is exactly the scenario that has taken place in a small corner of the horror subculture.

Not long ago, B-Sol of The Vault of Horror asked the members of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers to present their top ten list of the best horror films of all time. This was in response to a top 50 list of horror presented by HMV. LOTTD members sent along their votes, from which B-Sol posted our top 50. This resulted in some interesting, and at times heated comments and conversations on The Vault of Horror. The controversy heated up even more with FANGORIA Magazine online posting a response to LOTTD’s choices.

For those interested in such minor skirmishes I thought it might be helpful for me to let readers know about my film choices, and the definitions, acknowledgment of influences and biases, and the criteria that informed my choices.

In terms of definition, in my view the lines dividing the definitions of horror, sci fi and fantasy are pretty blurred, and maybe even artificial. As Josh Bellin recent discussed in his interview on my site on this topic:

"I tend not to draw hard-and-fast lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror; I feel that there are too many conceptual problems in these generic definitions for them to be useful.  Just to cite one example: what does one do with a film like Aliens?  It’s science fiction, right?  But it’s also a monster movie—so I guess it’s also either horror or fantasy, depending on where you fall on that ill-defined difference.  You’ll see critics tie themselves into verbal knots trying to prove that these are three distinct genres—yet they always end up admitting that there are exceptions to whatever definitions they propose, and once the exceptions start to outweigh the orthodox examples, you realize that the definitions are attempting to create something that doesn’t exist in reality.  It ultimately collapses into tautology: fantasy films become films that possess whatever qualities the particular critic defines as characteristic of fantasy."

For these reasons a few of the films in my list may be characterized by some readers as sci fi, but such hard and fast genre boundaries are difficult to make in my view.

In terms of the acknowledgment of the influences in my choices and the resulting bias, one of the great difficulties in making such choices is the “personal quirks” aspect of the interpretation process. This is a lifelong process of influence whereby what one encounters in film viewing at a given point in life as filtered through a social and cultural grid which then influences what films are appreciated and what are not. I was reminded of this during a trip to a haunted house in October where in the "waiting" area of the long ticket line they had a movie screen that played a collage of clips from horror films to keep us entertained until we entered the haunt. What struck me was that some 95% by my estimate were less than twenty years old, most within the last decade or so. This spilled over into the haunt itself as the theme areas touched on serial killers and the like with no “classic monsters” from Universal or Hammer. Even the nod to the past with Psycho and House on Haunted Hill at this haunt were drawn from the "reimagined" remakes, not the originals. So part of the decision making choices in LOTTD’s list, and the resulting disagreement on the Internet, can be attributed in part to what may be social, cultural, and generational sets of issues that impact interpretation and horror preferences. I readily acknowledge my social location as a North American who grew up watching horror and related genres in the early 1970s and into the ensuing decades, with the expressions of horror I watched which “inculturated” in me a certain set of preferences in my appreciation for these materials. Even so, my childhood and adolescent film viewing and its related nostalgia has hopefully been tempered by deeper cinematic reflection as an adult.

This leads to the criteria which informed my choices. They are threefold. First, I chose films that I believe represent solid examples of good filmmaking, regardless of the genre. The fantastic genres tend to get short shrift when it comes to recognition as good filmmaking in the general culture, but in my view the choices I selected are just plain good cinema regardless of the genre. Second, I chose films with an influence that is profound both within their genre of filmmaking as well as beyond it into popular culture itself. Third, I attempted to incorporate some sense of broad historical perspective that looks beyond my own experiences and generational preferences in film viewing. Beyond these criteria, I must admit a lack of objectivity when it comes to selection number ten: the Gillman was my first childhood exposure to horror. He scared and captivated my imagination, so he has to be included in my list.

With these background thoughts in mind, my choices for the top ten horror films that were tabulated as part of the LOTTD 50 best horror films are as follows:

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
2. Psycho (1960)
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
4. Horror of Dracula (1958)
5. King Kong (1933)
6. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
7. Alien (1979)
8. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
10. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

But when all is said and done, regardless of the best arguments and most “objective” of criteria, it all comes down to personal tastes in horror. May the debate continue.

Comment Pages

There are 2 Comments to "Top Horror Films Controversy: Definitions, Biases, and Criteria"

  • I like your list, it has much the same feel of my list and where it differs I can easily see where one could argue the merits over another.

  • Gary, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think it's helpful to provide the background and criteria for our choices so they make more sense to readers regardless of whether the controversy in the horror subculture dies down.

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