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An academic lover of all things horror and folklore posting my thoughts and observations

What Makes A Horror Film?

That is a very big question that comes up all the time at gatherings of horror aficionados. It would be nice if we could come up with one nice concise rubric for films to meet to be called horror. The problem is, everyone has one of those definitions and none of them agree with each other.

There are many pithy definitions such as, “it’s when the monster chases the last girl” or “it’s when the beast turns out to be not human”. My personal favorite is "when the best reward the hero can hope for is survival". It would be nice if these fit but, as we all know, that is seldom the case.

Many look to such elements as blood or gore to set the boundary because those are nice and convenient. The trouble is that some of the best horror films, hidden or otherwise, have very little blood in them so that one is kind of out.

A Different Way Of Looking At Things

For this entry we will not go with those. No sir, we are getting majorly esoteric and looking at the thematic elements and situational occurrences embedded in the films. Doesn’t that sound like fun! Well it actually kind of is as it allows us to look outside the clichés and explore more possibilities in the hidden horror genre. I love doing this and have taken some explorations into the fridges of horror before, as you can see.

Shape shifters that don't howl

Let us begin.

Today, let’s look at a few films that are not usually looked upon as horror. They are, if fact, generally accepted as films of other genres but yet they contain many of the elements that make for a good horror romp. It would only take a bit of a nudge and, there you have it, a horror film.

For the sake of clarity we will break each entry into three parts.

1. A brief summary of the film. This may seem a bit superfluous but we need to be clear what the people were seeing on the screen.

2. My argument as to why this is a hidden horror film. This will point out the elements that made this film so nice and, potentially, horrific to me.

3. I will speculate as to what changes could be made to re-purpose these films as delightful bastions of mind-boggling horror. Again, this last bit is purely speculative and should be taken as just the musings of someone with free time on their hands.

Okay, let’s get started.

Leave Her To Heaven

Gene Tierney in 'Leave Her To Heaven'
Gene Tierney in 'Leave Her To Heaven'

Leave Her To Heaven is our first hidden horror example. For this one we are going back in film history. This was presented as a Technicolor melodrama. A woman falls in love with a handsome man and strives to be the sole object of his affection ultimately dooming their love.

The thing is, it is obviously a hidden horror film because what dooms the love is that the girl is a complete psycho! The sequence where she drowns the hero’s little brother should be enough to have it qualify. Did I mention the kid is disabled? Or the part where she becomes jealous of the unborn baby in her that is getting her man’s attention. Well there is a convenient flight of stairs to throw yourself down and take care of that rival.

All this film needs is to change its marketing focus a bit. She is bats crazy and has a look that would make any modern homicidal girlfriend jealous of her retro evil style. There is a sort of Hays code era "Happy" ending that could be changed but really that is all.

High Plans Drifter

Clint Eastwood in 'High Planes Drifter'
Clint Eastwood in 'High Planes Drifter'

High Planes Drifter is the next entry. Now Clint Eastwood has plenty of horror history in his resume. The Beguiled and Play Misty For Me are openly in the horror/thriller category and are usually presented as such. This one goes into our hidden horror list so lets take a look at why.

This film is presented as a strait up western with its plot as such. A drifter from the high planes comes into the town of Lago and proceeds to kill the bad guys, the good guys and destroys the town in a major attack of karma for the residents.

You would have to either be blind or utterly clueless to not see the horror elements in this one. If you look up the word wraith in the dictionary it would show Eastwood’s character in this film. He is the barely concealed vengeful ghost of the town sheriff who was whipped to death by the principal bad guys while the town watched. He even appears out of nowhere and they make not so subtle hints that he is the departed sheriff even with the running theme of his character having no name.

So what would we have to do to make this a horror film? Really nothing should be done at all in my opinion. Maybe tighten up the pace a bit but this is really a horror film with horses and six shooters. While this is a topic for another article/rant but I think we could use more western horror films. Don’t you?

9 To 5

Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in '9 To 5'
Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in '9 To 5'

9 To 5 is our representative from the comedy genre which, I have always believed, is first cousin to the horror genre so, in a way, there are plenty of hidden horror films out there.

Now some may state at this point, “Now he is just trying to be hip and clever by choosing this one!” To that I l would like to point out the general plot of the film. A serial predator is taken prisoner and has his life destroyed by the women he has victimized.

If that isn’t horror I don’t know what is. Really all you have to say is the plot and this film could be pitched as a nightmare revenge film with kinky overtones, which it already has. Even the fantasies of revenge, which are hilarious in the film, involve supernatural poisoning, hunting and mounting humans and roasting someone over a campfire. This occurs after a night of drugs and alcohol where they fantasize about killing him in a variety a gruesome ways. There is also a subplot with body snatching but I don’t want to go into too much detail. Some would argue that the ending should be darker but who says a horror film can’t have a happy ending?

What to do to make this a horror film? Hmmmmmmmmmmmm? Well casting may be a crucial element. While Fonda and Tomlin can pull it off Dolly may have to go. Just to lovable. Would need someone who calls more Deliverance than Smokey Mountain Christmas. Maybe a few atmosphere tweaks such as music and lighting but really that is all. This is a hidden horror gem.

Well those are three of the many on my list. Of course there are many more, some of which occurred to me while I was jotting down my thoughts on this list. My next entry on this topic may be restricted to musicals that relate to stalking and Stockholm syndrome as excuses for their “romance”. For now I will leave you all with these and say farewell till we chat again about hidden horror.

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