Back in August, I shared my list of the Top 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Comedy Film. Now that it’s mid-October, and we’re a little more than halfway through this year’s crop of Halloween Haunters, I’d like to share my warning signs of bad horror movies. I’ve stumbled across a few this year and last year, and will probably continue to stumble across some more, and I’m sure any of you who watch horror movies have as well. These warning signs may help steer you away from more — or steer you to them, if you like seeking out spectacularly bad movies. Hey, if any genre has that subculture, it’s horror.
Now, when I picked films for examples on the list for comedy films, I went with a 25% or lower critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For horror movies, I have to change things a bit. Simply put, horror movies almost always get a low rating from critics (plus, many are direct-to-video and thus aren’t screened by critics). For the example films here, I wanted to ensure that I was choosing movies that people who normally choose to go to horror movies think are bad… and since audiences in general and horror audiences in particular seem to be more generous than critics, I had to raise the bar just a bit. So for this list, every poster you see here is of a film that is liked by fewer than one in three horror movie fans — either a 33% or lower audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or a score of 3.3 or less on IMDb.
As before, I’m sure there are warning signs I’ve left off. And, as before, none of these warning signs are guarantees that a film that has these traits is bad. It’s possible for a film to fall into one or more of these categories and still be a good horror movie. It’s also possible that the hitchhiker with a chainsaw is just a friendly lumberjack who’s lost his way.
#10: Spliced Footage
This warning sign only makes it in at #10 for a couple reasons. First is that it’s usually only apparent once you’ve started watching the film in question, which makes it difficult to use it as a warning sign unless you hear about it through word of mouth. Second is that it is, thankfully, fairly rare. But when it does happen, it’s a thing of legend. Infamously, director Ed Wood made Plan 9 From Outer Space “starring” the late Bela Lugosi by splicing in footage from an unfinished film that Lugosi was in. The result is regarded as one of the worst movies ever made… and strangely I can’t use it as my primary example here, because it’s sitting at 45% on Rotten Tomatoes. I can only conclude that either people are rating it positively out of “so bad it’s good” value, or that several thousand people are simply lying through their teeth. The alternative, that it’s genuinely liked in an unironic way, is simply too terrifying to contemplate.
Fortunately, I’m not without an example to use, thanks to Ed Wood’s modern day equivalent, Uwe Boll. In House of the Dead, Boll spliced footage in from an arguably even more ludicrous source than a dead actor’s unfinished film. He liberally used footage from the video game his movie was based on, ensuring himself yet another entry into the film hall of shame.
#9: The Dead of Winter
Hey, what’s a great time to release a horror movie? October, when Halloween is right around the corner. What’s another good time? The summer, during the blockbuster season — particularly near the beginning and end when the biggest films aren’t around. What’s not a great time? The dead of winter. Pun intended.
January is often considered a “dump month” for films of all genres, and February isn’t much better. And for horror movies especially, it just doesn’t speak well for the movie studios’ confidence. Very few people are looking for a good scare that time of year. Maybe because they’re already shivering from the cold, perhaps… or maybe it’s just that there’s no mental association with winter and virtually any form of thrilling excitement. It’s more a time of either depression or snowy fun depending on how the weather affects you. Granted, there are occasional successes here, but for every Cloverfield there are six or seven Vanishing on 7th Streets.
#8: Gimmick Footage
Complaints about gimmick footage are hardly new, and hardly limited to horror films. But oh, does horror ever thrive on it. 3D? Horror stuck by 3D even when other genres abandoned it back in the red-blue anaglyph days — gotta have those knives and giblets flying out of the screen, after all. Found footage? Well, hey, a little shakiness adds to the feeling of unease, and the director can write it into the script to make it seem more real… an attempt that often fails, as with Apollo 18. Back in the 1950s and 60s, director William Castle was fond of having custom “effects” added to theatres, such as “Percepto” for The Tingler, which would vibrate seats at key moments. (Note: I and a lot of other people actually like The Tingler, but not because of “Percepto”.)
The gimmicky footage isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself (though it certainly can be). But horror films have a tendency to rely on it to make up for some deficiency in the film, and it never works. Nevertheless, any filming fad will find a home in the halls of horror even if it doesn’t anywhere else. If they ever invent smell-o-vision, you can bet your bottom dollar that a horror director will be standing in line to make use of it.
#7: Non Sequel
Quick! What does Troll 2 have to do with Troll? Absolutely nothing! One good way to tell if you’re dealing with a bad horror movie is if its creators decide to tack it onto an existing franchise despite having no connection whatsoever. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly well-known franchise (though the number of unofficial Living Dead spinoffs is staggering.) It’s doubtful very many people were looking forward to Troll 2 who wouldn’t have been just as happy checking out Goblin. This may sound like a rare occurrence, but with international markets and home video, there are actually several examples, from Zombi 2 — the “sequel” to Night of the Living Dead (which was released in Italy as Zombi) — to House III, which led to the actual creators of the House franchise calling their third film House IV, to Curse IV, which was originally released as Catacombs before Curse II and Curse III.
It’s a pretty simple rule. With a good movie, the creators don’t have to lie about what franchise it’s a part of. They’ll try to start their own.
#6: Post-Finale Sequel
I’ll admit I’m bending my rule a bit here for the poster example. At 35% on Rotten Tomatoes, Jason X is just a smidgen over the limit I’d set… but I don’t think I’m going to get any big complaints about that, am I?
Any series, no matter what genre, is vulnerable to sequelitis, that decay in quality from one movie to the next. But horror movies seem particularly prone to a strain where they make a sequel, usually markedly lower in quality, after they’ve already declared the series over. Jason X is a truly awe-inspiring example of audacity, because the Friday the 13th series was already ended twice by that point. The fourth film was subtitled The Final Chapter. The ninth was Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Apparently “final” isn’t so final.
#5: Blatant Sexual Pandering
Look, I’m not speaking out against showing some nudity in a horror movie. That would be like speaking out against car chases in an action movie. It may not be a mandatory element of the genre, but it’s certainly an accepted and not unexpected one. But there are those films that seem to learn entirely the wrong lesson, where the sex appeal is for some reason elevated to equal status to the horror… often as an attempt to distract approximately 50% of the audience from any weaknesses in the film.
It does get worse, of course, because bargain-basement horror film makers have some truly warped minds. There are those who not only view sex appeal as being an equal part of the genre to the horrific, but actually seem to view them as one and the same, which is the only explanation I can come up with for films such as Zombie Strippers. OK, there’s the parody element as well, but somehow these films never receive the reviews of quality parodies (and no, I’m not checking them out to see for myself. Even the Morbid Curiosity Files have limits.) There’s a disturbing sense that the makers of these films are trying to appeal to necrophiliacs, and despite the constant lamentations that the moral standards of the western world are declining, that is simply not a very large market.
#4: Non-Horror Holiday
As TVTropes.org notes, horror does not settle for Simple Tuesday. Horror films just love to be set around the holidays. But there aren’t a whole lot of scary holidays to go around. Halloween is the classic, of course, but it’s awfully crowded even if it weren’t for one of the biggest horror series just straight-up using it as a title. You can choose to go with Hell Night or the Day of the Dead, but everyone would just know you’re dancing around Halloween anyway. Friday the 13th is pretty crowded, too, and another big franchise uses it as a title. So what do the filmmakers do? They just pick another holiday. Any other holiday.
I’ll just put it plainly: there is nothing scary about Christmas. Even Tim Burton gets that, he built an entire movie about the ludicrousness of the notion. Valentine’s Day? Maybe if you’re a Chicago gangster, but otherwise, you’re probably fine. April Fool’s Day? Come on, now you’re not even trying. If you want an old holiday that’s genuinely themed with the supernatural, try Walpurgis Night; it’s relatively uncrowded. But otherwise quit trying to scare us with holidays that aren’t remotely scary.
#3: Title Changes
This was touched upon briefly regarding the non-sequel sequels, but it warrants its own special mention considering how common it became with the advent of home video. Sometimes movies change their names… especially semi-obscure horror movies. Visiting Hours is also known variously as The Fright and Get Well Soon. Nightmare in a Damaged Brain is also just simply Nightmare, and the less obvious Blood Splash. Bloody Birthday and Phenomena are both also known as Creepers, and so is Contamination .7, which has additionally seen release as — what else? — Troll 3.
The provenance of some of these alternate names is unknown, but generally seem to be low budget small production run video releases. The reason is also unknown, but it’s hard not to be a little suspicious. If the film were all that good, wouldn’t they keep the name the same so people could recognize it?
#2: Non-Scary Scary Threat
Here’s a three-fer for you. The core element of any horror movie is the threat to the protagonists. There has to be something frightening for them to face off against. Besides the standard serial killer, there are three different types of threat a scary movie can throw their way… and thus three ways the filmmaker can really botch it. One relatively uncommon way is to take an inanimate object, animate it, and set it loose upon its victims. Christine is a horror classic because there’s something frightening about a car that goes out of control. You know what’s not frightening? A laundry press. No, not even if it gets up and moves.
The second method they can use to create a threat is to bring in some frightening animal, either making it rabid or gigantic or both. Hitchcock got a lot of mileage out of psychotic birds. Giant spiders are a classic, and giant lizards harken back to the legends of dragons, and have a modern equivalent in Godzilla. Anacondas, alligators, and great white sharks are all pretty scary in real life, so it’s not hard to make a scary movie around those. But no matter how hard you try, I don’t think you’re going to be successful at making a scary movie around fluffy bunnies. Even if they’re 50 feet tall, they’re still fluffy bunnies, and only a few individuals are frightened by that.
The third and recently the most common technique is to take a supernatural element and make it the threat. Demons are an eternally-popular choice, as are ghosts. Vampires, werewolves, mummies… there are lots of classics. But sometimes somebody wants to break away from the crowd a little. Sometimes just calling the demon a dybbuk isn’t enough. They have to come up with some mythical creature that hasn’t been turned into a major horror movie monster before. Which is how we wind up with things like The Gingerdead Man. In fairness, it’s partly intended as a comedy. But it’s still heavily disliked, and I can’t help but think that it’s because of how ridiculously stupid the concept is. It’s a cookie, it’s inherently fragile. What’s more, yes, the movie’s threat is based on familiar folklore… but it’s not the sort of folklore that a good horror movie is made out of. It’s a nursery tale. And it’s a nursery tale in which the title character’s main talent is his ability to run away. That’s pretty much the opposite of scary right there.
#1: “Based on a True Story”
This is perhaps the most insulting thing a horror filmmaker can put in the marketing of their film, because it’s such a flagrant lie that it implies a very low estimation of the audience’s worldliness. Biopics are based on true stories. Some dramas. Even the occasional comedy. But horror films? Not so much. Oh, theoretically, a slasher movie could be based on a real serial killer, but it’s pretty unlikely. There’s something uncomfortable — not frightening but just grotesque — about the idea of watching an actor pretend to be a real serial killer attacking actors who are portraying real murder victims. People, by and large, just aren’t that ghoulish. We like our murder victims to be strictly fictional, and so slasher movies are at most just loosely inspired by the concept of serial killers in general.
The other horror movies, the ones dealing with the supernatural, haven’t even that thin excuse. When something like The Devil Inside or The Possession claims to be “based on a true story”, they neglect to mention that true story consists of “some guy killed somebody”, or “somebody was acting strangely and blamed it on a hallucination” before they start embellishing it into a story of demonic possession and the like. It’s approximately as much of a true story as The Smurfs. But the marketing teams keep shilling this line of swill, and while some films are actually decent despite it, you can bet that the louder the ad campaign promotes it as a true story, the less the film is actually capable of standing on its own. They are, ironically, hoping that when you hear “true story”, your imagination will run away with you.
And there are my picks for the top 10 warning signs of a bad horror movie. What did I leave out? If you go to horror movies, what will keep you from going to a particular film?