Note: I wrote this essay a few weeks ago in response to a poster on Reddit asking why scary movies always seem to get low ratings and bad reviews. Although I think my Halloween Haunters reviews have been more evenly mixed over the years, I’m well aware of the trend, and I felt I had a good grasp on why it is the way it is. When I was finished writing, I realized just how much I’d written, and recognized it as a sign that maybe it was time to start blogging regularly again. Since the post went over fairly well in that Reddit thread, and since it fits well within the theme of the month, I’m reproducing it here with minor modifications.
Why does it seem like scary movies always get low ratings/bad reviews?
There are a few factors at work here. The easy answer is that most horror films really aren’t very good, but of course that wouldn’t really answer the question because it doesn’t explain why, and what it means for the films to be bad.
Horror movies are one of the easiest genres for beginning filmmakers to bust into. It may sound surprising, given that some of them involve special effects, but it’s true. It’s not that it’s easier to film, but rather, it’s easier to make a good return on investment. Comedy fans, romance fans, drama fans… they’re all pretty picky. Horror fans, though, have a tendency to embrace low-quality productions. This isn’t because the genre or the fans are “dumb”, it’s because there’s a lower bar to clear. Comedy is tough, you have to have solid timing. Dramatic productions require believable dialogue and personalities, or people will reject it. But horror comes with built-in suspension of disbelief; there’s an assumption things won’t be “realistic”, because the concept generally isn’t realistic, so some awkwardness is forgiven here and there. Plus, if worse comes to worse, there’s always the possibility of becoming the next Troll 2, and being a horror film that people like because it’s bad.
Horror fans really put the original meaning — “fanatic” — back into “fan”. They’ll seek out the obscure stuff in a way that a comedy fan or drama fan won’t. You’ll see horror conventions, and sci-fi conventions and comic book conventions — and there’s a lot of mixing among all three — but you don’t see drama movie fan conventions so much. Not general public ones, really; I guess you could say Cannes is one, but compare the audience to Monster Con or Comic Con and you’ll see a big difference in the nature of the group. The upshot of this is that an amateur horror movie costs about as much to make as an amateur drama (special effects usually are just cheap makeup), but it can recoup more costs because horror fans will pick it up on small straight-to-DVD production runs, whereas dramas typically are only purchased if they make it big. Indie dramas will get some attention at film festivals, but unless it’s one of the big winners, it’s probably not getting attention from very many people. So hey, they get critical acclaim, but they make no money.
So someone who is starting out in film often starts out in horror — cheap to make plus decent returns means profits, which means the ability to make more movies. It’s how Sam Raimi got started, and George Romero, and it’s been the founding principle of several successful movie companies. From Roger Corman to Troma to Full Moon, there are a lot of companies that are laughing all the way to the bank as the critics savage their work.
Now, why do they get such bad reviews? Often because of that low barrier to entry. When you have an amateur director and cinematographer working with amateur writers and amateur actors, what you wind up with tends to be… amateurish. Stilted dialogue, flat acting, odd scene transitions and holes in the narrative are all commonplace at the amateur level. At best, it’s unpolished; at worst, it’s just plain incompetent. But if it makes money anyway, the director goes on making films, and doesn’t always learn that they made money in spite of their skills and not because of them. So some of them — not all — continue to be amateurish even as they become more successful. And critics tend to notice this, as noticing these things is their job.
Further, there’s an awareness of this “low cost, big return” policy at the larger studios. While they’d love to put out a big tentpole like The Avengers every single week, they can’t afford to; The Avengers may have made a ton, but it also cost a non-trivial amount. They’d have to guess right about its success every time, and as The Lone Ranger showed, they don’t always get it right. Dramas are cheaper, but they also don’t bring in as much. But horror films? Cheap to make, and they can dump their amateur crew on it, and it’ll still make a good return. Nebraska was highly acclaimed, but made $17 mil on a $12 mil budget; about 1.4 times its budget. The Avengers made $1.5 billion worldwide on $220 mil; 6.8 times its budget. The Devil Inside made $101 million… on a budget of $1 million. Sure, its overall take is a lot less than The Avengers, but on a percentage basis, it’s a huge success.
And that’s why big studios keep making horror films. They can essentially fund their big tentpole productions with them. A few hack directors and first-time actors can bring in enough to pay for their great big blockbusters and their Oscar winning dramas. Because the horror fans will go to see it as long as it provides a scare, it’ll make money even if the film is amateurish in every other way.
And that’s why the critics give the films such bad reviews. Because on most merits, the films typically are bad. Their directors are beginners, or are hacks who never learned from their early days. Their actors are novices receiving bad direction. Their writers are either amateurs or are professionals who literally don’t care because it’s just a quick throwaway script to make the studio a few bucks. All the things that make a quality film in most genres are lacking; quality acting, depth of character, deep meaning, and so forth. It’s not in there because a cheap horror film is typically ignoring all that in favor of the scare.
Now, if it is scary, that’s all fine and dandy. A film should be judged on what it is trying to be, not what everything else is trying to be. But remember that nothing kills fear as much as familiarity does, and a professional movie reviewer is exceptionally familiar with the subject. They have to watch almost all the films coming out, whether they want to or not, because that’s their job. That means that if a particular means of causing a scare has been done 50 times before, a veteran reviewer has probably seen it 40 times before (numbers picked at random, but you get my point.) And so they won’t be scared by it anymore. And if the film doesn’t deliver the scare (because of familiarity), and also doesn’t succeed on any of the other merits by which most films are judged (because of amateur quality), then it’s not likely that the reviewer is going to think it’s a good film. There’s simply nothing there for them to recommend. This is why when you do see a horror film that is highly praised among critics, it’s usually a pretty different film from previous horror works — or it’s just that good at being scary.
Long story short, horror films tend to be cheaply produced, with amateur cast and crew. Movie critics, who are often jaded by previous horror films and therefore unaffected by overly-familiar scare tactics, are left with nothing to praise.