In bad taste: a brief guide to underrated and disrespected horror films

Bad taste is out of fashion. The idea that transgressive subjects should be studied has been supplanted by a timorous corporate culture. Perhaps no medium is more of a victim to this cultural turn than film and, more specifically, the horror film. The horror genre was once regarded as marginal, a camp oddity designed to make fast cash through the production of sleaze.

That’s the past. Now, horror has become prestige. The idea of “elevated horror,” the notion that many horror films can grow out of their genre trappings, dominates the cultural ecosystem. However, it is code for the notion that horror is an intransigent genre that needs to be escaped from. Is there any way to break out of this hermeneutic cage? In years past, many horror films that presented political and aesthetic radicality evaded the critical radar and perhaps by studying them, audiences can find modern films of the same bent.

Contextually, it is important to understand the place horror has held in the cultural consciousness. Prior to the 2010s, horror as a widely accessible genre was alien to Hollywood. Extending all through film history, from the 1930s works of Edgar G. Ulmer to the early 2000s films of Eli Roth, there has been a bias against horror films being as cerebral as their dramatic counterparts. Whenever a horror film did get mainstream acclaim, such as “The Exorcist” or “Silence of the Lambs,” they were recategorized as a different genre.

Jef Burnham, a professor at DePaul who teaches a cult movies class, said

“The widespread usage of the term ‘elevated horror’ often insinuates that horror in years gone by was not intellectual.” Burnham also added that, “Whenever a film like ‘Silence of the Lambs’ did well, and this is a film about cannibals and skinning women and wearing their skin, horror stuff, it was thought of as a thriller, something different.”

Ashley Smith, a DePaul professor who specializes in race and class in horror, brings up a similar point. She noted that horror’s historically marginal status allowed it to interrogate taboo issues, and cited films from the 1970s as examples of how, even going back 50 years, horror has been dealing with social and political issues. 

Smith spoke about “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from 1974 as a film which is concerned about “the descendants of people who profited off disenfranchisement” and that the central antagonists are “people who lost their jobs through the process of industrialization.” Both Smith and Burnham also mentioned the original “The Last House on the Left” from 1972 as another film that interrogated, at the time, pertinent issues such as the Vietnam War. It was pushed to the periphery for years. 

This is the general trajectory for many underrated horror films. At the time of their release, they dealt with taboo topics that pried into the cultural subconscious in a way few other genres can. However, in recent years these types of marginal horror films have been overshadowed by more mainstream projects that’s quality not only as artistic but political objects has varied. The continual production of oppositional works has steadily declined. 

Film history and aesthetics professor Andrew Stasiulis attributed this decline to “a lack of strong political consciousness” in current horror works when compared to older films of directors such as George Romero. 

“I see plenty of good horror movies today, but the countercultural movement is so different,” Stasiulis said. “The counterculture movement was so much more pronounced, particularly in 1968 when Romero made ‘Night of the Living Dead’”

Stasiulis continued by mentioning how many current horror movies are more concerned with issues pertaining to individuals as opposed to the grander political ambitions of the sleazy grindhouse pictures of years past. Why has there been such a vast psychic rift between these two filmic eras? 

There are a multiplicity of reasons but one big cause is the existential dread that has arisen from the perpetual war on terror and the decaying of current political institutions has made people unsure how to conceptualize of a political project outside of late capitalism. This leads modern horror filmmakers to make films concerning, “an individual sense of trauma, an individual sense of fear” while older filmmakers like Romero, who would often use his narrative subjects for metaphors about political issues, were concerned about “society as a whole,” Stasiulis said.

To some extent, the social concern in older movies arose through a cultural osmosis. While the filmmakers might not have explicitly had these concerns on their minds, the general ecosystem they worked in gave rise to it.

DePaul senior Chris O’Neill hosts Studio 2097, a show on DePaul Radio about cult films said that the subtext of a particular film might not always have been in the filmmakers minds but instead arose after the fact. 

“People who make horror films might start with a provocative concept and then as they go through it they retroactively put a certain angle on their work just because of how things fall into place,” O’Neill said. 

This raises the question of what horror films still exist in a marginal space and might still be considered underrated but, because of their existence in this space, can explore issues otherwise ignored. 

In keeping with the upcoming Halloween season, O’Neill mentioned the 1995 film “Tales from the Hood.” Based on the director Rusty Cundieff’s one-act play, the film is an anthology which deals with corruption, racial violence and police brutality during the days before Halloween in urban Los Angeles. Even though “Tales from the Hood” remains overlooked, O’Neill attributed its influence on more popular works to its creation of “an inner city Halloween aesthetic” which is only usually applied to suburbs and small towns.

Race in America has historically been a topic of discussion few want to engage in and, thus, makes it a subject perfect for the horror genre which thrives when interrogating difficult issues. Bill Gunn’s 1973 vampire film “Ganja & Hess” is a perfect example of this. Gunn was originally approached to make the project because of the acclaim he had received as playwright dealing with issues specific to the African American community in Nixonian America. When he was offered the finances for the film, he decided to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Stasiulis spoke about it as a film that’s influence can be seen in modern pictures such as “Get Out.”

“It deals with everything from Africa, vampirism, capital and art, and because it’s constructed in a deliberately confounding way, many people are turned off by it even though it has influenced so many later filmmakers,” Stasiulis said. 

Similar to the “Ganja and Hess”, the 2019 remake of “Black Christmas” is another marginal film that uses horror to question the social issues of its time. It was the first film released by Blumhouse directed by a woman and Smith said

“The 2019 film didn’t get the respect it deserved. Both the original and the remake are interesting in that each is invested in their own ways in telling women centered stories and stories that are focused on female experience, particularly related to women’s bodies, agency and autonomy that you don’t see in a lot of horror films. You certainly didn’t see it in a lot of horror films in the 70s.”

Indeed, the 1974 original was a forerunner with this type of feminist inquiry as it prominently features a subplot about a character questioning whether or not she should get an abortion only a year after the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Sometimes an underrated horror film might alienate an audience through its use of unconventional style to elucidate morbid issues. Burnham brought up Karyn Kusama’s 2015 film “The Invitation,” which grossed only $354,835 on a budget of $1 million. 

“What I like about ‘The Invitation’ is how devoted it is to its theme on every level,” Burnham said. “The internal narrative and external conflict are both very much about how we deal with grief.” 

Burnham partially attributes its lack of popularity to the “languid” and “contemplative” ways it examines that theme. People are unnerved by the film’s meditative approach to such a dark subject.

So what is the future of these types of films? Will the films that inhabit those liminal spaces and dark caves of the cultural consciousness that are being created today receive the same acclaim their predecessors did? The answer is impossible to know, but one can certainly hope so. When the current state of affairs in the postmodern age looks bleaker and bleaker by the day, the role of oppositional and transgressive art holds an almost tangible importance. Bertolt Brecht famously wrote, 

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it,” Bertolt Brecht famously wrote. 

Perhaps the underrated horror films of the current moment can be that hammer in the future.