Two days ago, The Guardian published a review of Mike Flanagan’s loose The Turn of the Screw adaptation, The Haunting of Bly Manor. It, erm, didn’t go down well.
Branded “The 2020 of horror reviews” on Twitter, the author took the bold stance that “ghosts and their ilk DO NOT EXIST THEREFORE CANNOT BE SCARY” (an opinion they drove home with the very necessary use of caps lock). They went on to say that for this reason “Halloween is the most boring time of year”. Needless to say, horror Twitter had something of a field day with the review, which, although it raised some valid critiques of the show, was shot through with an attitude of snobby elitism.
What we want to say is: we’re not angry, just disappointed. Nor are we particularly surprised. After all, it’s October, the month where critics are forced to stop watching “proper movies” and lower themselves to the level of us plebs by reviewing horror offerings. Soon it will be over, and they can comfortably return to exclusively reviewing films in which middle class people sit in living rooms and talk about their divorces. However, for the next few weeks, they just have to grit their teeth. The result is articles like this, in which mainstream reviewers make no attempt to contain their contempt for the horror genre and its many fans.
It’s absurd to imagine that the author of this review holds other genres to this standard. Would the Guardian publish a review in which the author proclaimed “THIS ROMANCE NEVER HAPPENED AND THEREFORE CAN’T BE EMOTIONALLY ENGAGING”? We suspect not.
Nor does this attitude even prove particularly relevant to the rest of the review. Having told us that ghosts are impossibly dull, the author then goes on to complain that The Haunting of Bly Manor isn’t scary enough. It almost seems cruel to hold a show to a standard that you’ve established is, in your eyes, impossible to attain.
As a group of people who write about films, this attitude irks us, not just as horror fans, but as reviewers generally. True objectivity is impossible to achieve, but we feel that it’s a good idea to at least have vague aspirations in that direction. We are frequently asked to review films that aren’t strictly our cups of tea. We try to assign the pieces internally to writers who specialise in those areas of genre (and it is difficult to imagine that there were no writers on the Guardian’s payroll who could have given The Haunting of Bly Manor a fairer shake than this), but often we just have to get on with it. Whether a film is for us or not, it has an intended audience and it has its own standard for success. Establishing whether it succeeds on its own terms is far more important than our personal opinions of it.
What is particularly frustrating about this piece, then, is not that the author dismisses the premise of the show out of hand, but that they seem to think that they should be applauded for doing so. For some mainstream critics, “not getting horror” is seen almost as a badge of honour. Horror is essentially a trick, the orthodoxy goes, so well done us for being too clever to fall for it.
It’s this same attitude that saw Get Out nominated for best comedy/musical at the Golden Globes. Even when the cultural gatekeepers begrudgingly admit some horror films to the party, they insist on seating them at the kids’ table.
All this would be well and good, and we would be happy being fenced off in the horror ghetto having a great time (presumably doing the monster mash), if this stance wasn’t wilfully ignorant about horror’s role in cinematic history. For example, let’s say a director wants to convey an emotion on screen without using dialogue or the actor’s performances. Chances are, they’ll reach for a technique that has its genesis in early “horror” movies. Whether it’s the bold immediacy of German expressionism or the eerie ghostliness of French surrealism, horror is integral to the DNA of mainstream cinema. It’s ironic to see snobby reviewers treat horror like the ugly stepchild of “proper” cinema, when in reality it’s more like the grandaddy.
Lastly, “Ghosts DO NOT EXIST THEREFORE CANNOT BE SCARY” is a pretty comical take, given how demonstrably untrue it is. The vast majority of people who are scared by ghost films do not actually believe in ghosts. Isn’t that at least a little bit interesting? Worthy of examination? That people can experience a visceral reaction to something they know to be complete fantasy? Ghost stories have the potential to move us, to speak to universal fears about our own mortality. They invite us to reconnect with our landscape and explore our shared histories. These are the stories that we told each other huddled around campfires at the dawn of civilisation. We suspect that they are the stories we’ll keep telling each other until there’s nothing left on this earth but the memories of the departed – no matter what Guardian film columnists happen to think about it.