Critical Flameout

Like a lot of horror fans, I've learned to temper my expectations when wading into the review sections of mainstream publications. In general, genre films often get the short end of the stick when it comes to critical attention upon release, and the lower the marketing budget the lower the amount of attention that editors seem to pay. This is why sites like Bloody Good Horror exist, of course: to fill in the holes in coverage for niche film audiences. As experts (or at the least, enthusiasts) we can bring a more nuanced and well-versed appreciation to genres that every mainstream critic couldn't possibly keep up with. Understanding the lineage and conventions of a particular genre can go a long way toward informing a critic's opinion, and so when a film critic pans a particular film, one can only hope they do so with an even hand and an open mind.

Sadly, that does not always happen. In fact, when one steps into the mainstream world, the reverse is more likely to be true: genre film reviews can often be flimsy, narrowly focused, and reductive in their analysis. There're many reasons for this, the most basic, mentioned above is that all critics cannot possibly be masters of all genres. Sure, I'd expect any film writer worth their salt to be familiar with "Psycho," "Halloween," and even "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." But wade into the depths (or heights) of horror, and you're far less likely to get traction with many critics. Will every writer appreciate homage to "The Thing" or even "Day of the Dead?" Probably not, nor should they, but that lack of knowledge does temper the value of their opinion, at least in my estimation.

Another factor working against mainstream critics is that their institutions (meaning the publication as well as the readership) likely expect a certain opinion on some films. Without getting too in depth with this idea, which is certainly debatable, my point is that it is more difficult for David Denby (a fabulous film writer) to give a glowing review of a horror film in The New Yorker, than it would be for Joe Schmoe at the Centerville Gazette to do the same. It may be that Denby has higher standards for "low" genres like horror, but it also could be that to truly get behind a genre film requires a hefty risk to a critic's reputation (not to mention the reputation of the publication), something a lot of critics aren't interested in.

All of this brings me to "Critical Flameout," an idea that I've been kicking around for a while now. My feeling is that every critic is entitled to their opinion. But I'm also entitled to my own opinion of that opinion. So I want to use this space as a place to examine reviews of genre movies, horror in particular, that I feel fail to provide a fair interpretation of the film in question. There's many ways that this can happen, whether it is due to a lack of grounding in the conventions of the genre as I discussed above, or because a critic has jumped on the bandwagon with a lazy opinion about a controversial film or trend in cinema. In any case, I'll take on reviews as I read them, and I encourage anyone who reads something they feel is deserving of attention (either negative or positive) to send it my way at jon@bloodygoodhorror.com.

I'll strive for FJM-like analysis, only you know, with less baseball nerding out and way more film nerding out. I'll also do my best to stay away from Richard Roeper, pictured above, who I consider to be the posterboy for "Critical Flameout." I'm comfortable saying, without reservation or hesitation, that he's the worst film reviewer in the country, but that's a little unfair only because from what I know of his career, he's not actually a film critic, but just the guy that screen-tested the best when seated next to Roger Ebert. Even still, the fact that he expresses a public opinion about film makes him a potential target, so if I get desperate, or perhaps just bored, I may have to dig up an old Roeper review and lay waste. Should make for interesting reading.

My goal here is not to ridicule any individual critics (although some may be worthy of ridicule), but merely to examine how they are thinking and writing about genre films. It's a fact of life that not every newspaper or magazine will have a critic that knows the ins-and-outs of horror or sci-fi or crime dramas. But that doesn't mean that we, the review consuming public, should stand by and accept poorly argued and inadequately supported opinions. I don't want or expect fawning reviews of every new horror release (peep, my backlog, I can be as brutal as the next guy), but I do expect reviewers to appreciate what makes a particular genre work, and understand that just because a film might be from a "low" genre, that doesn't mean that its not worth thinking deeply about it.

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