What Ever Happened to Genre Flicks?

You may wonder what someone's been slipping into my morning coffee that would lead to the outrageous claim that there's a paucity of genre films being produced these days. You may look around and say that every other movie put out by Hollywood belongs to one genre or another. But take a closer look and you'll see that there's an insulting self-consciousness to almost all genre attempts anymore, as if the filmmakers of such product feel vaguely guilty for making us play the game when we already know the rules, so they try to get cute with us to make up for it. Well, Scrabble and Monopoly seem to be aging pretty well, the last I checked. Why? Because despite the comfort of playing a game you enjoy, you can still be surprised by the outcome every time.

This is not to say that experimentation should be dismissed out of hand. Just as we feel relieved at the occasional emergence of a Trivial Pursuit or a Pictionary, we tend to welcome the redefinition of a film genre from time to time. There's always going to be a maverick out there like Quentin Tarantino or Clive Barker to bridge an unexpected gap or inject some new enthusiasm into an old form. But such cases are rare, or at least infrequent. Failed attempts, sadly, are not.

There's no better example of a badly decaying genre than the horror film. It's not the end of the world. I have faith that kids who grow up watching crap like "Cabin Fever" and "The Ring" will seek out the great horror films as they get older, if they've really got the bug. Still, I know of no natural law dictating that all art forms must eventually crash upon the rocks of mediocrity. Just because it's happening to written fiction doesn't mean we have to accept that film will share the same fate. Okay, maybe that's exactly what it means. But if there's one thing the human animal is good at (besides killing its fellows), it's swimming against the tide of futility. If nothing else, it's a distraction from death's ubiquitous intimations. So there you have it: my version of optimism.

Anyway, you see my point. There's a way to end this pattern. Filmmakers need to acknowledge their limitations as well as their strengths. Not every horror film needs to break new ground. Not every western has to reinvent the gun. Sometimes it's enough just to be good.

And speaking of guns, let's get down to bullets. Following are two lists. The first contains 10 genre films that I consider to be exemplary, without touching on the obvious classics. The second contains 10 genre attempts that disappoint primarily because of ignorance, timidity or pretense. The lists are in no particular order, nor do they necessarily represent the "top" and "bottom" ten.

Bull's Eyes:

  • "28 Days Later" -- Zombie Terror
  • "The Devil's Backbone" -- Ghost
  • "Schizopolis" -- Surrealist Comedy
  • "Vampires" (1998) -- Supernatural Horror
  • "The Black Room" -- Suspense Thriller
  • "Wizards" -- Animated Satirical Fantasy
  • "Man Bites Dog" -- Mockumentary
  • "The Stalker" -- Science Fiction/Fantasy
  • "Summer of Sam" -- Psychodrama
  • "Dancer in the Dark" -- Musical

Misfires:

  • "Hollow Man" -- Techno-Horror
  • "Memento" -- Suspense Thriller
  • "Great Expectations" (1998) -- Literary Adaptation
  • "The Missing" -- Western
  • "Quiz Show" -- Exposation
  • "Starship Troopers" -- Science Fiction/Fantasy
  • "Strictly Ballroom" -- Musical
  • "Hannibal" -- Grand Guignol
  • "Fargo" -- Comic Thriller
  • "Stigmata" -- Supernatural Horror

So what's not a genre film in my book? Obviously filmmakers sometimes strive to create something that doesn't fit neatly into a preordained category, and I hope the flippancy of the above genre labels reveals a hesitancy on my part to pigeonhole any film too acutely. At the same time, by calling Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Stalker" a science fiction/fantasy film, I also hope to imply that many of the best films ever made have been genre films on one level or another. Stanley Kubrick is a terrific example of a genre filmmaker whose films are perennially regarded as being among the best of the best. Britain's film giant, Mike Leigh, on the other hand, has only taken one shot at a genre film, "Topsy-Turvy," and, though breathtaking and full of spirit, it is not in league with his best work. Every film he's done could be called a comedy, I suppose, but really he only uses comedy as one more element to make the worlds he creates as realistic as possible. We're not talking "Austin Powers" here. There's the possibility that Leigh has created his own distinct sub-genre of realism, but since he borrows mostly from himself it's a pretty good stretch to call him a genre filmmaker.

And finally, let's not forget one of the most unfortunate casualties of the decline of quality genre fare: the genre actor. I'm not talking about actors who couldn't get work in the A pictures so they took on any piece of flotsam that floated their way. I'm talking about the fine actors who worked on genre pictures out of love and it showed, even if they occasionally took on a piece of flotsam if it floated their way. Where's our modern day Karloff, our Sellers, our Eastwood (sorry to count you among the dead, Clint)? They're out there, I know, but in small numbers and well beneath the radar of the average filmgoer. I don't know, maybe it's not a bad thing, this changing tide. Maybe today's mainstream actor is better off doing as he's told. One should know one's place after all. And besides, I'm dwelling on the futile again. Why pick on actors when they're only part of the problem? Like women who couple with brutal, beer-swilling assholes, directors these days (even the really good ones) are shooting from scripts they know aren't any good but are likely to make the right people wealthy overnight. Like natural selection, only alterable. And then there are the studios. ...

There's enough blame to go around, in other words.


Pete Mesling is the editor of Filmfodder's Critical Eye section.