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Critical response: Owen Gleiberman's not afraid to defend his horror list

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uwu_logoTake your seats, class: Movie critic Owen Gleiberman is taking on some of your, um, “concerns” about his gallery of 20 Top Horror Films of the Last 20 Years.  Read his rebuttal as he wraps up his exploration of horror movies for week 6 of EW University and check out this week’s classes on legendary horror flicks Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Quentin Tarantino, vampires, and more.

Owen Gleiberman’s response to readers:

When I decided to put together my list of the Top 20 horror films of the past 20 years, I knew that just by being honest — sticking true to the movies I find most scary, spooky, disturbing, unsettling, scary-funny, or just plain horrifying — I would inevitably inspire catcalls of outrage, righteous denunciations, and cries for my critical head. It’s not only that lists like these are meant to be fought over and argued about (personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way). It’s also that this is…horror we’re talking about. Very visceral stuff. Opinions that people feel in their guts and their central nervous systems. If, like me, you happen to find The Blair Witch Project an original and terrifying experience, one that haunted your dreams for weeks, it’s doubtful that anyone who found it an overhyped dud (“Where’s the monster?”) full of nausea-incuding camerawork is ever going to be “convinced” that it should have frightened the bejesus out of them. Apart from comedy, nothing in movies is quite as subjective as what scares — or bores — us to death.

That said, a number of you who posted comments about my list raised issues that I’d like to address. That includes some of the movies you felt I’d left out (we’ll get to that in a moment). First, though, I’d like to defend one aspect of the list that seemed to bother a great many people. Namely: Why did I choose a number of films, like The Sixth Sense or From Hell, that struck many of you as thrillers more than bona fide horror movies?

Well, first of all, I did it deliberately, not to be provocative or to “stretch” the definition of horror, but — quite the contrary — to return to an old-school, almost classical Hollywood notion of horror, one that includes films that inspire shock and awe from the inside, nibbling away at our anxieties. There was some debate, for instance, about whether The Sixth Sense is a “horror film” or a “supernatural thriller.” Well, by my lights, it’s about a dead guy who walks around and a kid who’s as creeped out by the otherworldly visions that confront him as the kid from The Shining was. Just because no one ends up swinging an ax doesn’t mean that you don’t get the heebie-jeebies.

Or take From Hell, the Hughes brothers’ splendid dark-side-of-the-soul mystery-thriller, with its flash-cut evocations of society’s first slasher, Jack the Ripper. (Yes, I know: You think that the Alan Moore graphic novel was better, more densely dazzling.) By what standard do one-dimensional bogeymen like Jason or Michael Myers, wielding their knives with videogame precision for the 10th or 20th time in a rigged contest of kill-the-next-idiot-who-gets-in-the-way-of-my weapon, somehow count as real live “horror movie” monsters, while the fascinatingly sick, Jekyll-and-Hyde human demon of From Hell doesn’t? Does the idea that the latter film actually has a good story somehow mean that it lacks the black-as-night resonance of a horror film? I tried to assemble this list so that horror meant more than mere sensation — so that it also meant things that could give your heart and your brain the shivers.

Okay, but now we get to the good stuff — the movies you thought should have been on there. In almost every case, my honest response comes down to one word: Really? Let’s look at a few of those proposed alternate choices:

Wolf Creek

It’s cleverly staged, with a villain who’s like “Crocodile” Dundee with a loose screw. But really, it’s nothing more than another textbook Chainsaw ripoff.

The films of Rob Zombie

No doubt about it, he’s a very bad boy, who revels in the shock theatrics of killers he treats like rock stars. But House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are derivative, hit-or-miss in-your-face bloodbaths. I like their squeamish freak-out atmosphere. But Top 20? That’s too much love for a still-promising headbanger-turned-goremeister.

High Tension

Illogical twists, and much brutal mayhem — but it’s French, so this tale of two young women stuck in a country house with a big, fat, grunting brute who’s got a thing for decapitation looks fancier than it is.

The Hills Have Eyes

The 2006 version? Are you friggin’ kidding me? It’s a lavishly photographed gross-out message movie with very little of the skeezy, innovative rawness that gave the original its bad vibes.

Session 9

Brad Anderson’s mental-asylum thriller begins well, and it’s visually startling, but the story melts into half-hearted ghostly vagueness.

Finally, we come to the choice I made that seems to have irked the most people. To quote a message-board poster named Chris: “Anyone who says 28 Weeks Later is better than 28 Days Later should not be allowed to judge horror movies.”

Wow, Chris, that is harsh. You seem to speak for many, though, so let me just say that I dug 28 Days Later — I really did. Yet part of what accounts for its reputation, I think, was the sheer novelty of Danny Boyle reviving the zombie genre and adapting it to the immediacy of the digital-video age. (Okay, I know: they’re not “technically” zombies. But since they’re rabid and reptile-brained, and stalk around like the living dead, I’m going to call them zombies anyway.) And I really did think that the sequel went further into apocalyptic blood-orgy craziness. Feel free to disagree, of course. But for the debate about the relative quality of these two movies to have inspired this much hate…well, sorry, folks, but that’s a little scary.

More EW University:

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The template for modern horror

Check out Owen’s class on seminal horror flick Psycho

Slideshow: The best horror films of the last 20 years

Final exam: Take a stab at our horror film trivia quiz

See all EW University courses

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