Editorial: What a Horror Reviewer Does

Posted on July 15, 2011 by Deaditor 5 Comments

What a Horror Reviewer Does
by Keri O’Shea

It’s not a new thing for irate horror directors to take on their critics: as an extreme example of this, in 2006 Uwe Boll challenged – and apparently beat – five of his most vocal critics in a series of boxing matches. Most reviewers, it’s fair to say, will not end up in the ring with directors whose work they’ve criticised, but it’s not uncommon to be on the receiving end of negative responses which are often pathetically similar to one another. A certain type of embittered filmmaker will react to negative reviews of their film simply by claiming that the reviewer is wrong and in fact – what the fuck do they know? We’ve had it here at Brutal as Hell (see here) and you see it at other forums too. So, what the fuck do we fan writers know, anyway? Funnily, positive reviews are embraced; links are posted; quotes are used on DVD covers. Yet these good reviews are written by the self-same schmucks and fanboys which disgruntled casts and crews feel that can criticise for knowing nothing. Why accept the praise, if we don’t know what we’re talking about? Surely whatever we say, good or bad, is meaningless?

Aside from basic hypocrisy, the answer’s simple: some idiots in the business have convinced themselves that the horror community owes them a living: the act of sending out screeners therefore entitles them to free positive PR with a rapid turnover. That is the key concept here, folks – entitlement. They send a disc, they await a pithy sound bite and that’s the totality of the interaction they require. Sadly, there’s at least one opportunistic organisation which gives seminars advising would-be actors and directors how to manipulate bloggers and boost their IMDb scores. When people like this don’t get the responses they expect, at the very least bewilderment ensues. This is sometimes followed up by hostility, as we’ve seen on this site and elsewhere.

That hostility underlines something key about horror which is not true of other film genres: the contempt in which horror fans are held by those who see horror simply as a means to an end. Horror cinema has been treated derisively since its inception and it attracted little in the way of serious comment for years beyond that inception, but in these trying times, both the films and their fans are vulnerable to different types of exploitative treatment. A lot of this stems from the fact that horror fans are particularly forgiving. A film can be made on a shoestring budget and it can be deeply flawed, but if there is evidence of a love of the genre then many fans will make allowances for that. Thanks to a level of tolerance which is plain not found in other genres, many apathetic directors (of whom many, remember, aren’t even remotely horror fans) assume that any old shit will fly: if I had a shiny British pound for every lazy, derivative zombie film I’d seen from a director who assumes that ninety minutes of filming their friends staggering around in soiled white shirts constitutes a movie…Yet, when negative criticisms are made of such garbage, it interferes with a simple goal: horror is about making easy money for those folk with sharper elbows than intellects. Tamper with their expectations at your peril.

This effect isn’t limited to filmmakers, either. A new breed of commentators and publishers also see the horror genre as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. As an example, a certain, now gladly-defunct UK horror magazine seemed to know little and care less about its supposed specialism: instead what it geared itself towards was ‘c’ list celeb culture, repeatedly commissioning inane photo-shoots of such celebs whilst paying a pittance to its writers – writers whose reviews were allegedly spiked if they found inconvenient fault with a film which happened to have paid for advertising with the magazine. It fundamentally misunderstood its client base, it exploited its staff and it attacked its critics with the sort of fervour which might have been channelled into producing a less-awful product, but instead was used to threaten legal action.

Newsflash: the majority of horror reviewers do not do what they do out of some benevolent wish to provide free publicity for filmmakers or distribution companies. A reviewer is, first and foremost, a fan: they’re also the target audience for these films, so taking umbrage with them when they don’t like a film is pretty bizarre. In any case, they write – we write – because we love watching films, because we care about the genre, and because we wish to communicate that to others. If a filmmaker or distributor happens to be pleased enough with a write-up to want to use a quote on a cover, then that’s great, but that’s also secondary to the reason that the review came to exist in the first place. Sure, the quality of reviews will vary – just as the calibre of all types of writing varies and just as the films themselves vary – but adopting a utilitarian, even sneering approach to reviews written by fans is to do them a grave disservice, just as dismissing writing which demonstrates passion and knowledge of the genre because it says something inconvenient is pathetic. You want to respond to a review? Fine. You want to parrot the whole ‘who are you to comment’ line? Not so fine. You want PR? Then pay for some, if you’re so hell-bent on one outcome.

In fact, why not pay for some? Why not go to paid writers, not amateurs (and I use the word in its original sense here) – if fan writing produces variable results, then why even entertain it? Yes, it’s free, but – even allowing for the fact that filmmakers are on tight budgets – wouldn’t approaching a professional writer provide better quality work? Well, again, a number of the people who have washed up in the horror scene in recent years are opportunists, not enthusiasts, and though their writing might be technically sound, their knowledge is often lacking. Those professional writers whose work is definitely worth time and money – such as the folk at Rue Morgue – are good because they are also longstanding fans, not some gang of zealous converts who forever get the basics wrong because they weren’t watching years ago. The people committed to seeing and buying horror films are fans, therefore they are more likely to go to other fans than anywhere near a mainstream press which has got horror consistently wrong for as long as it has been obliged to bother with it. Furthermore, fan writers may have their own personal axes to grind, but they’re far less likely to be labouring under that kind of direct downward pressure endured by many paid writers. Of course, these days, the distinction between professional and amateur is less clear anyway. Professional writers can expect to have to provide some free content; those who look down on bloggers are often bloggers themselves, even though they refuse to see themselves in the same terms, and they may even share column space with amateurs in magazines and webzines. The difference between ‘real journalism’ and fan writing has diminished dramatically: some ‘real journalists’ might not like that, but the fact is that fans now play an important role in how well a film does.

At some level, the worth of a fan review has been understood: filmmakers appreciate that responses from their target audience to their film can matter, and that fans might go to other fans for their opinions. So what happens? Reviews are faked, that’s what happens! What a solution to the issue! Look up an otherwise poorly-received film on IMDb just before its release date and marvel at the attempted inflation of a film’s reputation. You can spot them a mile off: we all know the ones. Aside from the ‘coincidence’ of the review’s date of appearance, they just don’t sound like fan reviews; they’re oddly-technical, unequivocally-positive, and often talk about all the traits a director or his/her team wanted to come across but perhaps didn’t. Some of the writers make little attempt to disguise their identities, either, and can be traced as family members or friends of filmmakers (evidently some of these people don’t expect fans to actually check). If this wasn’t bad enough, worse still is the issue of negative fan reviews being flagged as abuse and removed. In a day and age where fraudulent reviews by authors posing as fans on Amazon have reached court, perhaps the guys who think it’s okay to deliberately mislead on the world’s biggest movie database might want to learn to deal with fair criticism.

You may not always like what you see, but you will never see this type of fraud on Brutal as Hell or on any reputable site: that makes the reviews here far more worthwhile than the weediest fraud over there. Filmmakers would do far better to heed earnest reviews and take something from that, not flap, fret and fake their way to a good verdict. We might not get paid for doing this, but that does not invalidate our work here: don’t take us for granted, don’t expect us to read from a script and if you can’t be nice, don’t expect us to be. Remember, horror fans can forgive a lot, but bullshit isn’t one of those things. You know what? If a film’s PR gets damaged by bad reviews then that’s the chance it takes. It’s collateral. Many of the shoddy, derivative pieces of work which limp into view deserve nothing less. Thankfully, only a select few cast, crew and distribution companies behave in the ways outlined above, but make no mistake: we can do without it, and fans won’t be swayed by tantrums.

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  • Steph says:

    Great article!

  • dpm74 says:

    Excellent piece Keri, well considered and argued as usual, without descending into wild ranting. Unfortunately I think this will always be an issue, but it’s good to highlight it from time to time. Thankfully I generally know the reviewers and sites I can trust to not be swayed into lying by giving glowing reviews to films they either don’t really like, or haven’t actually watched and considered, but it’s easy to be suckered.

    Send the tenner to the usual address, ok? 😉

  • Keri says:

    Thanks both 🙂 (Dpm74, it’ll have to be a fiver – I’m not paid to write here, remember!)

  • Tony says:

    Hear hear! Well written and 100% true. I’ve been a horror fan since the days of the Chiller Thriller on Friday nights. I read horror, collect the comics and watch movies and TV series. I will forgive a good attempt but hate poorly written pap served for a quick buck. I was horrified to hear a Canadian authoress say that she was walking through a book store and realized horror fans would accept any vampire writings without question. Its that attitude that spawned the whole emo wimpy crybaby touchy-feely glitterpyer twilight crap.
    Thanks the Old Ones for good zombie fiction. At least until some hack figures out how to make zombies into sex objects…

  • Paul says:

    Exactly. I’ve tried to explain to directors – as well as fans of films I’ve trashed – that I’m just a fan who happens to have a spark of writing talent. I don’t write reviews to be famous, or because it’s how I make my living: I do it because I love movies. I’m not your mama, and it’s not my job to make you feel good. It’s my job to let other horror fans know ahead of time if a film has the proper credentials, or is a gross cash-grab.

    And truth be told, pans are the most fun reviews to write 🙂

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