At last weekend's World Horror Convention, I served on a panel entitled: Why Do Horror Films Suck?” I challenged the panel's premise, explaining that I can enjoy even technically inept horror films.
Another panelist, author Scott Browne, agreed, saying that some films were so bad, he found them entertaining.
Yet that's wasn't quite what I meant. I gave it some thought after the panel, and had an epiphany.
I enjoy “bad” horror films, but not because they're “so bad they're good.” I enjoy them for the same reason that I enjoy “good” horror films -- because my “suspension of disbelief” filters out elements that hinder my enjoyment.
Film theorists have long said that, to enjoy a film, the viewer must “suspend disbelief.” We know those are actors on the screen, not real people, but we shove that thought from our minds. We know horses can't talk, Superman can't fly, and ghosts don't exist, but we shove that thought from our minds.
It's the same with technically inept films. Watching a technically great ghost film like The Haunting requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Watching an inept ghost film -- with wooden acting, cheap sets, poor atmosphere, and a microphone that occasionally drops into the screen -- also requires suspension of disbelief, but more of it.
I tell myself: “Okay, I'll ignore that ghosts don't exist -- and I'll pretend those are real people on screen despite their bad acting, and I'll pretend I didn't see that boom mic's shadow against the wall.”
To suspend disbelief over a film's ineptitude yields a different quality of pleasure than enjoying a film because “It's so bad it's good.” In the former case, the viewer may yet enjoy some fear or suspense, because one still believes the story on screen. In the latter case, the viewer has given up all attempts at believing in the story (suspension of disbelief is broken), and just laughs at the bad actors stumbling about the cheap sets.
I have a high tolerance for inept horror films. I can suspend my disbelief even for films like Blood Feast and Horror of Party Beach, and enjoy their stories. (Although, I've seen so many horror films, it's hard for me to feel fear from any of them, however hard I try to suspend disbelief.) Other people have a lower tolerance, and can only enjoy these films on a “so bad it's good” level.
There is also a gradation. One may suspend disbelief to a certain (greater or lesser) degree for some films, while enjoying part of these films for being “so bad it's good.” (I can enjoy The Great Alligator on both levels.) Naturally, the more inept the film is, the more this ineptitude wears away at viewers' suspension of disbelief.
I've long held that a film should be judged both Objectively and Subjectively.
Some horror films are Objectively and Subjectively great. They meet the high standards of defensible, objective criteria -- and I greatly enjoy them. For example, The Haunting and Lost Souls.
Other films are only Subjectively great. I greatly enjoy them, yet I see their technical faults. For example, Stage Fright or Crucible of Terror.
Even so, despite technical shortcomings, such films can still have some Objective merit due to their admirable use of pragmatic aesthetics (i.e., using those technical shortcomings in ways that support the characters, story, or themes).
In summary, by suspending disbelief, one can enjoy a technically inept horror film despite its ineptitude, rather than because of it.
For more about interpreting horror films, and the nature of the pleasures that come from viewing horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.