What makes a good movie review? Obviously you probably need a little bit of what the film is about, plus some opinion on whether it was any good or not. But in the world of horror therein lies the problem. How do you know whether or not the person reviewing the film has the same tastes and sensibilities as your own? To the outside (i.e. non-horror loving) world a film is either good or bad, right? Well…not exactly. We in this community of ours know better, especially those of us who grew up in the 1970s when reviews of ‘our’ sorts of movies were thin on the ground and we had to resort to Leslie Halliwell’s Film Guide (which trashed anything and everything that sounded remotely fun and didn’t even list half the films I wanted to find out more about). Alan Frank’s colourful picture books were about as positive as anyone got about the genre and I even remember him trashing Pete Walker’s pictures, allegedly part of a literary cat fight between him and screenwriter David McGillivray, at least according to the latter. American horror film magazines that I could get hold of weren’t that much help. I never got on with Famous Monsters of Filmland which even to my eleven year old self came across as far too childish and silly. Cinefantastique was snooty about almost everything and was far too expensive and infrequent anyway. Mind you when CFQ was in its heyday it published the best and most gorgeously presented fantasy film comment anywhere. I once had a whole set but now only a few remain in the Probert Towers archives, including Volume 2 Number 4 – their Amicus films tribute issue from 1972.
What this all actually meant was that I had to watch every horror film that came my way and form my own opinions, which when you were young in those days and VHS didn’t exist was as easily done as said. Video didn’t perturb me for the first few years of its existence but then I moved away to university and demands on my time became manifold. It didn’t matter, though, because by then I had seen hundreds of horror films and was well used to ignoring/laughing at/agreeing with the reviews I managed to find about them.
Context is everything
So do I consider a good horror movie review to be one I agree with? Not at all. All I really need from such a piece is a sense of what kind of horror film I’m going to be watching, because for me context is everything. I have no idea about other people’s approach to movie preparation, or even if it goes any further than the beer, the popcorn and in some special cases a box of tissues (in case it’s a weepie you naughty people at the back). I, on the other hand, have found that I will be in a completely different state of mind when sitting down to watch a major Hollywood release like the recent remake of The Thing, compared to a whacked out piece of low budget art house sleaze like Guilty of Romance, and I bet some of you are too. And at the end of the day that’s what I most want to get from a review – a sense of where the film is coming from and at what level it’s pitched in the vast and vastly different universe that is horror cinema as a whole. I read so many reviews of David R Ellis’s Snakes on a Plane trashing it that when I happened across it completely by accident on a satellite channel I was about to move on, but a couple of minutes viewing was enough to make me realise that Ellis’s film was actually a modern-day Roger Corman’s New World picture, with B-list actors, a crazy plot and some unnecessary blood and nudity added (apparently in post-production by savvy produces) to satisfy the exploitation elements. Viewed as a modern, slick, action adventure picture Snakes on a Plane is awful. Pretend it was made in 1973 and intended to be shown on a drive-in double bill with Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage and it’s perfect. The whole reason for this column existing is that just the other day we watched Scott Stewart’s comic book film Priest starring Paul Bettany. I must confess to not having read any reviews for this. It had been recommended by a colleague at work who had assured me I would love it. That, plus the fact that I had already read on soundtrack websites that Christopher Young’s score was something special meant it went on the rental list. I had seen the poster at our local cinema, which had suggested to me a big budget noisefest of Michael Bay proportions and not having encountered any reviews Lady P and I had steered clear.
For the first twenty minutes or so I hated it. Everyone talks with the kind of gravely voices that made Sin City such hard work, and sidekick Cam Gigandet emotes so homo-erotically that you wonder if rather than go and kill the bad guys all he really needs is a great big hug from Father Paul before at the very least he turns into a full-fledged impersonation of Derek Zoolander’s ‘Blue Steel’. But about half an hour in, when our heroes were sitting on the edge of a wasteland peppered with post-apocalypse crumbling skyscrapers I looked at those slightly unconvincing buildings and thought “this is like one of those Enzo G Castellari Bronx Warrior type films, or better still a Charlie Band Empire flick.” One of the good ones I hasten to add, something like Trancers or Eliminators, not one of the bad ones which I won’t list here for reasons of space and because even with the life- prolonging drugs that may well be developed in a few years I probably won’t have the time. Oh yes, Priest is like a good Charles Band movie. It’s unoriginal, highly derivative (someone is very obsessed with either Sergio Leone Western villains, Fields of the Nephilim, or both) and extremely silly. It’s also absolutely bags of fun if you watch it with all of this in mind, and even only runs for about 80 minutes, making it an ideal half of double bill with one of the aforementioned Empire pictures. Even Jim from Neighbours turns up as one of the evil Monsignors who run the city with Christopher Plummer and you don’t get to see that every day. A quick check of IMDB reveals that it cost far more than until a minute ago I thought it did ($60 million as opposed to, well a fraction of that) which admittedly might have turned me against it had I known beforehand, but seeing as I had assumed it was a big budget picture Priest actually managed to seduce me with its own cheesiness. Hurrah for horror in all its forms! Hurrah for the spirit of New World and Empire pictures, still alive and at your local cinema! On DVD and Blu-Ray! The more things change the more they stay the same, and Amen to that.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT