Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (4 Stars)

This is my Halloween Challenge film #4. It was made in 1971 and stars Vincent Price in the title role.

Today I asked myself what makes a film a horror film. The first thing I did was check Wikipedia, and a found an eloquent definition:

"Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience's primal fears".

That's merely an over-complicated way of saying "A horror film is a film that is made to scare the viewers".

However, I'm not sure if this says it all. Taking the 1931 version of "Frankenstein" as an example, it doesn't scare me at all, and yet I would intuitively call it a horror film. People might reply that the film is intended to scare the viewers, but in my case I'm not scared because I'm too hard boiled to be scared. I reject arguments like that, because that would mean that "Frankenstein" failed in its purpose, and the last thing I would do is call it a failure.

Then we have the problem that all films containing vampires are called horror films by default. Most people call "Twilight" a horror film, even though it has more in common with teenage romance films. Then what about horror comedies, which are intended to make people laugh rather than scare them? Is "Yoga Hosers" a horror film at all?

"The Abominable Dr. Phibes" has been called one of the best British horror films ever, but it's so campy that hardly any of the scenes scare me. Dr. Phibes wants to take revenge on the doctors that he blames for his wife's death by murdering them in ways relating to the ten plagues inflicted by Moses on Egypt. That leads to exaggerated murder methods which are more amusing than scary.

The film doesn't list the plagues in the same order as the Bible (Exodus 7 to 12). A Jewish Rabbi in the film says that scholars disagree about the order of the plagues, but I don't know why. The Jewish Torah must tell the story in a set order. It's more likely that the plagues were re-ordered to fit the plot better, and the scholars disagree argument was thrown in to stop people complaining.

Maybe the best definition would be:

"Horror is a film genre that deals with subject matters that scare people".

That's not a perfect definition, but it's certainly better than Wikipedia's attempt. People are scared of vampires, zombies and death, so films about these subjects can be classed as horror films even if  they're presented in a comical or romantic way. The Wikipedia definition is faulty because it excludes too many films, my new definition is faulty because it includes too many films. Cancer is something that scares people, but a film about someone dying from cancer isn't a horror film. Or is it? I welcome discussions on this subject. Please leave me comments giving me your personal definition of "horror movie". Try to give a definition in a single sentence, but if you need more it's okay.

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