How to Pick A Horror Movie

Now that I have this internet thing all figured out, my access to entertainment is mostly unlimited.  But to protect my brain from being overwhelmed, I still like to select my entertainment items by browsing – not through Google, but the old fashioned way: with my eyeballs scanning shelves.  I like having a subset of possible entertainments already defined, and I like the uncertainty and spontaneity that goes along with browsing – perhaps I think I know what book or movie I’m looking for, but if it is not there, I get to go to Plan B on the spur of the moment.  This is the antithesis of the Netflix queue, in which you can make all of your entertainment decisions for the next several years in one 10 minute sitting.

I like going into Barnes and Noble without any idea of what I will eventually buy.  I hate it when I ask for a particular title and – if it’s not in stock – they offer to order it on-line for me.  I can do that myself, dammit, and I won’t have to waste another trip to the store to pick it up; if I wanted it delivered to my doorstep, I would have done that in the first place.  Have it on your shelves, so I have the choice of whether to get it or not on any given day I’m in the store!

So lately I have been on a horror movie kick, and our local Family Video has lots of horror movies on their shelves.  In fact, there are too many to watch them all.  And as any horror fan knows, the quality of horror films is …. somewhat varied.  So I’ve come up with a system to combine my need to browse with my aversion to having 90 minutes of my life wasted by something like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.  In case anyone wants to compare notes, here is my system.

I go into Family Video with an idea of what 2-3 films I want to rent, based on the last application of my system.  (As a mathy person, it’s important to work in an iterative scheme.)  First, I look for those films.  If they are in, great,  If not, I should have a back-up or two in mind.  Then, I jot down the names of several (8-10) interesting-looking horror films in the neighboring shelf area.  (I used to note titles on my phone, but that got annoying, so now I just use pencil and paper.  I’ve also thought about just taking a picture of the shelf, but I’m not sure I could read all the titles from the photo.  And I don’t think they would like it if I took the title cards out of the plastic boxes to take home with me.)  As I’m scanning films to write down, I immediately exclude anything rated PG13 or lower, anything with a number in the title denoting a sequel, anything with a letter in the title replaced by a numeral that is turned backwards, and anything starring Tom Sizemore.  This usually leaves me with lots of movies with names like “Morgue Eaters”, “The Stalker Stalker” or “Bitches Die”.  And the cover usually shows a screaming female with her hand stretched out like you are supposed to pull her through a portal and into the safety of the video store.

I go home with my handy list and get on the internet.  Why don’t I just do my searching on the internet to begin with?  Well, that’s too random, Family Video doesn’t have a web page showing their current inventory in the store, and it skirts the pleasure of being able to browse a shelf as I already discussed above – what’s the matter with you, didn’t you read that?

Once on the internet, I head for IMDB and look up each movie.  Anyone familiar with IMDB knows that movies are rated by visitors to the site on a 10-point scale, and the resulting average is displayed.  Oscar winners usually come in with an average above 8.0.  For example, The King’s Speech and The Artist both have a rating of 8.2.  On the other hand, really crappy mainstream movies usually rate at 4 or below.  For example, The Hottie and the Nottie rates a 1.9.  But where do horror films fit into that scheme?  Well, the really well known good ones can have a pretty high score: The Exorcist rates 8.1, and Psycho rates an 8.7.  But these are not the kind of films I am browsing at Family Video; those are often direct-to-DVD films or something shot on a budget equal to the cost of a professional athlete’s shoelace.

Many, many wasted hours of my life have led to empirical data that if a generic off-the-shelf horror flick from the video store rates higher than a 5.0 on IMDB, it is probably worth 90 minutes of my time.  It may not be cinematic gold, but there is probably something worth while about it.  Perhaps it’s extra distance of the arterial spray, minimal reliance on BOO!-OH-IT-WAS-JUST-A-CAT moments, or a good even number of boobs on display.  So on my list of tentative watchable movies, I keep anything rating higher than a 5 on IMDB.  On the other hand, anything less than a 4 is automatically scratched.   Sometimes bad horror films are just plain bad, not so bad they’re good.

Those movies rating between a 4 and 5 require further research.  IMDB also provides links to User Reviews and Critics Reviews. User Reviews aren’t very reliable, since even the worst movies can get good user reviews, especially from relatives and pets of the director and leading stars.  But Critics Reviews often take me to web sites containing reviews by actual horror fans – examples of such sites are Bloody Good Horror, Best Horror Movies, Dread Central, and Bloody Disgusting.  If I can find a couple of sites that recommend the movie, then it is probably worth seeing.

And there you go.  With this system, I usually come up with about 1 in every 5 horror movies on the shelf at Family Video being worth watching.  This system isn’t perfect – as an example, this post led off with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as an example of an awful horror movie, but it gets a 5.6 at IMDB.  However, this was a mainstream theatrical horror release, not one of many independent or direct-to-DVD flicks.

Some not-so-well-known movies I’ve seen recently that I can recommend include:

Splinter, Claustrofobia, The Gravedancers, The Woman, Absentia, Husk, Population 436

As of today (July 20, 2012), the next few movies I’ve identified as ones to grab and see are:

Atrocious, Stake Land, Mutants, Grave Encounters.

If anyone tries to use this system, it does come with one WARNING!  Sometimes horror films aren’t titled very imaginatively.  For example, try using “Possession” as a keyword in IMDB.  Good luck finding the one you really want.  Recently I got fooled by not minding the details; I got home with my chicken-scratch written list of titles to check out, and looked up a movie called “Shadows”.  First, there are lots of movies with this as either the exact title, or very close.  I found this link for a movie called “Shadows”, which got a 6.6.  And holy crap, a cheapo horror film with a 6.6 rating has to be just awesome.  As I searched IMDB, I did not remember what the box at the store looked like, but the title I had written down was “Shadows”, and the release date in the IMDB listing was about right for a movie on the shelf in the store.  So the next time I went to the store, I got that movie, and brought it home to watch.  And the movie I saw was one of the worst films ever.  It was like watching the raw footage of a rehearsal for a bad horror film, shot in someone’s grandma’s house because it sort of looked like a lighthouse (which is where the story was set).  The sound was bad, the lighting was bad, the script was bad, the acting was bad, and there were no boobs.  I ended up giving this movie a “0” on my own personal scale of 0 through 4 (1 = don’t bother, 2 = meh, 3 = recommended, with each modified by +/-).  In 18 years of tracking my own movie watching, I have rated 1770 movies, and have given fewer than 10 scores of 0; even the worst of the worst movies have something in them, say an effective minute or two, or a moment that made me giggle a bit, to warrant at least a “1-“.  This movie got a 0.  Who were those people who gave it an average of 6.6, were they on crack?  Well, as they say in the NFL, upon further review, it turns out that the movie at the store which I rented and watched was this one, called THE Shadows.  The similarity in the name fooled me because I didn’t pay attention.  (Note to film-makers: PLEASE give your movie a unique name!) Now even this one gets a 5.0 on IMDB, but you’ll note that only 15 people have rated this gem, whereas over 1,000 have rated the other “Shadows”.   Those 15 people are probably friends of the filmmakers.

I’m about half-way through the shelves at Family Video.  Wish me luck with the rest!


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