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Mastering the group-watch with cheap horror flicks

Dan Brooks uses horror movies to pull off the communal cinematic experience at home.

The credits start to roll once the house is completely overwhelmed by fire. The monster is somewhere inside, and it’s already been defeated. This scene is a burial. Whatever remains of the horror is being eradicated somewhere in front of us, beneath splintering wood, cracking plaster, and cleansing heat. When the image fades to black I peel my eyes away from the slow scroll of names, and I’m back in my room, alone. Somehow it is already 3am. Mirrors, books, windows – everything around me is re-enchanted with mystery and potential. 

On my other monitor, flickering green rings around their Discord avatars show me that several of my friends are experiencing a similar sensation. I’ve had the VoIP app open for the whole movie, and typically there’s a buzz of commentary that makes this kind of viewing distinct from that of a cinema. But everyone has been totally silent for these closing scenes. Now, as we reintegrate into the world, the noise resumes. 

‘Absolute crap’

‘Goopiest and horniest one so far. I loved it’

‘The director was absolutely telling on himself’

I’ve been watching films with this group of people for years now, though the particular configuration often shifts around. Some of them are friends from home. For them, this is a convenient evolution of an older hobby now that adult life has spread us all out. Others I have never met in real life, but our similar taste and sense of humour makes them perfect viewing companions. This kind of remote movie-going is becoming increasingly popular. The Google Chrome plugin Netflix Party, which synchronises streaming, now has over 9 million downloads – its growth undoubtedly hastened by social distancing rules. Changes in the way we consume cinema correspond to changes in the kind of films we watch. For us, group viewing has always lent itself to the horrors of the late 70s and early 80s. 

Your stereotypical Awful Film Fan gravitates towards the inversion of arthouse directors. The sparse action and long running time of a Tarkovsky, Herzog, or Ozu gives them plenty of time to cogitate new ways of overintellectualising their hobby, while also rendering inaccessibly private the heady ruminations of their boring genius. By contrast there is an immediate and communal appeal to horror schlock. From 1975 onwards this whole genre is dominated by synth-heavy soundtracks, animatronics coated in latex and slime, and the sneaking suspicion that you’re watching someone displace a complicated fetish. The films of Carpenter, Argento, and Cronenberg are often sneered at as lowbrow because of their simple plots and reliance on suspended disbelief, but this is silly. It is precisely these qualities, along with acting that you might generously call ‘enthusiastically blunt,’ which renders them perfect for group viewings.

Cracking jokes or remaining silent forms a paratext that would be impolite to replicate in the cinema. By viewing these movies together you are placed into a reciprocal relationship with the filmmaker, complicit in the creation of creeping dread or comic release. The group-watch is a kind of performative aestheticism in that regard, which perfectly mirrors the unashamedly camp quality of what you’re watching. This is something that is lost in a lot of reimaginings, and one reason why Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) fell so flat.

Horror movies are defined by intertextuality, but thankfully for us all I can defer the task of exegesis to the communities of fans online. Letterboxd, one particular point of concentration, allows users to log and rate films they have seen, lending film consumption a completionist edge. It also promotes user-created lists, encouraging deep-dives into obscure and ephemeral sub-genres in a way that historic taste-arbiters IMDb and RottenTomatoes fail to. There is a real sense of exploration as you work your way into a catalogue of films that have been largely forgotten after a limited theatrical release, based on nothing but the recommendation of someone called ‘Giallo_pudding_Pop.’ Many of these films, to put it lightly, will be crap. Other times you will find something like the Australian slasher Next of Kin (1982), a film so staggeringly underrated that it incentivises you to write a Cherwell article. Either way, exploring these things with your friends will probably be a good time. 

As music consumption shifted online we saw an explosion of innovation on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Artists were given easy access to niche material that had previously been all but lost. The market is currently too small for many of these horrors to be restored, or uploaded to big streaming sites. This marginality is reflected in the mediocre financial performance of films like Peter Strickland’s In Fabric (2018) and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016), both excellent homages to the period. Perhaps this will change now. When we are once again allowed into the sunlight, who knows whether the communities  developing around the group-watch will find a way to fully reanimate the shambling spirit of mid-century horror. 

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