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Hyped and Wrong React? : Should you trust festival feedback and early critical reviews?

Along with all the annual award shows the festival season has started in earnest, and those lucky media journalists who get to attend them are telling us all about the big films to watch out for. Every year seems to have a genre film highlighted as being “the one to watch” or one that has a weird effect on the audience. This has been especially true recently with films like “Don’t Breathe”, “Get Out”, and (obviously) “IT”, making studios aware of how influential horror can be. And whilst we’ve always loved home-grown film showcases like Frightfest and Grimmfest, the horror selection in TIFF, Sundance, and SXSW often make global headlines when dealing with new genre films.

So this year we’ve already started to get hugely positive word-of-mouth for the film “Hereditary”. And boy… some of the press are positively wetting themselves over it. After playing at this year’s Sundance, here are a few choice headlines from the papers. “Watch the creepy trailer for '2018's scariest film' – says NME. “Hereditary branded 'scariest horror movie in years'”- says The Independent. “Critics Are Calling This Movie the 'Most Insane Horror Film in Years'” – says Cosmopolitan. And practically every preview/review so far calls it an “early contender for the best horror film of 2018”. Bearing in mind this was screened in January…

Is it though? Because the film does look very promising from the trailer and could feasibly turn out to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year. But we don’t know that… mainly because we haven’t seen it yet and it’s only bloody February. And whilst all this hype for our favourite genre is great in respectable doses, we’ve kinda seen all this before and it’s easy to become jaded by it. So is this sort of hype good for a film, or is it counter-productive to the journey to cinemas and/or home-media? Indulge this writer and I’ll just share some recent examples and personal views.

2016’s “The Witch” was great. I loved it and gave it a 4-star rating, but it was a little tinged by all the pre-release hype that came with it. It was on par with the same reactions that are currently settling on “Hereditary”. Articles were written by the usual we-don’t-really-relate-to-the-genre reporters, spouting bombastic quotes like “You’ll be left shaking with fear” and the “scariest horror film in years” (sound familiar?). With a shock-ton of positive reviews from Sundance, it raised expectations everywhere. But whilst horror fans appreciated the authentic atmosphere and non-standard chills, the general audience didn’t rate it quite so highly and certainly weren’t left crying-for-mommy in dark corners of the cinema. When reviewing it, I couldn’t help thinking I would have been more blown away if I had been allowed to discover it for myself, instead of viewing it after being bombarded by months of this-is-really-scary-shit metaphorical whispers in my ear.

Of course that’s just one incident of pre-release hype. Another example is the gross-out factor for the more extreme films. Each year brings reports of people either fainting or vomiting in the aisles during festival previews. 2015 saw (reportedly) several people barf themselves into unconsciousness at the Fantasia Film Festival, when watching the insect horror “Bite”. 2016 saw paramedics called to the Toronto Film Festival after people became “ill” watching the French cannibal movie “Raw”. And there’s plenty more where they came from. But does that translate to a gruelling experience for the average horror fan. No, not really. “Bite” is okay, and “Raw” is really great… but more for the themes and performances rather than any outrageous gore. For the record, I quite happily sat and consumed a substantial meal during a home viewing of “Raw”. But arguably this type of opportunistic publicity has been going on since the original run of “The Exorcist”, and the studios will grasp any way to push films into the limelight for click-bait or ticket sales.

A lot of this can bleed into hyped-up reviews as well. The incredible early quotes for the reboot of “Blair Witch” sequel in 2016, was at least partially responsible for the majority of negative feeling towards the movie once it was on general release. It definitely wasn’t the “game-changer” that it was built-up to be. At the end of the day, the old adage of “any publicity is good publicity” can be trotted out many times. But in actuality, people don’t really like being told how to feel about a movie. If people let reviews (or Rotten Tomatoes) truly influence their ticket-buying, then the “Transformers” and “50 Shades” franchises would just not exist. (NB: I know plenty of us wish that was indeed the case, but they apparently give some people enjoyment so let’s not be snobs about it). I for one would never want somebody to refuse to see a film, just because of something I may have written or said. It’s solely down to them how they handle input and expectations for a cinematic experience. I can only share my personal thoughts on it.