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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.

The problem comes when the media tells you that this new film is mind-numbingly brilliant, and will make you evacuate bowels and stomach in opposite directions at the same time. You go and see it, and actually… it’s sort of lame. Your expectations were set to “kill”, when they should have been switched to “stun” or “mild tickle”. You’re going to rail against that film with more venom as a result, and maybe feel a little aggrieved that you were being primed for a gut-punch of a movie that never happened. That’s going to affect your opinion of the experience and make it just that little bit worse.

One critic (I would credit the source but I’ve forgotten who it was) once explained why they felt they had over-praised a film at a festival. Imagine that you’re on a diet of hamburgers and chips for several weeks. You’re going to get bored of that after a few days. But for one meal only, you’re served a bacon-cheeseburger with twice-cooked seasoned french-fries. That’s going to taste so much better than all the other meals, even though it’s basically the same thing but with some simple garnishes and cooking adjustments. It may be why a critic gushes over an above-average film during a festival run, if they’re less impressed by the other offerings. That isn’t relatable to the man-on-the-street simply wandering into a cinema and making their choice for a single viewing. It’s a neat analogy and goes some way to explain why some films are tipped for greatness and then fall short.

Basically it boils down to the simple observation that you should always be true to yourself. It’s always better to take more notice of trusted sources rather than random excitable quotes, and take stock of the previous work from the cast and filmmakers. In the end, the only thing that matters is your own opinion. Not mine, not the high-end film critic… and certainly not the online troll who just can’t accept that his/her opinion is not shared by every other single human being on the planet. We’ve all got our quirks and controversial opinions. I am apparently the only person in the galaxy that doesn’t think Netflix’s “The Open House” was a total garbage fire. That’s my prerogative. Less controversially I didn’t like “mother!” or “The Cloverfield Paradox”, which are divisive to many anyway. Even less controversially I bow down to the excellence of “Get Out” and “Don’t Breathe”, which are pretty much universally loved. It’s all relative, but individual tastes are what make our genre community such a lively and interesting social group. You don’t see the average rom-com fan discussing the virtues of 40 year old franchises and the emotional effects of an axe murder.

If there’s any point to all this, it’s just to keep your expectations realistic and don’t always believe the hype until you sample the goodies for yourself. “Hereditary” may well turn out to be the best horror of the year. Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne usually pick pretty worthy projects, and we kind of hope that it at least provides some of the unease that’s depicted in the trailers. But until we see it, we’ll keep an open mind and crossed fingers. Let’s continue to enjoy all that brings us joy from the genre in the meantime. As long as the studios are still looking for ways to frighten the hell out of us, some of their projects will inevitably hit the horror nail on the head. It’s a good time to be a fan of scary movies.

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