I’ve always believed that drama is the foundation of all other genres, which could be interpreted to mean that everything is essentially a cross-genre piece, but essentially what lead me to this premise was thinking about how to to approach myriad genres as a writer, I think this can also apply to acting. There are few things that fall outside this cross-section.
Comedy is driven by obsession and as silly, or outlandish as scenarios may get the performers and the world created for them has to be one where there are stakes, consequences, needs and desires that ground these things. Even in parody comedies this should apply. Many cite The Naked Gun series as one of the best examples of this subgenre, and much credit in that case is due to Leslie Nielsen. For as preposterous as what he was saying or doing was he was committed to it, there was a dramatic intent bordering on deadpan that tethered the silliness of the situation to reality.
When applying this precept to horror it carries an additional even more significant burden. A comedy that does not make one laugh cannot really be said to be effective, but a horror film that one doesn’t find scary can be. A horror film is designed to terrify, to frighten, to scare to disquiet. Stephen King in discussing horror literature breaks down his own hierarchy wherein the gross-out is his last recourse.
The issue with the effectiveness of horror films effect on an individual in some cases can be heavily influenced by the individual. As a child I was rather sheltered, and kept to mostly age appropriate fare for quite some time. I didn’t like scary films. Gremlins scared me until, I later watched it in whole and found its dual intent. The first horror film that I really openly embraced, where I enjoyed being scared was The Shining. From there I was hooked and I sought out more.
Yet, seeking out more becomes the issue. You want to learn the genre but there are then fewer and fewer of those films with that seismic impact on you, even if it is that good. You get desensitized, to an extent to the more visceral elements of the film, which are its primary objective.
Thus, if a viewer is desensitized, or a horror film just isn’t as scary as it could be, what recourse is there for it? There is that foundation of drama. If the dramatic beats are set and strong; and I’ve said it’s not necessary before, and that’s true, but if the acting is strong, if the conflict is palpable; if the characters have some definition; if their goals, obstacles and needs are, at some point defined; then you’ve established drama in a horror film. You have there your foundation and the subjective matter of “Is this scary?” while it still matters, isn’t as as pivotal as it might’ve been.
As I said, this is a notion I’ve had for a while and it recently crystallized when I viewed a ghost story entitled The Awakening. It has its creepy moments, and this is easier to do in a ghost story perhaps than in other subgenres, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it terribly frightening, but the character’s conflicts and arcs, their interaction, the human emotion and struggle of the film; in short, the drama is really what drew me to it which is what brought this thought back foremost in my mind.
This may be why some films, and I won’t name names, that insist that their knowing cheesiness and lack of production value is their strongest asset don’t work for me. Great things have been done by filmmakers with limited resources who staunchly believed in what they were trying to commit to celluloid and did their damnedest. Usually, those are the films where you can smile and love it even through the glaring faults.
To conclude, I just want to clarify, if it wasn’t clear already, that I do not mean that everything needs to be treated sternly and severely, which is part of why I made references to comedies and Gremlins. The sensibility has to work for the film in question, however, even in a light tone there’s a dramatic foundation to it, a commitment, a dedication, which does not make itself apparent in the aforementioned unnamed films. To me that is what still strikes me as one of the fascinating things about the horror genre is that there is a when-all-else-fails contingency plan. That’s not to say that all films deal with material in a way that can transcend so well, or treat their foundation with the respect it requires, but it is there and those who use it well are really worth noting.
The foundation of everything is drama. The fenestration you add to it creates genre. It’s a building block to all film narratives, but with the horror film I feel it’s a most crucial one, because the prime objective is so very hard to achieve on a mass level that there needs to be something to fall back on.