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22 February, 2009

Defining Tomorrow’s Classics

I love Classic Horror Films. I think anyone who has read more than three words I’ve written on the subject knows that. But defining classic is a very subjective thing, and is often misinterpreted as a measure of quality, rather than of a film’s age. It’s common for studios’ Publicity departments to tout upcoming films as a “…new classic…” as though the terms weren’t mutually exclusive.

For the purposes of my columns, my personal definition of classic begins with, at a minimum, any film that is not less than twenty-five years old. Classic is a word that conveys permanence, endurance… a product that has stood the test of time. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN is as powerful and impactful now as it was when it first premiered in November of 1931. More than seventy-seven intervening years have demonstrated that film’s relevance, fully justifying the use of the word classic to describe it. Indeed, classic is too mild a word for such a film. Clearly, a film’s ability to weather the passage of time must be demonstrated before it too can be described as ‘classic.’

True, twenty-five is an arbitrary point, but there must be some cut-line established, and twenty-five years just seems a natural boundary to me. Of course, it’s a boundary that moves from year to year, as time passes. This now means my definition of classic now encompasses such films as CHILDREN OF THE CORN, GHOSTBUSTERS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and THE TERMINATOR—the movies of 1984. And twenty-five years from now the movies hitting screens today will, according to my standards, be accorded that same status.
When I think of movies such as PUSH, the remake of FRIDAY THE 13th, or THE UNINVITED, believe me when I say that ‘classic’ is the last word I would choose to describe them. And even with a strict interpretation of my “twenty-five year” rule, there should be some accommodation made for quality, shouldn’t there?

Well, if we are speaking strictly, then no… no accommodation allowed. After all, a fifty-year old movie is a classic, whether we are discussing Hammer’s version of THE MUMMY or the far more forgettable GIANT GILA MONSTER. Shouldn’t the same respect or lack thereof be accorded to today’s films when their time arrives?

But the truth of the matter is we can’t be objective about such terms, or the films that we use them to illustrate. When I want to watch a classic Horror Film, I want one of Universal’s Kharis pictures, or a 1950’s Giant Bug movie, or a ‘70’s Euro-Horror. Quite frankly, C.H.U.D. or SLEEPAWAY CAMP simply doesn’t spring to mind; though both now fit a “strict interpretation” of my definition. Obviously, there is a need to qualify, as well as quantify, the word classic.
For that qualification, however, each viewer must look to their own taste. For example, I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable describing John Badham’s 1979 version of DRACULA as a classic; there are far too many far better versions of that story in my collection, and Frank Langella’s Count is one of my least favorite portrayals of the character. Still, I know people who love the film; for them, it is the very definition of classic. I’m not wrong in my opinion, just as they aren’t in theirs. The qualification is too subjective for a simple “Pass/Fail” test. Both parts are required to decide which films have earned the title classic.

Which begs the question… which modern films will future fans decide are the classics of their era? When I’m writing my 2034 in Review column, which of today’s movies will I be fondly reminiscing about, as I viciously disparage SAW XXX? There are a few that stand out; not many, but there are a few.

One of the obvious choices of the past five years or so would be the superb SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It is that rare class of movie that gets better each time I watch it, which is often. I can’t imagine that will change in the future. The same can be said for DOG SOLDIERS, one of the best werewolf movies ever, and the best blending of a War film with Horror that I’ve ever seen. SLITHER is a fun, freaky, gross-out good time, one that I think will have some staying power. Jon Gulager’s FEAST might not get much respect now, but neither did Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT thirty years ago. Obviously, I don’t mean to compare Gulager to Craven, but the films do bear certain similarities, and FEAST is certainly a memorable movie. SWEENEY TODD has the benefit of a great director and a great cast, never a drawback for a film searching for cinema immortality. And movies such as the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN or HARRY POTTER series must certainly be considered future ‘classics.’

There’s no doubt that even today’s films will have their supporters, as well as detractors, in the future. Someday, in the fullness of time, we may find ourselves sitting in our home entertainment holosphere, grandchildren next to us as a three-dimensional Captain Jack Sparrow bobs and weaves his way across our floor. We may, on that far-off day, look down at the young faces smiling up at us and say, “You know, I remember when I saw that movie at the theater.”

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