Some mutts can't be muzzled

I recently subscribed to Shudder, the streaming video service for horror fans, and it helped remind me of one key aspect of my being: I friggin’ love horror movies. By the numbers, it is absolutely my favourite genre.

Way back in 2007, when my wife and I were first hanging out, one of the first “dates” we had (and I’m using that term very, very loosely) consisted of a stop at Suspect Video — a beloved former staple of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood — where we rented Sleepaway Camp on VHS to watch back at my sketchy Bathurst Street apartment. Many of our dates in those early years involved horror movies. From catching Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake when it was in theatres, to regular cult screenings at Bloor Cinema, to our annual attendance at the Toronto After Dark film festival (starting at Bloor Cinema and later moving to the big downtown Cineplex), horror movies were an important part of our early years together.

nighttime crowd gathered outside a hole-in-the-wall bloor cinema with toronto after dark on the marquee

Toronto After Dark crowd lined up outside the Bloor Cinema for this 2010 summary of the festival.

The beauty of horror, to me, is the incredible range of styles, sub-genres, stories, and budgets that fit into that bucket. You can be a die-hard fan of peak 80’s era slashers or Italian cannibal exploitation flicks and be completely cold to big budget haunting pictures or the self-shot night vision aesthetic. Your favourite films can be anything from Evil Dead 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, to the Conjuring 2 or the Exorcist 2. Yeah, horror has a lot of sequels. All of this under one big label that many people won’t even consider exploring. But that’s ok — in fact, it makes the genre more fun. Staying in the dark, buried deep away from mainstream blockbusters, is one of the things that makes it fun.

I’ve said this in conversation to friends before, and I’m certain I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but horror is the punk rock of movies.

Like punk rock, a few dedicated creators can have no budget or experience and yet still manage to put something out into the world that has an impact on people. On the other side, studios can back a massive horror movie or punk band with all the star power, marketing budget, and demographic analysis in the world behind it and have it bomb entirely if it doesn’t click as authentic with the core fans of the genre.

There’s another big factor for me that I’m never entirely sure how to describe. “Attitude”, maybe? “Gusto”, perhaps? The “punk attitude” is somewhat synonymous with a Do It Yourself (DIY) approach to everything from clothing and housing, to venues and promotion. Horror fits this in a lot of ways. Look at something like Evil Dead, or Blair Witch Project, or Paranormal Activity — all about as DIY as movies get. That gusto to get some friends together and just get it done. Figure it out along the way. That speaks to me in a big way.

There’s more than the DIY side, though. Being a horror filmmaker or member of a punk band slaps you into an immediate box by that industry and the wider world. There’s an assumption that both genres are dumb, or made just for teenagers, or are more about aesthetic than content. Sure, there’s some truth to that. There are plenty of dumb punk bands, just like there are plenty of dumb horror movies. But being lumped in with that underdog lot gives you the freedom to say nothing or everything — all without expectations over your head. You can sing about being bored and jerking off or you can speak to the malaise and apathy that comes from long periods of depression — all with the same pithy lyrics. Likewise, you can make a weird neon slasher sequel where a nightmare man comes after a high school jock, or you can speak at length about the fear, anxiety, and sense of abandonment that was ripe in the Reagan-era handling of the AIDs epidemic — again, all with the same weird movie.

Punk and horror both go as big and bonkers or as small and silent as you want to make them. Both are ripe for thematic exploration buried under a veneer of spraying blood or smashing guitars. Both have managed to keep fighting off the studio money and big budget creep that threatens to strip away all authenticity and meaning time and time again. Both give me renewed hope for film and music with every passing year.

There’s exactly one thing in the world that gives me the same feeling as throwing on a random horror flick and settling in for what I’m assuming will be so-so but turns out to be a masterpiece. That came a few weeks ago when I stumbled on a vicious little pub punk band out of Australia called Amyl and the Sniffers.

amyl winding up to lay a punch on the rest of her bandmates

Photo by Charlie Hardy for an interview with Amyl and the Sniffers.

May punk bands and horror films continue to delight and surprise me well past the age where it’s remotely acceptable for me to continue sporting black graphic tees and whatever half-shaved haircut I’ve given myself that month.

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