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Words In Review: Why are 'genre films' everywhere, all at once?

Jamie Lee Curtis just shouted out to genre films. A Seattle film fest is showing them this week. Two Seattle cinephiles tell Bill Radke why the call for “outsider” films is coming from inside the house!


t the Academy Awards last week, Jamie Lee Curtis took the stage to accept the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She said: "To all the people who have supported the genre movies that I have made for all these years … we just won an Oscar together!"

Every movie has a genre. Isn’t saying “genre movie” like going to Molly Moon and asking for some “flavor ice cream?”

In this episode of "Words in Review," KUOW's Bill Radke discusses the concept of "genre films" with two experts:

  • Billy Ray Brewton, director of "Make Believe Seattle,” a genre film festival that starts Thursday, March 23.
  • Isabella Price, films program manager at Langston and for the Seattle Black Film Festival, which starts April 22.

Bill Radke: Jamie Lee Curtis got very famous from the Halloween movies. When I hear genre movie, I do think horror.

Billy Ray Brewton: Horror is probably what most people think of, but genre is expansive. It covers horror, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, anime, animation, anything super-imaginative and super-creative.

Isabella Price: And now we have more genres — Afro-futurist, Afro-speculative, Afro-horror, Asian horror, Asian speculative, Asian futurism, Indigenous futurism.

Radke: What's the difference between futurism and speculative?

Price: Great question, we're always having this conversation. Futurism was coined by a white journalist who was looking at the ways in which Octavia Butler, for example, was writing about the Black experience. It seemed futuristic to imagine a world that still had Black people in it. But speculativeness is this idea coined by Black authors thinking about blackness in other perspectives and other lenses, speculating on the world outside of whiteness. So it becomes this more expansive thing.

You think of futurism, you think of "Black Panther," science fiction, technology, future space travel, "Star Trek," things like that. But the speculative is like: What if we thought of today's world from a lens outside of colonialism, outside of the patriarchal hegemony? To imagine those things? For the history of Black people, we didn't have the power to be able to imagine a different world. So now that we can imagine a different world, outside of the barriers of racism, classism, sexism — that's the imagination. We don't always want to go to Mars. Sometimes we just want to have a good life — healthy, clean water, clean air, a good job. To us, to Black people, those things are as just as speculative as going to Mars and living with aliens.

Radke: Isabella, why do you think genre films were not, or are not, considered prestige films?

Price: It's becoming outdated. It used to be you were into “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” or horror movies — you were a weirdo. You were kind of strange. You were seeing midnight movies and things like that. One of the things that has always been the mindset, is that those movies are childish. You turn your brain off, they're not thoughtful, they're not deep, they don't have a lot of substance to them. They're just movies you watch and you see a pretty cheerleader get a knife in the back and that's the end of the movie. But that's becoming different now. There's a generation of filmmakers who grew up on “Jaws,” who grew up on De Palma films, midnight movies, who are now taking those films and making substantive movies. You can't deny that a movie like “Get Out” or "Everything Everywhere All At Once” or "Skinamarink" or "The Babadook" — you can't deny those movies have huge substance and often are some of the most deeply felt, because it taps into our fears or anxieties, one of the most deeply held emotions we have.

Radke: What unites genre films? What do they all have in common?

Price: Weirdness.

Brewton: Weirdness. Our term for genre with the Make Believe film festival was “anything that deals with a heightened imagination."

Price: A way of talking about things that are really hard in society to talk about. They can expand who gets their stories told, an issue of equity. The Gina Davis Institute studied the representation of women in media, and they found that horror movies have the highest representation of women in all media. Women have more speaking roles, more time on screen. There's this concept called the “final girl,” which is the girl that makes it to the end of the horror movie. And horror movies are a way in which Black people, brown people, Guillermo del Toro, Jordan Peele, get to tell their stories about culture and society in a way that’s more palatable. Women get to talk about sexual exploitation and sexual violence.

Radke: Why would that be truer in genre movies?

Price: You don't really know what to expect. The rules for genre are out the door. You can tell any kind of a story in a genre movie. In a historical movie or an action movie, there are rules for what qualifies. A genre could be anything you want it to be.

Brewton: It has a lot to do with the financial, as well. If you're an up-and-coming filmmaker and you want to make a movie but you don't have the money, the resources, studio industry connections ... anybody can go out and make a genre movie for very little money. Let's be clear, studios don't give money to Black women to direct films in the same way they do white men. If you're a Black woman, you want to make a movie, if you can't find the money but you can find $20,000, you can make a pretty amazing horror film that might go somewhere. So you don't have to go through “the man” to get something done.

Radke: What about genre films makes the budget lower?

Brewton: The sky's the limit. You can do anything with a genre film because your imagination is the limit. Look at a film like "Skinamarink," which just came out and was made for just a few thousand and it made several million dollars at the box office and went on to stream. "Terrifier 2" did really well last year. All it takes is a commitment to the story, a willingness to do anything to make that story happen.

Price: The best genre movies are the ones that have the super small budget, where you're having to make up for budget with imagination.

Brewton: And what scares us is very simple, in terms of a horror film. Things that scare us are very easy to depict on screen sometimes. What is "Skinamarink" about? It's about kids who are left alone at home, their parents are gone and they're dealing with those childhood fears that we all have. You don't need explosions, you don't need CGI to convey that. You can do that with a camera, a room, and a couple of actors and be just as effective as anything that Lucasfilm would be involved in.

Radke: Could you see the term “genre film” evolving away into something more descriptive? We've talked about “imagination,” “weird,” “fantastical.”

Brewton: I think the term’s here to stay, I don't think it's going to go anywhere, I think it's just going to evolve. I think you're gonna see a lot of different types of sub-genres come into the fold, like we're trying to do at Make Believe. Bring in different sub-genres into the fold and see if it sticks. Don't be afraid. If you see something that's a genre film, go check it out. It's not necessarily going to scare the wits out of you. Most of what we're screening at Make Believe is not horror. We've got sci-fi and fantasy and animation and family films, for God's sake. So give it a try, don't be afraid.

Price: The best thing about genre is seeing a movie and you're like, “I don't know what … What the …? What even was this movie? I don't know what it was. It's the greatest movie I've ever seen in my life. I have no definition for it, no box to put it in." Those are the best genre movies.

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