Introducing: The Hitchcock Line
In 1979, a subpar shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates became the unofficial measuring stick for all professional-level hitting thanks to a clubhouse inside joke. When a batting average fell below .200, it was an indication that – no matter how good their glove might be – a player was a liability in the lineup.
Today, such a feat is more commonly known as the Mendoza Line.
Although Mario Mendoza may slightly resent the implication forty years later – he’d end up hitting .291 back home before getting elected to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, after all – he’s been the go-to method in quantifying general batter’s box competency. Anything below that threshold and there is likely a better option on the minor league circuit; anything above and you have a certifiably passable ballplayer.
As it turns out, this easy calculation can be applied to other realms of entertainment – thus, this is the formal introduction of a phenomenon called the Hitchcock Line.
The Hitchcock Line is the lowest possible grade a horror film can receive before it is considered a mediocre product. Additionally, for me, it is absolutely a measure of cowardice.
Growing up, I hated horror movies. During icebreakers in college, I would willingly divulge the three movies that scared me the most as a child: Jurassic Park, Home Alone, and The Pagemaster. (You can’t sit here and tell me that the library scene isn’t terrifying cinema, but I digress.) Later on, I was introduced to VHS horror bliss in the form of Jeepers Creepers, Final Destination, and The Blair Witch Project.
A renewed effort to enjoy horror was heightened once I began high school with cute girls – so in came Cube, Midnight Meat Train, and a million bloody Saw entries. Which is to say, mostly, that by the time I could even fathom the idea of stomaching horror, I had missed most of the classics.
Of course, this is all a long, winding, proactively defensive way for me to admit that I don’t like Alfred Hitchcock.
I know, I know – and, yes, that’s the sound of the single shred of cinema street cred I had being torn up at record speed. But Hitchcock is slow. Hitchcock is long. Worst of all, Hitchcock is boring. And to a garbage horror tastemaker like me, boring is the genre’s greatest cardinal sin.
While remaining respectful of the obvious impact and influence the legendary director has had on horror – despite not being a ‘horror filmmaker’ in the typical sense – and film at-large, his treasure trove of movies are not for me. What is for me, however, are inevitable and convoluted twists, blood and gore – OK, not that much, Eli Roth – and layer after layer of unnecessary sequels.
Besides the disturbing allegations made against his results-at-all-costs process, Hitchock's objective tools that once seemed like a staple of quality cinema have not always aged particularly well. From melodramatic characters and plot-hole-filled narratives, I am just not struck with awe by the icon.
Yet, I always find myself on Letterboxd hovering over the star system for Hitchcock more than others. Three stars? Four stars? Is two-and-a-half too low? Am I an idiot for being the world’s sole human that cannot process or understand Hitchcock? The cinematography and framing are often sublime, but there’s a calculated coldness that permeates my viewings – and it’s a feeling I can’t quite shake when it comes time to rate.
Conversely, watching substantially poor horror ignites something very heated inside of me – for example, take Landmine Goes Click as an easy-to-understand window into my psyche. Elevator pitch: Landmine is a 2015 indie flick that traps an unsuspecting bystander on a hidden bomb and then forces him to watch his girl/friend get sexually assaulted by a stranger.
Beyond a blatant misunderstanding of the word horror at its core – equating it to sexual assault is gross – the film then turns into a revenge arc… for the man. It somehow owns an insanely generous 50% on Rotten Tomatoes and all the websites that listed this as an underrated horror flick need to take a good, hard look in the mirror this Halloween. In turn, it was also the easiest 1/2 star rating I’ve ever given.
On the other end of the spectrum lies the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, a particularly harsh blind spot in my horror watchography in recent years. Having watched it for the first time ever this October, it’d be an understatement to merely state that the movie certainly deserves its long-time throne atop the genre’s Mount Rushmore. The practical effects – or what I’ve been referring to all week as the bed blender – still churn stomachs like butter, the stretchy wall is still capable of giving genuine goosebumps, and Freddy Krueger himself is sure to interrupt my dreams before much longer.
But here’s the thing: if bad horror is just as easy to identify as good horror, then why does Hitchcock make me feel nothing?
This is often where I’ve come to rest on most Hitchcock films – they’re fine. By starting off with a 3-out-of-5 as the all-encompassing base score, I’ve ensured that I will not be barred from any future Oscars ceremony in which my dormant Letterboxd account is uncovered just before I go on stage to accept the award for Best Original Screenplay. A rating of three is empty and inarguable; an unimpeachable moat around my run-down movie pallet of a castle. Furthermore, a three for Hitchcock is a fancier way to avoid saying anything at all – too stupid to understand the widely accepted filmmaking genius, but not brave enough to burn it down entirely.
So, Hitchcock has become my own personal Mendoza Line – a phrase once born out of embarrassment that evolved into a badge of honor. If a horror movie falls below 3 stars, the gutless bar I’ve set for most Hitchcock films (with a few exceptions, of course: The Birds at 2.5; Psycho and Rear Window at 4), then it’s probably worth skipping. Given that I am nothing but pragmatic, this middle-of-the-road partiality also gives me the barest shred of complicit dishonor – but not enough to be totally disregarded in conversation, importantly.
Basically, I recognize that I am nothing more than a tasteless caveman – so serve up the gore and make it fast.
Gimme Saw II, Scream 2, Dead Snow, or a misguided Alien sequel/prequel/spiritual successor that may-or-may-not feature a basketball-playing Ellen Ripley and a pregnant Xenomorph giving birth (whoops, spoilers) over almost any Hitchcock. As the twists in Saw get more hair-brained and far-reaching, the louder and wilder I’ll get. Or, one step good rule of thumb: the more zombie Nazis that go down, the better.
Bad horror that isn’t aiming for cinematic bliss often has a special quality of watchability; but good horror and tension that you can’t quite wrap your head around can be a borderline unbearable experience.
I urge anybody out there afraid to be publicly lukewarm on Hitchcock to put this blame firmly on me – I promise, your liberal arts school won’t take away that degree. But let your voices be heard. There are surely dozens of us that regrettably find Hitchcock replaceable on any given Thursday movie night. Sure, you could watch Vertigo, but why bother when Cube 2: Hypercube, Killer Klowns From Outer Space or Paranormal Activity are there for the taking?
Needless to say, horror is a complicated genre – unless you’re Landmine, of course – so I’ve mostly learned that there is no right or wrong answer to taste, only what makes you feel. Whether that’s the fear sweats or meta queasiness or even abject glee over a Saw death trap unhinging another jaw, just figure out what type of horror-adjacent feat sparks joy within you and dive in head-first.
In your never-ending calibration of preferred spookiness, don’t be afraid to make your own measurement Line. Try out the Soulless Reboot Line or the Too Much Gore Line. Maybe even get a little crazy with my patent-pending Beetlejuice Line – a brave question that simply asks: is this movie actually good, or am I just nostalgic?
But whatever your Line happens to be, embrace it. Don’t back down, stick to it at all costs, and let that passion push you forward this Halloween season and beyond – even if it means that the Academy will one day refuse to let you on stage because they found out you rated The Birds below Hubie Halloween.