‘Genre’, however you define it, is one of the terms we commonly use to discuss films; it’s the fancy french word for ‘category’. It gives us perspective: genre is a way we can transcend the single narrative and understand the broader complexion of narratives in general. It’s as plain as the aisles in the Blockbuster (I know it’s a dated ref, but if you’re with me so far you get me) or, say, the ‘categories’ page on Netflix. So, fitting a narrative into a genre is often one of the steps we take in developing the identity of that narrative–maybe not the first step, maybe not the last, maybe not even an explicit one, but it happens a lot. Maybe even every time we come across a narrative at all.
The problem with genre, then, is also a very common one: misunderstanding. And not as in a polite way of saying that people are being assholes to one another, but ‘misunderstanding’ in its more literal sense of having a different understanding, a different definition of something than the person you’re communicating with about it. The fact that I even have to define such a common word here kinda puts the point on it.
Part of the reasons we can have genres in the first place, then, is because we’re actually discussing narrative to the point that we feel the need to categorize, just so we’re not limited to either talking just one story at a time or all narratives all at once. Yet, the potential for misunderstanding means that we can’t even guarantee that our definitions of what, say, constitutes an action film resemble one another. In fact, we could almost definitely say the opposite is true, that there must be differences in definition from person to person, and that at least some percentage of those differences really matter and affect the shape of a genre going forward. For instance, how much do Universal Soldier (1992) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) resemble one another? Both are Jean-Claude Van Damme-led sci-fi action films, even two entries in the same franchise. Yet, where the original is pretty straightforward and easy to explain if you had to, the 2012 entry is rather a mindfuck, and one that we can be assured never would have been accepted in 1992 if only by virtue of the fact that it took twenty more years and a few intervening films to get there. And if that’s the case for a comparatively established and popular genre franchise, what the hell is found footage horror in the first place?
I mean, we can certainly call Megan is Missing found footage fiction if we’re defining that genre broadly as some made-up story presented as though it were real, as though the events take place in our world, and as though the media is, itself, a record of those events. This is why found footage on the stage could be tough (though not impossible; I have ideas…). What really complicates defining stuff, though, is all these damn words; we were able to knock out the first two, ‘found footage’ in short order, but they’re just modifiers. Is Megan is Missing a horror film? Or, maybe the question isn’t so much about whether it qualifies as how it transcends that label. Do we really even want to try? Honestly, it looks like a big enough challenge for its own blog post (and a half, and then two more), so trying to shoehorn some definition of my own convenient devising that the rest of you just magically agree with…
Well, actually, let’s do that.
So, yeah, Megan is Missing is a horror movie, at least for the rest of this article. Or until I change my mind.
Too bad that shortcut’s about to get us absolutely nowhere, though. Because, even though genre, like anything else, can be expressed and described within our words, those words also allow for assumptions. And, by ‘assumptions’, what I mean, again, isn’t a pretty word for someone being an ignorant asshole; instead, in assuming Megan is Missing as an example of the broader horror genre, we have to contend with what other sub-categories it might fit, and how that sub-cateogrization leads us to assume what will or won’t be possible during the run of that narrative. In short: we’re pretty much setting ourselves up for disappointment of some kind, somewhere.
For instance, if one of the things that makes a horror movie a horror movie is a horrific antagonist, the nature of that antagonist might then make a difference in how we label that horror movie beyond ‘horror movie’. Blair Witch, The Amityville Horror (1979) and Disney’s The Watcher in the Woods (1980) all might be called ‘supernatural’, and we might even say that all have their moments of horror (again, however we’re defining it). But hey, Big Bird, one of these just doesn’t belong. Disney and horror? Since when? In what universe? Meanwhile, we could sub out the House of Mouse with some other villain from ‘beyond reality’, like Freddy Krueger or Pinhead; while they may all live in Horror Town, though, Elly Kedward doesn’t pop around Elm Street at night–or, like, ever. Blair Witch and Nightmare on Elm Street might face each other on a DVD shelf somewhere, but that’s about as close as they get. What all of these examples still have in common, though, is the material immateriality of their antagonists: with respect to our own world and its physics, they are not simply fictional, but impossible. Megan is Missing, on the other hand, might be held in such disregard perhaps particularly because of its potential to be real, for how the viewer can assume the narrative, how we can more easily suspend disbelief in ways that we find too realistic and, therefore, too unsettling.
So, is it a slasher? Like a lot of slashers (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, for instance), there are no supernatural elements, but there are also plenty of slasher films in which the the antagonist very well is supernatural (Freddy, again, is an example, as is Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise). Seems like all we’ve done, then, is to add a negative modifier without really clearing anything up: non-supernatural found footage slasher. Meanwhile is the antagonist of Megan is Missing anything so straightforward as what we would normally consider a movie slasher to be? He’s a rapist and torturer, for one, which falls in line well with Freddy’s MO, but that’s where the similarities–including living v. dead–pretty well end.
Definitions and categorizations are quickly becoming ungainly, then, and the Freddy Kruger comparison has already gone on too long. But there are still other angles of approach. Wikipedia credits critic David Edelstein as having coined the term ‘torture porn’, a combination of the slasher and splatter genres. Okay– sounds like a good option: Megan is Missing contains its share of torture, mostly sexualized, so both halves of the label ‘torture porn’ seem, on their face, to be applicable. But there are still at least two concerns that need to be addressed if we’re going to settle this as a correct (fitting? appropriate? complete?) categorization, especially if we’re using the Wikipedia page as a source.
First is the modern trend of using ‘-porn’ as a modifier that addresses the fetishization of non-sexual topics: in conversation, we might refer to The Antiques Roadshow as ‘antiquing porn’, an office supply catalog as ‘office supply porn’, or a autoparts calendar as ‘car porn’, etc..
Though I would guess that there are relatively few examples of ‘torture porn’ that don’t include explicit references to sex, it also seems reasonable that such a thing could exist. This doesn’t mean that Megan is Missing doesn’t qualify, but we’re still defining in negative, really, and that would seem to make the act of categorizing perhaps less significant in itself.
The other reason that Wikipedia’s definition of ‘torture porn’ as applied to Megan is Missing becomes problematic is because that label is, itself, described as an offshoot of ‘splatter’, ‘a subgenre of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and… violence.’ Namely, if we’re to call Megan is Missing ‘torture porn’, what stops it from simply being ‘splatter’, minus the subgenre? While, as has been mentioned, there is some disturbing sexual content in the film, the analysis of the ‘-porn’ modifier above means that the ‘-porn’ part need not necessarily indicate sexual content. That might sound silly in this particular case, but the point here is really about linguistic wiggle room and the fact that that room isn’t just a vacuum. As an example, consider Takeshi Miike’s Audition (1999), widely regarded as a seminal piece of J-Horror torture porn despite an almost complete lack of overtly-sexual content; even the closing-act torture session is not particularly sexualized in itself, and without that part, it’s mostly just a weird dating movie where the lead doesn’t end up getting lucky.
But why all the agonizing in the first place? Why should we care about what genre page we might find Megan is Missing in on Netflix, so long as we can find it?
Because it’s an issue that’s not going away; our reaction to a narrative is, in a lot of ways, based on what we are expecting that narrative to be, to the point that one of the first questions we often ask is ‘what kind of movie is it?’ While I’ll avoid commenting on the artistry of this or any film we review, public responses that are so specifically and overwhelmingly negative indicate that a lot of viewers expected something from Megan is Missing that they didn’t get. Human subjectivity, though–the shaping of expectations through one’s own experience–means that what ‘we’ expect might be impossible to answer, just considering how many of ‘us’ there are.
In which case, how could it have gone any different for this film?
Come back in two days for part 3!
 Or, so I assume. It’s not like I’m looking it up. Really.
 A definition that, itself, we’re going to problematize the hell out of. Just wait ‘til we get to the Dispatches Review of The Conspiracy (2012)!
 ‘Splatter Film’ on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splatter_film] If you’re leery of Wikipedia definitions, consider that that resource, as so many other online media, is a central hub in our conversations about so much of what we informally discuss of a day, about film or anything else. If the average, modern American with net access wondered what a ‘splatter’ film was when I mentioned it, they might have gone to Wikipedia to find the answer even if I hadn’t posted the link. Thus, we function here from the perspective that, rather than being somehow verifiably accurate (a sticky issue that’s not entirely relevant to our considerations), sites like Wikipedia are worth consulting as examples of the conversations about what we’re talking about there. And hooray for circular logic; it’ s going to continue to be dead useful.