Dead Meat and A Coward’s Guide to Horror Movies

Recommending an extremely popular YouTube channel that happens to be exactly what I’ve been looking for

It feels odd for me to be recommending a YouTube channel that has 6.5 million subscribers as if I were the first person to discover it. But it’s not the kind of thing that I’d normally recommend, and I only just found it recently, even though it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

The channel is called Dead Meat, and the bulk of the content is the “Kill Count” series, which gives a recap of a horror movie, calling out each time a character is killed, and then tallying them all up (with a pie chart!) at the end.

This is perfect for me, who’s got a fraught relationship with horror movies. I really, deeply want to love them. They’re interesting to pick apart, especially since all of the dynamics are often blatantly playing out across the surface, letting you find as much or as little depth as you want. At the same time, the entire genre is designed to refuse that kind of over-intellectualized analysis. They work best when they bypass all of the critical parts of your brain and go for an immediate reaction. As somebody who overthinks everything, I love watching something like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill, and not “turning off my brain,” but letting it target my brain directly and just enjoy it.

But that’s also why I can’t handle so many of them. I used to just say that I was a coward and leave it at that, but I think there’s actually more to it. When a horror movie clicks with me, I absolutely love it. But there’s a narrow window of tone, subject matter, violence, gore, performance, verisimilitude, and a dozen other aspects that, if a movie veers even a little bit out of the zone, it becomes completely intolerable for me.

Talk to Me, for instance, messed me up. I’d still say it’s a solid movie, even if it suffers in its final act. And I appreciate that the whole point of horror movies is to be scary, and that if you’re too comfortable while watching them, it’s probably not doing its job. But so much of it was so miserable, bleak, and hopeless that it just weighed down on me. And yet The Exorcist, for instance, one of the bleakest and most miserable horror movies I’ve ever seen, doesn’t have the same effect on me. So it’s unpredictable.

What I’ve tried to do for a while is, if the premise of a horror movie is interesting enough but I’m not sure whether it’ll be too intense for me, go to the movie’s Wikipedia entry and read the plot synopsis. The most practical problem with that is that it’s inconsistent: if the entry gives a plot synopsis at all, which seems to be getting more rare, it’s almost always a lousy interpretation of the movie itself. Either it’s so vague as to lose everything that makes the movie special, or it’s so badly written that it’s incomprehensible.

Which makes the Kill Count series perfect for me. The impression I get is that when it started and defined its own format, it was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: a Fangoria-reading horror movie fan, James A Janisse, picking out the grisliest moments from a popular movie and saying “F yeah!” in voice-over. But over time, it matured — and I don’t think I’m being condescending here, since Janisse has pretty much explicitly said as much in the videos — to include more analysis of the movie, calling out what works and what doesn’t.

The end result is something that’s a lot more fun than the kind of overblown review somebody like me would write, but with more depth than the kind of crass review that’s just looking for the goriest decapitations. He includes a lot of behind-the-scenes info (gleaned from bonus features on the Blurays, mostly), and importantly, gives call-outs to the actors, stunt people, cinematographers, and effects workers that don’t normally get credit or recognition outside of super-fans. Plus, there are copious content warnings, not just of flashing lights or the kind of imagery that gets videos de-monetized, but also of questionable subject matter and irredeemable behavior on the part of the filmmakers. In my opinion, it’s real, fun, movie analysis using the form of a trashy highlights reel.

And there’s also an explicit warning not to do what I do with the videos, which is watch them in lieu of the actual movie. I respect that, even as I ignore it. They want you to watch the movies to get the real experience, instead of just watching the gory Cliffs Notes version.

For me, that means I only watch the entries for movies that either I’ve already seen; are so obviously trashy that I’ll never see, but I still want to know what they’re about; or have gotten such good buzz that I want to know what makes them work, but I can tell they’ll be far too intense for me to enjoy. (There’s another category of movie like the Saw and Hostel movies, where I’m so uninterested in what they have to offer that I won’t even watch the recaps).

For instance: Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar. Clearly, they were well made enough to have a cultural impact; I can reference both without ever having seen them, for instance. But because they deal so heavily with grief and intensely miserable people, I’ve never felt inclined to put myself through them. I read the Wikipedia synopsis of each, and I was left baffled — Aster must be a genius, I figured, since I couldn’t imagine how anything that sounded so nonsensical could be turned into such highly-regarded movies. After watching the Kill Count recaps, I think I get it. I still don’t want to put myself through either, but I think I can appreciate what it is that made them resonate.

Other ones I’ve watched because I know I have a low tolerance for gore, but I want to see what they’re all about. I don’t feel bad that Evil Dead Rise was spoiled for me, for instance, but it seems like it retained the over-the-top tone of a Sam Raimi movie, even though the marketing just made it seem like a too-serious 21st-century reboot. Similar for Mandy, which seems way too violent for me, but I absolutely love the visual design.

And I’ve never seen Blacula, not because I was worried about the gore so much as the fact that 70s horror and exploitation movies are always so dull. The recap showed me everything I wanted, let me know more about the movie and its intent than I’d ever appreciated, and taught me something rad that I didn’t know: that star William Marshall went on to be the King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Best of all, though, are the movies that I’d assumed I knew what they were all about, and I had no intention of watching until I started watching the Kill Count and realized I’d rather watch the real thing. One was Bodies Bodies Bodies, which I knew was a horror comedy, but which seems like it’d be rendered completely inert by watching a recap with the gags out of context. More promising is Freaky, which I think I’d avoided largely because of Blumhouse fatigue, but which seems to have nailed the tone I’m looking for, essentially “a gorier Happy Death Day.”

Most surprising to me was X by Ti West, which I’d imagined was a “cult classic” in the vein of an updated Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the kind of Eli Roth violence-and-gore-fest that didn’t interest me that much. The recap gave me a lot more respect for the ideas and the work that went into it, how it was a meta-movie about people trying to make artsy trash, and how there’s enough to it that it would warrant two sequels. Now I’m looking forward to watching it in full.

It’s exceedingly rare for a text recap to adequately convey what makes a book or a movie special. YouTube “Ending EXPLAINED!!!!” videos are almost always insufferable, over-simplifying a movie so much that all depth is lost. And even the best-intentioned video essays rarely give a good idea of what makes a movie really work. I was surprised to see interesting and useful recaps from a channel that awards a Golden Machete medal to the best kill.

Also, they’re pretty funny. The Kill Count videos are filled with as many dumb jokes as you might expect, but every once in a while, they strike gold. I was especially happy to finally get a Jefferson Twilight reference in the recap of Blacula, long after having given up hope that he’d get a mention.

So I’d recommend Dead Meat to anyone like me, who wants to love horror movies, but is never sure whether they have the stomach or the nerves for them.

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