The Week in Horror: An Elegy For Shudder

I had a few tidbits of horror news I was going to report on this week, but a particular item hit late last week that made the others pale in importance. Amid an industry-wide set of layoffs, from the much-publicized axing of execs at Warner Brothers Discovery and a reported hiring freeze at Disney, both chalking the reason up to a ‘miscalculation’ in the amount of revenue to be made from streaming, AMC Networks announced the same. 

It was our belief that cord cutting losses would be offset by gains in streaming. This has not been the case. We are primarily a content company and the mechanisms for the monetization of content are in disarray,” He eventually went on to add, “We have directed the executive leadership of AMC Networks to undergo significant cutbacks in operations. These will include a large-scale layoff as well as cuts to every operating area of AMC Networks.

James Dolan, CEO of AMC parent company MSG Entertainment

C-suite shuffling wouldn’t normally be a topic for The Week in Horror, but this particular round of cutbacks claimed Craig Engler, the general manager of this writer’s favourite horror outlet, Shudder. In the wake of that news, to quote a band I’m not particularly fond of, nothing else matters. 

I remember sitting around the table at a darkened Toronto restaurant in 2014 with a group of people – film festival programmers, writers, directors, journalists, and a few lucky people like myself that were none of these – connected to the tight-knit horror community in this city. Toronto’s a great town if you like yourself a spook-a-doodle, and is a place that has not only hosted the premieres of many of the classics by way of the Midnight Madness programme of the Toronto International Film Festival and the After Dark Film Festival, but has also been used as a filming location for several and has produced a number of people who have gone on to make their names in horror. Ever heard of Vincenzo Natali? David Cronenberg? Yeah, they’re ours. Even Guillermo Del Toro’s a sometimes-resident.

That evening, the topic of conversation came around to physical media and how hard it could be to track down, store, and preserve the films we loved. Horror in particular boasts a fierce and vigilant group of physical media enthusiasts, and we love to scoop up whatever’s available – even if it’s the fifth release of a movie we don’t even like that much in a new format – just to complete a set. In 2014, a scant four years after Netflix launched in Canada, anyone and everyone was getting into the streaming game. It seemed like every niche film, sports, or tv property was finding its way online. The bubble was just inflating, not yet ready to burst. 

One key person at the table brought up that plans were in the works for an all-horror streaming service, and my ears perked up. It would be called, as I misheard it over the background noise, “Shutter”. It would be a meticulously-curated collection, built organically and starting with the films that the programmers and curators loved the most and, most critically, deemed most worthy of preserving. It would feature intriguing categories that would allow any horror fan to find exactly what they were in the mood for – categories like home invasion, found footage, supernatural, to name a few. 

I eventually figured out that the service would be called Shudder (not Shutter), and to my dismay, would only be initially launched in the US. For those first couple of years, I used a VPN and a Paypal account to get around geographic restrictions (shhh, don’t tell), and availed myself of the many spooky delights contained therein. When the service launched in earnest in 2016, including in Canada, they had my $5.99 monthly subscription for life (as it turns out, the life of the service, not me). By then, Shudder had expanded into Canada, the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. It was releasing near-weekly ‘Shudder Originals’ like Joe Lynch’s Mayhem or Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge which were projects from independent filmmakers that, in a pre-Shudder world, may have languished on the festival circuit before quietly disappearing. Shudder became a place for in-the-know horror fans to find hidden gems, long-lost classics (and not-so-classics like Stewart Raffill’s Tammy and the T-Rex ), and off-the-wall curiosities like popular horror critic Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-in. If you knew, you knew, and inevitably when someone would ask me for a horror recommendation, I’d direct them to Shudder where they were likely to find exactly what they were after. To this day, a large part of this very column is used to spread the word about what’s about to hit Shudder. That word-of-mouth advertising is great, but unfortunately there was no way for Shudder to do more than tread water in the Cujo-eat-Cujo streaming wars of the mid-2010’s. 

But then came Craig Engler. Fresh off a 17-year stint on the Syfy channel, he joined Shudder as General Manager with an eye towards improving Shudder’s marketing, its reach, and its expansion into original programming. His job was to let people know what Shudder had, what made it special, and what made it different from clicking over to the Horror tab on Netflix. 

What you have to determine is: how much horror does somebody want? If you only want to watch a couple of horror movies a year, one of the big streamers might satisfy you. If you want more than that, or if you want to watch something different and wider and weirder, that’s where Shudder comes in.

Craig Engler, Shudder GM

Engler did exactly that. Aggressively acquiring new films for the service in the last four years, and funding and distributing a slate of Shudder Originals that contains some of my favourite modern horror projects, Shudder became the place for horror fans to gather. It partly got me through a pandemic where going, in person, to a movie theatre was scarier than anything Clive Barker ever made. It unearthed a movie, 1992’s Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil, for which I might be the only one with fond memories. It platformed important documentaries and commentary on horror like Xavier Burgin’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror and Bryan Fuller’s Queer For Fear series.  Most importantly, and the least-replaceable feature of Shudder was giving films like Mad God (2022), Saloum (2022), Host (2020), Deadstream (2022), Lucky (2021), Blood Quantum (2020), Hellbender (2022) and so many more a home where they may otherwise not have found one in a world where a video store is an antiquated concept. The comments (like all comments sections) under the movies might have been dogshit, but Shudder felt like a perhaps-too-secret clubhouse for horror fans to commiserate and to learn from each other. Shudder’s curators, a couple of whom I’m privileged to call friends, prioritized bringing international horror from all over the world – from Argentina to Indonesia to South Korea to South Africa – into one place. They walked the walk in platforming minority, queer, and female (and, intersectionally, all of the above) voices so that audiences could see that horror can truly come from anywhere.

You know how this story ends. I told you off the top that Craig Engler was relieved of his duties at Shudder this week. The replies to his Twitter post announcing the departure reads like a laundry list of many of my favourite people in horror; Barbara Crampton, Timo Tjahjanto, Ted Geogehan, and so many others expressing their appreciation for Engler’s efforts over the years. He says, in that same tweet, that “cool things [are] afoot” and I’m excited to see what those are. But at the same time, there’s a horror hole in my heart where Shudder burrowed in and stayed for eight years. They built something really special that I’m going to miss terribly. 

I hope I’m wrong about all of this. That these mass layoffs won’t mean the death knell, or at least the crippling of one of the most important pieces of the horror landscape as a result of yet another ill-thought-out foray into streaming (looking at you, AMC+). As of this writing, Shudder is still up and running as it has for years. There are also other players in the horror streaming space these days – Dread Central’s DREAD, Screambox, Midnight Pulp, to name a few – but Shudder was the first, and in my opinion, the best. I hope that Shudder, in its current form, can continue to thrive and grow, and that I’ll see that blood-red S icon on my TV, my phone, and in the opening credits of independent horror films for years to come. If not, Craig Engler and his team had an amazing run, and should be immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished. Horror is often sidelined or marginalized – by mainstream audiences, by awards gatekeepers, and by critics – but Shudder and the people behind it always did right by it, and by us as horror fans.

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