Film & TV Muse

Horror’s much awaited rise from the grave

James Hudson shines a light on the changing horror scene in mainstream cinema and the rise of ‘smart horror’

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It seems as if we are dawning on a new-wave of popular horror films, the genre that seems most fitting for our times of increasing existential unease. You may have recently seen IT Chapter Two in cinemas, one of the most commercially successful horror franchises in history, grossing $37.4 million on its opening weekend in the US. Yet, as much the IT franchise may have banked at the box office it was not especially ground-breaking, despite its big budget and talented cast. Money and a starry-eyed cast do not, unfortunately, rule-out blandness. More so than any other genre, horror’s vitality relies on reinvention if it is to be prevented from falling into the dark pit of popular opinion that is an ignorant disregard for horror as cheap and amateur. The speed at which horror loses any sort of popular or critical traction can be understood when considering how found-footage horror, sparked by the 1999 Blair Witch Project, already seems to be on its commercial death-bed following several, squeeze-the-cow, beatings perpetrated by the Paranormal Activity franchise. Nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of another Paranormal Activity.

Fortunately, horror seems to be both on the up not just commercially but also artistically. The term that fits best is “smart horror”, although that does sound misleadingly pretentious. “Smart Horror”, if we are to call it as such, are films which go beyond the typical exploitation or quintessential horror set-ups, haunted houses, ghosts, clowns etc. – though these aren’t necessarily excluded – but nevertheless have notable political, emotional, or aesthetic depth that goes beyond what one has come to typically expect from horror films of the past twenty-so years. The films which most clearly represent this new-wave of horror and have enjoyed critical and commercial success are; Get Out, Us (Jordan Peele), HereditaryMidsommar (Ari Aster), The Witch, (Robert Eggers). There are many other films from which I could choose to discuss, David Lowry’s, A Ghost Story, is one that springs to mind, but I have decided to focus on the films mentioned above as I believe they give a fair snapshot of the loosely categorized “smart horror”.

Get Outand Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, are horrors of race, class, and politics in modern America. Peele’s focus is as much sociological as it is in creating a scary horror film. In Get Out the horror lies in what is unsaid; the withheld, unsure attitudes towards a violent and complex history of race relations. The question Peele is asking is that despite what we may believe about race, “of course, nobody’s a proper racist anymore”, what really has changed? Mistakenly, Get Out was nominated for an Oscar as a comedy, and yes, it is funny, but they missed the point. The scare comes while driving back from the cinema – preferably it’s dark, raining and you’re alone - and you look out of the car window and you see the film.

Us is similarly a horror with a clear political focus, and although the nervous energy and painful irony isn’t crafted as tightly as in Get Out, the jump scares and scissor-slashing have been ramped up to make a political-charged horror. Both have proven to be commercially successful with Get Out raking in $255.5 million from a budget of $4.5 million and Us totalling $225.1 million from a budget of $20 million. Peele has found a pulse for turning social issues and pop culture into bitingly sharp horrors which force you to think, for better or worse, about the uncomfortable truths in a post-Obama America.

Another new name in the horror game is Ari Aster, Writer-Director of Hereditary and Midsommar, both occultist, psychological melodramas that descend deep into weird, emotionally grotesque finales. Both films are focussed on the emotional pain and impact of grief which become mirrored in the nightmare worlds of haunted houses and Scandinavian pagan cults. Though these films are recognisable in their horror, in Hereditary the house may be haunted and a family bloodline cursed and Midsommar is clearly rooted in The Wicker Man, the disturbing and gruesome set-pieces in these films do intend to shock, but they seem to fit more so than in the typical, “what’s the freakiest thing we can put in this” horror film. The weirdness is earned because the internal struggle of the characters dealing with grief can be understood by most people. Aster fits the horror around this struggle, not, like in most cases, the other way around. In both films there is a strange energy of restraint, which builds up a slow grinding momentum. The scores in both films are also of note. They are big and hypnotic and slowly build momentum while sustaining an emotional fragility which comes crashing down in the strange ending in both films.

Commercially, both Hereditary and Midsommar have been huge successes. $79.3 million and $36 million respectively. Though this is somewhat unsurprising as both films were big summer blockbusters - Hereditary was marketed with the tagline ‘the scariest film since The Exorcist’. That said, both films feel like a breath of fresh air when it comes to horror, both are horrifying and don’t carry the disappointment of half-developed plots and characters.

Perhaps my favourite horror film of the past decade is The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers. Admittedly, this film will not be for everyone; it is “slow” and has no jump scares. I think this is the best thing about it. Being terrified just from the marshy atmosphere created is a testament to the craft of Eggers. Set in a 17th century New England, a family are shunned from their puritan community and are living isolated as farmers next to a wood in which a witch resides. Shot in a naturalistic style, everything is grey and dark as it would have been in 17th England, the characters speak how you imagine New England puritans would speak. Life was hard and bleak and on-screen life does look hard and bleak. The miasmic reek of paranoia wafts from the screen as religious and folklore fanatism blends with gritty reality, creating a real belief that evil exists in the viewer. It has drawn parallels to Polanski’s 1968 classic, Rosemary’s Baby, which swaps jump scares and gore for a growing sense of growing unease.

Out of all the films so far discussed The Witch is the most audacious in its style, especially so since it had a budget of just $4 million, though it did pull in ten times this at the box office. Having a smaller budget may in fact give filmmakers more breathing room as there is less pressure to break-even compared to say a $40 million budget. If it is true that smaller budgets release the shackles, so to speak, then it is unsurprising why production companies, most notably, A24 continue to place their chips on off-beat horrors. A24 are producing Eggers’ next film, The Lighthouse, which from the trailer seems to be a black and white expressionist psychological horror.

It appears then that the horror genre is enjoying something of a boom in recent years, drawing in big audiences for both big-blockbusters such as IT and smaller budget films like The Witch. The why, or why now, this is the case is more difficult to determine. Maybe it’s because the world seems to be speeding up and getting a bit madder and horror allows us to explore this. Maybe it’s because serendipity has placed some talented filmmakers who all have their own spin on horror in the right places. Whatever the reason, I for one am glad horror films have suddenly become so interesting again, and even if you are not a fan of horror, but you enjoy well-made and thought-provoking films, maybe it’s time you move your hands away from your face, open your eyes, and take another look.

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