Horror is one of the most plentiful, ubiquitous and evergreen film genres in the world. It is also one of the most maligned, misunderstood and looked-down upon. As a result when a film writer wants to talk about horror films that they consider acceptable, not like all of those other horror movies, they reach to label them differently. Whether that means calling them “psychological thrillers” or “post-horror”, what is really being communicated is the snobbery that horror faces from other quarters of film fandom and discussion.
The Guardian’s website caused a stir last week when it published a piece from film writer Steve Rose. He writes about the recent release of the interpersonal horror film It Came at Night and that apparently horror fans said things like “WORST MOVIE EVER HANDS DOWN.” It emerged with a Cinemascore of “D” (Cinemascore, if you don’t know, poll people leaving movie theaters on what rating they would give the movie they just saw) which suggests many regretted how they spent their time at the movies that day.
Is this trailer misleading or misunderstood?
Some had attributed the negative reaction to It Came at Night to promotional trailers for the film which played up the horror aspects and suggested they were much more a part of the film than what was in the final product. “It’s by no means false advertising,” says Rose, “it’s just that this tense, minimal movie doesn’t play by accepted rules.” Rose goes on to argue that horror is “one of cinema’s safest spaces” where it’s “cast-iron conventions” force filmmakers to stay within established boundaries and rules or run the risk of raising the ire of the devoted Horror fan. The term “safe space” has become such a loaded and contentious term in cultural discourse these days that whether intended or not makes Steve Rose’s piece surprisingly inflammatory. Do horror fans require insulation from originality and genre breaking to avoid being “triggered”?
Hyperbole aside, what makes this argument more troublesome is that the quotes Rose chooses to use and the films he cites demonstrate the possibility that he has taken away the wrong lesson from this exercise. He quotes It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Shults expressing his thoughts that “it’s not a conventional horror movie” and then runs with this idea. You see, It Comes at Night has the trappings of horror but then defies what the formula dictates in order to challenge the audience and scare them in unconventional ways. He uses the success of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Jordan Peele’s Get Out as examples of successful mainstream horror fare, that their success means that mainstream horror producers are not going embrace this idea of “post-horror” if they don’t see the project as a guaranteed money maker:
“As a result, there’s a market for horrors with low budgets and mass appeal. Which basically means variations on well-established themes: supernatural possession, haunted houses, psychos, zombies.”
The success of Get Out was not a re enforcement of strict horror “rules” but a gigantic kick in the rear end for the genre. Get Out is indeed a horror film and explores broad horror-related themes like isolation and distrust of the unknown but it was far more than that. It was an incredibly sharp, expertly-observed treatment of social anxiety, cultural appropriation, mainstream white liberalism and deeper themes that I am not qualified as a white Englishman to accurately discuss, but you should definitely read this. Get Out was meant to be an outlier, a film made by a first time black writer/director with a story and that is designed to resonate with the African-American experience in the United States. But it made a quarter of a billion dollars in worldwide box office on a $4.5 million budget. Get Out is not a corporate creation designed to push the right buttons to get horror fans to part with their cash, it’s a truly excellent film. A truly excellent horror film which does the opposite for his argument than he intended. He is either ignoring or is unaware of the fact that horror fans frequently embrace fresh takes on established horror tropes. He is also overlooking that the sheer volume of horror entertainment that comes out every year means that it becomes very difficult to find an idea that hasn’t been done several different times already. This is analogous to any popular genre of film, how many times have you seen action movies ape the shooting style of another popular actioner or feature similar scenes? How many movies since The Borne Identity have had fight scenes with a million cuts and a camera that moves around everywhere so you can’t see the fighting properly? Dredd and The Raid are both action movies about law enforcers locked down in an apartment building full of criminals but they’re significantly different films. Are Shaun of the Dead, The Battery, and 28 Days Later all the same because they’re all about a zombie apocalypse? Why then is horror singled out as being so formulaic and samey?
This is the latest article to communicate a very, very old argument regarding the criticism of art, that argument being “you just don’t get it.” Rose goes on to note that Shults’ inspirations included Roman Polanski’s trilogy of Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby along with Don’t Look Now and The Shining. Anybody with a knowledge of horror can see the pattern with these titles These are “respectable” films that are considered by most to be genuine classics made by gifted auteurs. Films showered with awards to be shown over and over in art houses until the end of time. They are also low-hanging fruit. It is like a rock band saying they were inspired by Muddy Waters, B.B. King and The Beatles or a sci-fi author saying he was inspired Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. These are such broad touchstones that they are almost without meaning. These answers are a couple of Google searches deep. This isn’t an attempt to discredit anybody’s experiences or to “nerd-check”, it’s about perspective. It is to suggest that it is difficult to entertain “post-horror” as a valid term to be entered into the lexicon of cultural criticism based on the argument given. It is far more likely that this is indeed another take on the “you just don’t get it” argument. The writer has coined the term “post-horror” so that they might have their cake and eat it too. That they can simultaneously praise horror while not having to get one’s hands dirty by associating with the genre at large. The ones that I like are special, so much so that they should be categorized differently so that nobody thinks I’m a weirdo who likes anything Peter Jackson made before The Lord of the Rings and Heavenly Creatures.
Much like when plaudits and awards were heaped upon Jonathan Demme and The Silence of the Lambs you would struggle to find anybody describe it as a horror film. The Silence of the Lambs is a Horror Movie. It contains so much disturbing, traumatic and violent ideas and situations that “psychological thriller” is an incredibly poor substitute. But we can’t give arguably the top five Academy Awards to a horror movie! David Fincher’s breakout work Se7en uses countless ideas and trappings of horror and contains some truly disturbing imagery but Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman don’t do horror! Darren Aronofsky made a terrific horror film which contains hallucinations, gore, violence and body horror called Black Swan but make sure you call it a “drama” when you give it an Oscar and four more nominations. Conversely, one of the best horror films of the decade The Babadook contained one of the best performances of 2014 from Essie Davis but horror movies don’t win Academy Awards.
As Steve Rose’s quest for “post-horror” continues he brings up indie favorites like Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, David Lowery’s upcoming A Ghost Story and Robert Eggers’ remarkable The Witch. These films are apparently all deserving of the label, as is Nicolas Winding Refn’s lurid The Neon Demon. The final inclusion a funny one because when Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was released in theaters in 2011 many viewers were disappointed that the film was not a Fast and Furious-style race-’em up. What they got instead was a character-focussed crime drama with a couple of great driving sequences in it. A lawsuit that stated the trailer was “misleading” was still being reported on as recently as this past January which also alleges anti-Semitism. As a giant Drive fanboy (my wife bought me a replica of the Driver’s jacket from the movie) I have had discussions about the film with people who didn’t like it at all. I was once told by one person that they weren’t sure if we were even talking about the same movie. Did I decide that Drive deserved special treatment? Did I decide it was “post-action” or “post-driving”? No, it’s a character-focussed crime drama with a couple of great driving sequences in it! I love it and other people hate it!
“Post-horror” is as meaningless a term as “post-racial”, a creation of those trying to simultaneously justify and assuage their discomfort. horror does indeed have a great deal of conventions, preconceived notions and, yes, rules. However horror also has a long, rich history of careers made from everyday folks with the ambition, ingenuity and derring-do to create something. A fanbase that is thrilled not just by seeing the same ideas over and over but being thrilled at smart takes, clever subversions and reinterpretations of those “cast-iron conventions.” That is not to say that Steve Rose is knowingly being a film snob trying to justify why he likes some films from a genre he appears to look down upon. There is definitely some of the “you just don’t get it” sentiment lurking there in the empty spaces between words and that is an attitude I will always rebuke. Horror isn’t going anywhere and there’s plenty for everybody no matter your taste. Horror is such a unifying experience, people go to the movies to enjoy the thrills and scares together, they go to conventions to revel with those like-minded. There’s room for quiet horror just like there’s room for the super gory, the grotesque, the experimental, zombies and slashers, vampires and psychopaths. The call is coming from inside the house, you’re already one of us.