After his 2017 debut feature, the racial horror allegory Get Out, was nominated in the category of Best Film – Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes, director Jordan Peele has been quick to pre-empt any misunderstandings about his latest film, Us, taking to twitter upon its March release to firmly announce: ‘Us is a horror movie.’
Peele’s move to situate his film unambiguously within the horror genre has been necessitated by an aversion amongst some mainstream critics working for respectable media outlets to accept horror as a serious cultural form. In a recent article for The Monthly, for example, Shane Danielsen praises Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary as an exemplar of what has misguidedly come to be known as ‘elevated horror’ or, elsewhere, ‘post-horror’. These terms are invariably enlisted of late to discuss a slew of critical darlings and commercial successes, such as Hereditary, that are received by some as evidence of a renaissance, or new seriousness, in horror cinema. The problem is the implications of such labels simply revive tired old assumptions that uncritically trivialise the genre’s legitimacy and fail to engage with horror’s rich and varied heritage.
Danielsen’s denigration of horror as a cinema of ‘cheap’ jump scares is not new. However, it is symptomatic of a number of similar reviews and think-pieces from segments of the critical community left scratching their heads over horror’s current ubiquity and apparently newfound respectability. Beginning, perhaps, in 2014 with The Babadook by first time Australian director Jennifer Kent, cinema audiences have been favoured with an abundance of well-received films that employ horror tropes whilst avoiding the overfamiliar narrative formulas of which Hollywood is too often guilty. The list includes Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Julia DuCournau’s Raw, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, Peele’s Get Out and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.
While such films clearly draw on horror’s lineage, there seems to be an ambivalence, if not a downright aversion to simply accepting these films as ‘horror’. Aster himself seems to have internalised this anxiety. Discussing his feature debut, Hereditary, this is what he had to say when he was asked about its genre:
I guess if I’m going to make a horror film, I want it to fall in that weird subgenre of “elevated horror”. And for that reason, when I was pitching the movie around, I was describing it as a family tragedy that warps into a nightmare.
Even Peele fell prey to this reluctance at the time, preferring to call his Academy Award nominated Get Out a ‘social thriller’. Why then has horror become such a dirty word, a genre that dare not speak its name?
In the review cited above, Danielsen performs a similar manoeuvre, declaring that Hereditary is ‘actually a psychological drama’. Implicit in such qualifications is a presumption that the ‘social’ or ‘family’ drama is somehow the superior form of cultural expression, more so if it purports a kind of psychological realism. Little wonder then that Jason Zinoman, writing in the New York Times, chalks up what he calls in unashamedly pejorative fashion ‘a golden age of grown-up horror’ to a move towards themes ‘once the preserve of prestige dramas’. Such sentiments adhere to a notion of drama that is deeply indebted to the nineteenth-century realist novel and subsequently adapted to mainstream narrative cinema. Allegiance to such modes of storytelling not only skip twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic innovations but also fail to recognise the unique contributions of horror to the history of cinema.
Part of the justification for the ‘elevated’ status of these films appears to be this emphasis on the domestic. In The Babadook, it is the relationship between a grief-stricken mother and her son that informs the monstrous presence lurking in the shadows of their house. In the same way The Witch, It Comes at Night, A Quiet Place and, most vividly, Hereditary all have as their central concern the claustrophobia and foreboding of the familial space. Even a passing acquaintance with the horror genre, however, would surely find in the isolation, paranoia, grief, trauma and disintegration of family bonds of these films parallels not only with drama but more profoundly in the enclosed spaces of the gothic novel – with its subconscious hauntings, dysfunctional relationships and family inheritances, of which films like Hereditary are simply the latest example. In cinema, the family and the domestic figure heavily in horror films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, or even Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (which covers much the same ground as Hereditary). As the directors in this short list attest, the notion that elevated horror earns its distinction by being auteur-driven should also be permanently laid to rest.
Nor can it be argued convincingly that Get Out’s prioritising of racial issues or It Follows’ take on sexual politics register a new social awareness in horror. This is territory well covered by the likes of George Romero’s exploration of class in Night of the Living Dead, racial victimisation in Bernard Rose’s Candyman or Takashi Miike’s commentary on female objectification in Audition, which helped spearhead the J-horror cycle. Even typical monster fare involving mummies or zombies are at their best reflective of European anxieties over payback for violent colonial practices and the suppression of regional histories and populations (in Egypt and the Caribbean, for example). Suspect, too, is any claim that this new cycle of films is more experimental than conventional horror. Surely a genre that includes David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Dario Argento’s Suspiria or Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is due credit for not only exploring various concepts but expanding the language of cinema itself.
The enduring appeal of horror is its capacity to peer over the edge of whatever social and cultural boundaries we have nervously sought shelter behind, to confront the terrifying inadequacies of our intellectual conceits – including the humanist ideals that ‘prestige’ drama clings to as it seeks endless reassurances to its own self-importance. Horror strips away the consoling fantasies upon which the modern self is built, leading us into the dark recesses beyond what we think we know. What could be more ‘grown up’ than that? Sure, horror cinema has had its fair share of derivative, formulaic duds – think the straight-to-VHS 80s – but the same could be said for any genre that falls prey to producers looking to make a quick buck out of younger audiences.
Just what is it, then, that marks this latest cycle of films as anything other than a continuation of horror’s well-established preoccupations? The influence of the independent production company A24 deserves some credit. Along with The Witch, A Ghost Story and It Comes at Night, A24 is also the force behind the Oscar-winning Moonlight as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. This diverse and well-regarded catalogue speaks of the company’s willingness to back younger filmmakers and take creative risks. This shift is not limited to horror but in evidence across mainstream filmmaking more broadly. As cinema loses some of its audiences to long-form television, it is perhaps not surprising that Hollywood has been compelled to rethink its production practices and attempt to replicate the small screen’s success with creator-driven content.
Terms like ‘elevated’ or ‘post-’ horror are little more than marketing catchwords designed to rebrand horror and grow its viewership. It is too soon to determine where these horror-drama hybrids sit – only time will dictate where such films fit into the history genre. Ultimately, the success of a genre is determined less by movie executives or marketing firms and more by audience practices and participatory communities.
Rather than claiming that horror is having a ‘prestige’ drama moment, maybe we should say that drama is once again having a horror moment. As the political landscape becomes ever more parochial, and environmental change gathers its chaotic pace, it is little wonder that the stories we tell ourselves should reflect these anxieties. Under the weight of hostile outer forces – both real and imagined – drama retreats to the consolations of family, to the interpersonal, only to discover, belatedly, that we carry our social programming within us like a gothic inheritance, and that the true horror has always been the inability to escape the limitations of our all-too-human selves.
Image: Lupita Nyong’o in Us