Americans can’t stand to give up our childhood pleasures. So we’re elevating the way we talk about it.
We call chocolate chip popcorn cookies “gourmet”, “small batch” and “artisanal”. Used concert t-shirts are now “vintage”. Blue jeans are “designer”. Unconsciously guilty, our tastes haven’t changed in decades, we consciously redefine our appreciations in adult terms.
Like “high” horror.
The term started being thrown around a few years ago, when critics and audiences raved about clever shocks like “Get Out,” “The Witch,” “Hereditary,” “It Follows” and “Midsommar” — and perhaps felt a bit embarrassed by the fact. Aren’t we too old to love monster movies? Similarly, timid directors helped popularize the new term, with some insisting that they hadn’t made horror films at all, but “psychodramas”.
And since then, the high horror trend has only accelerated.
Three prestigious New York cultural institutions — the modern Art Museum, Filming at Lincoln Center and the Moving Image Museum – all have scholarly programming this summer dedicated to horror cinema. New artistic films – the frightening “Watcher”, the delirious “Crimes of the Future” by David Cronenberg – are streaming or in theaters. Hot new filmmakers like Jordan Peele also have films coming out.
But the truth is that there is no “high” horror. There never was, and to pretend so only does the entire genre and its fans a disservice. There is only good and bad horror, well-made films and badly made films.
I think the overcompensation comes from the fact that horror has always been an under-respected genre, with its classics being seen as overachievers that kind of overstepped their bounds. No one ever talks about the “high noir” of “Chinatown” or how “Raging Bull” somehow “transcended” the sports movie. They aren’t even considered great genre films. They are seen as great films, period. Yet horror movies still carry this stigma at their core – and we have to get over it.
In fact, horror films have always attracted some of the finest talent in the industry. Horror movies are rooted in dreams, not logic; they are not bound by the same rules as other stories, and that includes art stories. Expressionist filmmakers fleeing Hitler’s Germany found a home in American monster movies of the 1930s, where they could explore wildly angled shots and menacing shadows. Avant-garde composers often accept soundtrack concerts; in the 90s, even Philip Glass made two scores of “Candyman”.
That’s why some of cinema’s craziest and most visionary authors have always worked in horror. Think Guillermo del Toro’s unique imagery in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water”, or the extravagant and disruptive drama behind Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In”. Experience one of Cronenberg’s body image nightmares or David Lynch’s dizzying metaphorical labyrinths. Only horror is big enough for these artists to roam.
It’s also why so many great performers are working in the genre now. Horror movies were the first stop for starving young actresses — or the last, for desperate veterans. But established performers have found that the horror of wild emotional swings gives them a chance to really show off their range. Think of Toni Collette’s fabulous work in “Hereditary” as a damaged and damaging mother. Think of Ethan Hawke’s continued success in movies like “Sinister,” “The Purge,” and the new “The Black Phone.”
They don’t make these movies because they have to. It’s because they want to.
But even more than the freedom that horror movies give directors, cinematographers, composers and performers, they offer extraordinary license to writers, especially those willing to wrestle with complicated or controversial subject matter. Because – as Rod Serling proved years ago – once you entice audiences with the promise of a straightforward genre story, you can show them things they wouldn’t otherwise accept.
Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” are about mind control and murder, but also about race, class, solidarity and exploitation. “The Babadook” is about a terrified child and a ferocious little monster – but also about motherhood, grief and loneliness. Chloe Okuno’s new “Watcher” is about a stalker – but also about communication, alienation, marriage and the dangers of not listening to women. The upcoming “They/Them,” starring Kevin Bacon, is a slasher flick — but also a pointed attack on homophobia and “conversion therapy.”
There are scarier things in these movies than just imaginary monsters.
And honestly, it’s always been that way, ever since there were horror movies. If you’ve seen “Cat People” and haven’t seen a movie about female sexuality and alien stereotypes, if you’ve been through “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” without contemplating our conformist society, if you’ve watched “Night of the Living Dead” without thinking about America’s fractured families and racial violence…so you weren’t really watching at all.
What needs to be elevated is not the horror movie. It’s us.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since its launch in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without subscription fees or paywalls. Its continued existence depends on the support of members of this scene and art lovers in the state. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check payable to NJArts.net at 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.