Head or Heart: Exploring ‘Elevated’ Horror

“I wouldn’t call it a horror movie” or “I didn’t set out to make a horror film” are phrases that have been oft-used since the release of a number of supposedly ‘elevated’ horror films.  Films like Get Out‘s mainstream success and memeable qualities meant that moments of it quickly spread into public consciousness and allowed it to be discussed by a larger number of people than other horror films with smaller releases.  Almost immediately it was reframed as a ‘social thriller’.  The social thriller in this case, looks and feels remarkably like a horror film.  Films like The BabadookIt Follows and The VVitch have all also been included in the ‘elevated’ genre discussion, despite them all engaging in at least some well-trodden genre conventions.

The most obvious thing which emerges in the discussion regarding horror being a worthy or unworthy genre seems to centre around the idea that the majority of horror films are not ‘smart’.  That’s to say that they are line ups of repetitive tropes played out in the exact same way, inspiring no new thought on the part of the producers or audience.  This has led some critics over the last few years to lay claim to a new breed of horrors as ‘elevated’, ‘post’ or some other descriptor which only serves to distance it from the horror genre as a whole.

Steve Rose’s Guardian article about the rise of ‘post-horror‘ was quite rightly derided by the majority of genre fans and there are a number of well-thought out rebuttals of his argument.  My particular favourite is from Nia Edwards-Behi for Wales Arts Review: link here.  A recent BBC article also drew attention to the discomfort that some have in including their work amongst other horror films.  The word ‘horror’ it seems, is still regarded as something ‘low’ in culture.  This article seeks to explore a little of why that might be.

The key issue within this, for me, is that horror focuses on the immediate, visceral response in the images and content it provides.  As a result, it is an emotive genre.  Although sci-fi films may use some of the same tropes and even invoke feelings of fear, their worlds are often build around ‘what if?’ scenarios on the part of the viewer.  One only has to look to Black Mirror and the majority of it’s stories which present modern worlds which are perhaps only a matter of years away in terms of technology and the effect that technology has on humans.  This sets up horror (and those who watch it) as focused on the more base elements of human nature, rather than anything which involves thought.  These key oppositions of thought vs. feeling I believe are key to why horror is considered to be so ‘low’ in cultural terms.  Stephen King has stated that horror looks for ‘the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level’.  This idea of horror as stirring something primitive aligns itself with the low.

Horror, rather than looking at ‘what ifs’ takes current fears and turns them into monsters.  This is in no way less sophisticated and still allows for horror films to have a deeper message as well as reflecting current concerns rather than what ‘might’ happen.  Indeed, some academics (like Noel Carroll) have foregrounded that the presence of gore is not the only attraction for those who enjoy the genre, but problem and mystery-solving is cited as being part of the appeal.  This more cognitive explanation for horror fandom is more interesting and perhaps less explored.  This goes some way to explaining the wider appeal of films like Get Out, which saves it’s reveal until much further into the run time, so speculation drives it.  However, this kind of problem-solving also applies to even the most derided, cliche-ridden, blood-spewing slasher.  Slashers are possibly the most maligned of the horror genre, even though they can easily be compared to ‘whodunnits’, in which as much pleasure can be derived from the gory set pieces as figuring out who is performing them and why.

Certainly, there are vast differences in the technique and presentation of different horror films and these can contribute to a feeling of something being more culturally valuable.  A film which has considerable attention paid to the production values and offers particularly interesting shot types is obviously going to be considered as superior to something which offers standard presentation with nothing outside the ‘norm’.  Enhanced technical skill can elevate a simple story by offering the viewer something extra to engage with.

thewitch

The VVitch offered a very different kind of horror film in terms of staying true to it’s period setting in terms of dialogue.  This felt like an unusual move for a horror film being pushed to mainstream audiences and I believe some of the muted reaction to the film is the result of marketing missteps.  While it should be that audiences go into the cinema allowing the film in question to take them on a journey which is not tainted by an advertising campaign leading them in a direction which may not be reflective of the actual product.  This can only lead to disappointment.  The VVitch also offered a slow-burn which added dread incrementally, rather than providing short bursts of high-intensity action.  I have to admit that despite being very excited to see The VVitch from the time of it’s first festival showing, I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  Still, the film has an undeniable mark of quality in it’s confidence in dealing with the material but is also undeniably a horror film.  Quality, in terms of The VVitch comes from the dedication to a particular look and feel, combined with the technical expertise to complete that.  The only thing which differentiates it from numerous other festival genre films released at the same time is the marketing and availability.

The horrors that I have really enjoyed and the ones which have frightened me have all had that element of me ‘feeling’ something which then prompts me to think about why that imagery/sound/whatever has had that effect.  This shows (anecdotally) that feeling and thought are not mutually exclusive.  To add another anecdotal finding to this, it seems that there are many horror fans who wear their lack of sensitivity to scares as a badge of honour.  Fans lamenting that nothing scares them anymore always makes me feel that they are missing a fundamental part of the enjoyment – the feeling of being ‘safely’ scared.  While it may just be internet grandstanding, it does somewhat sadden me that people are finding nothing in such a varied genre which gets under their skin.

The primary objective of any horror film must be to be scary.  Of course, scary is subjective – and often does not play by the usual rules.  I would say that most of the films that have caused me genuine, heart-rate raising fear have some kind of religious or otherwise supernatural element (The Exorcist and The Borderlands to name just two.  I am not religious and a complete skeptic of all matters supernatural, yet the introduction of those elements in a film taps into something about me that not even I fully comprehend.  More logically, I have a fear and fascination around cults.  The idea that every day people can be drawn in to a culture which makes them behave in ways they feel that they never would is truly frightening.  It is also a far more human fear – caused by and perpetrated by usually normal human beings.

In her writing on the divide between high and low culture Joan Hawkins focuses on the fact that the subject matter of high and low films is often very similar.  This also ties in to ideas about the films loosely grouped as New European Extreme.  Sold to audiences as examples of both extreme, taboo-featuring endurance-fests and high-art foreign cinema, they allow for two distinct readings.  Those concerned with higher culture can look for subtext, while others can enjoy the special effects and shock factor.  Neither reading is wrong and neither option adds or subtracts quality.  Hawkins uses the example of Freaks as a film which has moved from being considered pure exploitation, to being a well-regarded piece of art.  The film itself remains unchanged, but the reading around it has evolved.  The same can be said for films like Psycho and Peeping Tom.  Initially regarded as shocking and potentially career-ending (especially in the case of Peeping Tom), both films are now regarded as horror classics which used effective techniques to create fear within viewers.

Hawkins also highlights that low and high culture are frequently grouped, not only in terms of controversial material but also because they represent those things outside of the mainstream and therefore become difficult to obtain.  Cult companies like Arrow Video specialise in this, with their online shop grouping new indie releases, restorations of ‘video nasties’ and foreign cinema releases.  If the material of films is similar, yet one is regarded as low and the other high, this undoubtedly becomes an issue of class.  Class is something I link back to the idea of horror being related to feelings, rather than thoughts.  Throughout the video nasty era there was often an emphasis placed on the ‘danger’ of the working class seeing the same extreme material as the middle-class and educated.  This assumed that the working class lacked the ability to read the films beyond the violence and therefore that would be the main takeaway.  The educated middle-classes however, in the minds of those who sought to ban the films, had the appropriate cultural capital to better deal with the content.

Companies like Arrow Video do more than provide restorations of the films, however, and truly cater to the idea of engaged fandom.  Releases are accompanied by behind-the-scenes material, interviews and even in-depth academic articles which seek to enhance the importance of the original film.  Even so, there are distinctions being made here about worthy and unworthy ‘trash’.  The decision to restore and hold up a film immediately draws attention to it and adds some kind of cultural and social value, especially in genres which lie outside the mainstream.  Audiences add to their own cultural value by collecting each edition, reading the surrounding material and cataloguing their knowledge.  The films excluded from these cultural resurrections are arguably just as interesting as they indicate that in some way they are too trash to be celebrated trash.

In this sense, it can be seen that horror is elevated when it has in some way lost it’s sense of taboo, or tackles a subject which is already in the public eye.  For example, the fact that It Follows adopts the traditional sex = death morality of slasher films and applies techniques and aesthetics inspired by John Carpenter is seen to ‘elevate’ itself through association with an established genre leader.  The content of the film, to me at least, seemed to have no real difference to numerous other films that were considered to be old hat.  Similarly, while Get Out is obviously a very well-crafted and clever film which deals with racism in a way which was somewhat unexpected, there is only one device I would say shows anything out of the ordinary.  The Sunken Place is a very effective part of the film and having the racism of the film seemingly based in twisted envy certainly made it visually and conceptually more interesting.  However, the other elements of jump scares, violence and the overriding theme of the outsider are not unique within horror, nor out of reach of other films.

getout

All of these films which are supposedly ‘elevated’ have themes which are rooted in all other horror films, even from the earliest days of the genre.  Improved technical aspects could be said to enhance audience engagement, but do not, in themselves make a better film.  A film can have great content, while doing nothing groundbreaking in terms of technique.  Both have their own appeals.

So much of film consumption is based on how any given film is marketed.  It is so important, even if some suggest that viewers should abandon all sense of it before viewing the film.  You would, quite rightly, be angry if you paid to see a film based on marketing which suggested it was one story, which turned out to be quite another.  Simliarly, if advertising and reviews promise a heightened level of expertise in technical terms and that is not delivered, you would feel aggrieved.

Even recent A24 release Hereditary‘s desire to be held aloft as an art film has been subject to “heart monitor” stunts and proclamations of walk outs – everything which indicates ‘base’ fear responses.  The mixed message comes in the form of balancing the visceral and the cerebral.  Although there are clearly layers of meaning within Hereditary (explored in far greater depth in this piece), the actual content and certainly some scenes are perhaps more taboo and exploitative than many other mainstream offerings, or even those ‘unelevated’ works.

In this sense, it can be seen again that there is a perception that the visceral cannot be art, yet cerebral is art.  Cerebral media supposedly has a cultural, social and sometimes political value, which cannot be matched by the shock value of material intended to provoke a physical response.  The current political and social climate is increasingly based on emotion, rather than fact and this is a grave concern for many.  Horror is seen to increase in popularity during times of wider political or social crisis and so it is no surprise to see a resurgence of genre films.  As a side note, professional wrestling (a similarly ‘low’ art form) also experiences boom periods in times of societal concerns regarding violence, arguably because it often acts as young children’s first exposure to violence and it’s consequences.  There are other crossovers between horror and wrestling – largely the presentation and links with rock music, but also that both are seen as having audiences who are ‘duped’ or infantilised.

This is not to say that all horror is of quality and undoubtedly, there are problems within the genre.  Stephen King has also drawn attention to the fact that because horror is often cheap to get into, it attracts ‘con-men’, who are eager to make money swiftly without really worrying about the quality of the work they put out.  Certainly, there are also problems of low-level genre favourites being venerated, not because their work is of a consistently high-quality, but because they have dedicated themselves to the genre.  The term ‘Scream Queen’ attributed to women with an involvement in horror has previously been seen to have been diluted through it’s over-application.  Originally a marker of women who had made an interesting mark on the genre, the term now, it seems to me, is self-adopted by many and has lost considerable value.  The same can be said for male film-makers, who trade on their own fandom to identify with other fans, gaining a following based on how similar they are to other fans, rather than the quality of their work.  This is not intended as an especially scathing criticism – it takes bravery to put any art out into the world and it would be unfair to entirely trash the micro-budget scene.

Most importantly, the fact remains that we do not need to trash some elements of culture in order to bolster our own.  We can enjoy horror like The Babadook alongside offerings from Troma (as a very vague example – no value judgment intended).  It is obvious that the ‘elevated’ horror label comes from critics and viewers perhaps unaccustomed to the full scale of the genre.  Certainly, genre festivals are constantly sourcing and broadcasting indie films which, free from the constraints of ‘safe’ mainstream studios are producing different kinds of films with new perspectives.  However, when it comes time for those films to reach wider audiences, we get hyperbole, ‘the scariest movie ever’ and other bluster which can only disappoint a significant section of the eventual audience.  As already mentioned, fear is so subjective, and no film-maker can expect to hit every mark and so setting up a film as ‘the scariest ever’ or ‘the smartest’ often acts as a moth to a flame for contrarians.

Moving forward, it seems that we are set to continue with these kind of comparisons.  The recent hype surrounding Sorry to Bother You, aligns the film to the success of Get Out, showing the shorthand used in advertising new films on the back of older, successful ones.  I’d also acknowledge that as a very part-time, unqualified, unskilled reviewer, I too often pitch a film as being Film A meets Film B, when actually there is far more to it.  It is an easy (and therefore lazy) way of explaining to potential audiences if they might enjoy a film, but it does away with more considered, in-depth explorations of films.  It is time for more considered evaluations of films, regardless of where they may lie on the art to trash scale.

Equally, as we enter more and more politically tumultuous times, now is the time for horror to shine and introduce a new body of critically-appreciated and crowd-pleasing films which will become genre gems.  It is a time to celebrate the kinds of conversations that horror can not only contribute to, but often start.  The First Purge has offered an outwardly political film and the development of a television series shows that there is an appetite for the reflection of an increasingly divided society.  However, some viewers have expressed concern at overtly political films disrupting the ability to see a film as entertainment.  With cinema prices so high, that’s somewhat understandable, especially if the ideologies expressed in the film do not align with your own.  Horror, with it’s roots in transgressions and transferring current concerns into monsters and more allegorical methods allows for the exploration of issues without outwardly naming them.

The only barrier to successful horror seems to be marketing which is poorly aligned to the finished product and the continued perception that horror is not art.  The timing is right for a total resurgence, supported by genre masters, newcomers and established current filmmakers.  I look forward to the opportunity for the genre to show its depth and relevance.  Of course, this also involves the support of new voices, technologies and other methods – most of which are already being supported by the film festival circuit.  The future is bright for the genre, wherever it lies on the low-to-high art spectrum.

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