Americans can’t bear to let go of our childhood pleasures. So we elevate the way we talk about them.
We call popcorn and chocolate-chip cookies “gourmet,” “small-batch” and “artisanal.” Worn concert tees are now “vintage.” Blue jeans are “designer.” Subconsciously guilty our tastes haven’t changed in decades, we recast our appreciations in self-consciously adult terms.
Like “elevated” horror.
The term started getting thrown around a few years ago, when critics and audiences were thrilling to smart shockers like “Get Out,” “The Witch,” “Hereditary,” “It Follows,” and “Midsommar” — and maybe feeling a little embarrassed by the fact. Aren’t we getting too old to love monster movies? Similarly shy directors helped popularize the new term, some insisting they really hadn’t made horror films at all but “psychodramas.”
And since then, the elevated-horror trend has only picked up speed.
Three prestigious New York cultural institutions — the Museum of Modern Art, Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of the Moving Image — all have highbrow programming this summer dedicated to horror cinema. Arty new films — the creepy “Watcher,” David Cronenberg’s delirious “Crimes of the Future” — are streaming or in theaters. Hot new filmmakers like Jordan Peele have films coming out, too.
But the truth is, there is no “elevated” horror. There never was, and to pretend so only does the entire genre, and its fans, a disservice. There’s merely good horror and bad horror, well-made films and poorly made ones.
I think the overcompensation comes because horror has always been a disrespected genre, its classics seen as over-achievers that somehow rose above their limitations. Nobody ever talks about the “elevated noir” of “Chinatown,” or how “Raging Bull” somehow “transcended” the sports film. They’re not even seen as great genre films. They’re seen as great films, period. Yet horror films still bear this low-brow stigma – and we need to get over it.
In fact, horror films have always drawn some of the most sophisticated talents in the business. Horror films are rooted in dream, not logic; they’re not bound by the same rules as other stories, and that includes artistic ones. Expressionist cinematographers fleeing Hitler’s Germany found a welcome home in ’30s American monster movies, where they could explore wildly angled shots and looming shadows. Avant-garde composers often take on soundtrack gigs; in the ’90s, even Philip Glass did two “Candyman” scores.
It’s why some of cinema’s wildest, most visionary auteurs have always worked in horror. Think of Guillermo del Toro’s unique imagery in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water,” or the extravagantly disruptive drama behind Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In.” Check out any of Cronenberg’s body-image nightmares, or the vertiginous metaphorical mazes of David Lynch. Only horror is big enough to give these artists room to roam.
It’s also why so many terrific performers are working in the genre now. Horror films used to be the first stop for hungry young actresses — or the last one, for desperate veterans. But established performers have come to realize that the wild emotional swings horror provides give them a chance to truly demonstrate their range. Think of Toni Collette’s fabulous work in “Hereditary” as the damaged and damaging mother. Think of Ethan Hawke’s continued success in films like “Sinister,” “The Purge” and the new “The Black Phone.”
They’re not making these films because they have to. It’s because they want to.
But even more than the freedom horror films give to directors, cinematographers, composers and performers, they provide extraordinary license to writers — particularly ones eager to wrestle with complicated or controversial subjects. Because — as Rod Serling proved years ago — once you lure audiences in with the promise of a simple genre story, you can show them things they wouldn’t accept otherwise.
Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” are about mind control and murder — but also race, class, solidarity and exploitation. “The Babadook” is about a terrified child and a small ferocious monster — but also motherhood, grief and loneliness. Chloe Okuno’s new “Watcher” is about a stalker — but also communication, alienation, marriage and the perils of not listening to women. The upcoming “They/Them,” with Kevin Bacon, is a slasher film — but also a pointed attack on homophobia and “conversion therapy.”
There are scarier things in these films than just make-believe monsters.
And honestly, it’s always been that way, as long as there have been horror films. If you saw “Cat People” and didn’t see a movie about female sexuality and foreign stereotypes, if you got through “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” without contemplating our conformist society, if you sat through “Night of the Living Dead” without thinking about America’s fractured families and racial violence … then you weren’t really watching at all.
What needs to be elevated isn’t the horror film. It’s us.
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