The State of Horror (and "Prestige Horror") Cinema in 2019: A Paste Discussion

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The State of Horror (and "Prestige Horror") Cinema in 2019: A <i>Paste</i> Discussion

Ken: Jim, record-high global temperatures or not, it is once again autumn. Although it’s my favorite time of year for a lot of reasons, I’m sure you’ll agree that the return of horror films to the pop-cultural forefront is one of the most welcome things about fall. And so this year, I’m glad you’re joining me in looking back on the state of the genre over the past few years. Would you agree, Jim, that we’re in one of the most prolific periods for horror films? Because it really seems to me like there’s a scary movie for pretty much everyone nowadays.

Jim: For a handful of years now, we’ve been in a sustained period of horror movie volume, eclecticism, mass appeal and profitability, the likes of which the genre has rarely seen. We’ve had box office records shattered, horror films such as Get Out nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and too many great indie horror flicks to count. At the same time, horror has also become a major force on the small screen, powering successful series on network TV, cable networks and streaming services. I think it’s safe to say that horror as a whole, and as a general concept, is currently in one of its biggest boom periods ever.

Ken: I’ve been saying that horror seems to really be positioning itself as the other type of tentpole film. On the one hand, you have hyped superhero or action franchises that are all expected to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. There now seems to be an expectation, especially coming off the backs of wild success stories like It and Get Out, that a horror movie with a slick production can expect to be a reliable box office earner as well. I do want to start there, at the top, as we talk about what this means for moviegoers. You memorably wrote that you were a bit bemused at how surprised everybody was when It: Chapter One performed so well, when everything about how well it was made should’ve told people it was going to be a hit. Are we seeing studios chasing the next It now, do you think?

Jim: Absolutely. As soon as the box office returns for It started coming in, back in 2017, a ton of other Stephen King adaptations went into production, that seemingly being the quickest way to profit off this reignited interest in one of America’s most bankable authors. We likely wouldn’t have gotten stuff like Hulu’s Castle Rock, or the Pet Sematary remake without it. And it’s hard to imagine someone would have wanted to throw quite as much money and promotion at Doctor Sleep before they saw It making $700 MILLION worldwide.

Here’s the thing, though: Horror is popular, and horror has almost always been popular. As I went into a bit more depth on in my ongoing Century of Terror project here at Paste, since 1920 there’s almost always been a steady flow of horror cinema, and it’s almost always been one of the most bankable genres. Only in small little stretches, like 1936-1938, and 1947-1952 was there a true lack of horror films in cinemas. At this point, there’s been an almost totally uninterrupted flow of them for almost 70 years.

Ken: What feels different to me, though, is that there seems to be a lot of variety. In the past, it seemed like you had about as much indie horror as there’s always been, but now we’re seeing the positioning of the films as, and I hate to use this word, “prestige” horror. A24’s offerings, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us are what I’m thinking of. As you point out, TV is hopping on the bandwagon. And then we’ve got these (very uneven in quality but heavily marketed) King adaptations. Is my impression wrong here, though?

Jim: I don’t know if there’s been a numerical increase in indie or “arthouse” horror offerings, as it were, but the genre is attracting auteur types in recent years who are getting a lot of attention for their releases, and this in turn puts a bigger spotlight on horror as a genre. I think it might be the happy medium wherein you can make an artistically daring film, but still have it attended at least moderately by the multiplex crowd, as long as it looks “scary.” Horror has always served as a launching pad for new directorial talent for this reason.

The entire idea of “prestige horror” or “elevated horror,” though, is a bit of a tricky one. Have you seen many of these films? Either of Ari Aster’s movies? Or the remake of Suspiria, or things like It Comes at Night?

comes-at-night-inset.jpg Films like It Comes at Night feature cerebral drama with a splash of horror.

Ken: I missed Suspiria, but I’ve seen both of Aster’s: Those would be Hereditary and Midsommar, both of which I thought were great. They’re considered horror, but sometimes I think it’s almost wrong to call them that. They are certainly scary and have prominent horror elements, but is it almost better to call them thrillers? Or very graphic dramas?

Jim: I actually would disagree—I think that both of them are indisputably “horror movies,” and I don’t think you can really call them anything else. Their objective is to horrify their audience, which they both do rather effectively. They are simultaneously very heavy dramas, however, and feature some outstanding performances, and the better the performances in a film, the less critics (and sometimes audiences) want to label a movie as horror. It all goes back to that knee-jerk notion that horror films are automatically low-brow and undeserving of awards.

Ken: That’s certainly a prejudice I’ve noted.

Jim: And the likes of Ari Aster contribute to this themselves, because he’ll sometimes imply that he doesn’t think of a film like Hereditary as “horror,” presumably because he wants to be taken seriously as an artist. But it’s a film about a kid dealing with horrendous guilt and simultaneously being possessed by a demon, and later on includes his floating, headless mother. I mean, come on. It’s a horror movie. I don’t think you put jump scares in a drama. But then again, there are also people who argue that Alien isn’t a horror film, or The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a horror film.

Ken: Your points are well taken. In a similar vein, you’ve got Jordan Peele, who I think seems to wear the label “horror” with much more pride.

Jim: I would like to think that Peele has a bit more of a Spielbergian populist streak in him, and maybe a bit less artistic pretension than Ari Aster. He’s been in the industry far longer, and as a comedian, you’d think he probably places a bit more importance in the value of film as “entertainment” in addition to art. He’s managed to very successfully combine the two, within horror.

Ken: I heard somebody, and it may have been Peele himself, refer to this subgenre as a “social thriller,” that is: horror that drills down on some kind of societal anxiety. Get Out was obviously focused on racism, Us on broader ideas of disenfranchisement, though Peele said he felt Us was more straight-up horror. Have you encountered any other perhaps less well-known horror films recently that are taking a crack at this angle? I’m unaware of anybody even trying to seize onto this.

Jim: It’s not quite as easy to quickly and efficiently exploit this sort of trend without looking like a hack, I would think. At the same time, though, a term like “social thriller” seems totally unnecessary to me, and I don’t appreciate the implication that these types of topics were not something horror could (and did) tackle at any point in the past. Look at George Romero, for god’s sake. Night of the Living Dead has been embraced for its progressive racial themes. Dawn of the Dead handles more themes of race, class and consumerism. This stuff was always there in horror. If anything, it feels like it’s the audiences and critics who are more ready now to accept that the genre can be an active vehicle for delivering a message.

Ken: It’s very interesting you say that. We spoke a bit during our regular Bad Movie Diaries feature about superhero movies, and you expressed to me the thought that audiences in the 2010s have become much more receptive to the idea of nerdier fare. People have drawn a line from that to the popularity of Game of Thrones. I wonder if there’s a similar social trend toward people being more receptive to and more willing to take horror seriously from a textual standpoint. Jim, are we witnessing a general increase in film literacy?

Jim: Hmmm, now that is interesting. Perhaps we are, which would explain why something like The Cabin in the Woods feels much better known and more beloved now than it was upon initial release. On the other hand, there’s still plenty of mindless horror in the multiplexes. Even shitty films are often making BANK, right now. The first 47 Meters Down movie in 2017 is the exact sort of direct-to-video shark movie that has been produced every year since Jaws in 1975, and it made $63 million on a budget of $5 million. This year, The Curse of La Llarona was savaged by critics, but that didn’t stop it from making $122 million on a $9 million budget. That’s part of what makes horror so attractive to studios, of course—it’s very resilient to critical drubbing, and very low-budget movies with few bankable stars can make $100 million if the trailers and marketing are good.

Ken: I think there’s almost an expectation on the part of audiences that a horror movie will be cheesy in cases like Llorona or any of those Conjuring-adjacent movies. (The Nun was straight-up bad and pretty boring, and the Creepypasta cash-in Slender Man was just a mess.) I think in a lot of ways this stuff is serving different audiences: those who can always be relied on to fill seats for a creature feature, as opposed to Peele and Aster, who seem to be drawing in a lot of folks less-well-versed in the genre but perhaps now more open to it.

curse-of-la-llarona-inset.jpg This is what $122 million at the box office looks like.

Jim: Both demographics are being well served right now. And of course, part of the reason why is that we have so many avenues for consuming media now. Netflix has released copious numbers of original horror features, and a number of them such as the stuff from Mike Flanagan (Hush, Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House) have been pretty darn good. Shudder is out there as a horror-specific streamer, greenlighting its own original series now like the Creepshow revival that just premiered. There’s no shortage of streaming services for indie horror films to land on, and that only makes producing them more sensible.

Ken: Because I’m a dork, I always wonder what’s fueling these broader success stories. These new avenues are clearly opening up because people’s wallets are. And horror movies are about people’s anxieties. As you point out, Jim, classics of the genre have always had commentary in their DNA. Are we just more scared now in general? Or more disturbed by the world around us?

Jim: Or more desensitized, and therefore less afraid to dip our toes into the spooky stuff. I dunno, Ken. You could make the argument from any number of angles, and I lack the sociology degree to try. But we clearly love being scared. I’m sure it helps that there doesn’t seem to be any particular societal blowback toward horror right now—even extreme horror. There’s been a few of those; I would say the most recent one was in the 2000s when we had the wave of films being decried as “torture porn.” That was stuff like the Saw sequels, Hostel and Wolf Creek.

Ken: Even then it really seemed muted—distaste, rather than outright moral panic. These days you really don’t see as much scolding over subject matter as you do the occasional boycott over a film’s political leanings. The new Joker is drawing criticism, for instance, but I can’t recall anybody wailing about pulling it from theaters.

Jim: I would say that the greatest danger to the genre at any given time is usually burnout, to be honest. It happened in the late 1940s after a few decades of monster and “mad doctor” movies, and audiences just seemed to get tired of it. And it happened again in the early 1990s, after the slasher boom had jumped the shark and eroded enthusiasm in horror as a whole as a result. But the genre always recovered within a few years, and I’m not seeing anything right now that would lead to the horror genre trending downhill. If there wasn’t a horror recession after the late 2000s obsession with found footage, it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be one now.

Ken: It does seem like if any of these various trends should stumble, it’s not going to cause the money men to worry about any of the others. If I had to bet on any of these bubbles bursting, though, it’d have to be the ongoing push for bigger-budget, wide-release Stephen King adaptations. I’m kind of sorry I think that, but as I’ve talked about before, the guy’s film adaptations have been hit or miss since he became a phenomenon. Even within the same continuous story! I was so, so let down by It: Chapter Two, Jim.

Let’s talk about it, in fact, as I think it’s probably the most high-profile and high-budget horror film this year. Starting with the fact it just drags.

Jim: I shared at least some of your frustration with that one. I agree with you that it in no way was able to justify an almost three-hour runtime. There’s so much dross in the middle, during the portion when they’re all looking for individual talismans like it’s a videogame fetch/retrieval quest. I hate when horror movies set up in advance that each character will have an individual scare, and we know there’s no actual danger in any of them for plot armor purposes. Even if you hadn’t read It, it would steal a lot of the tension of those scenes.

Ken: Not having the read the book, I know that there are vestigial things in there that clearly were kept in when they don’t make much sense for the movie. The murderous bully who escapes from the mental asylum, for instance, is a complete waste of time in this movie. He gets curb-stomped after contributing basically nothing to the movie’s themes. And I know there’s an expectation that a movie changes up the ending a little bit, and I know that the aggressive weirdness of King’s ideas made the final battle of this one really hard to explain, but they had to do something better than just yelling at the clown-beast until they could beat it to death.

bowers-it-chapter-2-inset.jpg “Vestigial” Henry Bowers.

Jim: I will say, I did like the final, pathetic killing of It. You almost feel bad for the little guy. It’s cool to see him reduced from being night-omnipotent to being so powerless.

Ken: That was cathartic, and more in keeping with what you want to see at the end of an action movie, I’ll agree. I still feel going fully weird and off-putting is the way to go for King stories. So yeah, 50/50 success rate even within the same franchise, when it comes to King adaptations. I’m not sure about Doctor Sleep, either.

Jim: Well, it’s all conjecture as far as that goes. We’ll just have to see for ourselves, although I get a clear sense, without having read the novel, that they’re going to maximize the Shining connections for the big screen as much as they possibly can. Regardless: How will you be celebrating the Halloween season in October? Any horror films you’re planning to queue up?

Ken: I will see what the consensus on Doctor Sleep is before diving in. Countdown looks delightfully stupid, but maybe not one I’ll spend money at the theater. I know it was out earlier this month but I want to find an opportunity to see 3 from Hell to get an update on how Rob Zombie’s sensibilities are evolving: I kinda hated House of 1,000 Corpses and kinda loved The Lords of Salem. What’s on your plate?

Jim: Too much to even state effectively. I’ve still got more viewing to do as I head into the last portion of my Century of Terror project, and I’m checking off some old horror anthologies for a list of those as well. And then there’s all of the Halloween season staples to rewatch, like my beloved Trick ‘r Treat. It’s going to be a busy, bloody month.

Ken: We’re all waiting with baited breath to see what makes your 2019 cut, sir. Happy Halloween until then.

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