Horror film fans and creators, myself included, generally delight in turning people on to the much-maligned genre. But as high-profile projects such as “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place” — which just made $50 million domestically in its first weekend — reach mainstream audiences and awards voting bodies, we’ve been watching through our fingers this sudden widespread embrace of the macabre. Can prestige filmmakers, and their Hollywood backers, market their horror films to a mainstream audience without alienating already devoted horror fans?
Those fans’ fears would be more assuaged if Hollywood would cease using the qualifier “elevated” to describe new horror releases, as actor-turned-director John Krasinski did when describing the types of films that convinced him a couple years ago that horror was a worthwhile genre to explore. Just last week, Netflix announced it would be releasing an “elevated horror” film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, directed by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”). And I’ll take bets that A24’s Toni Collette-starring summer release “Hereditary” will earn the “elevated” title as well.
“Get Out” earned its “elevated” moniker when critics realized the film was full of frights, as well as cutting social critiques on race and liberalism. So it went from horror to “elevated horror,” and then upgraded to “social thriller” the closer it came to awards season. (Paramount is already billing “A Quiet Place” as a “thriller.”) But the movie’s director and writer, Jordan Peele, still says it’s a horror movie. He did just that when he stopped by a UCLA class to speak on the topic of the “black horror aesthetic.” Not to mention that Peele was very obviously inspired by George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” among other horror films.
Adding “elevated” to a movie’s description seems an attempt to distance the film from its lineage, signaling to contemporary filmgoers that a horror film isn’t a “slasher,” the type of blood-and-gore fare that proliferated from the 1980s through the aughts. But even that subgenre offered more than cheap thrills: It offered roles to then-unknown actors such as Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron, because horror films will make money at the box office whether or not there’s a star attached. It’s one of the few places actors can get their start.
Slashers also trained the next generation of coveted effects artists. For instance, Jim Doyle, who broke ground with chill-inducing effects on “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou,” pioneered what would become the industry-standard fog machine, which earned him a “technical achievement” Academy Award — where horror is most often honored.
The practice of distancing a horror film from this lineage negates the majority of horror history — from “The Phantom Carriage” and “Nosferatu” all the way up to “Insidious: The Last Key,” a film that places a 74-year-old woman in the lead heroine role. Serious cinephiles, though, have always known that horror, including the vilified slasher, has been a driving force for cinematic innovation and experimentation.
Kathryn Bigelow, for one, broke out with the bloody vampire flick “Near Dark” and to this day directs her Oscar-winning dramas with the same lighting and camera techniques she honed then. And “Avatar” helmer James Cameron cut his teeth writing and directing “Piranha Part 2: The Spawning,” having apprenticed under low-budget genre king Roger Corman, along with Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and John Sayles. Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” and Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” all got Oscar nods. All of these directors owe their careers, in part, to the freedom of genre cinema, which allowed them to experiment with writing, camera techniques, makeup and special effects — born from cheap budgets and little oversight — that they carried into mainstream cinema.
And then there’s another Corman protege, the late Jonathan Demme, whose “The Silence of the Lambs” was the only horror movie to win best picture. Funnily enough, writer Ted Tally and the actors describe the movie as a “psychological thriller,” while Demme was adamant that he was making a horror film, inspired as he was by both “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Look close, and you can see elements of both films woven into the production and sound.
At the 90th Academy Awards, horror was honored once again, with Peele’s win for best original screenplay. And Guillermo del Toro won best picture and best director for a romantic monster movie that is at the very least horror-adjacent. The director has been an unflagging proponent of the genre since even before the premiere of his first horror feature, “Cronos” — about an eternal-life contraption that leaves death and destruction in its wake. At this year’s Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, del Toro thanked the audience for giving horror a chance by giving Peele a best screenplay award.
So, with such big names such as Peele and del Toro giving their blessings, what’s the point in studios distancing films and filmmakers from the horror lineage, especially as horror is enjoying such a “moment”?
Horror filmmakers have always been reaching their hardcore fans, but there’s never been a period of history that’s proved to be so fruitful for horror cinema hitting the mainstream, with big breakouts such as “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” “The VVitch,” and “It Comes at Night,” and gems that are just under the radar: Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” Issa Lopez’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge,” Mattie Do’s “Dearest Sister,” Nicolas Pesce’s “The Eyes of My Mother,” Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow,” Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine,” Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution,” Marcin Wrona’s “Demon,” Michael O’Shea’s “The Transfiguration” and Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room.” That list could go on and on.
Although horror fans have little incentive to keep this genre to themselves — and will probably continue to evangelize to anyone who will listen — we fear that with its wave of popularity, horror might become too safe and averse to the experimentation that made it special, when studios left it to its own devices. But history proves that the moribund mavericks will continue finding a way to make their films, whether “elevated” by a studio or not.