A Pretentious Evil
The trailer for Robert Eggers third film, The Northman, was released December 20th 2021, and once again I saw the irksome words “prestige brand” used to describe his work. I couldn’t help but think about the state of horror today, or should I say, horror fandom. Critical acclaim for horror is sporadic at best, much to the dismay and outrage of many of us beloved horror fans. Its occasional nod of acceptance has had minimal impact on the genre as a whole because critics often relabel horror in order for it to be deemed acceptable for the general audience. Jordan Peele’s debut Get Out (2017) was branded as a "social thriller"; Parasite (2019) was helmed as a “black comedy”; The Shape of Water (2017) was described as a “fantasy romance”; and Silence of the Lambs (1991)? It was redefined as a “psychological thriller”. Reclassifying these films hide their genre foundations to then make them worthy of critical acclaim. Horror, a genre that has been around for over a century, can’t truly get the recognition it deserves if critics, journalists and the Academy continue to dismiss and shame it. Historically, and even currently, horror is considered a “low brow” form of entertainment created purely for thrills and chills, rarely lacking any importance in cinema. But what also doesn’t help is the constant creation of new, pretentious, and unnecessary, labels for horror, something we have seen mumblings of since the 2010s.
The terms “post-horror”, “prestige horror”, and “elevated-horror”, have done damage to a genre that has provided social commentary since the early 1900s. Throughout social media, elitism, gatekeeping, and moral superiority are gaining momentum through the constant usage of these terms. Case in point, the mention that Eggers is a “prestige brand” on Twitter. The rebranding of horror makes the classics, indie releases, and numerous other projects seemingly null and void in a world where we can’t call a horror movie a horror movie. It does more harm than good for a genre that deserves respect. The films that are usually included in these new, pretentious terms are A Ghost Story (2017), It Follows (2014), The Witch (2015), and Hereditary (2018). Films that often come from the hands of men like Ari Aster (that of which I discussed in a previous piece). And though these films are not always straight up horror movies as they might play with horror conventions, they do, however, open the doorway to the world of the genre film for people that might not be willing to watch them otherwise. Another side effect of these labels is that they can turn people away from watching spectacular films because there is a haughty attitude surrounding them and their production companies like A24 (The Lighthouse, Under the Skin, Midsommar). There are no winners in this game of sideswiping horror.
Some newcomers might be surprised to hear that many big name actors, directors and writers, started in the horror genre. Especially in a time where it was even more frowned upon as being “low brow” cinema. For example, actors like Paul Rudd in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980) and Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun (1993). And directors J.J Abrams (Nightbeast), James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet), and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) cut their teeth in horror. Some of these people embrace their genre roots, but most sadly have not. Their origins in genre can be seen as embarrassing, since it isn’t a “high caliber”, “serious” or “prestigious” area of film. Horror, in any form, is not shameful. But, I bet that these people would return to the genre if it was a film regarded as anything BUT horror. With John Krasinski’s genre debut A Quiet Place (2018), he hesitated to call it a horror movie, but thought of it as more of a movie about family, and an allegory on parenthood. You can also see this genre film being labeled as a “thriller”.
But what about indie films? The unsung heroes of the horror genre? The underseen, underrated, and unloved outings that the mainstream might not have heard of? Films like Saint Maud (2019), Bit (2019), Cam (2018), Gwen (2018), Bliss (2019) and Possessor (2020) are well developed, well crafted, well acted films with some written and directed by a woman (Saint Maud), features a trans lead (Bit), or is Canadian produced (Possessor). Those deep into the horror genre might be familiar with these films, but often these gems are missed because they are not from well known directors, do not include an all star cast, or are not considered “elevated”. Where are the praises for these films? Where are the fancy new labels? Is it because they embrace horror fully which then makes them hard to sell to the mainstream audience?
There are independent production companies making fantastic genre fare on lower budgets than the ones you are going to see in theater like Spectrevision (A Girl Who Walks Alone at Night), IFC Midnight (The Devil’s Candy), and Dark Sky Films (House of the Devil). There are also distribution companies who are responsible for increasing accessibility of indie films to fans like Canadian distributor Raven Banner (Tigers are not Afraid) and Black Fawn (The Ranger). Black Fawn also produces their own films (Bite). Not to mention long time classic companies, Troma and Full Moon, with Vinegar Syndrome helming the release of cult genre films. These people live and breathe horror; they have a deep love and adoration for the genre and (seem) to not be in it for the money (but of course, money is helpful!). Indie creators are passionate about their work in horror and are active in the community, supporting others whenever they can. They can be incredibly accessible and down to earth, and so rarely driven by ego or fame.
With the origins of horror being in silent films and the era of German Expressionism in the 1920s, horror in its veins is a genre of self expression, a dark artform, and a commentary on life. So when did we become so pretentious? When did being a snob become acceptable? And this isn’t just coming from journalists or film critics, it can be seen throughout the community. Maybe it stems from people only seeing big budget theater films, and less of those playing in festivals. Is a film successful if it tops the box office? If it reaches a lot of people? Does it make it inherently more valuable?
If a horror film doesn’t live up to the expectations of the creators that people have placed on a pedestal - Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, etc. - they will inevitably “fail”. Their product is deemed garbage (or simply not even worth seeking out) if you don’t have a $60 million budget (the estimated budget of The Northman) or star studded cast. These are impossible standards to live up to. I feel for the struggling filmmakers out there who are desperately trying to get their art made in a world that is becoming more and more about slick production and being seen as “prestige”. Prestige is based solely on a perception of quality, so those using contentious terms like “elevated” and “post” horror, are doomed to harm the genre and community.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvMStgX1oyc - interview with John Krasinski