Enough With This ‘Transcending Horror’ Snobbery: It’s Okay To Be a Horror Film!
A Quiet Place is doing rather well for itself. John Krasinski’s latest directorial effort is a high-concept horror story produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes. Much to the surprise of many, it’s become a critical darling and commercial smash, with word-of-mouth so strong that it helped push the movie $100m in two weeks. It almost beat Rampage, but mere mortals cannot tangle with a movie featuring The Rock and a giant gorilla. Meanwhile, Truth or Dare, the latest release from horror maestros Blumhouse, debuted strongly with an $8m opening weekend.
2017 was a good year for horror. Get Out made over 56 times its $4.5m budget at the box office and won Jordan Peele an Oscar. The long awaited big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It made $700m worldwide - more than the latest Transformers movie. The surprisingly enduring Conjuring franchise kept its hot streak running thanks to the $306m brought in by Annabelle: Creation (initial budget: $15m). M. Night Shyamalan made a stirring return to critical glory with Split. Julia Ducournau’s stirring debut Raw sent North American audiences fleeing for a bucket to vomit into.
None of this is new to those who love horror. It’s a genre that consistently brings in big bucks, thanks to typically low budgets, and it’s been a breeding ground for some of cinema’s greatest directors. It’s also not new to see everyone doing whatever they can to distance the horror films they like from, you know, actually being called horror films.
John Krasinski keeps talking about how he doesn’t like horror but A Quiet Place was just such a good story that he had to take it on, thus ensuring plenty of headlines about how the film ‘transcends horror’. We already saw this with It and Get Out, two films that couldn’t have been more definitively horror if Freddy Kruger brought them gift baskets. The Witch was ‘blessed’ with praise for seemingly going above and beyond what its schlocky genre demanded. Last year, a Guardian piece tried to claim that films like It Comes at Night had mutated into its own genre, clumsily titled ‘post-horror’.
People, particularly horror fans, were less outraged than they were exhausted by the inevitability of this conversation once A Quiet Place started to gain traction. The inherent snobbery of it all has escaped nobody: Oh, this film is good, but I think horror is universally bad, so it can’t really be horror in the first place. Problem solved! A lot of times, this mindset comes from people who never watch horror, or view the genre to be nothing but hockey mask wearing killers picking off promiscuous teenagers at the lake.
Steve Rose, the writer of the ‘post-horror’ piece in the Guardian, claims that horror movies, ‘are governed by rules and codes: vampires don’t have reflections; the “final girl” will prevail; the warnings of the gas station attendant/mystical Native American/creepy old woman will go unheeded; the evil will ultimately be defeated, or at least explained, but not in a way that closes off the possibility of a sequel. The rules are our flashlight as we venture into the unknown. But in some respects, they’ve made horror a realm of what Donald Rumsfeld would describe as “known unknowns”.’ This seems to be a problem for him in regards to horror, but what he sees as restrictions can actually be important storytelling structures.
Horror is about exposing humanity’s id and its fears to the masses. It’s about tapping into that rush and seeing how far you can go before it becomes unbearable. The genre’s always done that, and for as long as it’s existed, people have tried to find ways to make it seem worthy enough to garner serious critical consideration. Enough time passed so that the schlocky horror novels of the 18th and 19th century became ‘gothic classics’ that are now too stuffy for many modern audiences. Dracula raised a few eyebrows in its day, with some critics claiming a mere vampire story couldn’t be real literature. It took a couple of decades for critics to roundly agree on the genius of The Shining, both the book and the film.
Horror does have rules (although the ones Rose lays out are questionable at best) but breaking them doesn’t make the story non-horror. Using those tropes accordingly isn’t something that should be viewed as shameful either. Amazing work has been done within the tight parameters of those iconic horror rules. What is The Shining if not the ultimate haunted house story? It’s in the variety of those structures that we find the best storytelling in horror. Think of how many different ways there are to depict vampires and all that those various iterations can stand in for. The ‘final girls’ of the original slasher days have greatly evolved over the decades to encapsulate our greater understandings of female representation in cinema. There’s more to the protagonist of Get Out ignoring his friend’s warnings than the ineptitude that Rose seems to think defines horror’s ensembles.
Those rules shift as much as any genre’s do, but horror is especially unique in the malleable nature of its genre classification. You know a musical when you see it. Pick up a romance novel and you’ll immediately understand it to be a romance novel. Horror is trickier. There are the obvious ones - your teen slashers, your haunted houses, your paranormal frenzies - but dread is more insidious than a mere bundle of tropes. Eraserhead can be categorized as horror, as can Videodrome and Altered States. A large chunk of David Fincher’s Zodiac fits the horror mould. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of horror. The international world alone could turn this idea into a thesis - look at how Korean cinema does horror versus someone like Guillermo del Toro versus Dario Argento, and so on. Perhaps that’s why some critics seem eager to push horror films as far away from the label as possible. They’ve got the freedom to do it so why not?
For some, horror may never escape its inherent schlocky appeal. They have too many memories of spongy fake limbs and bad actresses running half naked down hallways. When they see a horror film they like, they think it must be in spite of its genre, and not because of it. This limits how they discuss said films, and it’s one of the reasons a lot of the conversations around A Quiet Place have been so unfulfilling. If you refuse to see it as horror, you miss out on decades of cultural context that the film perfectly fits into. More than that, it continues to diminish horror as a serious and artistically worthy genre of storytelling. Doing so benefits nobody and reinforces a hell of a lot of snobbery we could all do without. If you liked A Quiet Place and aren’t usually a horror fan, good for you, but let’s not pretend the problem there is the movie.
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