By Petr Navovy | Film | May 25, 2023 |
By Petr Navovy | Film | May 25, 2023 |
I’ve been on a hell of a journey over the past year or so. One lined with daggers, axes, and blood—oh so much blood. I could go on, but at this point, I think I’ll go ahead and nip the metaphor in the bud before it runs away with me, and I’ll just get to the point instead: I’m a horror fan now, and it’s great!
For some reason that now seems strange and incomprehensible to me, I was always adamantly against horror (watching it anyway—I did enjoy the occasional book). I think my reasoning went something like: ‘With their reliance on jump scares and other cheap mechanisms of eliciting reaction, horror films seem more like amusement park rides than cinema, and I’m not up for that. I can go to a haunted house at a carnival if that’s the effect I’m after.’ It was an attitude born out of ignorance, as so many of these types of flattening, reductive opinions are, and seeing it obliterated by experience has been its own reward.
The other reward was, of course, the movies themselves. These days I don’t get nearly enough time to watch the amount of films that I would like to, yet despite that, thanks to my partner’s (very contagious) enthusiasm for horror, over the past eighteen or so months I’ve managed to see (deep breath):
Halloween, Hereditary, The Wailing, The Host, It Follows, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, X, Nope, Veneciafrenia, Freaky, Occulus, The Babadook, [Rec], Midsommar, The Shining, The Witch, The Orphanage, You’re Next, Ready Or Not, M3gan, Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Barbarian, Happy Death Day, and Happy Death Day 2U.
There’s a huge spread there, not just of quality, but of style, tone, and intent. What a treat as a film fan, to suddenly have all this opened up to you! Through all that variety, there is that wonderful ‘horror-ness’ common to all the titles that fall into the genre, and something about it becomes very addictive. Learning the tropes and the rhythms comes to be a comfort of sorts, and watching filmmakers play within—and with—the bounds of the genre, sometimes colouring strictly inside the lines, sometimes veering wildly off course to mix in elements of other genres (The Host, Evil Dead 2), is a pleasure and a thrill all its own.
I found Adam Wingard’s 2011 You’re Next to be a particular treat, coming as it did roughly mid-way through my horror journey. Here is a film that in its set up adheres to much of horror convention—unwitting characters brought to a secluded location while unknown to them a lethal danger descends upon them from the outside—only for [SPOILERS] the tables to be turned on the masked home invaders when they discover that one of their intended prey is not the stereotypical shrieking female victim or dumb-as-rocks horror protagonist but instead a creature straight out of their nightmares. Sharni Vinson’s whip-smart queen of deadly improvisation Erin is already one of my favourite horror movie characters of all time. Seeing her snap into action the moment blood is spilled, raw instinct taking over, and then turning the tide so spectacularly, is satisfying to the nth degree. It’s like Home Alone with the danger and violence ramped up to eleven.
There have been numerous studies examining why it is we like to watch horror films so I won’t get into speculating on that here, but for me the combination of thrills, subversion, and aesthetics has proven a potent one indeed. As a heavy metal devotee, the aesthetics part speaks for itself: Horror and heavy metal have been intertwined since the latter’s birth after all. With ‘thrills’ I refer not only to the visceral reaction inherent to the scenarios presented in horror cinema, but to the joy of seeing what formal techniques and innovations each filmmaker brings to table. Whether it’s John Carpenter’s unsettling compositions in Halloween draining daylit suburbia of all life and turning it into a nightmare dreamscape for Michael Myers to stalk, or Ari Aster’s use of colour and mounting tension in Hereditary, it’s been so rewarding seeing these artists play in the sandpit of horror (not with Midsommar, though, I’m sorry to say—I completely saw what that film was going for, and formally it was well executed, but it left me absolutely cold otherwise).
The subversion element is another that’s key to horror, and others have touched on why and charted just how the genre has often provided an outlet for social and political commentary that mainstream cinema will not touch. There’s a whole lot that can be said about the state of things in the language of blood and viscera, and I think that’s glorious. There’s another form of subversion that horror cinema trades in, however, that’s very appealing to me, especially now in the modern day, and that’s the genre’s status within the ecology of the film industry. In an era where the mid-budget film for adults—whether drama or comedy—has dramatically receded, its viability made precarious by the dominance of mega-budget superhero tentpoles, horror has continued to carve out a niche for itself as a platform for inventive filmmakers to tell original, often one-off stories, that grapple with serious issues and that are written for mature audiences to get their teeth into. I mentioned earlier how in my ignorance I used to view horror cinema as equivalent to a cheap amusement ride. That same analogy was used so memorably by the great Martin Scorsese not long ago to describe the big comic book event films that dominate the box office these days. He was right in his assessment; I, on the other hand, was so wrong, and I’m extremely happy that I’ve come to see the error of my ways.