Art vs Trash: Why "Elevated Horror" Doesn't Work As Well as Junk Horror
Much like my ode to Not-Christmas Christmas movies, this piece starts with a confession. A confession that the younger and considerably more pretentious version of myself is not going to like: I’m not into “elevated” horror movies. I had thought this was what I wanted; my entire movie-watching life, this was what I yearned for. Horror movies have always been my favorite, and I devoured them from the time my parents let me get an adult library card to the present day. From the trashy to intelligent, I loved them all. But having noticed the general attitude towards horror movies–the accord that they were somehow “less than”–I spent a lot of time wishing for the day when horror movies were treated with the same respect and funding (especially funding) of period pieces, biopics, and white savior stories. “Imagine,” I’d say to my bored-but-too-polite-to-tell-my-high-ass-to-stop-speaking friends, “a horror movie with the resources of The Blind Side behind it. Wouldn’t that be something else?!”
If this was a movie, right here there’d be a smash cut to me being underwhelmed with nearly every “elevated” offering I’m currently presented with. I was onboard with The Babadook and its Iranian counterpart Under the Shadow, hyped about but less than happy with Hereditary, and downright disappointed with 2018’s Suspiria. After all this time of dreaming about a world where horror was taken seriously, I couldn’t believe how many times I sat through immaculately crafted, impeccably scored scary movies that made me roll my eyes. How could this be? How could I get exactly what I wanted and be so disenchanted by it all? Was perhaps “I just don’t know what I want” truly the moral of the story here?
I began to question why these movies weren’t connecting with me. For each movie, I came up with an individual reason. Hereditary was easy enough; I often struggle to feel fear for characters that exist from start to finish in such misery. It’s the same reason I was unmoved by The Revenant. They all seem so unhappy right from the get-go that it was hard for me to be concerned for their safety. I don’t mean that in a heartless way as much as I mean that I’d rather be dead than be any of the people in that movie. So for me, knowing that’s where it’s all going to end up anyway kind of flat lines the whole viewing process. Suspiria felt like it was trying too hard and going too far to make something grandiose when the original was a movie entirely focused on beautiful gore. Then something clicked in my head: maybe horror needs to be scraped together and jerry-rigged. Maybe horror with too much money behind it just becomes masturbation.
Horror has always been an exploration of our fears, be they conscious, subconscious, or deeply unconscious. It is something that appeals to base instincts, and satisfies them as much as it churns them up. There’s a reason horror writers and filmmakers are often pleasant, happy people. When you delve into your fears, you’re able to release them; you find a catharsis for something we’re told can’t be undone. Creating horror is like staring into the sun and coming away with perfect vision. Being able to think on and then craft your fears opens up space in your brain where the animal survival instinct reigns supreme. It’s yoga for the primordial parts of us. (Which I guess is also just yoga but then I’d lose my metaphor so hush.)
When something is so directly tied to our lower instincts, it can be hard to pretty it up. Horror can be made beautiful through the magic of filmmaking (because in many case filmmaking is about making things beautiful), but when the aesthetics override the scare factor, that which gives us goosebumps gets lost. In order to work, horror still needs to hit on some visceral level. It needs to activate the part of our brain that constantly ticks away with anxiety and concern; a part of the brain that is as much human as it is animal. Each generation of horror has overarching themes that remind us what nascent neurosis were starting to bubble up: the fear of the atomic age, the fear of loss of individuality, the dissipation of control, the inherent chaos of life. The modern age has more than its share of anxieties to choose from, and what I do love about the “elevated” horror movies is that many of them function on metaphors. They work because we accept that we are not just watching a monster or a stalker but an allegory for something we face in our lives. Where horror movies from other eras (especially before the horror bloom of the seventies) largely made audiences guess at a deeper meaning, new-age horror movies trust the viewer enough to introduce a more symbolic premise outright.
Here’s where I’d like to pause on my musings (you can call them ramblings, but I call them musings) and address an issue about the term “elevated” horror in general. For starters, there have been decades of excellent horror movies that weren’t just cheap slasher flicks or poorly made creature features. The seventies boasts a bevy of well-made and expertly crafted horror movies. Some are heartbreaking like Don’t Look Now; some are startling like The Sentinel. The George C. Scott movie The Changeling could easily slide into the current day selection without any question. The idea of horror only now being “elevated” seems to come from the view of horror that existed in the late eighties/early nineties. Scream is famous for reviving the horror genre after a decade of explotative releases. In fact, I would say that if we really want to use the term “elevated,” we should apply it to that film. Scream is well-written, well-acted, clever, has a great soundtrack including an original score. Plus it’s downright scary. “Elevated” horror didn’t start five years ago or ten years ago, it has just fluctuated through time.
Recently, I went to go see the horror movie The Curse of La Llorona (2019). The reviews for it were less than kind, but it was $5 Tuesdays at a theater near me and I’ve got a lot of time on my hands so I figured, “what the hell?” Now, this is in no way a flawless movie, and the reliance on jumpscares was fatiguing to say the least. One of the best elements of “elevated” horror is that jumpscares are less the bread and butter of the genre and more a well-placed encoutrement. La Llorona would have been chilling had it cut back on the “quiet quiet bang!” scares (as my online crush Mark Kermode from the BBC calls them) and focused on the ambience scares it had. One scene in the middle of the film where Linda Cardellini’s character is walking cautiously through her house following phantom noises is perfectly tense and terrifying.
Throughout the whole movie, I couldn’t help but feel like I was more engaged and freaked out with this poorly reviewed offering than I was through Hereditary. I began to think about how many trashy horror movies had really frightened me while 2018’s Suspiria didn’t even cause a tremor of fear. Why is it that films made without the keen eye of an award-winning director or with less substance to a script are what gets my goat? Hadn’t I wanted money and prestige behind my favorite genre? Wasn’t my hope, while growing up and watching junk like Puppet Master and Popcorn, that I’d see a day where horror movies were respected and viewed as the art I thought they were?
Modern “elevated” horror movies just don’t hit me where it counts: in my base instincts. They certainly are something to look at, and when I compare the demon bride spirit of La Llorona to imagery in the more prestigious horror movies, it’s clear to see where the money has gone. The images from the cheaper, more churned-out horror movies don’t have the same visual panache–there’s nothing nearly as beautiful as, say, the mirrored room scene in Suspiria. But still, they stick with me more. I remember them and am haunted by them while much of “elevated” horror rolls right off my back. These cheap, junky, often times made-for-the-teenage-audience films know how to freak me out, and I’m not totally sure why.
The real moral of the story, dear reader, is that I may always love trash more than high art. With this, I am fine.