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Can Horror Movies Be Prestigious?

‘Hereditary’ is the latest example of an “elevated” horror movie that has found an audience. After the success of ‘Get Out’ and ‘A Quiet Place,’ what do these movies mean for the future of the genre?

Spoiler alert

When Jordan Peele’s Get Out was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it felt like the ultimate recalibration of contemporary horror’s cultural status. With its trenchant commentary on post-Obama American race relations, and tight orchestration of script, cast, and cinematography, Get Out was praised across the board (the audience polling group CinemaScore even gave it an A-). In some respects, Get Out was only incidentally a horror film. And this is how it was reviewed: siphoning the DNA of the horror genre, but “elevating” past any recognizable shape of the lowbrow form. Peele qualified his debut feature film and described Get Out as a “social thriller.” It didn’t need the qualification. Horror has always been—and finds its roots in—social critique. Then again, Get Out did not win Best Picture.

So can horror be prestigious? The genre, which is usually associated with provoking the body instead of the mind, has long been held as marginal. Even in the context of popular culture, horror is perpetually ranked among its lowest forms, frequently grouped as interchangeable with torture, porn, torture porn, etc. American horror films in particular follow an independent, DIY, low-budget tradition that often encourages greater experimentation and looser aesthetic standards. To love horror, then, is inevitably to love the underground and lowbrow—to be a fan often by way of a cult. And though the odd horror film, like Get Out, will sometimes make it onto the awards circuit, the genre has largely remained subversive because of its ongoing resistance to mainstream appropriation. Or, at least so it has seemed.

The past few years have seen what we might call a rise in “elevated horror”—a film-writing phrase that began to gain traction in 2014, the same year that gave us Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The genre thrives on archetypes and categories—the slasher, rape-revenge, occult, possession, monster, torture, exploitation, or zombie film, to name a few—but Kent and Amirpour modeled some striking twists on the old formulas. While both of these women’s films were produced and distributed in independent contexts (Kent and Amirpour each engaged crowdfunding for their projects), The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night also eventually made it into both art house and commercial circles. They not only garnered relatively lucrative box-office returns, but also earned a status as “horror” that was not quite like the rest. Whereas The Babadook created a monster figure that was at once villain, baby, pet, father figure, and, as more recently suggested, queer icon, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night remixed the genre to give us, per its press release, “the first Iranian vampire Western.”

Is there something aesthetically distinct about “elevated horror” that sets it apart from all other iterations? Or does any horror film become automatically prestigious when it enters the mainstream by way of critical acclaim? If we listen to Carol Clover, the feminist film scholar who essentially legitimized horror films as an object of academic study, established highbrow culture is perpetually appropriating the radical and messy aspects of the lowbrow. To use Clover’s famous example, the horror convention of the “final girl” is born in low-budget worlds, but subsequently remade into the “female avenger” or “feminist hero” of more commercial channels. If this has always been the fate of horror, then how and why would the most recent wave of prestige horror be different?

One possibility is that lowbrow genres are simply highbrow again—a trend we can see not just in Hollywood’s “elevated” superhero films (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok), but in literary genre fiction as well (Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan). Given that the contemporary cultural production machine is in total overdrive anyway, why not double down on our trusty faves—our most formulaic genres—in order to “make it new”? Or, could it be that with the globalization of the film industry, the stylization of other national horror films is finally coming to work upon American horror? (Until recently, I largely associated “prestige” horror with Japan, Korea, Italian giallo, and, you know, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.) Maybe the rise of prestige horror is just the internationalization of style. Or—and this is not a leading question—does horror simply get at something about our current moment that other genres might fail to?

Billed as horror but praised as high art, Ari Aster’s recent feature debut Hereditary brings these questions once again to the fore. Distributed by indie studio A24, Hereditary was released last Friday and has since brought in a domestic box office total of nearly $20 million. Alongside its unexpected commercial success, the film also immediately garnered critical acclaim for its aesthetic precision and psychological and emotional depth, as well as, of course, its capacity to scare. In interviews, however, Aster describes how he pitched Hereditary not exactly as horror, but “as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” The movie tracks the disintegration of a nuclear family unit (a mom, a dad, a son, a daughter, and a dog), which we understand as precipitated by both supernatural sources and very, very human impulses.

One of the most terrifying aspects of Hereditary is its commitment to excavating the deep perversions of what we might otherwise call everyday domestic life. And besides a few truly disturbing images that hew fairly close to formulaic horror (dismembered and decaying bodies, crawling insects, ghosts, etc.), we might say that the “true horror” of Hereditary is that of motherhood or, indeed, female reproduction itself. This might also be why—despite strong box office and critical acclaim—Hereditary’s CinemaScore sits at a dismal D+. For while Aster’s film seeks to fuse psychodrama with paranormal activity, the overall effect is less one of rising bodily horror than an ongoing sense of unease. Similar to other art-house horror films such as The Witch and It Comes at Night (A24 projects that received a C- and D on CinemaScore, respectively), Hereditary is more atmosphere than jump scare. It gives us dread and, oftentimes, genuine sorrow, but without the adrenaline or climactic encounters that horror fans have come to expect.

Instead, prestige horror such as Hereditary, The Witch, It Comes at Night, The Babadook, and A Quiet Place all focus on the small, the enclosed, the domestic. The protagonist and mother figure in Hereditary (played by a wide-eyed Toni Collette) works as a miniaturist—spending her days crafting Lilliputian models of what appear to be scenes from her life (her mother’s funeral, her own family home, the birth, as well as later, the death of her daughter). And as Aster has noted, the film set of Hereditary echoes this logic, in being almost entirely built up from models. Both the world of and in Hereditary suggests that all the materials for horror can be found right inside our homes. This is partly because our own small worlds are decaying from within—held precariously in, as Collette’s character so often does with her miniatures, the palm of our hands.

Against the tide of internal disintegration, these horror films often reach out to recognizable forms of art. Collette’s painful and exacting external rendering of what are otherwise moments of pure trauma suggest that one way we might find order in our lives is through aesthetic control. This is paralleled in A Quiet Place, which includes much-discussed bohemian-chic interiors that illustrate how the right floral print dress or perfect clawfoot bathtub might just keep the end of the world at bay. The Witch takes a more historical view of the same look, where the austerity of early American Puritanism translates into a hushed palette of blush linens and candle-lit scenes. It Comes at Night centers around two families who hide from the threat of a contagious disease inside a cabin in the woods, resulting in a film focused intimately on the labor of maintaining a life always indoors. The cabin in It Comes at Night grows eerie not because it is underpopulated or underdecorated, however, but because it feels too full of both life and art. Early on in the film, the camera pans across a large Bruegel oil painting representing the plague, and later on we see hallways of framed photographs. The film’s red door is perhaps its most striking aesthetic choice, and it resembles a Rothko abstraction.

What is the relationship between the status of art in these horror films and the critical reception of these films as artistic horror? While it seems intuitive that a more aestheticized film set might render a more aesthetically appreciative review, this is not to say that these films are not still critical of their bourgeois interiors. Art in horror rarely comes unperverted.

Like other so-called prestige horror, Get Out takes place inside an upper middle-class white bourgeois family household. You can’t watch Get Out without noticing the Nancy Meyers-esque lighting and decor of the Armitage country house. Yet, what Peele also does in the film is to render the white estate house not only uncanny, but profoundly and grossly undesirable. (Think of the plush sofas, rugs, tea cups, and mounted deer antlers that all turn demonic as the film goes on.) The success of Get Out is the failure for these traditional signifiers of class prestige and wealth to take hold; that, at the end of the day, one needs to run away from it all simply to survive; and that Peele manages to pose the aesthetics of bourgeois domestic whiteness against the very survival of America’s black population is one of its most piercing revelations.

Prestige horror isn’t a measure of whether a horror film is “good” or “bad” so much as it is a broader indicator of how horror as a lowbrow genre is recognized to have the same cultural capital as other, more highbrow forms. What Get Out and, in perhaps a more modest form, films like Hereditary manage to do is to yoke the cultural capital of prestige with its racialized aesthetic trappings. Given that more traditional mainstream horror films remain one of Hollywood’s most lucrative genres, the growing cultural recognition of horror as an art form with political power seems all the more necessary. The rising awareness of horror as a genre to be read suggests that, in the future, more critics might take so-called “commercial” horror seriously as well. What can James Wan’s outrageously successful Saw franchise, for instance, tell us about the endless serialization of competitive violence in our contemporary moment? What would the death drive in Hereditary look like if we posed it against the nihilistic ending of The Cabin in the Woods?

Whereas other prestige genres such as the Western or war film often refer us back to history, horror—in its implicit appeal to immediacy and shock—constantly points us to the present. In some ways, the low CinemaScore ratings of “elevated horror” might be right in maintaining loyalty to horror’s independent roots. Though, at the same time, the rise of horror as an increasingly accepted generic art is not necessarily a bad thing either. That’s especially true if it means encouraging those who previously did not think themselves horror viewers to see films—and perhaps their own world—in a new way.

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate living in Oakland.