Five years ago, in this paper, I coined a term to describe what I saw as a new trend in horror movies: “post-horror”. bad idea. To me, the term had a nice ring to it – a bit like “postmodern”. And in the same way postmodern architecture played with established language and traditions without necessarily sticking to the rules, I suggested a number of recent horror movies were doing the same: movies such as It Comes at Night, A Ghost Story and The Witch. The “horror community” wasted no time in telling me how wrong I was. Responses to my article varied from “It’s all just horror, duh” to “This is elitist snobbery” to “You can’t possibly weigh on this subject because you haven’t watched as many horror movies as I have”.
“All Rose is really saying in his article is ‘I don’t like horror, so these particular films must be something else,’” argued one online article, which concluded: “using platforms of cultural gate-keepership … to denigrate a persistently rich and popular genre with little mind to nuance is more than simple cultural distinction, it’s shoddy journalism.” Well that was told me. I hadn’t experienced such vitriol since my two-star review of the World of Warcraft movie.
I wasn’t really trying to plant a flag and say: “I have discovered this hitherto unmapped realm of horror.” Nor was I looking down on the rest of the horror canon. I love horror movies – the trashy, gory ones as much as the refined arthouse ones. I’m old enough to have misspent my youth rewinding and replaying in slo-mo the exploding head scene on a video copy of David Cronenberg’s Scanners. I was just putting out a term to describe something, and seeing if other people liked it. A lot of them didn’t, it turned out, but some did. I get regular inquiries about the concept of “post-horror” from film students. Recently, I came across an academic book titled Post Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation, written by David Church, a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Indiana University. And this month, the Barbican cinema in London launches a series of “Post-Horror Summer Nights”, featuring some of the films I discussed in my original piece.
Neither Church’s book nor the Barbican’s film season apply the term in exactly the way I meant it. In fact, Church dismisses mine as “one of many flawed attempts to name a corpus of recent films alongside”, other terms such as “smart horror” or “elevated horror” – basically telling me I’m using my own definition wrongly. But then I never really laid out a rigid definition at the time. Now post-horror is even more of a thing, perhaps I ought to.
It began with an interview with the film-maker Trey Edward Shults in 2017. Then in his late 20s, Shults had just released his accomplished second film It Comes at Night. The title suggests something you might find on a grindhouse double-bill alongside, say, Night of the Living Dead or Blood Sucking Freaks. And Shults’s film does incorporate some classic horror elements: a post-apocalyptic scenario, a cabin in the woods, violent deaths, ominous noises on the soundtrack and suspenseful tracking shots. But the “It” of the title is not a monster, a virus or anything definable. The film is more ambiguous than that, examining matters of tribalism, paranoia, family and fear itself. It was released on more than 2,500 screens in the US, and mainstream audiences hated it. It got a D CinemaScore, and plenty of “worst movie ever” reactions online.
“I didn’t set out to make a horror movie per se,” Shults told me, explaining how the movie was informed by the recent death of his father, among other things. “I just set out to make something personal … I put a lot of my own fears into it. And if fear goes to horror then, yeah, it’s horror. But I don’t think it’s a conventional horror movie.”
When I told Shults I was tempted to describe it as “post-horror”, he replied: “Sure! I love that.”
I had noticed other films around that time that were doing similar things. Robert Eggers’ The Witch, for example, a folk horror set in the 16th century that seemed more interested in historical authenticity than jump-scares. Again, it got terrible audience scores initially, from punters who were presumably expecting a straight-up horror flick. Or Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which collided vampires and occult symbolism with the modern fashion industry. Or Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, which incorporated supernatural elements into a story of grief and dislocation, without really playing as a horror movie. Or especially David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. This film does feature a ghost – complete with white sheet with two cut-out eyeholes – but nobody can see it so it isn’t that scary. “I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted-house movies without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film,” Lowery told me at the time. That pretty much sums up the post-horror mode.
Looking around, I saw other films I could put in the post-horror basket. The works of Peter Strickland, for example. His magnificent Berberian Sound Studio, from 2012, is steeped in the trappings of pulp 1970s Italian horror film-making, whose iconography spills over into the main narrative centered on Toby Jones’s increasingly disturbed foley artist. Is it a horror movie itself? Not exactly. Likewise, Strickland’s 2014 follow-up The Duke of Burgundy, which paid stylistic homage to erotic 70s horrors such as Vampyros Lesbos but twisted them into something altogether stranger.
By definition, film genres have rules. But to an extent, most great horror movies subvert these rules, or use them to broach subjects society finds it difficult to deal with head-on. But let’s also be honest, a great many horror movies just rehash familiar tropes to the point of cliche. Horror is one of the few genres that can still generate box office returns for minimal outlay in today’s squeezed movie landscape. Even if only one in 10 is a hit, you can still turn a profit. So you don’t have to be an elitist snob to notice that we’ve had a lot of rubbish horror movies foisted upon us in recent years.
Another downside of today’s movie landscape is that it is even harder for budding authors seeking to make their name. So horror is a way of getting through the multiplex door. When you listen to film-makers such as Shults or Eggers or Ari Aster, director of Hereditary and Midsommar, each of whose films were distributed by A24, their heroes aren’t horror masters such as Sam Raimi, Dario Argento or George Romero, they ‘re arthouse directors like Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski and Robert Altman – all of whom made movies that could fit into the post-horror category, as it happens.
Eggers drove the point home when I interviewed him for his movie The Lighthouse in 2019. A trippy, black-and-white two-hander, it had elements of horror – allusions to Edgar Allan Poe, mermaids, sea monsters – but it was far from an out-and-out horror movie. Eggers talked about how difficult it is for any film-maker in today’s climate to get an unconventional, “personal” film funded. But the industry is more willing to back something if it fits into a genre, especially horror. “They knew that The Lighthouse was more of an arthouse movie than anything else,” said Eggers, but they also knew they could “lean on” the horror aspects to market it, which helped.
Many of these film-makers have moved on. Eggers has since shifted to epic action fantasy with The Northman, Shults traversed into artful teen drama with his most recent film Waves. Lowery made the Robert Redford thriller The Old Man and the Gun before returning to post-horror territory with last year’s The Green Knight, a dark, mystical, violent Arthurian tale combining fantasy and horror.
Whatever your feelings about the post-horror label, we can surely agree something extraordinary was happening in cinema in the mid-2010s. In addition to the movies above, the years 2014 to 2018 also gave us It Follows, The Babadook, Raw, Split, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Shadow, Green Room, A Quiet Place and Jordan Peele’s phenomenal Get Out. Plus, entertaining franchises such as The Conjuring, Sinister and The Purge cleaning up at the box office. Is it too soon to look back on it as a golden age?
For me, many of the aforementioned films are more conventional horror than post-horror, in that they set up traditional genre expectations and fulfill them. But then, what are the boundaries? How much can you subvert the rules before you’re not in the genre any more? Who decides? Clearly not me. But that is the gray area I was trying to give some definition to. I don’t mind if people adopt the term post-horror, reject it or adapt it to mean something else entirely – which is kind of what’s happened. Perhaps my fellow film writer Matt Zoller Seitz put it best, a couple of years ago, on Twitter. Weighing in on a similar debate over the term “elevated horror”, he wrote: “Elevated horror is like an artisanal cheeseburger. Make the goddamn cheeseburger. If it’s delicious, nobody will care what adjective you put in front of it.”
Post-Horror Summer Nights begins at the Barbican cinema, London, with It Comes at Night, introduced by Steve Rose, on August 4
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