In the 2019 film Us, Lupita Nyong’o performs the dual roles of Adelaide and Red. For Red, who hasn’t spoken in decades, Nyong’o creates a hybrid voice – a raw, abrasive tone that she describes as antithetical to any human experience, and models it off real vocal disorders. In contrast, she performs Adelaide with a sort of inwardness, a concealment, as if she were perpetually hiding something and feared being found out. In the face of her dedication to her role and her powerful command of the screen, it was heartbreaking to see Nyong’o’s performance go unrecognised by the Academy. Or it would have been, were audiences not already aware of Hollywood’s strained relationship with horror. But before addressing this relationship between critical reception and horror and why critics ought to take horror more seriously, we must first think about what horror is doing differently.
Horror films deal in the uncanny – that which resembles the familiar, but not quite. An echo of reality. Two such instances may be found in the films Midsommar and A Quiet Place, which manipulate and defamiliarise the visual and auditory aspects of horror, respectively. Consider, first, Midsommar. Against the backdrop of the Swedish countryside, Midsommar is a film about a rural commune’s fabled harvest festival, and the grotesque and cultish practices born out of it. Visually, though, it is far from a horror film, as it takes place in complete daylight. It further abandons the recognisable language of horror – darkness and shadow – for oversaturation, clothing comprised of pastels and white muslin, and in-your-face technicolour. Director Ari Aster is banking on the idea that violence and gore that is allowed to occur in broad daylight elicits in the audience an “even more profound sense of wrongness”. Further, audiences tend to let their guards down during the day scenes of horror films. It is assumed there will be minimal chances of being confronted by jumpscares and monsters. By removing the safe-space of daylight and instead making it the battleground of horror, Midsommar accosts the viewer when they are at their most unsuspecting and vulnerable state. In doing this, not only does Midsommar resuscitate the subgenre of daylight horror, but also makes lighting an integral part of the storytelling process.
Next, take John Krasinski’s breakout directorial film A Quiet Place, set in a post-apocalyptic world swarmed with monsters that are hypersensitive to sound. As a result of this setting, the film is almost entirely devoid of the spoken dialogue and ambient noises that we, as audiences, have come to take for granted not only in film but in daily life. You could see it as Krasinski creating tension through the absence of a thing. According to supervising sound designer Erik Adaahl, while you can hide behind several layers of noises and cinematic scores in other films, A Quiet Place is more about “the negative spaces, the quiets, and the shades of quietness, and ultimately, the silence.” And the sound designers push this idea to its limits; when congenitally deaf character Regan removes her hearing aids, the sound levels are dropped to absolute digital zero. By making the idea of negative space the focal point of the film, Adaahl says sound was “actually being written into the script.” Although monster horror films are the least likely of the horror sub-genres to turn a profit, A Quiet Place earned a whopping $340 million over its $21 million budget.
The documentary Horror Noire suggests another way in which the genre is beginning to look and feel different. Black people, the documentary claims, are beginning to reclaim the screens in horror again. In his directorial debut Get Out, Jordan Peele uniquely uses horror to comment on race and the treatment of black people in America; similarly, through the film Us, Peele deals with class conflict. [It’s also remarkable how, in these films, Peele grapples with social issues through comedy and horror in near-equal measures]. Peele aptly dubs such films “social thrillers”, in which the ‘bad guy’ is society at large, and states that these horrors and fears come from very real places. Get Out, he says, was partly inspired by a time in his life when he was visiting a girlfriend’s parents, who didn’t know he was black.
It would be a mistake to suggest that Peele is the torchbearer in the genre of black horror – there were several others before him, such as Ernest Dickerson and Rusty Cundieff, who not only paved the way for him, but also inspired him. Peele’s distinctive take on black horror – for instance, his clever way of balancing horror and social issues, and the nuance and humanity with which he introduces black characters and black family dynamics – has rightfully skyrocketed his films to critical and mainstream appeal.
If, in fact, horror is in its golden age due to these reasons, someone ought to inform the critics, who have historically had a tenuous relationship with horror. Critical appreciation, according to film think-tank StephenFollows, is an adequate barometer for gauging the profitability of most films. This, however, is not true for horror, in which the correlation between audience reception and profitability is a more reliable metric. As a result, critics have traditionally viewed horror films as thinly-veiled attempts at profit-making, giving the whole genre an embarrassing reputation. This is less true for the films thus far mentioned – Get Out, Midsommar and A Quiet Place, all achieved massive critical acclaim. However, if you recall Lupita Nyong’o’s and Toni Colette’s Academy snubs (for Us and Hereditary, respectively), you might see where the sentiment is coming from.
This is made clearer by the contemporary trend among critics to call any horror film that subverts or surprises “elevated” horror. It goes without saying that stylistically, a Midsommar is different from a Paranormal Activity, and that film critics should be excused some esoteric words to deal in. However, saying ‘elevated horror’ is not simply the same as saying ‘psychological thriller’ or ‘arthouse drama’, because the former explicitly hierarchizes a genre that is already struggling to rid itself of stigma. The term ‘elevated’ draws a line between high-brow and low-brow, fine and pedestrian. By “elevating” Midsommar, the critic also undermines and excludes the rich and variegated legacy of horror preceding it, i.e. genre-defining films such as Halloween and Night of the Living Dead, as well as unanimously cherished staples such as the Scream franchise. It demands that horror constantly wrestle with socio-political issues or be cinematographically intricate in order to be deemed good or respectable.
Horror has historically carved for itself a home in the art of inducing intense, primal, and emotional responses in the viewer. This may be achieved through nuanced meditations on race and class or through thrilling chase sequences between the slasher and the slashee. It is more useful to examine such distinctions when the aim is to understand how stories are beginning to be told differently and diversely, rather than to create gulfs separating the cerebral film from the popcorn movie. Or, as film critic Joey Keogh puts it rather succinctly, “Just let horror movies be horror movies, damn it.”
The genre as a whole, elevated or otherwise, ought to be taken more seriously. It’s psychological, stemming from a primal place both in our collective consciousness, as well as in our personal experiences. It’s an excellent tool for conveying meaningful and weighty social messages. It’s at worst a C-grade slasher flick in which the token black character dies at the beginning, and at best a reflection of ourselves and the societies in which we live. For that alone, we must afford it more dignity than we currently do.
This piece was originally published here and edited by Utkarsh Bansal