Down With Elevated Horror

We’ve been told about the rise of a new genre of horror in the past few years – ‘elevated’ horror, which is supposedly a bit smarter, intellectual and above the passing grade for what constitutes genre fare. It’s most notable flagships thus far are films like Robert Eggers’ The VVitch or Hereditary and Midsommar, both by Ari Aster. From the European continent there’s also Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, and Julia Ducornau’s Raw. But if you look closely, the supposed ‘elevated’ nature of these films is flimsy. They all deliver the shocks and gore promised under the horror umbrella. But their intentions and directions are all vitally different – the main linking point seems to be that they’ve been made with the craft and care of an arthouse film, as if old-school horror directors didn’t also care about their craft.

At their best (The VVitch), they create an atmosphere of all-encompassing fear that lingers long in the memory. The sense of the unknown is paramount and left to linger. At their worst (Suspiria), they feel like they’re embarrassed about being a horror film. Every splash of gore has to be rationalised and theorised, with subtext thrusting against the screen to make sure that the audience doesn’t miss out on getting to feel clever. So, instead of a dance school in Freiburg that happens to be run by witches as in the original Suspiria, we now have a dance school in Cold War Berlin run by witches with a connection to the Nazis, and some by-the-way historical subtext about the Holocaust. Well done Luca, you’re very smart. Have a cookie.

By obfuscating the original’s sense of sheer operatic confusion, the remake’s pretensions to rationalisation and subtext patronise the audience. By telling us we can’t be scared without some real-world horror photo-bombing into our space, it does audiences a disservice.

I had the same feeling recently watching In Fabric, the latest Peter Strickland film. It feels like a uniquely middle-class and high-brow gentrification of a notably low-brow genre. Here we have a story about a cursed red dress (symbol of rampant consumerism), which causes ill health and eventually death for its wearers (escape from the perils of capital), in this case single divorced mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and about-to-wed couple Reg and Babs (Leo Bill and Hayley Squires) (everyman and everywoman). It’s a film which is made with considerable care of craft and skill: the giallo-inspired framing and editing, the warm analogue soundtrack by Cavern of Anti-Matter, the gorgeous design of the bizarro department store in which the dress is initially bought, but it is all done without an iota of guts or emotion. Everything is so arch, ironic, distant. The film is so obsessed with giving us symbol upon symbol, metaphor upon metaphor, it forgets to get us to start caring about anything it depicts. It’s as if it is embarrassed about its inspirations, so they have to be intellectualised into something relatable to the presumably more middle-class audience that’s likely to frequent arthouse cinemas (and yes, I am probably that audience).

The film should have a dramatic core. It could have, for example, Sheila’s search for a fulfilling relationship to take her away from the divorce with her ex-husband. Or, when the film’s focus shifts to Reg and Babs, it could focus on their desires for security and domesticity. Instead, the latter couple becomes the butt of several jokes (Reg’s job as a washing machine repairman and his ability to endlessly rattle off technical washing machine jargon is genuinely quite funny), but there’s no attempt to get beneath their skin. They’re just duds, mindless upper working-class/lower middle-class automatons to poke at.

Sheila gets a better go of it (we need Marianne Jean-Baptiste in more films!), but Strickland is scared, I think, to actually analyse her unhappiness in life. The dress is an easy symbol of consumerism, easy to hide behind. You can photograph its luxurious hem and soft fabric, bask in its rich colours. Add a bit of drama by attaching some string and getting it to move on camera. Compare that with Midsommar, also out currently. Aster’s film isn’t perfect, but its writing is built concretely out of a real and human relationship, that between grieving Dani (Florence Pugh) and the emotionally unavailable Christian (Jack Reynor). That dynamic informs the rest of the film. Hell, Peter Strickland has himself shown he has the ability to write human characters. His previous film The Duke of Burgundy (2015) was a superb dissection of the way long-term relationships can collapse; in this case because we’re so invested in being who the other person wants us to be at the expense of who we actually are. That it did so in the context of a film that cribbed a lot of its style from ‘70s-era sexploitation flicks shows that you can intellectualise previously ‘trashy’ material as long as you back it up with some level of humanity, and empathy for your characters.

If we’re living in an era of ‘elevated’ horror, where most of the critically-acclaimed horrors now are going to have bland subtexts so that you don’t feel guilty about watching a genre with a bit of blood in it, can these films at least be based in some level of human drama? I want to scare because I care. Symbol-heavy films tend to be bad films; the more these films drench themselves in that, the further away they take themselves from what actually brings people to cinema.