Who’s Afraid of the Horror Movie?

Despite impressive evolution, the horror film continues dwelling in the fringes and is yet to find mainstream recognition

Manik Sharma March 12, 2019 18:25:29 IST
Who’s Afraid of  the Horror Movie?
  • While fear is the emotion human beings possibly venerate the most, it is amusing that film industries the world over — notably Hollywood — have refused to take the genre seriously.

  • The past 12 months in particular have marked a landmark phase for horror, in Hollywood as well as Bollywood.

  • Only a handful of horror films have been given the stature of a classic. Among them is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

Talking to Interview magazine in 2015, horror maestro John Carpenter, director of cult flicks as Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), said: “Horror is a universal language, we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re all afraid of things.”
While fear is the emotion human beings possibly venerate the most, it is amusing that film industries the world over — notably Hollywood — have refused to take the genre seriously.
The truth of Carpenter’s words failed to find resonance among discerning moviegoers. While serious works of drama easily gain acclaim and awards, the Oscars, for one, have refused to take horror seriously as a genre, as well as a driving emotion over the years.

Whos Afraid of  the Horror Movie

A still from the 2018 film Halloween

The notion is ironic, especially if you look at the genre’s evolution over the last decade or so. New-age horror makers have not only enriched the genre with fresh ideas, they have also infused innovations in style and treatment that have elevated the stature of the otherwise trivialised genre.
The past 12 months in particular have marked a landmark phase for horror, in Hollywood as well as Bollywood. Standard jump-scare tools have made way for imaginative storytelling. None more so than Ari Asters’ Hereditary that, though flawed, delves deep into grief before exploding with fear. Toni Collette’s performance as a mother, who helplessly watches her family disintegrate, deserved an Oscar nomination.

John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is undoubtedly another horror flick that ranks among the best films Hollywood made last year. The apocalyptic thriller was largely silent and economically acted out, as it narrated the terrifying tale of a family trying to survive noiselessly among monsters that are blind but attack on hearing sound.
Zak Hilditch’s Netflix film 1922 was a rare and sombre exploration of a family coming undone in Depression-era America, while Alex Garland’s Annihilation had elements of wondrousness — even beauty — knit into a horrific sci-fi plot.

Other films such as Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky’s latest, Mother!, stood out for sheer experimentation. The Jennifer Lawrence-starrer evaded traditional storytelling to weave horror realism with surreal dreams. The film elicited divisive response owing to its controversial content, but it did manage to leave an undercurrent warning about human apathy towards planet Earth.
The scene is no different in Bollywood. Last year, we had the contextual horror comedy Stree and the moralistic ode Tumbbad. Both films were a far cry from what Bollywood has perceived as horror for decades. These films prove the genre is now preferring new stories over the predictability of creaking doors, ominous footfalls and blood flowing down the shower.

Agreed, clichés of the genre cannot be wished away but then isn’t Oscar-winning drama clichéd, too? From rags-to-riches stories as Slumdog Millionaire a decade ago to cathartic socio-political narratives as this year’s Green Book, Best Film-winning dramas continue to underline stereotypes, as does the formulaic superhero blockbuster, Black Panther.
Only a handful of horror films have been given the stature of a classic. Among them is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Dario Argento’s stylistic Italian horror Suspiria (1977), which was remade in 2018, was criminally unrecognised in its time. The Shining, upon release in 1982, was nominated for a Razzie, while director Stanley Kubrick was up for Worst Director. Today, the film has attained cult status. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense are possibly the only films in the genre that somewhat received their due.

The Silence Of The Lambs, in fact, remains the only horror film in Oscar’s 91-year-old history to win the Best Picture award. Few other films have been nominated. These are The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan and Get Out. Despite cinematic finesse and entertainment value, these films were never really serious contenders.

Many feel horror is too niche for mainstream recognition. But then, black-and-white headliners as The Artist or Roma — both winners at the Oscars — would seem as niche as they get. Over the years, horror has held its own in terms of storytelling and craft. It is capable of drawing outstanding performances out of mainstream actors (recall Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin), or comment on society (think of Tomas Alfredson’s 2014 Swedish hit, Let The Right One In, or Trey Edward Shults’ terrifying indie, It Comes At Night).

The debate over what defines true cinematic art is still out there. Sadly for horror fans, the genre is yet to be accommodated in that discussion.

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