Back in May, I wrote an article about Men and on the contemporary, somewhat controversial style of “elevated horror.” I wrote about how Alex Garland’s impenetrable, infuriatingly mannered and narratively murky take on the way women exist in the world alongside the opposite sex signaled, to me, the peak of this style’s worst instincts and acted as a suitable nail in its coffin. If you are reading this, I assume you already know what elevated horror refers to. If not, I’m jealous. It’s the term used to describe modern horror films that many feel attempt to make a stereotypically denigrated genre into prestigious, respectable art. It used to be employed as a neutral classification for this wave of self-serious horror. But by becoming widespread and repeated to the point of self-parody (Men), it’s been progressively utilized ironically or even derogatorily.
And then came Barbarian. Like Men, Barbarian is a horror film about gender dynamics in the modern world. About how women navigate their lives under a perceived constant threat of men, and how this innate fear influences their behavior, the decisions they make and the people they trust. As a horror film “about something deeper,” it navigated its ideas with delicacy and a certain subtlety, even if the material isn’t subtle at all. The film feels like a throwback in the way it approaches the themes, harkening to a time when more mainstream horror films were able to tactfully balance subtext with spectacle. Barbarian explores different dynamics between its characters with a tense and queasy uncertainty: A young woman and the strange man who got double-booked in her Airbnb; the same woman and a Hollywood bigshot accused of sexual assault; a female store employee and a serial killer.
Barbarian depicts the circumstances in which a woman may or may not feel safe with a man she doesn’t know, and thus potentially lets her guard down or doesn’t. Sometimes this is to her own detriment, but that’s not really her fault. A society has been fostered in which women are constantly gauging how much risk they’re in from person to person, because they have been forced to be constantly on the defensive. None of this, in Barbarian, comes off as preachy or condescendingly obvious. Most importantly, Barbarian is fun and scary—it’s a good horror film. The ideas that Barbarian explores never actively take precedence over director Zach Cregger crafting effective horror, with jarring tonal shifts that give the film a real sense of ingenuity (if not quite deserving of the excessive enthusiasm people have expressed in likening it to last year’s Malignant).
But it’s this eagerness with which people have spoken, and the surprising box office take the film snagged on a $4.5 million budget, that signals the simple truth: Audiences are craving more horror movies like Barbarian and Malignant. Barbarian was not the only horror film on the lighter side to make a similar splash this fall. Smile and Terrifier 2, two films with very different budgets, distributors and styles, but two horror films equally far from what could be considered “elevated,” did gangbusters with audiences. Terrifier 2 in particular was something of a miracle: A low-budget, uber-violent indie that succeeded based on word of mouth, and in no small part from headlines evocative of The Exorcist that claimed people were throwing up while watching it in theaters. Audiences wanted to see what all the fuss was about—maybe even see if they’d throw up, too. The result? A film made for $250K made its budget back over 10 times.
It’s not necessarily productive to talk about films based on how profitable or not profitable they are, solely reducing art to numbers and money. But it’s clear that audiences are genuinely reacting to these kinds of films; they’re showing up for them in theaters. Smile could even be argued as a parody of the “it’s about trauma” sensation in the way the monster of the film operates and how the film ends. A transferrable demon a la Ringu makes you smile really creepily and kill yourself, before spreading to the “traumatized” witness of your suicide. This demon who is passed on through trauma (this is literally said out loud in the film) must be confronted and killed by the lead character at the end in order to avoid her fate and reconcile her past—but she doesn’t, and she dies. It’s kind of funny and almost too stupid; like a slap in the face to the trauma metaphors of yesteryear.
There is a part of me that thinks Smile isn’t quite smart enough nor evidently self-aware enough to get this much credit, but what makes Smile’s questionable trauma metaphor negligible is how, like Barbarian, it doesn’t threaten to suppress the rest of the film with its own contrived gravitas. Smile is a fitfully thrilling, silly, even scary good time. This leads into what these two films, along with Terrifier 2, have in common, despite their varying levels of formal intelligence or subtextual meat. Their primary function is to thrill us, be it through excessive gore (Terrifier 2), a big freaky CGI smile (Smile) or a series of underground tunnels leading to an incest mutant (Barbarian).
Again, it all rests on the balance between subtext and spectacle. Take director Jordan Peele: Though he occasionally muddles his own themes with his sheer ambition in delivering them, Peele is nonetheless an impressive craftsman who tucks the conceits of his horror films within the genre. David Cronenberg recently returned to body horror with Crimes of the Future, a smart, funny, satirical look at art in the modern world that unsettles with its fleshy perversions. And then there’s Pearl, the popular prequel to Ti West’s X, and a horror film that isn’t a horror film at all. It’s closer to a melodrama mixed with elements of thriller and fantasy, and it can’t help itself from underscoring its own obvious “point” until it’s basically rendered meaningless. X, which suffers similarly from taking itself too seriously, at least saves itself by including fun gore and slasher kills. It’s great when horror films do us the courtesy of offering the genre’s bare minimum.
I hate using the phrase so much, because it’s so, so, so, annoying, but there was a period when these “elevated” horror movies really felt novel; a stretch of time during the late 2010s when it felt like directors were playing around with the genre in an exciting new way. The Babadook could possibly be blamed for the trail of pretension it left in its wake, but there’s a reason people clung to it upon release and in the years since. At the time, as a proud horror fan, I had probably thought to myself, Hell, maybe trying to turn horror films into high art would be a good thing. Maybe it would be good to gain horror some respect and recognition from places as lofty as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, evolving the genre into bonafide awards bait that octogenarian Academy members can’t turn up their noses at any longer. But if I thought this before, I no longer think it now. It’s not worth it, and it’s making things worse. Toni Collette didn’t get the Oscar, neither did Lupita Nyong’o and neither will X and Pearl’s Mia Goth. It’s not happening, and the lack of results is not worth the torture. The Silence of the Lambs is better than Midsommar and it won Best Picture back in 1992.
If the recent slate of horror films is any indication, perhaps these newer directors are aware of this exhaustion, too; perhaps they’re seeing a trend and making a conscious decision to go against it. Or maybe it was just a coincidence that Terrifier 2, Smile and Barbarian all succeeded at the same time. All I know is that I want directors to stop putting out films that behave as if horror can no longer entertain us in the ways that initially made the genre sing, as if they are required to be solemn meditations on weighty metaphors in some desperate plea to impress people who will never be impressed anyway. It’s not that I only want horror films to be goofy and gory, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to watch The Babadook for the rest of my life. I would watch Terrifier’s Art the Clown go bozo mode as long as Damien Leone is allowed to let him, and it’s heartening to consider that, after the impressive results of this horror counter-programming, there’s a chance that he might get to keep going.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.