Something odd is happening with horror movies this summer. Chucky just ate itself with the Child’s Play reboot, which wipes out the gore but doubles down on references for the Stranger Things audience. Meanwhile Annabelle Comes Home proves The Conjuring franchise to be a kind of generative spook-fest without teeth or fangs or much else at all. Between these, and the relative non-impact of the James Gunn produced Brightburn, mainstream horror appears to be in a zone of creative stasis.
Perhaps this is due to the cultural advent of “elevated horror“. This term began as a way to describe the glass of red in the cinema-friendly Indie horror films like The Witch and Always Shine, and has come to be used as a lazy descriptor for any film with scares which err on the side of the esoteric. Brilliant as Get Out and The Invitation are, it’s preposterous to think that their sophisticated filmmaking means that they have broken free from the shackles of genre, as though horror is inherently a lesser pursuit. This argument has been played out in the pages of many a film publication, and yet we continue to be forced to group any alternative horror films together. Thus, the flux of the genre in this summer’s ‘elevated’ offerings is even wilder than the multiplex.
Ari Aster has followed up his adored debut Hereditary with another joint for hipster studio A24. Midsommar is ‘elevated’ horror without the scares. It’s an Americans abroad movie about finding yourself at a yoga retreat. After a family tragedy, Florence Pugh accompanies her repugnant PHD boyfriend and his misogynistic friends on a trip to a festival-cum-pagan-cult. The one liners are pretty funny, but the overall arc Aster spends 140 minutes getting to is too clear from the start. Toying with a made up mythology assembled from bits of Swedish, British and Slavic mythology, doesn’t help Aster to find a coherent point. The horror beats are rote and it’s too messy to pay off on the many threads it sets up. But if you take it as a satire about self-actualisation (Marianne Williamson fans take note), with the gore as moments of Tom Greenian gross out humour, it works, but only through the willpower of the God-like Will Poulter, and amazing Pugh and Jack Reynor performances.
I’m sure that Jim Jarmusch would balk at a term like ‘elevated horror’ and yet his frankly dreadful The Dead Don’t Die, which is among the most self-indulgent films that the once progenitor of total cool has made, perhaps gets closer to a definition of the genre than most I have seen. Jarmusch delivers the spine of a zombie movie, yet abandons terror to hit on a variety of meta-musings and a social commentary that intends to awaken the audience from their popcorn-induced slumber. It has been sold as a comedy and yet frightens for another reason. Jarmusch’s depictions of life on the margins of society have been incredibly touching before in films like Down By Law and Midnight Train. His exploration of the everyday poetry within Americana yielded an entire punk aesthetic expression within film. And yet it’s also entirely tied up in this passive viewpoint that for him to now turn to big issues, without confronting his own complicity in allowing the world to go mad, is patronising.
He can’t even commit to his metaphors. A small mid-western town begins to feel the effects of fracking after zombies begin to rampage. A stacked cast including Bill Murray and Adam Driver throw out one-liners, while fourth wall breaks remind us that this is a Jarmuschian construction (to remind us that climate change and Trump exist? Thanks for the heads up, Jim). Steve Buscemi plays a MAGA hat-wearing tool, but it’s just there for impact. We’re expected to laugh at the pairing of star with white supremacist costume without any further point being made.
Complacent older people are devoured by a new generation; the dead, once out of the ground, are compelled by the thing they desired in life. This usually takes the form of a cell phone, or xanax, or some other facet of modern culture that Jarmusch feels disconnects us. Ironic, considering he built a career on laconic disconnect. In blaming these modern phenomenon for society’s blindness to climate change, he ignores the whole Gen X slacker ideology that lead to this cultural disengagement in the face of disaster. To be so cool and above it that nothing matters, reaching to be chill while corruption goes unchecked around you. Remember how David Foster Wallace voted for Reagan twice?
It’s only because Jarmusch and his ilk’s way of life is now personally threatened that they deem to… what exactly? Make a B-movie parody that gestures to action? For who exactly? Not my president? This isn’t my Jarmusch. His angling of asinine social commentary without following through on any of the genre devices that are open to him are what has inadvertently turned The Dead Don’t Die into an exemplar of the ‘elevated horror’ descriptor.
While The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie comedy that frightened me in its ineptitude and lazy politics, Midsommar is genuinely funny and is reportedly already inspiring toxic couples to break up. In its apolitical rendering of a funky tale, Ari Aster’s film is the greater call to action. But have these filmmakers used their elevated ambitions as a get out of jail free card for their impotent scares? Financially, horror movies are in a great place: those Conjuring movies make a huge return on their tiny budgets, and Us is just about the only big hit this year that isn’t based on an existing IP. Jordan Peele’s film works so well because it doesn’t patronise its audience and layers its social conscience into a clockwork chiller. Horror has a calendar-long staying power at the box office and isn’t seen as lesser by audiences or studios (just wait for It: Chapter 2 to crush September box office records).
‘Elevated Horror’ might preach, then, to a somewhat antiquated audience who still operate in high/low culture binaries. These audiences think they get all the tricks, but perhaps by missing some of the beats someone like Aster can fail upwards into causing some reflection. The success of Us, the textures of In Fabric, and the memic promise around Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse suggests that in the world of horror, there’s a difference between a fine, well-aged red and a bottle of cheap Echo Falls.