High Brow Horror

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence.

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)? 

We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.

Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche. 

In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).

This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.  

This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.

‘Stripped’

“Olivia?”

“Brad… how is the group doing?” Olivia said, her back still facing Brad.

“They’ve taken it pretty hard. Nic’ was a popular girl. To lose her… well, everyone’s shocked. They’re hurting, they still can’t believe it.”

“I see.”

“I just wanted to check in, see how you were doing? It must have been horrible for you, being there when it happened.”

“Me? I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine; you’ve hardly said a word. They’re worried about you, Olivia. The group’s lost someone they looked up to so naturally they’re asking questions.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Questions that need answering, they want to know what happened out there. You’ve still got Nic’s gun, how did that happen?”

“We… we got overrun by a herd of zombies, we got careless Brad. Now I’m here and Nicole’s gone. She’s gone because of me. What is this about, Brad?”

“I’ve wanted to bring their concerns to you. You’ve already said you got overrun but how, where? They want to know.”

Olivia thrusts an arm out as she faces Brad.

“They want to know?! Why didn’t they want to know when Ted died? Why didn’t they want to know when Paul died? What’s so special about Nicole?”

Brad shrugged his shoulders, his mouth ajar with no words to fill the void.

“The group wants a leader until she makes a tough decision they don’t like. I’ve told them everything without going into the gory details. What’s this really about?”

“It’s about Nic-“

“You’re supposed to be with me, Brad! You’re supposed to be on my side!”

“I’ve always been on your side-”

“Don’t lie to me. Do you want to know what happened to Nicole, Brad?”

Brad took a couple of steps back, his body turning slightly.

“She got cornered by a group of them.”

Olivia walked closer.

“She’d gone for more supplies and left her gun with me while I was on watch.”

She walked closer, looking past Brad.

“I got distracted, just for a second and before I knew it her flesh was being stripped like bacon from a roast. She begged for me to shoot her, she begged until the blood filled her throat and she could beg no more.”

“But there were so many…”

Brad’s turned completely, his back now facing Olivia.

“I ran. I grabbed what supplies I had in my pack and I ran.”