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COLUMN: The growing trend of prestige horror is reductive



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"Midsommar"was released June 3. The film is about a young couple, played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, who to travel to Sweden to visit their friend’s rural hometown and participate in a ritual at the hands of a pagan cult. Movie Stills Database Buy Photos

There’s a scene in Dario Argento’s oppressively strange, otherworldly giallo-inspired classic “Suspiria” where a woman is stabbed to death by a masked killer in a terrifically gruesome fashion.

The killer’s blade pierces the victim’s heart through a bloody hole in her chest numerous times before she plunges through a glass ceiling and is suspended from a wire noose in the atrium of a grand, candy-colored building, dripping blood that looks substantially more like red nail polish than real bodily fluid.

Rendered in gloriously cheesy practical effects, the sequence beautifully walks a tightrope many equally graphic horror and exploitation films walk, blending shock value and sheer terror but perfectly muting their effects with a pronounced fakeness that draws more attention to the spectacle of the filmmaker’s craft than the sheer brutality of what’s happened onscreen.

Splatter, a horror subgenre that revels in such dastardly delights, is just one of many colorful and often loads of fun varieties of horror movie that exists just out of the periphery of mainstream horror cinema.

In the margins of the genre where splatter and giallo delights like “Suspiria,” “Opera,” “Blood and Black Lace” and many other twisted classics rest is a wealth of jubilantly over-the-top horror movies well worth a watch.

Increasingly, mainstream horror is shifting its favor toward a new brand of terror often dubbed “elevated” or “prestige” horror; thoughtful and thematically ripe genre movies carefully crafted to dazzle and provoke deeper reflection.

And they certainly are a thrill. With movies like Ari Aster’s 2018 sleeper hit “Hereditary” and Jennifer Kent’s terrifying grief parable “The Babadook,” there’s an increasingly sound case to be made for horror as one of the most thrilling film genres right now. 

But the trouble is that while horror itself is and has always been a sprawling genre encompassing everything from graphic gorefests to suspenseful spooks, the notion of prestige horror shuts out so much of what’s always made horror so fun: the sleazy, slimy gross-outs and cheap thrills of less mainstream genre films.

In celebrating the growing trend of thought-provoking horror, much is lost, including the low-brow fun of splatters, giallos and slashers. 

In marketing his new film “Midsommar,” the latest film by Aster described what is ostensibly a horror film about Swedish pagans as a breakup movie, following a trend he set for himself when he described last year’s bone-chilling “Hereditary” as a family drama.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with horror movies that find their roots in more familiar experiences and tinge them with terror, but Aster’s comments about his own movies are part of a larger tendency to distance great horror movies from the genre.

Earlier this year, while promoting his nightmarish new horror movie “Us,” director Jordan Peele called his instant classic “Get Out” a social thriller rather than a horror movie, reiterating claims he made about the film shortly after its release. 

And that’s fine. Artists deserve the agency to characterize their art as whatever they want it to be. But so often the trend of prestige horror films being pitched as “It’s actually a _____ movie with horror elements” denies those movies their rightful place in the sprawling canon of one of cinema’s most exciting genres.

Would Hitchcock have described “Psycho” as a crime flick with horror embellishments? Would Friedkin explain “The Exorcist” as an exorcism movie that just so happens to be scary?

Undoubtedly, there is a trend of belief that dismisses horror movies as dumb, lowbrow or indulgently violent overkill. It’s better press for horror filmmakers to tell audiences how their films diverge from that reductive expectation of the genre rather than embrace it, but it’s high time they started to embrace it more.

Genre filmmaking, especially horror, is an art form as old as cinema itself, dating back to moving image horror shows called phantasmagoria

It’s odd that so many filmmakers nowadays are so keen to distance their great works from that lineage. It’s up to a new generation of filmmakers to continue to create masterpieces that move us like “Silence of the Lambs” or scare us like “The Shining.” It’s also on them to embrace the horror genre as a whole, to love all that it encompasses and to not refuse their works’ placement in its canon.

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