The internet was set ablaze several months ago by a Netflix release called Veronica. I woke up one morning, opened Twitter, and was greeted with a barrage of ads informing me that “people all across the country had to turn off Veronica” because they couldn’t deal with the abject spookiness. It being my day off, I watched it. This was a learning experience, as Veronica proved to be, perhaps, the okay-est film that I have ever seen. Of course, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it. The film is reasonably well-acted and you could do considerably worse if you were browsing Netflix on a quiet Sunday afternoon. But isn’t scary, or affecting – although it certainly should be given the subject matter. An empty husk of a film, it’s all bathos.
But I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of posts that said some variation of “Just watched Veronica and I hope this guy directs The Conjuring 3!” This is unsurprising, as Veronica is, at the bottom of things, an unflattering impression of The Conjuring. Right down to individual scenes, the film is so heavily-footnoted as to be a vaguely interesting exercise in intertextuality, but hardly a worthwhile horror film in itself. In other words, it is very much emblematic of mainstream contemporary horror.
Not long ago, I published an article suggesting that “post-horror,” as a phenomenon, doesn’t exist. It’s rather troubling, the notion that a film like The Witch could be somehow meritorious of its own caste, somehow removed from the dominant stream of mainstream horror ventures. But the confusion isn’t difficult to trace.
The highest-grossing horror film of 2017 was Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, It. The film, like Veronica, plays like a “greatest hits” reel of post-2000s genre tropes. Also like Veronica, it wears its genealogy on its sleeve.
The release of 2004’s Saw essentially rebirthed American horror, in a way, as its runaway success tipped off major studios that extreme violence was profitable again. Cheaply produced, it garnered the kind of word-of-mouth publicity that helped it to outperform anyone’s wildest expectations. Studios like bottom lines, and the bottom line was that the bloodiest wide-release crime-thriller in years was a smash hit, so future horror flicks would soon be required a baseline of graphic violence in order even to be greenlit.
Only a few years later, the creators of Saw struck gold again with Insidious. Produced even more cheaply than Saw (thanks to the advent of digital technology) it grossed even more – and studios like bottom lines. By the following year, there was a host of Insidious clones flooding the market – many of which quite clearly begin as very different films. If you browse the horror section on Netflix, you are bound to find a film or two whose storyline is promising but whose delivery deadens the whole project as studio suits forced Wan’s baroque trappings into films with no use for them.
It was an extreme case, but they keep coming. 2018 has been host to several bafflingly poor wide-release horror flicks. Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare was almost earnestly incompetent: that rare breed of film in which every single element is wrong. Not one beat of Truth or Dare lands. Likewise, last week’s Slender Man only marginally resembles a movie. The difference between these films and Muschietti’s It is that Muschietti is a reasonably competent filmmaker. But that is the extent of the difference. Originally slated to direct, Cary Fukanaga’s script was radically reworked by the studio and he lost his role as director, apparently, because he refused to produce a hollow riff on Insidious. In the resulting film, it shows. Take away Muschietti’s undeniable skill behind the camera and there isn’t much to speak of that distinguishes It from Slender Man.
In this landscape, and only this landscape, does it make any sense to talk about The Witch, or Hereditary, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer as some unique deviation from mainstream horror. If these films feel out of place, like they must be essentially outside the horror genre – because they are too soft, too “elevated,” or because they’re “high art,” or “award worthy” – it is only because most horror films, to be greenlit in the United States, can only marginally pass for horror, and, in the case of films like Truth or Dare, can only marginally pass for films.
That is to say, the so-called “elevated horror” that John Krasinski bloviated about back in April are better recognized, quite simply, as horror films that justify their own existence. They’re in a rather seasoned tradition of films not significantly different from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein or Bower’s The Hearse or The Evil Dead.
What’s more, arguably, is that Veronica is not a horror film. Nor is Truth or Dare. They bear some of the outward marks of horror, but have no life of their own. There’s no electricity, no essence. Horror comes from somewhere deep in the recesses of the unconscious; while formal “scare tactics” are important, horror is not mechanical. To produce fear, as horror cinema is meant to, does not boil down to frightening images and well-manicured jolts. The clockwork is tangential. Perhaps there’s a Jungian element to it, that images frighten by tapping into some shared neurosis, some preconscious terrors of which cinema can only remind us.
But the aforementioned films do nothing of the sort. They are marketed as horror but lack the electricity. They cannot frighten. They can only shock, or jostle, or offend. Such films hijack the imagery of horror in service of a purely formal exercise. Strictly speaking, they are not horror cinema. They are a parody of horror Cinema – a pornographic send-up of pop culture a la Flesh Gordon, or Edward Penishands.
That some teenagers might show up to a film like The Witch, fail to be wowed by its persistent dread, and declare that it “wasn’t really horror,” would be understandable. But that professional film critics, who get paid – paid! – to write about film at major publications, who ostensibly answer to professional editors, whose qualifications, theoretically, should include some working knowledge of the history of cinema, American or otherwise, managed to pick up and popularize such a vacant subcategorization borders on alarming. To do so implies the sort of belligerent carelessness that would have gotten me fired from my job as a fry cook at the Del Taco in Frisco, Texas where I worked as a high schooler.