Nia Edwards-Behi looks at the new phenomenon in some critics’ circles known as “post-horror”, and asks firstly if such a thing even exists, and secondly, why are critics so suspicious of horror’s ability to push the envelope.
A couple of days ago, The Guardian published an article authored by critic Steve Rose titled “How post-horror movies are taking over cinema”, and it was met with almost immediate disdain from what might be broadly-termed the ‘horror community’ – that is, people who readily and frequently watch horror films; from fans to producers to critics to academics. If there was a certain sense of weariness to this minor outrage, it’s simply because we’ve seen this sort of so-called criticism a thousand times before.
In short, Rose’s article uses interviews with the directors of two upcoming films, It Comes At Night and A Ghost Story, as a platform to valorise what he claims to be a “new genre” that he dubs “post-horror”. His reasoning for this is that these two films – along with other recent examples such as The Witch, The Neon Demon and Personal Shopper – represent a break with the traditional “rules and codes” of horror films, offering up stories which are more profound and insightful than what the confines of the genre Rose deems “too rigid” allows. In the article, Rose hand-picks past examples of auteur-filmmakers who have broken beyond the apparent rigidity of horror to make the genre’s masterpieces, such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, and suggests that it’s this sensibility that these new filmmakers are tapping into.
The long-standing tradition of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ horror films goes beyond film history and into literary history, where some gothic novels, whose heritage is now so revered, were sneered upon at the time for being too sensationalist. In the 1950s through to the 1970s, horror films in Britain were routinely dismissed for being too sensationalist or too extreme in very similar terms to how some Gothic novels were received. Some of these same films are now the auteurist paragons to which we compare modern horror films. More recently, we see the phrase ‘gothic’ used as a means to suggest a film which is above mere horror, a film that is better than that, that relies on a sense of heritage and quality that would barely ever have been associated with a Hammer Dracula film in the 1960s. It’s not just pre-existing notions that are used to continue to denigrate the genre, however. When terms such as ‘social thriller’ and ‘deathwave’ come and go, the one that seems to persist is ‘elevated genre’. Applicable to more than just horror, this is a means for filmmakers and marketers to distinguish themselves from what they would seem to define as ‘just’ regular horror films – whatever that might be. I have seen this phrase used in a biography for a film producer responsible for one of the more generic examples of horror I’ve seen recently, which just goes to show how pointless a term it is.
So now we have post-horror thrown into the mix. If it didn’t already just smack of the same-old critical snobbery we’re used to about horror, then there’s a distinct incorrectness to the entire article that makes it all the more unbearable. Demonstrating out-dated reliance on authorship as a mark of quality and a vast misunderstanding of the purpose and function of genre in the first place, all Rose is really saying in his article is “I don’t like horror, so these particular films must be something else.” Rose writes that “more than any other genre, horror movies are governed by rules and codes,” which is both simultaneously incorrect and bafflingly ignorant of genre. Genres are not fixed entities. The whole point of a genre, and the codes and tropes therein, is to provide a framework for artists to work within, and that can mean breaking those rules as much as playing by them. Rose seems to suggest that horror only works with variations on well-established themes, and goes on to list a series of tropes – tropes are not the same thing, they’re routes into explorations of themes. Supernatural possession is a trope that allows for exploration of identity, haunted houses can represent all manner of repression, psycho killers explore the human psyche and zombies? Zombies have been most wonderful metaphors for a whole host of societal concerns, even today, when they are indeed a tired and over-used trope.
Genre is also a powerful marketing tool as much as it is an artistic construct, which Rose fleetingly touches upon when he lists examples of angry audience reactions to It Comes at Night and The Witch. Critics, journalists and filmmakers are as much part of that marketing machine as agencies and designers paid specifically to promote and brand a film. By using labels such as these, it’s hard not to feel hugely insulted as an audience member and a fan. Now, I have no doubt that there are some people who like their horror to look, sound and feel a certain way, but for the most part fans of horror are fans of it precisely because of how broad and all-encompassing it can be. Horror has myriad subgenres and it would have been distinctly less unreasonable to suggest that perhaps post-horror is one. If it’s anything, at the moment, it would seem to be a cycle, and it seems to me far too early to suggest much more other than that.
Any such suggestion might also have been more warmly received had the article contained any sense of acknowledgement or understanding of the horror genre, either in its current form or its history. As many have noted, the description of It Comes at Night in the article sounds remarkably similar to the plot of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film made almost 50 years ago. So what on exactly is ‘post-’ about It Comes At Night? An aspect of these films that Rose seems particularly fond of, and that’s an interest “in the horrors within”. Of course, that’s exactly the change that has been noted between the monster/creature classic horror of the 1930s-60s when films like Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came along. Of course, a lot of those creatures, monsters and aliens were as much about human concerns as any psycho.
The article’s conclusion is perhaps the most telling and damning part, claiming grandly that “the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers” to “big, metaphysical questions” and that it’s “about time” that horror was being pushed into new realms. It’s only ten years since we were in the middle of the ‘torture porn’ cycle of films, arguably a potent cinematic response to the so-called War on Terror and surveillance society. 10 years prior to that Scream was onto its first sequel and J-horror was about to change everything, while 1987 brought us Hellraiser, Bad Taste and Near Dark – and 1977 gave us films as far removed from each other as Suspiria, Hausu, Demon Seed and Eraserhead. Horror is a constantly evolving genre, and while some tropes never die, it is in fact horror’s precise capacity to address ‘big questions’ that make it such a vibrant and multifaceted pool to play in.
Cultural snobbery is certainly a two-way street, and distinctions between what we like and what we don’t like, even within niches, is always going to part and parcel of consuming and appreciating cultural works. Using platforms of cultural gate-keepership, however, to denigrate a persistently rich and popular genre with little mind to nuance is more than simple cultural distinction, it’s shoddy journalism.