“Horror” May be a Lowbrow Genre: but Genre is a Lie:

A Response to James’ Granger’s Toronto Star Op-Ed

It_Follows_(poster)On July 22nd, the front page of the Toronto Star entertainment section featured a small picture of a terrified Chris from Get Out, topped with the headline “Horror films are at heart lowbrow art”. As someone whose relationship to film has been nurtured by the recent emergence of “highbrow” horror, I decided to challenge my views and check out the op-ed. The side of me that wanted to have my views criticized was left disappointed.

The first half of the article builds up to being a critique of Get Out (and It Follows, and potentially other recent highbrow horror highlights). We learn that the critic, James Granger, sees the films as unoriginal—“The Stepford Wives substituting race relations for feminism.” He then makes an unrelated critique of It Follows, saying the film abandons (what he interprets to be its premise) of dealing with post-rape trauma in favour of “a mumble-core coming of age story.” Finally Granger dismisses new film A Ghost Story, simply because he knows it features a man in a two-holes-and-a-sheet ghost costume (never mind that A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror film).

How does Granger unite his, arguably idiosyncratic, unrelated critiques of these three films? He reverses on himself and praises them, saying they are “too smart…to scare the audience for very long.” Granger’s thesis ultimately comes as a surprise. His claim that horror is lowbrow art, named after a “primitive” emotion, is not meant as a criticism but a respectful observation. He is not saying that Get Out is a lowbrow film, but that it fails because it is not a lowbrow film.

Now maybe I’m not the right person to be responding to this piece. I can’t begin to relate to the kind of people who say they like amusement parks because they like getting scared, so perhaps I can’t relate to the kind of viewer who wants their horror to be as gory and traumatizing as possible. For me, the thrill of watching so-called horror-films is experiencing the psychological struggles of characters as they are confronted with exceptions to the norms of reality. The genius of much of today’s highbrow horror is how it tinkers with that formula. Get Out, for instance, depicts a fantastical-source of terror that does exist in the real world (racism), leaving viewers to juggle with the question of where the line between magic and realism in Get Out truly lies. The Witch similarly experimented with the horror formula by depicting a historical moment in which witches and other horrific beings were accepted as part of reality. Viewers of The Witch are thus in the unique position of knowing they are watching a horror story, while the film’s characters do not understand themselves as participating in one.

Another strength of “highbrow horror” is that it often substitutes graphic visuals of monsters/evil, with simple, realistic shots. It Follows and It Comes at Night, are both examples of works in which the monster was never shown to be more than “it.” In Granger’s eyes this makes the films disappointments. If anything, however, the (non)presence of “its” makes these films better as audiences are dealt with the dual horror of both knowing that an “it” exists, while also experiencing the horrific ways in which the fluid entity that is it permeates into the characters—scaring them and becoming part of them. I should add here, that as someone who partially enjoys art not just as a viewer but as a (very, very amateur) creator, there’s a certain thrill in seeing low budget horror. I might not be able to make home movies about zombies, but I can certainly be inspired to create projects featuring “its” and “sheet-ghosts.”

Is highbrow horror possible? On the one hand, recent innovations in the genre, such as the explicit conscientiousness of Get Out, the subtle horror of Colossal and the magical-historical-fiction of The Witch show that of course it is possible, even as these films are not above criticism. To call these films “non-horror” or disappointments in the genre is to miss that their strength stems from a constant eerie sense that something is not quite right, and that that may be due to a supernatural force being at play. Perhaps these films should not be considered good horror for failing to meet Granger’s standard for scariness. But if that’s the only problem, then let’s do all of ourselves a favour and stop worrying about the lie that is genre. Just as Willie Nelson should not be kept out of the rock and roll hall of fame because some voters think “country” (which is folk-rock music sung with a southern accent) is a “different genre” than “rock,” great horror films like “It Comes at Night,” should not be dismissed because they are “not scary.”

It Comes at Night (2017)

Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

It_Comes_at_Night“Watch a Patriarchy Crumble in It Comes at Night,” proclaims Rich Juzwiak of Jezebel. Juzwiak’s summation of the film is not a bad one. It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as Paul: a cold, strong father who will kill when he has to, and insists no one outside of his family can be trusted. Paul even runs his own family in a dictatorial fashion, a dynamic made particularly plain by the (unstated) possibility that he is the stepfather to the family’s comparatively gentle son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Yet while It Comes At Night undoubtedly depicts a patriarchal family, the film is arguably not so much about patriarchy or distrust as it is about inevitability. Vegetarians, vegans and animal lovers will notice this theme first, when Will (Christopher Abbot) offers Paul’s family food, and by food he means live chickens and goats (one supposedly played by Charlie (Black Phillip from The Witch). Perhaps some audience members will squirm at the sight of these animals, fearing they will be featured in a slaughter scene (don’t worry, there is none). Despite their squirming they will not be able to blame the humans of this film for having to find ways to eat in their desolate, post-apocalyptic living conditions.

In It Comes at Night, this sad-logic of the life of farm animals comes to effect the film’s humans. When Paul kills, as much as audiences may be repulsed by his comfort with his actions, they will not be able to dismiss him as a bad character. If what Paul, and to a lesser extent the other characters, says is true, he has no choice but to kill those who have been infected by “it” in order to protect his family. Nothing can persuade him to act differently, regardless of how conflicted he may feel internally. His violence is inevitable.

The true terror of It Comes at Night is thus not Paul’s brutality in itself, but the horrible thought that Paul’s killings may very well be justified. It’s one thing to endure the psychological pain that comes with fleeing a raging gun man—it quite another to have to both endure this pain and the pain of knowing the gunman is chasing you with justice running by his side.

It Comes at Night is a well-paced story with a good range of characters: many of whom are likeable, but all of whom remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Viewers in search of a well told, discussion-provoking horror movie should check it out.