From Guillermo del Toro to Get Out, highbrow horror is riding high
'In horror, you're allowed to do stuff that you aren't allowed to do in other genres,' filmmaker says
Highbrow horror is having a pop culture moment, creeping us out while making us think, with a recent wave of "scary movies" that elevate the sometimes derided genre and spark spirited water-cooler discussion.
The best monster movies, psychological thrillers and horror flicks have typically plumbed societal and cultural fears of their eras, with notable titles — say The Birds, Rosemary's Baby or Night of the Living Dead — crossing over to a mainstream audience, winning acknowledgement outside the horror sphere and standing the test of time.
This latest creative wave arrives in a tumultuous world, and regular moviegoers — not just horror fans — are embracing the darkness, according to Andrea Subissati, executive editor of Rue Morgue magazine.
"We are living in sort of troubled times, and the climate is right for people to engage with scary material from a safe space, which has always been one of the functions of horror in society," said Subissati, who also co-hosts and produces "The Faculty of Horror" podcast.
Genre literature and film — the realm of the fantastic — has long been a place where artists could explore pressing social issues in a creative way, acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro told CBC News this week.
"The genre that manifests the clearest the anxieties of a society is, I think, the fantastic. If you think about the origin of fairy tales, they were talking about famine, pestilence and war. Think about Hansel and Gretel: it's about a couple that cannot feed [their] children, so they abandon them in the wood to die of starvation," he said during an interview in Toronto, the lone Canadian stop for his touring exhibit At Home with Monsters.
"In fantasy, we lower our guard and we can speak about things that we don't realize we're speaking about."
Perhaps because of horror's position on the edge of mainstream cinema, it has been a haven for filmmakers eager to play with form, test out unusual techniques and push boundaries of storytelling.
"You're allowed to do stuff that you aren't allowed to do in other genres. A lot of times there's a supernatural twist or element. You can get away with something that you wouldn't be able to get away with in a drama, say, something outrageous," said budding filmmaker Emily Gagne, who also programs local movie series and works at the Canadian Film Centre.
Many standout horror movies dive into complex topics, she said, whether it's race relations and the politics of 1960s America in Night of the Living Dead, society's treatment of women in Rosemary's Baby or puberty and female sexuality in Canadian cult favourite Ginger Snaps.
"Genre sort of lends to being a little bit more experimental, no matter what," Gagne said. "Creators that love the genre are getting opportunities to experiment even more and play around with our expectations even more."
Some of the most buzzworthy recent projects flipped the script and upended audience expectations. For instance, del Toro's Venice Film Festival-winning The Shape of Water— which has been described as his "Creature from the Black Lagoon romance movie" — features an underwater monster as the central male love interest.
Meanwhile, Mother!, film provocateur Darren Aronofsky's latest shocker, gets underway like your average supernatural thriller before morphing into a mind-bending, extremely polarizing critique of celebrity and religious worship, environmental destruction and artistic narcissism (to name just a few targets).
And then there's the flick movie fans of all stripes still can't get enough of: February's Get Out, Jordan Peele's genuinely frightening horror tale infused with savage, no-holds-barred social commentary and doused in dark comedy.
Del Toro calls Get Out the perfect example of reversing the notion of what we should fear.
"Beautiful, smiling, perfectly dressed, immaculate people can be terrifying, you know, and … when they see you or anyone else as 'the other,' horror ensues. I think that the same is true of our political climate," he said.
"This is a very scary time. It's a very scary time because we have — it's a paradox.… We are the most civilized we have [ever] been in our social discourse, but in our social interaction, we're thrown back almost half a century.… The prejudice, the hatred, the fear are what dominates the interaction."
'It's an exciting time for horror'
This latest surge of mainstream interest and wider discussion of horror movies could prove a catalyst that boosts the entire genre, especially if Hollywood decision-makers become more open to trying new things, telling original stories and spotlighting unexpected voices.
Horror filmmakers today "are experimenting a little bit more, while still trying to [keep] some of those standards that we expect," said Gagne, who is currently developing her first horror short.
"They can trick us into feeling we are in a safe space and that we know what's going to happen, but then throw us for a loop. They get you in with horror tropes and then they sort of play with your expectations and your emotions."
Movie executives should take note that audiences are hungry for more scary movies of all kinds, noted Subissati.
"These films are making an important statement to production companies that there is money to be made in horror, and it doesn't have to be the latest Chain Saw Massacre sequel. It doesn't have to be another rehash of Freddy vs. Jason. There are a lot of stories out there still waiting to be told by voices as of yet not heard in cinema," she said.
"It's an exciting time for horror."