How Big Picture Horror Is Heading Back to the Mainstream
Could a horror film finally be about to bag a Best Picture nomination?
You only have to look as far as London’s Leicester Square on an obnoxiously warm August Bank Holiday weekend, to realise just how celebrated the horror genre already is. Every year without fail (since way back in 2000), FrightFest opens its doors to genre fans and filmmakers from all over the world, for 5 days of non-stop demons, dark laughs and on-screen dismemberment. Festival passes sell out at quite literally the drop of a hat, and the screens are filled with some of the most exciting new talent this side of a certain Utah-based independent film festival. Horror is already very much alive and kicking, and has been for some time.
So why is it then, that we so rarely see it topping out the box office in the same way that Andy Muschietti’s hugely acclaimed evil-clown reboot It has? The latest in a ridiculously long line of Stephen King adaptations, It did more business in one weekend in the US, than Fifty Shades Darker, Ghost in the Shell and the Tom Cruise Mummy remake all did in their entire domestic runs. A few days later – still less than a week into its release – Muschietti’s movie had surpassed the latest Transformers’ total too.
Don’t get me wrong, the horror genre does well year on year. Blumhouse, the production company behind everything from Insidious to Split to the Paranormal Activity series and the most recent Annabelle movie, have been really raking it in for the last decade, turning tiny budgets into huge (although not It-level huge) blockbuster hits. But with the exception of the very, very different Get Out (which we’ll get to in just a minute), these are small movies with relatively small ambitions. If Jason Blum and his private army of horror directors can make you jump a handful of times before those end credits roll, it’s mission accomplished. It seems that the genre movies that are sticking around and really pulling in the mega bucks, are the ones with a whole lot more to say.
Before you go there, yes, It is being sold as just another jumpy spookfest with a really scary clown. But you only have to look as far as the scale of its scares to see just how much it differs from the other less successful horrors it’s apparently been chasing. Budget isn’t everything, but with ten-times the spending-power of an Insidious or a Sinister, It has more time to invest in the world behind its jumps and bumps; its period setting, and more importantly (and what makes it, for me at least, one of the most lasting recent genre releases) its deeper horror. It isn’t just a movie about a scary clown, it’s a movie about the very idea of fear itself, and the fear of growing up.
Much in the same way that Get Out isn’t just an occasionally jumpy movie with racism as a theme, it’s a film that really gets under the skin of how ingrained racism is in western society. It has meaning, commentary, something to say about the world. It doesn’t just exist to scare you in the short term; it’s a lasting dread that you feel throughout everything you do, for months and even years afterwards. This type of ‘big picture’ horror isn’t new, it’s been around for decades, but the core film markets seem to have just got lost in this other, much cheaper, and far less substantial style of horror, that’s dropped into cinemas month in, month out, and very quickly forgotten about.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the movies Blumhouse produces; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m an active fan of a whole number of them, Insidious included. Any horror fan worth their salt will admit to being a fan of the occasional disposable scare. This isn’t anything to do with the quality of the films themselves, it’s what they’re aiming to do to their audiences, and the dominant trend in horror more recently has been just that: disposable entertainment.
If you look back at the 1970s, two of the top ten highest-grossing (when adjusted for inflation) – and, arguably, two of the top ten most critically-acclaimed – films of all time, could be classified as big picture horror. Both Jaws and The Exorcist won several Oscars each (with both picking up a Best Picture nomination too), and both front majorly deep, meaningful, and carefully crafted takedowns on everything from religion to politics. The last time a horror movie came even close to that level of mainstream celebration was M. Night Shyamalan’s truly exceptional The Sixth Sense way back in 1999, a film that hinged on a totally game-changing new way of storytelling.
So yes, horror has been alive and kicking for quite some time. But big picture horror? We might finally be looking at a renaissance. With the likes of It and Get Out now very much leading the charge – following on from the ground-work laid out by the likes of It Follows and The Babadook in 2014 – we could well be on our way to finally seeing a horror Best Picture winner. Or at the very least, a horror Best Picture nominee. Especially if Guillermo del Toro’s horror-infused monster movie The Shape of Water, and Darren Aronofsky’s psychological mind-boggler Mother! both continue on their upward trajectories.
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