Throughout its history as a genre of film media, horror-related cinema has long been defined by the tropes and stylistic flourishes of its era. There has often been a film, or a small collection of films, that would go on to inspire countless successors, imitators, and more. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which went on to lay the groundwork for the slasher sub-genre, the original Scream which led to an era of revitalized quality and self-awareness within the genre, and even more filmmaking-based trends such as The Blair Witch Project, which single-handedly created the found-footage boom. Now, within the last decade or so, an era of horror polarized by a distinct separation in philosophy has spawned. We have seen the rise of both the elevated horror subgenre, which prioritizes a greater narrative message and depth of commentary within films, as well as a “back to basic” approach to horror cinema and an emphasis on rebooting or continuing classic franchises. The duality of the art form is truly unique and eventful, and only time will tell which facet this period will be better remembered for.
Elevated horror is a subgenre of modern horror that prioritizes a more cerebral experience for the viewer and contains a greater emphasis on a thematically driven plot and source of terror. Most of these films contain social commentary as a core component such as It Follows (2015) which dealt with sexually transmitted disease as a key theme. Get Out (2017) dealt with racial microaggressions as a primary talking point, and The Lighthouse (2019) came to terms with the effects of isolation on mental health. Elevated horror was largely popularized by independent American entertainment production company A24, as well as indie directors and directors typically classified within the art house genre of filmmaking. This often gives these films a very unique look and feel unlike other works in the genre. They often incorporate very distinct shot composition, sound design, soundtracks, and a more personal narrative style. A work like Robert Eggers’s first feature film, The Witch, a masterful but extremely slow-burn period piece about a Puritan family confronting evil lurking in the woods. Complete with era appropriate dialect, it could never have been funded and produced in an era before these films were deemed acceptable and profitable. This is the beauty of the elevated horror movement. It provides a gateway to new ideas within the genre and substantially more experimental styles of filmmaking.
The other primary genre of horror popularized by the modern era is a combination of back-to-basics horror and the revitalization of classic franchises. Back to basics horror is relatively simple. It’s a trend of increasing complexity that elevated horror has brought to the table in favor of the basic genre staples such as one-dimensional slashers or classic tropes. A great example of this is Don’t Breathe (2016), in which a group of teenagers must escape from a dangerous and agitated blind man. It utilizes a simple set-up and classic genre elements but injects modern sensibilities and advancements to create a more refined, unique experience. The revitalization of classic horror franchises has also been a massive part of the modern horror renaissance. A multitude of franchises like Halloween, Scream, Candyman, and soon Hellraiser have returned to moderate success, but are mostly of questionable quality. These films tend to suffer from the same flaws of other nostalgia sequels within the modern era and are generally less impressive than the fresh ideas that new, unique projects have brought to the table. Still, some of these reboots present an interesting opportunity to reconfigure classic films and franchises to be better than they were originally. The upcoming Hulu reboot of Hellraiser seems to be much closer in line to what the original should have been tonally, and that’s inspiring. Careful and cautious innovation based on what worked and didn’t work in the past is often the best form of innovation.
In summary, we live in a fantastic era for cinematic horror. We are at the forefront of an extremely competitive artistic arms race to reconfigure the genre in bold and innovative ways. This is a golden age for fresh new ideas and consistent high production values in the field of horror movies. Only time will tell if the ideals of the auteur, art house style film makers or the classic, straightforward approach of traditionalists will reshape the genre going forward into the next decade.