NOAH REICH asks if we are witnessing the return of high-quality horror films.
We live in a jump-scare generation. The predominance of horror films conforming to a ‘quiet-quiet-loud’ formula is startling, meaning that original psychological scares are hard to come by in the cinema. Horror films are generally cheap to produce and do not rely on the casting of ‘stars’, therefore features are churned out into the ether on a weekly basis, often failing to register with audiences and critics alike.
However, the past few years have seen a steady resurgence in horror films with brains; while it’s easy to shock, what takes real filmmaking skill is to imbue a film with a lasting sense of dread and terror that doesn’t disappear the moment the viewer steps outside of the cinema and back into the real world. The releases of two excellent, markedly different horror films in the past month, 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Witch, is the culmination of an upturn in horror film-making that has been gathering momentum since the turn of the century.
10 Cloverfield Lane is said to be a ‘cousin’ of the 2008 cult hit Cloverfield, which used the found-footage format popularised by The Blair Witch Project to tell the story of an alien invasion hitting New York City. Written by Drew Goddard – whose 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods began to question ‘horror’ as a tightly-defined genre by merging it with elements from comedy and sci-fi B-Movies – Cloverfield asked questions, in a post-Saw world, of whether horror could possibly have a soul.
What 10 Cloverfield Lane does to impressive effect is question our preconceptions of what feeling a horror film ought to provoke in an audience. While we wait expectantly for the monster-movie that would justify the title, what becomes clear is that it is of no real consequence whether the monsters alluded to by John Goodman’s terrifying Howard really exist or not. It is what is off the screen, away from our viewpoint, that is crucial: the creation of an unknown that can haunt us due to its intangibility.
Borrowing genre tropes from Ridley Scott and John Carpenter simultaneously might seem like a tall order, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is able to pay homage to both Alien and Halloween while retaining a uniquely hybrid voice. The film’s odd contemporary counterpart must be Oscar-winning Room, by way of The Day After Tomorrow, as a strange but satisfying combination of psychological drama and apocalyptic dread. While the suddenness of the genre-shift that takes place before the final act of the film is reminiscent of From Dusk Till Dawn, it still seems fresh and inventive, and doesn’t halt the film’s insistent narrative progress.
The Witch takes an entirely different route towards its scares. Slow-moving and brooding almost to the point of inertia, Robert Eggers’ film teases our expectations of what horror ought to provide us by leaving the audience on a precipice, expecting a catharsis that may never truly arrive. The director shows us a physical, perceivable witch figure within the first act of the film, and then asks us for the remaining 80 minutes whether or not we believed our eyes. Does the witch that he has shown us actually exist at all? The addition of unsolvable imagery and objective motifs, in the forest, apples, black sheep, and hare, moulds The Witch into a maddeningly frightening meditation on human dissonance.
Eggers is influenced by some of the most successful horror films of the decade thus far: It Follows, The Babadook and The Conjuring have their image etched indelibly upon moments of his film. Each of these films is more concerned with atmosphere than surprise, more intent on penetrating the soul than making their audiences jump. But each have their own shortcomings: the denouement of It Follows undermines its brooding set-up; The Conjuring is overly reliant on its supernatural predecessors, from The Exorcist onwards; and The Witch perhaps fails to deliver the threat that it promises so strongly early on.
The Babadook is the most complete of the four films, as it manages to do what its contemporaries often fail to: creating a character that one can empathize with and care about by coaxing a hauntingly memorable performance out of Essie Davis. Davis’s Amelia is reminiscent of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie in Carpenter’s Halloween, and the film’s minimalist aesthetic and slow build-up of tension shows director Jennifer Kent’s clear mastery of horror film-making, despite her career only being in its early stages. Where The Witch falls short of It Follows and The Babadook is in its inability to insert itself more deeply into the viewer’s consciousness. It is as carefully stylised and suggestive as the former, and as supernatural and character-focused as the latter, but the alchemy of the film’s elemental make-up is ultimately unsatisfying.
However, this is Eggers’ directorial debut, and he shows more than enough promise here to mean that his upcoming remake of the first great horror film, Nosferatu, will be awaited with excitement. Perhaps, then, living through the age of the jump-scare horror flick is not as bad as it may seem if it can allow intelligent, creative directors and writers to challenge and subvert norms and blur genre definitions, producing work that can stand out from the saturated crowd. Maybe this really is the golden age of horror cinema.