Horror Paves the Way for Groundbreaking Mainstream Cinema


I sadly hold a negative view of the modern film industry and have a pessimistic outlook on the future of mainstream films. Films seem to be made purely for profit, and therefore must conform to genre conventions to satisfy the expectations of a multiplex audience. A saturation exists of demeaning comedies, trashy romcoms, and horrifically banal, formulaic superhero films. Don’t get me wrong, there are some outstanding, groundbreaking films that appear now and again at the multiplex, but they are a rarity and usually defy genre. You would usually have to travel to an independent or arthouse cinema to catch a film that really makes a unique impression or artistic impact; it is sad that multiplexes don’t sacrifice their risk of not turning a profit, in showing a truly groundbreaking film. However, a recent unexpected trend has emerged, where cinematic boundaries are being broken – and this is found in the modern horror film.

Horror was once the weakest genre, most filled with clichés. Jump scares were held as a must, and manufactured music techniques were relied upon to create any kind of tension. These conventions have been blown out the water by a selection of new-wave horror films in the last 5 years, setting a precedent of genre experimentation. Recent horror attempts to revisit the usual style have flopped and looked down upon for producing something thoroughly uninspiring. Mark Kermode named Winchester as one of his worst films of 2018, which featured another haunted house plot, and tried to bring in Helen Mirren as an attempt to flog a dead horse. Unsurprisingly, it made no commercial impact either.

Similarly, the industry relies on reboots as an excuse to gain commercial interest, so they don’t have to put the effort into producing something unusual and interesting. If Happy Death Day wasn’t bad enough to begin with, they returned with the unrequested Happy Death Day 2U (the title being an amusingly blatant attempt to appeal to the younger market). As well as the iconic Halloween being tarnished by a quite frankly rubbish remake which reused a similar score to try and bring reminiscence, but with a wholeheartedly uninteresting plot. Both remakes also failed to make an impact.

However, a huge audience buzz has been created films made for the mainstream multiplex audience that have dared to break boundaries and hold some level of symbolic meaning. Jordan Peele comes to mind as the most high-profile director of truly absurd horror masterpieces. His recent picture Us made a lasting impact on me. It created a horribly intense atmosphere throughout the film, so that it didn’t need to rely on cheap jump scares – the whole two hours were a deeply dark and horrible experience. It cast actors who had the capability of holding a complex portrayal. Lupita N’yongo essentially played three separate versions of her character and drove a physical, verbal and emotional rollercoaster of a performance. And Peele managed to interweave a layered socio-political critique of modern America amongst the doppelganger-chase storyline.

It goes without saying how Peele’s previous feature Get Out also embodied a social commentary that touched audiences. Get Out used horror to tackle a dystopian racial scenario for Daniel Kaluuya’s lead. What began as a subtle examination of the black experience of entering a white family turned into a constant nightmare sequence in a racially motivated series of catastrophes. The film’s particularly harrowing scene comes courtesy of the hypnotist who glues the lead character to his chair and brings him to hysteria – a bizarre, horrible image.

Daren Aronofsky’s Mother also packs a hefty social critique, commenting on a wide variety of modern issues. Mother received a lukewarm, divided reception among audiences, and this is understandable if the film was viewed purely on a surface level. On the surface, the film is utterly bonkers and doesn’t have any restraint or subtlety. However, if watched with an open mind ready for an intelligent outlook throughout its duration, it is an absolute masterpiece. It can be interpreted in many ways; my personal imaginings of it being that of an environmentalist critique on how we’re destroying the Earth through greed and overconsumption, and also a story of the Bible from Adam and Eve through to Jesus’ death and the questionable future of the world in Revelations. Mother is a catastrophic, fire-filled horror with a deeply fascinating scope for interpretation and beautiful performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. With pictures like this around it’s a sad shame that some audiences would still rather see a mundane, predictable horror.

This similar controversy existed with Ari Aster’s Hereditary, one of my favourite films of last year that again received a huge polarised reception. Aster’s masterful screenplay and direction weaves a thread of haunting and paranoia among the family in a careful, subtle way that creates a genuine horror effect on the audience. And as the film gets more extreme as it progresses, it builds on a plethora of meanings and hints developed in the first half, leading to the climax of Paimon’s ultimate reveal. Toni Collette puts in a career defining performance here held up by an outstandingly unique and complex feature.

Yet, not all excellent modern horrors need to be complex. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is demonstrative of how a simple story can be executed fantastically. The torturing of Essie Davis’ maternal lead by a children’s storybook makes for an unlikely modern classic. It’s concise, alternative and wryly amusing at times – all the ingredients for a great horror, and I’ve thusly rewatched it many times. Many other horrors in a domestic setting achieve equal greatness, such as The Gift, Joel Edgerton’s story of the dark reemergence of a figure from Jason Bateman’s lead’s past; The Guest, a mystery identity crime horror with a career rejuvenation for Dan Stevens; and the twisted genius of It Follows, which depicts a crisis of murder threats spread through sexual transmission.

And remakes need not always be superfluous. Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino put his trademark creative spin on Suspiria, a 1977 Italian horror film, and remade it for modern times. He placed a glorious feminist interpretation of the original tale set in a ballet school. His remake is shot with nostalgic pastel tones, gory prosthetic effects and accompanied by spectacular score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. And most interestingly features Tilda Swinton as an unrecognisable elderly man, where she acts under the alias of a fake German actor Lubs Ebersdorf.

The modern horror film displays that cinema doesn’t need to be independent or arthouse to be groundbreaking. Other genres should take note and dare to break boundaries and make a statement. This is an extremely important change that needs to occur to prevent the film industry from churning out constant formulaic, standardised rubbish.

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