Does the prestige horror trend mark a shift in the genre, or are we just more willing to engage critically with these films when they're photographed well?
Horror has never been highbrow, but since films such as Get Out and A Quiet Place, a new form of horror film has made it into the mainstream: prestige horror. But what does this mean for the genre? These artistic films are receiving more awards, better reviews and bigger profits than more traditional horror films ever have. Does this give them more artistic or cultural worth?
The horror label has traditionally been avoided by films aiming for a positive critical reception, or seeking an Oscar nomination. “Psychological thriller” became the new genre for gritty, disturbing films. The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, for example, enjoyed higher budgets and star-studded casts and were received excellently, while their obvious links to horror were masked behind artistic cinematography and clever marketing. Some horror films were less shy about fitting into the genre, such as The Shining, but were not lumped together with low-brow, schlocky horror of the day such as The Omen or Halloween.
Prestige horror has existed for a while, but in the last few years we have seen it move from the odd high-budget horror flick to dominating the genre. This may be excellent for horror’s image, but does it cheapen more traditional, schlocky horror? A24 is perhaps the distributor that first comes to mind when we think of this move towards more aesthetically pleasing and psychologically-orientated horror films; The Lighthouse, Midsommar, The VVitch, and Hereditary are all undoubtedly well-made and well-received films which don’t need to hide away from the dreaded horror label in order to be taken seriously.
In comparison to films such as Child’s Play or the Leprechaun franchise, it may be easy to see why this development has been so welcomed, and why the horror label was previously avoided. But campy, schlocky horror has something different to offer. It’s hard to watch The Lighthouse over a couple drinks with your flatmates, yelling at the screen the way you can with I Know What You Did Last Summer. Horror is fundamentally a fun genre: cheap jump scares, dumb teen characters, and masked psychos are what make the viewing experience fun. Even thinking of Scary Movie, we can see how the familiar, campy aspects of horror are what makes the genre. Being genuinely frightened is fun, but so is seeing a child’s head spin as she screams “your mother sucks cocks in hell” at a priest. Hereditary simply isn’t as laughable, quotable, or jump-out-of-your-seat scary as schlocky, gory horror films – but that isn’t Ari Aster’s aim, and both formats are valuable.
Horror films have always been seen to respond to their time, from Night of the Living Dead right up to Get Out, but films of the last few years address these issues more openly than before. Considering of the metaphor of sexual assault in It Follows, or the exploration of race issues in America in Get Out, we can see why these emotional and relevant films are being better received than most 90s slashers. But we can also see these films as a development of and response to camp horror. These films continue to embrace gore, ghosts, and slashers without hiding behind the label of “psychological thriller”. They take classic horror tropes and subvert many of them, while embracing others, often in a refreshing, modern setting. But what stands out most about these films is the aesthetics.
Modern prestige horror films have moved away from the traditional dingy basements and dark city streets we are so used to, and into sunny, flowery festivals or upper middle-class homes. These films are often beautiful and artistic, for example The Lighthouse, which was shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio (most modern films being 2.39:1), and contains interesting motifs throughout. Most importantly, it’s thought-provoking (or confusing, in my opinion). But all this brings us to the question of artistic merit and value. Are these films more artistically valuable given their aesthetics and complex themes, or are they simply better critically received?
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a more schlocky, campy horror film, with many horror tropes (teen sex, gore, man in a mask with a chainsaw), but it is also at times beautiful and artistic, especially in the beginning. At its heart, though, it is a slasher film. This film is no less valuable than, for instance, The VVitch. It is different, yes, but it is horror as we know and love it. Prestige horror may be more suitable for critics, but this October I would personally rather be watching Friday the 13th or Halloween. Midsommar may be more aesthetically pleasing, but the aesthetics of traditional horror are a huge part of the appeal, and not something films should have to shy away from in order to be seen as valuable.
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