“ALL THINGS considered, there’s a lot worse stuff that's happening today, I mean, a couple of people getting killed by one guy with a knife is not that big a deal,” said the latest victim of Michael Myers* in the recent cinematic release of Halloween (2018). With the drastic increase of societal “horrors” in America, a few of which include a plethora of gun violence, racial hatred and increasingly visible incidents of sexual assault, it is understandable to see a heightened reflection of these themes within the horror industry. And this has not gone unnoticed by mainstream Hollywood critics. In the recent years, an elevated term of “highbrow” has been bestowed upon certain horror flicks. Award winners such as Get Out (2017), A Quiet Place (2018) and Hereditary (2018) earned their title of “highbrow” cinematic acclaim due to their innovative techniques that produce a scare closer to real-life themes. With the recent release of the Netflix trailer Bird Box already being branded as “highbrow,” it seems as if a new wave of educated horror could be taking over the screens. However, does this elevation negate the foundations previously built by the horror genre that is generally dubbed as “lowbrow” by the mainstream?
From lowbrow to “highbrow”
Despite its continuous commercial hits, horror is often looked down upon not only by Hollywood, but also by mainstream audiences. Storylines involving overly graphic mutilations, hypersexualized imagery and the supernatural are often used as fodder to attack and demote the industry. Consequently, horror has earned itself a bad reputation, and is often synonymous with the term “lowbrow.”
Conversely, what critics define as “highbrow” horror is the aesthetically refined and thematically relevant way of producing fear amongst an audience that seeks its thrills a little closer to home. Get Out’s timely commentary on racial divides in America, for example, was praised for bringing real-life fear to the screen. Applauded by Common Sense Media as being “more than just a standard-issue thriller,” the film places its underlying message in the harrowing wider context of 2018 America. In the same vein, The New York Times commented on the film as “an exhilaratingly smart and scary freak out about a black man in a white nightmare.”
What critics and, ultimately, Hollywood have done is re-categorize what is typically understood as horror, and class it as not horror. Adjectives such as “elegant,” “intelligent,” and “artistic” are used to elevate the film and, in a way, distance it from the horror genre completely. This is evident in the obvious efforts of Common Sense Media to call Get Out more than the standard-issue thriller, overlooking the fact that it follows traditional horror tropes and is in all sense a horror film. The term “highbrow” limits the horror genre to films that do not live up to what “highbrow” films are: smart and up-to-date. These new terms imply that any other “typical” horror is inferior.
The Ringer questions whether there is anything “aesthetically distinct” about “highbrow” horror, or if the films are automatically elevated once it enters mainstream Hollywood through critical acclaim. The case of Bird Box poses similar questions. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the trailer showcased a blindfolded mother and her children in search for a safe place from monsters that will drive the onlooker mad if sighted. There was nothing aesthetically distinct or new in this trailer that sets it apart from previous dystopian horror or zombie flicks. Then, what gives it the label of “highbrow?”
Are we really seeing new techniques in an old industry?
Often criticized and overlooked when it comes to prestigious awards, horror has only recently made it into the Oscars—and that was with the “highbrow” moniker. It appears that the industry is systematically against giving the genre the recognition it deserves without such labels stamped firmly on it.
Horror is more than just a cheap thrill even without its new title of sophistication. The genre has always been innovative and socially aware, and the creation of these new terms hinders any recognition of “typical” horror as a genre that is capable of being thought-provoking. Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the very first movies to focus on a zombie narrative, was particularly noted for offering insight into America’s fear of Soviet Communism. Horror has embodied “the fear of the other” from day one; yet, because it is deemed lowbrow, it never reached any critical acclaim.
The Washington Post Online has criticized the elevation of horror to “highbrow” as a method of dissociation from what they see as gory slashers or cheesy jump scare flicks. “The practice of distancing a horror film from this lineage negates the majority of horror history,” the website commented. Years of literal blood, sweat and tears went into the consolidation of how horror is operated today, and to reject that past in an effort to elevate one film is to reject horror itself.
The term could be a symptom of the problems in the industry: a select few critics and big names in the industry get to decide what is elevated, or at least what is to be promoted as such. This brings us back to the December release of Bird Box, and how trailer is already being branded as “highbrow.” Although the movie itself has not even premiered yet, it is receiving praise due to its all-star cast and theme that resembles a reversed A Quiet Place. What’s more, it is known that the film will have a limited running time, which The Verge views as an attempt to qualify for industry awards such as the Oscars or Golden Globes, which typically seeks nominations from releases in December. The online multimedia platform also says that Academy, Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner, writer and director Susanne Bier’s “presence alone suggests that Bird Box is a more prestigious and ambitious feature than the low-rent horror films that are a lot more common on Netflix**.” The director has already been industry-approved, therefore suggesting that Bird Box has been engineered to be a hit. Not to mention that the film will be released in theatres before it streams on Netflix.
When Bier was asked by The Hollywood Reporter, she was careful to label her film as a “thriller” and not horror. She stated, “Look, I cannot do horror...I don't know how you define the difference, but I was really clear about making a thriller.” The trailer, however, depicts distressing scenes of suicide, a city in chaos and a monster in the mist, which can be classified as classic horror tropes. In an attempt to label it as anything but horror, the select few who get to decide whether something is “highbrow” or not, are distancing themselves from the already existing horror community.
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While the tag “highbrow” places horror within the limits of critical acclaim, without acknowledging its cinematic traditions, such distinctions reinforce the status of “typical” horror as “lowbrow.” Though “highbrow” horror has its thematic and cinematic roots in the traditional horror genre, a small collective still hold the privilege of cherry-picking what counts as “highbrow”, and thus worthy of acclaim. Whilst it is still too early to determine whether the acclaim afforded to “highbrow” horror will eventually extend to the broader category of horror, “highbrow” calls attention to the horror genre’s capability to tackle social commentary and ultimately does its job to provide a scare to a more mainstream audience. Because what’s scarier than the monster that waits outside the theatre?
*Michael Myers – the main antagonist in the Halloween slasher franchise