Before I kick things off, if you haven’t yet seen ‘Hereditary’, ‘Get Out’, ‘The Witch’ or ‘Housebound’, I’ll be dropping all sorts of mad spoilers so you might want to leave this page. Alternatively you could bookmark it, reassess your priorities, run to a cinema and then you’ll be good to go. Let’s continue!
If you’re a fan of scary films like me, you’ve probably heard words to this effect when you suggest watching a horror on movie night. Swiftly followed by “slashers and gore are so gross”, “what kind of sadist wants to be scared” or the more and more common; “they’re all the same these days, you can guess the ending”.
These are all reasonable, if slightly reductive, points. And sometimes horrors do glorify gratuitous violence, give you nightmares and become overly-predictable. This last point is especially true. Just check the average horror film rating on IMDb, it’s rarely higher than the typical drama, comedy or thriller. Not like those good old golden days that had ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Shining’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, right?
So modern horror films haven’t generally had a great rap. Until now. The change? A wave of new directors taking a slower, more intelligent approach to the genre than the ‘Human Centipede’s of this world.
‘Hereditary’: A masterclass in pacing and prolonging fear
Ok, so not everyone loved the ending to 2018’s ‘modern Exorcist’, but good god did it awesomely play with your mind through various push and pull pacing techniques. One minute it’s crazy as hell action action action before it’s then paaainfully slow.
One scene in particular sticks in my mind:
Peter (played by the incredibly expressive Alex Wolff) races home in the car while his sister Charlie (the suitably mysterious Milly Shapiro) hyperventilates in the backseat due to eating peanuts (despite an allergy). Peter races on, swerves to avoid an animal and then there is a horrible thud as we hear, not see, Charlie’s head hit a telephone post. We don’t see Charlie, we don’t see the animal. We simply see Peter, frozen in his seat. Too terrified to do anything or look into the rear-view mirror. Slowly, Peter then drives home, parks and walks up to his room in an apparent daze. The camera silently still stays on Peter as we hear the dreadful scream of Annie (Toni Colette) discovering her beheaded daughter the next morning.
Director Ari Aster’s debut deliberately toys with the audience, but not in an arrogant or for-its-own-sake way. He masterfully withholds shots and sound to illustrate the true, senseless horror of trauma. And we, the viewers, are just one example of the various doll house inhabitants meticulously manipulated throughout, to look where we’re told, hear what we’re told and be fully at the mercy of ‘Hereditary’.
‘Get Out’: A tightly controlled thriller with a genuinely surprising twist
‘Get Out’ was one of the best films of 2017, rightly winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and bagging a decent crop of nominations to boot. The twist was also darker and weirder than I thought it was going to be – a rare thing to say about a modern horror.
Part racial satire, part mysterious thriller, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut beautifully glides through genres and smartly builds up the hints and symbolism around the principal themes of vision and distortion.
It’s all about the notion of sight and really ‘seeing’, viewpoints and perspectives and even on a more literal level, eyes themselves. Take the still above of protagonist Chris (played by the exceptional Daniel Kaluuya), the most recognisable promotional image from the film. His eyes are what stand out. Wet, shiny, giant and red. What is he seeing? What is he realising? What has happened? Why is he seemingly frozen in pure, unadulterated fear?
As we progress through the film, we realise that every shot, every line and every facial expression has something to say. Some deeper meaning. There are darker truths at work if only we’re able to see them.
‘The Witch’: An exercise in realism and stark cinematography
There aren’t many films (to my knowledge) that feature a goat named Black Phillip as the devil incarnate, but here we are. Kidding aside though, Robert Eggers’s 2015 feature debut ‘The Witch’ is a spectacularly bleak vacuum of claustrophobia, paranoia and intensity.
The cast is fantastic, the plot is great and the script is suitably minimalist, but it is the cinematography and the broader tone created that give ‘The Witch’ its power. The best way I can think to describe it is it’s like this cloying, dank filter permeates each shot. Like a sickness. The bleakness of the colours, the trees that loom imposingly over the family, the almost painfully stark mise-en-scène. All of this helps the film possess an intriguing cinematic quality, with noticeable hints of John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic ‘The Road’, Alejandro Amenábar’s ‘The Others’ and Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’.
Every shot has an ominous sense of ‘otherness’ to it, whether in a mysterious supernatural fashion or in a more unblemished, puritanical and devout way. It’s hard to watch but it’s equally hard to look away.
‘Housebound’: A horror-comedy that actually delivers on both counts
We know that horrors are much-maligned, plus they say that comedy is supposedly much harder to pull off than drama – so for Gerard Johnstone’s 2014 film ‘Housebound’ to smash it on both counts is really quite something.
The low-budget, Kiwi movie follows Kylie (a wonderfully mopey Morgana O’Reilly) as she is forced to return to her childhood home to live under house arrest with her overbearing mother (the scene-stealing Rima Te Wiata).
All the classic horror tropes you’d expect are there and are hit well, with the art of suggestion à la ‘Babadook’ playing as big a part as the characters in the maze- of a house. But it’s the humour that steals the show. From an opportune ‘righto!’ to an absurdist rant from Wiata; the script is immaculate and the comic timing is absolutely on point. Exhibit A:
Amos: What are you gonna do against a hostile spirit? You just gonna crack jokes?
Kylie: No, I am going to smash it in the face.
Amos: You cannot punch ectoplasm.
First time may just well be the charm
These four recent slow burn horrors are bringing new life to a genre that many had written off. We’re seeing films that are slower, more three-dimensional and much more likely to linger in the brain long after the film has ended.
Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe we’re in the midst of a lucky streak, but what’s amazing is that all these films are directorial debuts.
In most jobs, it takes a bit of time to warm into your role. An Olympian isn’t born overnight, just as a great actor rarely starts out with the role of their career (George Clooney in ‘Grizzly II: The Concert’ comes to mind).
But maybe the rules just don’t apply for film directors.