The 2010s in Film and TV: art horror

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Is anything more ironic than the inability to escape the invasion of the horror genre this decade? Just think of the technological angst that beset acclaimed anthology Black Mirror, or the trenches of true-crime documentaries plaguing Netflix. Even franchises such as ItThe Conjuring and The Purge saw commercial success. However, one subset has made major strides financially and critically: art-horror. Independent production companies and distributors have allowed art-horror to flourish, giving filmmakers and actors new ways of characterising what is the most disturbing to them. But what was it about art-horror that made it so important in the last ten years? 

For one, art-horror made important developments by combining with the period genre to interrogate specific sites of fear. Director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 homage to the classic Suspiria recontextualises the film in the German autumn of 1977. In the height of the RAF’s activity, the film reflects on the repercussions of power abuse, paralleling outside events with the dynamics of the witch coven.

Art-horror [combines] with the period genre to interrogate specific sites of fear.

However, other directors utilised the horror-period fusion with more depth. Intense research echoes through the works of the Eggers brothers, who exploded onto the art-horror scene with their debut, The VVitch (2015). Set during Puritan times, the brothers took ‘god-fearing’ to an entirely new level. Horror is constructed through the consequences of betraying God’s word, as demonstrated by the various tragedies that plague the family. But it was their sophomore release, The Lighthouse (2019), that spotlighted what this fusion could achieve. Leads Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe transport us into 19th century New England as two wickies maintaining a mysterious lighthouse. Both actors give riveting performances that pirouette from Shakespearean monologues to raw dialogue. Their eventual downward spiral is the outcome of painstaking labour, verbal abuse and supernatural occurrences. Such films spotlight the exciting future of art-horror. 

Other movies saw unprecedented financial and cultural success in their exploration of grief. Ari Aster became one of horror’s hottest directors with his projects, Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019). Hereditary became production company A24’s highest-grossing film surrounding the debris of a family member’s death. Toni Collette’s performance is harrowing, as the film documents her fruitless attempts to end the generations of mental illness passed down in her family. The cult acts as a guise for inherited illness, which eventually afflicts the entire Graham family.

Compared to the moody aesthetics of Hereditary, Midsommar exhibits its folk horror influences under the disturbingly bright Swedish sun. In the aftermath of the deaths of her sister and parents and a disintegrating relationship, Dani (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden to witness the Midsommar festival. Aster blends gorgeous cinematography with a stellar cast and a gripping narrative in order to depict the terrifying rituals of the Hårga. But it was The Babadook (2014) that had the most surprising impact, as the titular creature became a gay icon after a viral Tumblr post joked about its homosexual orientation. In their exploration of sorrow under the lens of horror, these movies cemented their legacy in film history. 

Midsommar exhibits its folk horror influences under the disturbingly bright Swedish sun.

However, the nexus of the most horrifying films derived from issues that were especially relevant to our current political environment. The reinvigoration of racial politics and climate denial inspired some of the best art-horror films of the decade, thanks to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2016) and Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017). Get Out shatters the American post-racial illusion by illustrating a traumatic picture of systematic racism. Daniel Kaluuya captured the world’s attention with his arresting performance as Chris Washington, who embarks on what is possibly the worst visit to the in-laws. But it’s Peele’s exquisite directing that elevates the film, forcing white viewers to reckon with their own role in the narrative.

In contrast, mother! sees some of Jennifer Lawrence’s most impressive acting as the tortured wife of ‘Him’. Aronofsky portrays the toll of Lawrence’s physical and emotional labour with distressing cinematography, as she is continually dogged with numerous disasters. Connecting her home renovations to the maintenance of the earth, mother! is a loose allegory for the Genesis story, rendering the film as an alarming account of climate change. Whilst linking horror to reality is nothing new, it’s never been so terrifically frightening in the hands of Peele and Aronofsky. 

mother! is a loose allegory for the Genesis story, […] an alarming account of climate change

From homages to extended biblical allegories to gay iconography, art-horror has had a fruitful decade. It achieved unforeseen success commercially, critically and culturally, establishing itself as the genre to watch next decade. More importantly, it gave us new frames of reference for what we consider to be truly horrible. Sometimes it’s not a psycho with a goalie mask, or an unidentified blob terrorising small-town America. Rather, it lies inside of us – and when our current problems have been caused by humans, that can be a disturbing reality to face. 

Image: Robert Zunikoff via Unsplash

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