As horror grows in popularity, established filmmakers are choosing to try their hand at the genre, and the sky’s the limit.
South by Southwest has come to Austin, Texas, and that means it’s time for music, technology, and some of the more interesting genre movies to premiere at a prestigious North American festival. And while everyone in Austin will spend the next two weeks complaining about traffic congestions and long lines at their favorite BBQ place – I live here now, this is the life I have apparently chosen for myself – everyone outside of Austin will undoubtedly turn their attention to one of the most intriguing titles in this year’s lineup. I’m talking, of course, about John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, the early frontrunner for the sparsely intellectual horror movie of the year (think The Witch or The Babadook, and you’re on the right path). In choosing to make A Quiet Place as his third feature film, Krasinski is making an unusual pivot into a genre typically reserved for newcomers. In doing so, he’s also pointing out one of the ways the genre has evolved in recent years to take in new – or new-to-it – voices.
Traditionally, the horror film has been the genre that launches your career, not the one that extends it. Young filmmakers are drawn to the genre because horror itself is the star; anyone with a decent idea and a good composer can make a low-budget horror movie with crossover potential. Some of the biggest names in studio filmmaking of the past two decades – names like James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, and Zack Snyder – began their careers with horror and never looked back. The idea has always been that horror is where you prove yourself as a director with vision before Hollywood gives you the money needed to pursue some of your long-gestating passion projects. Some filmmakers never escape the horror genre; others leave it behind as quickly as possible. All of this is according to the plan; what surprises, then, is when people move into the horror genre for the first time and still manage to blow the doors of the institutions.
We’ve seen this happen a handful of times over the past few years. Take It Follows. Horror was a new genre for writer-director David Robert Mitchell. While Mitchell had, by his own admission, always intended to make a horror movie as his third feature, he was forced to move that timeline up when he failed to secure funding for his second film. Despite his inexperience within the genre – because of that inexperience, some might argue – It Follows became one of the standout horror films of 2015. In 2017, Trey Edward Shults decided to follow-up his dark drama Krishna with a more-traditional horror film in It Comes at Night; that movie, much like A Quiet Place, featured a family surviving in the woods against an unknown entity found in the forest. While these films always lead to some exhausting category conversations – should they be considered horror films, especially if their directors (Shults) aren’t interested in labeling them as such? – their inclusion in the genre will undoubtedly endure for years to come.
It’s impossible to have this conversation without thinking of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated – and Oscar-winning! – Horror movie from last year. While Peele had never directed a film or television show before taking on Get Out, he had written more than 50 episodes of Key and Peele, enough to establish him in most eyes as a comedian first, a filmmaker second. The film that Peele managed to create in Get Out is astonishing; what’s even more surprising is how audiences responded to the movie, making it a critical and commercial success in a genre that typically provides one or the other (but never both). The wins for Get Out – and, to a lesser extent genre-wise, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water – have proved that there’s a spot for the horror genre among the cultural elite. Vulture‘s
What makes each of these movies so effective is the way they layer in storytelling, and character beats not typically found in a horror movie. For Mitchell, it’s his focus on sexuality and adolescence. For Shults, it’s family. For Peele, it’s racial identity and code-switching. Each of these filmmakers took something inherent to their work – some concept rooted solidly outside the horror genre – and found a way to filter it through their appreciation for horror and make something newer and fresher as a result. It may not exactly please the diehard horror hounds of the world, but it was these high-concept approaches that landed them on people’s radars in the first place. Horror has always been a genre of enormous creativity; with more filmmakers choosing to movie into horror as opposed to away from it, there’s also the possibility that it might now have the cache to match.
It’s important to note that most notable horror films are still the product of first-time directors. If you look back at some of the consensus best horror films of 2017, you are still as likely to find a first-time director – Oz Perkins, Julia Ducournau, Alice Lowe, Peele – as you are to find an established talent. Still, one cannot help but notice how much praise has been offered to horror neophytes over the past few years. Perhaps this is the major lesson for the genre going forward: we all know that the right horror movie can win over audiences or critics, but if the genre is ever able to deliver on some of the promises made by the Shape of Water and Get Out nominations, it might do well to look outside of itself for its next big names. Two years ago, the prospect that Jordan Peele would’ve made the best horror movie of the year would’ve shocked the world. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be saying the same thing about John Krasinski in a few months’ time.