Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age film is part of a new movement that draws on the tone and aesthetics of horror without embracing the classic content of the genre.
It happens every time a remotely well-received horror movie comes out: a certain sect of the critical population decides that this one is different. Hereditary isn’t a horror movie, it’s a family drama. It Comes at Night is a dystopian thriller. Get Out is a social satire, not a dirty horror movie! These comparisons aren’t wholly inaccurate but they also get directly to the heart of the cultural conversation surrounding horror. Hereditary can’t be both a horror movie and a domestic family drama about grief. Horror movies aren’t considered high art, so if a good one comes along, its genre must be erased as quickly as possible.
But there’s a distinct double standard at play here. Cultural osmosis has long since destroyed the concept of a film’s singular defined genre, and the truth is, the concept never really existed in the first place. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is both a psychological thriller and a pulpy tale of murder and obscured identity. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and neither does modern cinema. Indeed, many films that do receive praise as high art find success mining the very elements that would lead large portions of the critical sphere to dismiss a horror film out of hand.
Take Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham‘s feature debut about a girl named Kayla going through the most objectively horrifying time in a young person’s life. Burnham doesn’t hesitate to embrace that; he shoots a pool party at an unfamiliar classmate’s house with the purest form of unadulterated horror. Music blares and middle-schoolers in slow-motion blow water out of their nose with gusto. It’s all incredibly mundane, but it makes for the most uncomfortable viewing experience of the year so far, partially because the feelings of horror and anxiety are so real and familiar.
The film’s major set piece, a game of predatory truth or dare in an older student’s car, is something you have to watch through your fingers. Burnham ramps up the tension slowly; this isn’t jump-scare horror, it’s a slow burn produced entirely based on your knowledge that this awkward teen encounter is going nowhere good. It might initially seem exploitative to maneuver the audience’s well-established care for the film’s lead into an almost flat-out dangerous scene like this, but Burnham threads the needle with care. There’s more horror in Kayla’s painfully skewed reaction to the experience, and in the older boy’s casually manipulative parting words, than there is in any actual physical harm that comes to our protagonist. It’s a psychological war zone, where the most painful thing we hear is a repeated apology coming from the wrong person.
In most films, it’s lazy or cruel to put a young protagonist into danger as a way of engaging the audience. Eighth Grade‘s masterstroke is that it doesn’t have to put Kayla into frightening places in order to make you worry about her. Everything in middle school is frightening and uncertain and disturbing on a host of different levels. Burnham’s deadpan sensibilities shine through in a scene involving a school-shooting drill; the specter and pressure of societal sexual expectation hang over a scene where Kayla tries to learn how to give a blow job. And it’s all filtered through the lens of the internet. Where something like Unfriended will simply make the internet a literally demonic entity, Eighth Grade is content to treat it as a quietly insidious force, devouring time, energy, and self-worth with reckless abandon. This isn’t a bland Hollywood caricature of that teenage girl who just won’t get off her phone! We don’t laugh at Kayla; we understand where she’s coming from. When she wakes up in the morning and puts on a full face of makeup just to post a selfie on Snapchat, it’s not a laughing matter but instead a delivery method for a quietly burgeoning sense of unease. The film borrows from horror tropes to deliver its main message: There are already so many dangerous things about growing up, the film tells us, so why do we have to add this thing that magnifies all of them?
Eighth Grade isn’t the first film to make such a tonal play; last year’s It Comes at Night was, in many ways, a less successful horror film than its director’s first outing, 2016’s Krisha. In Trey Edwards Shults’ debut, the horror comes organically from the most horrific of places: a family reunion. There are family secrets that haven’t been aired, and domestic tension that remains unresolved, building to a boiling point involving a dropped turkey. Where It Comes at Night comes across as a bit too satisfied with itself, Krisha is a tonal miracle, juggling family arguments and tense long shots that seem to imply a monster lurking around a corner at any possible moment. The film doesn’t shrink from difficult topics; at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide who the real monster is.
Krisha and Eighth Grade are complex films; it would be foolish to call either of them a pure horror film, because, like most movies, they contain multitudes. Likewise, it’s not fair to do the reverse for Hereditary or Get Out or any number of other examples. On some level, movies like Eighth Grade hurt the cause for horror fanatics, providing an easy out for critics who want the central concerns of horror without the aesthetic hang-ups that so many consider juvenile or undeserving of praise. But you can’t praise Eighth Grade without recognizing the horror that came before; it’s inescapably woven into the text of the film, even if you don’t want to acknowledge that it’s there.