Why Horror Is Having Its Moment

Films like 'A Quiet Place' and 'Hereditary' have shown audiences are hungry for elevated genre fare, but as 'Suspiria' screenwriter David Kajganich notes, horror shouldn’t just be “the easy route to a quick buck.”
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures; Amazon Studios; Pawel Pogorzelski
From left: 'A Quiet Place,' 'Suspiria,' 'Hereditary'

On Saturday, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 gore-fest, will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. While horror is nothing new at Venice (the very first film to be shown at the fest was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932), Suspiria is something of a different beast. Mixing a prestige director and artful filmmaking with some B-movie gore and thrills, the movie can be seen as another entry in the new wave of so-called elevated horror films. Not that screenwriter David Kajganich sees it exactly that way.

“Maybe we've been riding a wave of lazy, cynical horror films in the last decade … so that anything with a few more IQ points stands out much more than they should,” Kajganich tells Heat Vision. “Some barely lit action blocking and a jump scare every six minutes passes for horror in 2018. So is Suspiria more ‘elevated’ than that? Yes, certainly.”

But Kajganich’s opinion is a bit of an outlier. Much has been made of the recent trend of horror films that appeal to critics, fans of the genre, art house filmgoers and broader audiences alike. While horror has been a fairly successful genre throughout its history, recent films like It FollowsThe Witch, Oscar winner Get Out and this year’s Hereditary and A Quiet Place have earned that rare blend of critical acclaim and commercial success. And they’ve managed it with character-focused stories and horror plots that focus more on primal human fears than jump scares or a specific horror trope like zombies or vampires.

“We really wanted to drill into what, on a very visceral and basic level, is terrifying,” says Scott Beck, who co-wrote A Quiet Place with his longtime creative partner Bryan Woods. Woods adds of the John Krasinski film that grossed $332.5 million globally that they hoped “it would feel as much as like a character piece, prestige type of film as it is a roller-coaster ride.”

Kajganich says he had a similar mind-set on Suspiria, working with Guadagnino to build scares from “characters’ very specific subtext and anxieties” and “characters who are in situations where they must do the thing they cannot do.”

Beatriz Sequeira, vp production and development at Blumhouse, echoes this idea, noting a focus on character as central to the approach of the company behind titles such as Get Out and The Purge.

“We’re basically smuggling what we call a Sundance movie into a horror movie,” says Sequeira, who also co-produced Get Out. “For it to really have the effect that you want, you need to care about the people that are suffering those scary situations.”

This blending of sensibilities has been key to horror’s new wave. Beck name-checks not only classic horror movies, but also indie dramas of the 1990s like American Beauty and Magnolia as influences. Kajganich says the minds behind Suspiria “love our Rainer Fassbinder as much as we love our John Carpenter.” And Hereditary director Ari Aster has said he viewed the film more as a family drama than a horror picture. It’s a technique that has reaped rewards at the box office and with critics.

“I think that the risks that Blumhouse takes on a regular basis has led to consistent high quality of new horror films being made,” says Alex Ago, a professor and avid horror fan at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “They’re not just throwing out disposable products with the goal of making an extra few dollars.”

It doesn’t hurt that horror films are often cheaper to produce than other genre fare. Blumhouse is known for its modestly budgeted horror movies, and when one of them is a hit, the payoff can be big. Get Out grossed $255.5 million worldwide on a $4.5 million production budget. A24's Hereditary is the company’s highest-grossing film to date with more than $79 million globally on a $10 million budget.

“Independent horror is often the lifeblood of the horror genre, because that’s where you’ve gotten the emergence of real masterpieces,” says Ago, citing George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as examples of filmmakers “pushing boundaries that the studios might not take a risk on.”

Of course, the Hollywood landscape is very different now than the time of those films but there are some parallels to that era. The ’60s and ’70s, known as the New Hollywood era, were a time of increased freedom and independence in the film industry as smaller production companies emerged to challenge the dominant studio system. This ushered in a time of auteur-driven, serious filmmaking. While the major studios have since regained much of their control over projects, films are now often bankrolled by a myriad of financiers — Suspiria, for instance, has seven credited production companies — which both mitigates financial risk for studios and allows films that might not otherwise get made to be produced independently.

There are also several smaller distributors now, companies like A24 and Annapurna that tend to release less mainstream fare than your average studio. Kajganich said Amazon, which is distributing Suspiria, knew the filmmakers “weren’t playing around.”

“They knew it would be harder, they knew it would be tough to watch in spots, and they knew it wasn't going to be polite,” he adds.

The result has been a horror landscape that looks an awful lot like it did in the New Hollywood days, with filmmakers being given considerable freedom to produce boundary-pushing, risky films. And the wave looks unlikely to slow down. A Quiet Place writers Woods and Beck are in postproduction on a horror film they wrote and directed together called Haunt, while Hereditary helmer Aster and Get Out’s Jordan Peele are currently shooting horror films for A24 and Blumhouse, respectively. (Blumhouse's Sequeira describes Peele’s new film Us as “the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” but offers no further details.)

Kajganich, for one, believes the future of horror lies in filmmakers willing to continue pushing even further.

“There kind of needs to be a resurgence of movies that are so audacious that a studio wouldn’t touch them,” he says. “The genre has to … go through a period where horror isn’t the easy route to a quick buck.”