Have Horror Films Turned Into A Different Genre?


Something quite extraordinary has happened to the humble horror film. After a century of vampires, werewolves, serial killers and zombies it seems to have finally grown up.

Horror had always been planted with the seeds of its own destruction. It felt like a cultural dead end, any nascent intelligence trampled flat by the need to provide shocks. Yet pre-Code there had been shocking cerebral horror films like 1934’s ‘The Black Cat’, considered by many to be the film that created and popularised psychological horror. It emphasised atmosphere, sound design, the darker side of the human psyche, and emotions like fear and guilt to deliver its scares, something that was not usually used in the horror genre.

‘The Innocents’, ‘The Haunting’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ raised the intellectual stakes, but while Hollywood was still turning out ‘Halloween’ knockoffs Europe had moved fully into psychological territory with films like ‘Sleep Tight’ and ‘The Orphanage’.

Hollywood finally caught up by doing what it always did; hiring the directors of Euro-hits. The horror film has split into two now. There are films like ‘It’ and TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ for kids. But ‘Us’, ‘Get Out’, ‘The Gift’, ‘Hereditary’, ‘Midsummer’, ‘Climax’, the ‘Suspiria’ remake and ‘It Follows’ showed that the genre could be used to deliver subtle, insidious tales of the unknown.

Now comes the best of the batch to date. Bong Joon-ho is the most unexpected of directors, morphing from tales of the future  (‘Snowpiercer’) to cautionary satires (‘Okja’) and this year to ‘Parasite’, an almost imposssible to categorise comedy-drama-thriller-satire-horror that makes you laugh even as it proves ever more deeply unsettling.

Kim, his wife, daughter and son live in reduced circumstances in a bug-infested ‘semi-basement’ in South Korea, scraping a living from folding pizza boxes. Yet all of them have skills and past achievements; they just have no way of using them in today’s zero-hours economy. Enter a friend of the son’s, who is giving up his job as an English tutor to a wealthy family.

The boy becomes indispensable to the family, and soon one by one the members of his own family find outrageous ways to insinuate themselves into their rich new surroundings, where they must pretend not to know one another. Luckily for them the household is presided over by a dimwitted trophy wife who believes everything they tell her. But this perfect new life can’t last, and the film delivers a perverse twist that spins everyone off in a new direction toward a gory final reckoning.

‘Parasite’ defies categorisation but comes from a director who has always been in tune with the genre of dark fantasy. In the UK, the ilm is opening late to try and capitalise on award nominations. It already won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival – and yet remains a crowdpleaser, proving that both are possible.



22 comments on “Have Horror Films Turned Into A Different Genre?”

  1. Jan says:

    Was it or did it ever feel like a cultural dead end? I don’t know that horror ever did that or was that Chris. People enjoy horror films, well horror anything, because being jolted and frightened makes people feel more alive more awake to life. Even releases laughter. Tells you a bit about what laughter is in a way. Horror as a shared experience in a crowded cinema becomes bigger something about a crowd of people being scared together increases the experience magnifies it a way. Not just in cinema either, in real life too. Difficult to explain but it does get ramped up by being shared does fear.

    Is it you over thinking a genre that’s as much pure entertainment as slapstick comedy? (Although admittedly probably not the sort of black death type slapstick that that Barnes fella produced) I’d watch this film your ‘e on about it sounds interesting – but you don’t NEED to intellectualise horror. You can add extra twists in for clever people to think on. Essentially though horror works in different ways not always connected into thinking things out.

    Horror works in different ways and it’s not all about revulsion or gore. It’s sometimes what you don’t see, what’s not shown, often just hinted at that’s deeply deeply disquieting. Maybe it gets bigger as a communal experience because it echoes back into the time when tribes of people faced the scary monsters together. Not just mammoths, or any type of wild beast but starvation and darkness and the unknown. What scares us all most I reckon the unknown and that’s something that you can only tackle as a group maybe.

  2. Jan says:

    I’ve come over all Halloween a day early. Hope you are well Jan

  3. Jan says:

    Here I’m going to be EVEN MORE BORING now. Boredom alert sounded.

    Maybe that’s why this time of year houses the “scary” part of the Christian and earlier Pagan calendar. At this time of the year people started to really face the approaching winter months of scarcity, cold and scavenging. Not just preparing for it but really coming to terms with approaching winter. Started to think on about their dead ancestors. Thought about + of them in ways we maybe can’t even recognise now. Facing the unknown in ways that caused them to value the fact that their predecessors had got through these lean times. Survived. Carried on through it. All’s Souls day and night is when older ways of thought entered the Christian calendar.

    I know I’ve talked about “Blood month” morphing into St Martin’s day and Armastice day before Chris. Part of same phenomenon I reckon.

    Dunno if this is essentially tied into the northernmost parts of the northern hemisphere. The indigenous North Americans had similar traditions but dunno about other parts of the world. In a few weeks everyone sort of acknowledges the midwinter solstice. The return of the lengthening days. We’ll feast and laugh and be merry. Then hunker down and see winter out.

    Best i hush.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Isn’t “Shindler’s List” the most horrific film ever made? The atrocities portrayed in this actually happened, and it beggers belief that the human race can sink to be so utterly depraved.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    For me “unsettling” always needs to paired with a bit of wonder. Werewolf transformation always more interesting than werewolf being a werewolf.

  6. Jan says:

    Spot on Ken.

  7. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Not boring at all, Jan.
    Facing the unknown is what makes Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Three Miles Up so scary.

  8. Brooke says:

    with you, Jan. Doing my annual romp, listening to M.R. James, watching old Karloff movies. I would use “inexplicable” as opposed to “wonder.” I.e. In a rational world, why is this happening?

  9. Jan says:

    Brooke its only a bit of an illusion I reckon that this worlds rational. It’s not at all you know its random, crazily meaningless. When you try to put together a sequence of events leading to anything – any event at all – you can’t fail to notice how RANDOM things are.

    We have built massive momentous palaces of reason. Including multinational companies, universities, places of worship, libraries and a thousand thousand other things. But its pretty much all bollocks. In a sense life is even more random now or at best equally random as it was for the first, the early people. In fact in a sense their lives made more sense.

    Doesn’t mean doom + gloom though. Not at all its a still a laugh. Just don’t be depending on it to make much sense.

  10. eggsy says:

    Aren’t there essentially different types of horror, or disturbance? Brian’s nomination of SL as horror is true, on a rational, analytical level (for those of us lucky not to have any direct connection with such human behaviour, at least). Jump scares are at the other end of the spectrum, directly inducing adrenalin rushes in the most straightforward manner. In between, we have room for artistry – a ‘horror’ which has always stayed with me is Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” – not because anything particularly horrific happens, but because Bradbury successfully keys in to the senses with his evocation of Autumn (which additionally has more rational associations as Jan said) reaching out to our memories of smell and touch, so that when it all turns sour the limbic system is already engaged and the hackles are definitely raised.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    All I know is that modern horror films might certainly be graphically horrific – they aren’t frightening any more. They don’t lurk at the edge of your mind for a while, sometimes weeks after watching them. They don’t have the ‘Dirt-under-the-fingernails’ griminess of a Pete Walker film from the early 1970’s, that made Shiela Keith, an ordinary looking, and very good actress, bloody terrifying. (A lady who worked in my local baker’s looked unnervingly like her). Things like some of the later Amicus ‘Portmanteau’ movies, the one with Tom Baker as a modern ‘Dorian Grey’ – the shot of him with his head under the lorry wheel, and the shot of his painting ruined by thinners being accidentally spilt on it, stuck with me for ages after seeing it. The final segment of ‘From Beyond The Grave’, with the door, bothered my sleep for a very long time. An enchanted door, that, when fitted in a doorway, opens to reveal the study of a Jacobean Necromancer – and not just the study; the whole house, and somebody or some body can be heard shuffling towards that room. A lovely, troubling idea. Silent, and classic horror movies work, because they are frightening, and also, because of the sheer distance in time between them and us. You literally are watching ghosts when you enjoy a movie like ‘Das Kabinett’. As it was made in 1919, nobody who made it is still alive. You are in effect, a Necromancer. You have brought those dead people back to life, to entertain you. I now understand the distress felt by First Nation Americans when they were asked to be photographed. We have the souls of the past. And they dance for us. That’s true horror, right there.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I spelled ‘Sheila’ incorrectly. Damn.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Everybody does, Ian. We have a book critic on CBC named Shelagh Rogers – all sorts of spellings possible.How do you know the bakery lady wasn’t Sheila Keith? Or that Sheila Keith wasn’t actually a bakery lady? I feel a horror plot coming on.
    Just had a note from the UK saying that the latest of Admin’s oeuvres has shipped and the ordercan no longer be changed. The 31st of Oct. didn’t take as long as I thought it would.

  14. Jan says:

    That’s really interesting stuff Ian wot films are you on about here? Please could you list a few titles that I could hunt out.? Who is this Sheila Keith person?

    You make a very interesting point computer graphics, gr8 special effects HAVE in a sense destroyed some of the most disquieting tricks of horror pictures. It’s always the suggestion of real fear the teaser the threat /promise of the next thing you might have to face that’s the real deal. .Lots of folk feel that real fear is something you face alone. I don’t quite believe that. In reality in really dodgy scenarios you are e far too occupied with the business of staying on. your feet, staying out of reach or if that fails staying alive to feel real fear.. Your too busy! Fear is surprisingly a communal experience. Distorted and magnified by being a communal experience.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – Try the following: House Of Whipcord; The Comeback; Frightmare; House Of The Long Shadows. I’m sure that Mr Fowler is well aware of these. They do lurk in the corners of one’s mind after viewing.

  16. Michael Pitcher says:

    I know this is not horror related but had to congratulate you on the latest Bryant and May I much prefer the short story format , brilliant and insightful best book yet

  17. Jan says:

    Cheers Ian

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – they’re grimy, and nasty – and filmed in ‘normal’ surroundings. I love them, but because of the way they look – it might be people in the next street, or ‘them a few doors down.’ For some viewers – they’re just too close to home to be a comfortable watch.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and ‘House Of The Long Shadows’ is an odd man out – it had a decent budget, and stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. It’s worth a watch solely for that. The earlier Pete Walker films are far nastier, and better, in my opinion.

  20. chazza says:

    I remember seeing “Frightmare” at the old London Pavilion when it first came out sitting behind three skinheads who walked out in disgust! Those Peter Walker films were gleefully anarchic and very British – I loved them!

  21. Peter Dixon says:

    You have to make the distinction between Shock Horror, Gore Horror and Cerebral Horror. Sometimes you have a mix of two of these. I hate zombie movies because they are basically a chase movie with people getting limbs hacked off. Vampire movies work when you have a single vampire, but when you have a hundred you’re back to a zombie/chase movie. Cerebral horror is about atmosphere and a build up of circumstances. The Haunting of Hill House scares the hell out of you by a piece of dialogue by one character saying ‘thank you for holding my hand in bed last night’ and the other saying something like ‘but I stayed in my own room all night’.
    If you want to enjoy all thats best about shock/gore horror I highly recommend the hilarious series ‘Ash vs The Evil Dead’ on Netflix – an outrageous, bloody delight.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Modern Zombie films are utter dreck. There is nothing to separate one from another – and it isn’t as if they have any great heritage. I have enjoyed Zombie fims from the past, though. 1932’s ‘White Zombie’ is tremendously atmospheric, as creepy as hell, cheap as chips, and stars the great Bela Lugosi. What more do you need? How about 1943’s ‘I Walked With A Zombie’, directed by the brilliant Jacques Tourneur, who also directed ‘Night Of The Demon’. The film has a wonderfully discombobulatingly dreamlike feel to it, and has the creep factor way up high on dial. It’s told in flashback, by a nurse, and it looks beautiful. Then I’d go to 1966, and to Hammer’s ‘The Plague Of The Zombies’. The first proper ‘nasty’ zombie film, set, unusually, in Cornwall. A high point of this movie, is a dream sequence, which features the very first example of zombies breaking out of their graves. And the zombie design has been ‘borrowed’ by later, lesser movies. In this, the zombies look dead, with stark, white eyes, and dressed in rags.
    In 1974, an episode of ‘Kolchak The Night Stalker’ (if you haven’t seen this show, try to – it’s a LOT of fun) featured a zombie, which Kolchak despatches in the proper manner – putting salt in it’s mouth, and then sewing it’s mouth up.

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