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‘It Comes at Night’ and the Trouble with Horror Movies That Don’t Fit Into a Genre-Specific Box

Every once in a while, a horror movie is released that has the mainstream media clutching their pearls. Last year, it was The Witch. The year before that, The Babadook. The issue with these films isn’t that they’re video nasty-like, gross-out shockers set to defile a virtuous public. Rather, it’s that they don’t fit the typical mould of what a modern horror movie is deemed to be.

The pervading viewpoint is that horror represents a low art-form, the reserve of wanking fan-boys and coupled-up teens looking for cheap Friday night scares while snuggling. When something that isn’t Saw 5 or The Human Centipede 3 crops up, certain factions of the industry don’t know how to lavish praise on it without betraying their own super-conservative (snobby) identities.

And so, they decide it isn’t horror. “Prestige horror” and “horror-thriller” are two entirely made-up sub-genres we’ve had foisted upon us over the past five years to describe flicks as far-ranging as Green Room, Get Out and Raw.

The latest example is “post-horror,” a label that a Guardian journalist invented to categorise It Comes at Night and, bizarrely, A Ghost Story in a misguided attempt to sell both as more than horror movies (the latter is a melancholy, plaintive grief study, so its inclusion here is baffling).

It doesn’t help that It Comes at Night, the sophomore feature from director Trey Edward Shults (of the critically-acclaimed Krisha) defies simple categorisation. Sold as a late-night shocker by a clever trailer that amplified its darker elements (in order to cater to a more mainstream crowd of cinema-goers), the flick is part survival horror, part family drama, part political warning/call to arms.

The genius of Shults’ film is that its monsters are, for the most part, human. The setting — a ramshackle house in a post-apocalyptic society ravaged by an unknown virus — is uncomfortably imaginable, given our soon-to-be reality (should we continue down this destructive global path). The writer-director doesn’t need any boogeymen to ramp up the scares or tension.

This is something that mainstream critics and audiences can’t seem to get their heads around. It makes sense, in a way, that It Comes at Night has become the poster child for post-horror because, unlike Raw, for example, nobody chows down on another person’s finger during the flick, so it’s easier to argue that this is something other than just another silly horror movie.

This is something special. Something worthy of our respect.

The blame can’t be placed fully at the feet of the uninitiated. Sometimes, the snobbery is coming from inside the house. Earlier this year, a relatively small horror site published what purported to be a scientific analysis of genre releases from the past decade. The owners, in reporting their findings, brashly opined that the quality of horror movies has steadily been going down over the years.

The backlash from horror fans was swift and instant, with a hastily-written apology (it amounted to “we didn’t explain it properly”) quickly trotted out to minimise the damage. Regardless of whether this site was particularly well-known or influential (it isn’t), there’s something hugely disappointing about seeing these ideas pushed by those claiming to want to support and protect the genre. Even when we love horror, we’re ashamed.

The unwillingness to give horror movies a real chance on their own merits is equally confounding because it’s always been an art-house genre, the refuge of the weird, as far back as Nosferatu, Peeping Tom, The Shining and even The Silence of the Lambs (an Oscar-winner and, coincidentally or otherwise, often the subject of the age old, and deeply dull, “is it really horror?” debate).

The issue isn’t that there haven’t been any decent horror films until recently, it’s that those little indies that could (where most of the best work is done in this genre) are only now becoming more widely accessible.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, it was much easier to disregard horror as boobs ‘n’ blood nonsense for horny teenagers. Roger Ebert, long considered one of the greatest film critics of all time, infamously dismissed John Carpenter’s The Thing as a “barf-bag movie.”

Nowadays, as those unsuspecting site-runners discovered, it’s more difficult to push this line because movies like The Witch, Green Room and Raw are getting mainstream releases and the audiences to support them. Across the board, outside of just fanatics. Lest we forget, David Robert Mitchell’s woozy It Follows was so popular with the midnight crowd, it was extended to more theatres throughout the U.S. to meet demand.

And, as with the other examples mentioned above, the debate rages on about whether it qualifies as a “proper” horror movie. Maybe it’s art-horror? Or smart-horror? Dress it up however you like, but It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, It Comes at Night and their fellow boundary-crushing compatriots are all capital-H horror movies. They’re also just plain good movies in their own right; scary, intense and worthy of further discussion.

This is a hugely exciting time for fans of the genre and newcomers alike. The new wave, as it is wont to be called, is something to be celebrated, not miscategorised out of ignorance.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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3 replies »

  1. “Sometimes, the snobbery is coming from inside the house.” Brilliant analysis! Thank you for this wonderful article.

  2. In the case of ‘It Comes At Night,’ an indie was released as horror, and when audiences deemed it not scary, the critics, studio, filmmaker, etc. all fell over themselves trying to justify how it’s not really horror after all, so you can’t read it that way. I thought ‘It Comes At Night’ failed as a horror movie and a movie in general and no amount of rationalizing and debate is going to change my mind. I predict that a year from now nobody will remember it. It’ll become nothing more than a sidenote in a future article about another cheaply made, “arthouse horror” movie that nobody likes.
    But it should be noted that horror fans are often their own worst enemies. They want everything to be ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘Halloween’ and don’t allow much room for growth. Many hardcore horror fans I know hated ‘The Witch’ and The Babadook’ because they didn’t fit a certain narrowly defined criteria.
    There’s very little middle ground for people who want quality horror without sacrificing the tropes and themes that make the genre so distinctive and enjoyable.

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