Artful Genre or Hollywood Hype?
According to many—maybe most—film critics and writers, there’s no such thing as “elevated horror”, an expression they dismiss as pretentious posturing or marketing hype. Tell that to Hollywood. As a serious—albeit (as yet) unproduced—screenwriter, currently marketing a horror script, I am often confronted by producer requests for “elevated horror.”
What is elevated horror? According to one writer, the phrase “refers to movies that don’t rely heavily on jump-scares or gore, but are so emotionally and psychologically disturbing that they traumatize even the most seasoned of horror buffs. Many of the films also seem to contain allegorical meanings.”
Is that another way of saying they are artful? Certainly, horror films can be artful. I’ve written recently about a couple of examples—Frankenstein (1931) and Alien (1979). In recent years, the works of three directors have frequently been cited for “elevated horror”: Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Robert Eggers. This is the first of three articles, one for each of these artists.
Ari Aster grabbed the brass ring with his debut feature, HEREDITARY, in 2018 and raised critical and audience eyebrows the following year with his second, MIDSOMMAR. Both films are tagged (in IMDb) as “Drama, Horror, Mystery.”
I’m writing about MIDSOMMAR because it satisfies all my criteria for a “fantastic tale”: It’s imaginative and original in concept. The only comparable work I can think of is the original British film, THE WICKER MAN (1973), and this one goes far beyond that in its exploration of folkloric ritual horror. It’s outstanding in its screenplay and execution. In my rating system it’s a “5”—worthy of repeated viewings, analysis, and study. It’s truly bizarre — discontinuous with everyday reality—unlike anything I’ve ever seen—and exotic in its exploration and presentation of culturally remote Swedish folklore.
As drama, it tells the story of Dani (aptly named for an ancient goddess) who journeys from orphaned survivor of unthinkable family tragedy, through a frustratingly unsatisfying relationship with a deceitful and self-absorbed man to an unimagined destiny in a remote Swedish midsummer ritual. She is sympathetic, generous and intelligent, unlike her boyfriend and his peers, who all pursue this adventure for various selfish reasons. Desperately hungry for love and family, Dani just wants to be with the ironically named Christian, the man she loves who does not really love her. She longs for her lost family and sister and ultimately finds both family and sisterhood, albeit under bizarre circumstance.
As horror, the story is a slow build—with only one instance of real horror in its first half—to a literal conflagration of relentless fright, shock, and revulsion in the third act, which is almost unbearably horrifying. There are no monsters, no shock-scares by things leaping out from shadows. The horror slowly gathers and builds mounting suspense, until it overflows and overwhelms in an avalanche of visceral emotion. The antagonists who deliver the horror are wholesome country folk, true to their ancient traditions and suffering palpable empathic pain along with their victims.
The central mystery is hinted at with myriad clues and forebodings throughout the second act. As finally unveiled in the final scenes, we realize that it’s capital “M” Mystery—ancient and deadly. Anyone with any knowledge of European folklore or its pagan history will suspect where the clues are pointing and still likely be emotionally unprepared for the ultimate reveals.
Speaking of mystery and clues, this is a near perfect screenplay in the sense that every action, virtually every line of dialogue, every composition, in addition to advancing the story, sets up and foreshadows things to come. Three fourths of the story is set up and the pay-offs in its final act exceed our worst fears and anticipation.
So, returning to the initial question: is this “elevated” horror. I would say, “Yes,” and I offer my own definition:
Elevated horror delivers the visceral impact of the genre in artful forms, untrammeled by the genre’s familiar and formulaic tropes and convention.
By that standard, Ari Aster has written and directed an elevated horror masterpiece that establishes him as a master filmmaker. Considering that MIDSOMMAR is only his second feature, one looks forward to his future work with anticipation.