Mainstream horror has leaned into the concept of “elevated horror,” or horror that’s set arbitrary boundaries on the use of gore and jump scares to convey and emphasize the psychological atrocities of humanity in metaphor. There’s a significant shift in horror style over the past few decades, perhaps in a post 9/11 sensibility, where horror has taken a keen interest in the psychological and dark influence of the uncanny. Immediately after 9/11, the torture porn genre flourished with franchises like Saw and Hostel. Franchises and films became direct responses to how the United States treated Iraqi prisoners, especially after horrifying images of inmates from the Abu Ghraib prison being tortured by US soldiers leaked. Those same torture images reflect through torture porn and other forms of horror that emphasize the bleakness of the world and afflicted bodies.
It permeates modern horror through the works of Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, to Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse and The Witch. In an attempt at legitimizing horror as a genre that’s more than the blood and death count, it’s lost its edge when it comes to the campy content so inherent in horror. The idea is that a horror film can be fun in addition to the more intricate horror components it’s trying to explore. Yet, the camp has taken a backseat in modern horror. While these campy movies are getting made, such Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, they’re not getting the major studio backing a film like Malignant got. They rarely ever do, as the studios seem to favor more “elevated horror” films.
Watching Malignant, I couldn’t help but try to remember the last time I had this much fun watching a horror film. It became clear to me just then that we lack the “fun” in mainstream horror films – when horror films would make fun of themselves. The ridiculous often made horror such an innovative genre. So malleable and dynamic. And simply fun. The mixed elements of the genre would walk the line between the horror and the camp. The slasher, especially 80s slasher films, derived the most recognition from their use of the camp. Films like Sleepaway Camp or Nightmare on Elm Street utilized elements of horror filmmaking that both frightened its viewers but strayed in the absurdity of its plot and overall aesthetic. Often they used farfetched and over accentuated dialogue or one-dimensional characters that wouldn’t exist outside these films but somehow fit the narrative. The unexpected and silly directly connected to the violence the horror genre also wields.
A franchise like Scream is only half as good as its absurd banter and dialogue, and another example of how horror can host camp well within its construct. It’s what made it such a distinctive slasher film that redefined the horror genre. The reference within the reference that was both self-aware and so inherently a slasher made Scream one of the most recognizable in the slasher genre.
Malignant is another type of camp-style missing in the genre recently. The plot, characters, and techniques add to the camp but don’t necessarily sacrifice the horror of having conjoined twins, where one murders and the other doesn’t. Sometimes, the parts of horror films that merely highlight everyday life’s horrors make viewers hold their breath. The camp part of horror is the equivalent of the comedic relief, where it reminds you that this is still a film and not a mirror held up to the genuine horrors of life. We need horror to remind us of the ridiculousness of its makings, if only to further expand on the dynamism of the genre itself. One of this past year’s most memorable scenes is the jail scene from Malignant. Gabriel, the evil twin, lurking inside his twin sister, overpowers the body and takes out half a police station. Featuring one of the most grotesque yet oddly hilarious sequences of a body shifting conjoined twin exchange, where another head pops out of the back of the skull of the host body, Malignant was a powerful reminder of the unlimited well of creativity horror holds.
It seems like contemporary horror has only limited itself to backing big-budgeted horror films that serve to elevate the genre as a whole. Yet, it forgot the genre altogether. Horror is a genre that responds to the uncanny. To the unnatural and the most frightening things that lurk in the back of our minds. The irrational, ridiculous, and ever-changing parts of human nature. It doesn’t take a “serious” horror film to push boundaries and have social commentary at the forefront. Nightmare on Elm Street was a profound effort by the slasher to comment on femininity, sexuality, and misogyny. Despite the overzealous imagery and colorful characters, the franchise has done a lot to provoke and dissect America’s obsession with sex and women’s place within that conversation. It doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the topic but adds and couches the themes it’s tackling in comedic vices that further help viewers see things from a distance. It becomes easier to digest and realize just how silly our constraints and taboos are.
Despite becoming an outlier in the past year, Malignant triggered a strong audience response, suggesting a comeback of high-budgeted horror films like Malignant. Horror films let their viewers in on the fun. In the overwhelming influx of horror films that take themselves perhaps a little too seriously, we’ve forgotten that horror is not one thing. It’s a genre that doesn’t need to be elevated because it’s already a crafted concept in its own right. Films like Malignant, Elm Street, or The Final Girls don’t need to become sanitized versions of themselves to gain notoriety or credibility in the things they bring up. It’s the genre itself that feels compelled to never live up to the expectations of other genres that are, by arbitrary standards, considered “better.” In the process, modern horror has lost some of the fun that made it so unique to its genre.
Does the 1996 original take the top spot? Does Scream 3 get any love? Where does the 2022 film land? Find out here!
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