What Makes a Horror Movie... Horror?

Updated: Jan 30

Let's Start With What We Know

Do you remember your first horror film? Do you remember what gave you that feeling of horror? Was it watching Jason reek havoc on Camp Crystal Lake? Was it when Ripley thought she had finally jetissoned her way out of her exploding ship only to have to fight Alien one-on-one a final time? Was it when Karen realized Chucky didn't have any batteries? Possibly for many of our newer horror fans it was when Pennywise first appeared from that sewer or when Annie decapitates her own head in Hereditary.

No matter when you watched your first film, what subgenre it fit into or what it's Rotten Tomatoes rating was, one thing was for sure... You fell in love with the genre.

Although, I know that you've asked yourself throughout the years, "Is [insert questionable genre film here] really a horror movie? I never jumped once and that could never happen in real life." But that question just begs a much more important question:

What makes a movie a horror movie?

Does a horror film require a killer? We know that can't be it because nobody dies in Poltergeist. Does a horror film require blood? The Blair Witch Project features absolutely no blood in the entire film. Does a horror film require at least ONE jump scare? You ever seen Se7ven, Bone Tomahawk, Ringu, Rosemary's Baby, and I'm sure you and I could go on for quite some time on that one. Nevertheless, there must be something that makes a horror film... horrifying, right?

You remember Lupita Nyong'o in Us, yes? Of course you do. She's the poster of Jordan Peele's great second horror original. In it, without spoiling it for you if you haven't seen it. a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) in 1984 attends a carnival on a Santa Cruz beach where she finds herself roaming off, lost, and in a hall of mirrors. While traversing through the maze she sees herself... Not, like, her reflection, but she stands nose to nose with her own doppelgänger leaving her scarred for her future when she returns many years later with her husband and two kids.

This movie is certainly unique and brings about complicated social ideas worth discussing in classic Jordan Peele fashion. However, if you remember this 2019 film had many viewers split on, not only its quality, but if Us was truly considered to be a horror film. the IMDb rating is currently at a 6.8/10 and the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is at 58%. The reviews rapidly came in on opening weekend making statements such as: "This is not a horror movie... Just skip this one and watch Evil Dead again! Lol!" I'm not too sure what The Evil Dead has to do with Us, but it somehow changed the genre of the film I suppose. Many viewers tried to classify Us as more of a thriller than a horror film; yet, still not hitting the mark for many.

Why is this? I've seen this movie many times now and I'm still horrified of the idea of seeing this dark version of myself, so what is it about this film that we can't decide if it's horrifying?

Horror Films Aren't Always Scary...

Okay, Okay, Okay... if you didn't know. Jordan Peele had much to say about this and for good reason:

Or I guess he didn't have much to say at all, just enough. Even so, this tweet probably comes from a place of tension and frustration. Jordan Peele made his very first horror film just two years prior with Get Out, another horror original featuring further social issues at least worth discussing whether you agree with the guy or not. Like Us, this one was up in the air for a lot of viewers... a lot of debates on its genre and its quality. In the end, however, it seemed to have gained enough traction to be Golden Globe nominated... as "Best Comedy"...

The film went on to win "Best Original Screenplay" that year at the Academy Awards; alas, without it being recognized as a horror film. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The horror genre doesn't have a good reputation. It still has that negative connotation of being cheap, simple, and dirty.

  2. Horror doesn't make money... Comparatively speaking...

  3. The film just wasn't "scary" for many.

So What is a Horror Film?

Roger Ebert was a film critic, screenwriter, and author for almost 50 years until his death in 2013. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Needless to say, this guy had watched a lot of movies and had been reviewing film professionally for a long time. Horror fans have feelings at odds for Ebert as he tended to be harsh on the genre calling them "dead teenager movies"; though, he did take the time to inform a fellow reviewer that he drew a distinction between films like Nosferatu and The Silence of the Lambs, which he regarded as "masterpieces," and those that had no content other than teenagers being killed, but I digress.

Whether you like the guy or not, he says something about horror that really describes the genre and what really makes horror films what they are. Are you ready? I'm finally going to tell you the answer. Here it is:

All a horror film need promise is horror -- the unspeakable, the terrifying, the merciless, the lurching monstrous figure of destruction. It needs no stars, only basic production values, just the ability to promise horror.

All of this hoopla for that, I know, but it is the truth. Us never makes you jump out of your seat, but it does indeed give you this ultimate unease of being brought face to face with the most evil and destructive sides of ourselves and the impending doom we bring on to our country by dismissing our greatest problems for the sake of money, power, and vanity.

Get Out won't make you scream, but it reaches into the most disturbed parts of your brain (no pun intended) to bring out the truths of what has been or could be a very real possibility.

So you get out there and watch Midsommar. Don't scream, but cry with Dani as she goes through tragedy and gets sucked into that cult. Re-watch It Follows and stay in your seat and discover the dangers of polluted sex and sexual assault. Turn on The VVitch, feel the tension with this family, and see what happens when religion is taken out of context and forced onto a person without the basis of love.

In conclusion, maybe we can ditch phrases like "elevated horror" and "horror thrillers" and call these movies what they are...

Horror Movies.

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