Sorry, but "Post-horror" is just another unnecessary elitist label
Let me describe a few scenes from a movie to you. A deranged maniac cuts off another man's face and wears it. A serial killer abducts women and makes a suit out of their skin. The killer stalks the “final girl” in a pitch-black basement and she uses her cunning to take him down. Gore, stalking, murder, darkness, and an overall atmosphere of disturbing visuals and set-pieces would make you think that this 1991 classic were a horror film, but you might be surprised that it would be found in a different genre category on Netflix: Psychological Thriller.
As The Silence of the Lambs was poised to win an outstanding number of Academy Awards, it being a prestige picture and all it certainly couldn't be lumped in with the much maligned horror genre. Let us not forget that by the late 80s to early 90s horror wasn't exactly in good critical standing, with most of the previously consistent masters of horror making what at the time were considered some of their most derivative works (and if it wasn't a retread of familiar territory like Shocker  then it was too narratively weird or experimental to reach a critical consensus, such as with Prince of Darkness ). With the perceived decline in quality throughout the horror genre came with it a lack of critical respect, as gone were the days that capital-H Horror films such as The Exorcist (1973) could deserve a Best Picture Nomination. So, that's how we get the separation that now classifies every serial killer picture as a Psychological Thriller, as no longer could a horror film feature the proper prestigious intellectualism of the Hannibal Lector-type killer (which left an admittedly confusing line between genres when “torture-porn” emerged as a style post-Abu Ghraib). So let's not mention that smart killers have taunted their prey in countless horror films pre-Silence of the Lambs, albeit I will admit that few do match Anthony Hopkins' charm. The important point to take away from this is that at the beginning of the 1990s, with critics completely baffled by the abundance of schlocky and gory slasher films, the gatekeepers of cinema decided to uphold a new generic classification in order to justify their praise of The Silence of the Lambs (and other similarly prestigious horror films; I challenge you to look at the "Psychological Thriller" category on Netflix without getting mad).
“Post-horror” is the 2017 equivalent of Psychological Thriller. With the release of films such as It Comes at Night (2017), The Witch (2016), and Get Out (2017), insecure film critics once again need to exorcise the feelings of conflict they feel for liking horror movies. Adjusting to the post-video store era has left horror filmmakers in a state of perplexing limbo as not only do none of the 80s tricks seem to work anymore (nudity and blood, specifically), but remakes aren't particularly doing gangbusters either. So what we are seeing now is a lot of minimal* horror that breaks with not only the gore-porn trend of the 2000s, but also steers clear of the themes and iconography of the post-housing collapse Suburban white family horror movies that continue to be mostly successful, with the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007-2015) concluding while The Conjuring (2013) cinematic universe expands its tentacles into multiple properties (*since this is a discussion of semantics, I emphasize that I am not using the word “minimalist”). In short, the economics of modern cinema means that we are getting a lot of horror movies that are more about people talking in a room and building atmosphere than the iconic final girl running from a lumbering stalker.
The linking tissue which connects It Comes at Night, The Witch, and Get Out encompasses both thematic and aesthetic qualities. All three films share narratives which rely on the pride and ideology of an oppressive patriarchal-figure, rely on dream sequences to deliver the spring-loaded-cats (jump-scares), and all have that indie film™ “I'm too cool for artificial lighting”-look. They emerge from the same universal (re: American) anxieties that have been the focus of horror films post-WWII, however lensed through our immediate populist political discussions gripping the world (once again, let's not forget that movies like The Thing (1981) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978) discussed these themes within their own political climates as well). Most horror films deal with populist themes, and as Robin Wood defined the horror monsters of the 1970s, the themes of horror films always dwell in the return of what the mainstream has repressed. That's what helps to make horror films so universal, is that they take their material from what creeps under the bed of our collective conscious. The Witch is the same kind of commentary on female adolescent rebellion and the abject monstrous feminine that Barbara Creed discussed in regards to Carrie (1976) and The Exorcist, and It Comes at Night finds parallels to the mistrust over clashing ideologies faced by the characters in Night of the Living Dead (1968).
In Steve Rose's article he singles out how the “post-horror” film is a reaction against the profitable mainstream, and celebrates how a movie like It Comes At Night is influenced by the critic-approved cinema of Polanski and Kubrick. Of course, The Shining (1980), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Don't Look Now (1973) are not simple Horror movies, they are “similar exercises in refashioning horror tropes with an auteur sensibility.” This gatekeeping upsets me, as does Rose's pot-shots towards discontent moviegoers who likely expected to see a James Wan-type screamer and instead got long takes of the New England countryside. Auteur-driven does not automatically signal good horror film, and I love how a selection of Horror's genre-defining cinema have the fact that they are Horror movies downplayed by his statement; the only reason that those films are elevated from being just another bad studio horror movie is that they are “well-resourced studio horror” directed by the likes of Polanski, Kubrick, and Roeg (weren't there great independent horror movies made by newcomer directors with minimal resources and slow pacing back then as well? Halloween ? Black Christmas ? Val Lewton Productions [1942-1946]?). Rose goes on to say that “There will always be a place for movies that reacquaint us with our primal fears and frighten the bejesus out of us. But when it comes to tackling the big, metaphysical questions, the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers – like a dying religion. Lurking just beyond its cordon is a vast black nothingness, waiting for us to shine a light into it.” I could go on to list movies that absolutely challenge his take on rigidity (and thankfully Nia Edwards-Behi and Nathan Steinmetz did a lot of that work already), but there is certainly a history of Horror films which have tackled metaphysical questions long before A Ghost Story (2017) (Altered States , The Ninth Configuration (1980), Jacob's Ladder , and Pulse  immediately spring to mind).
Horror is one of the least rigid, most undefinable genres. Genre theorists like Thomas Schatz and Rick Altman admitted that horror is one of the loosest generic classifications in that it adheres to no concrete syntax or iconography. Horror films are united purely by their intent (to scare their audience) and by the audience's ritual of going to the theatre to be scared. Generic facets of semantic and syntactic theory act like a duality between linguistic and textual elements (the word and its meaning), however horror's theoretical framework is incredibly difficult to pin down, unlike that of the musical which uses the language of musical numbers to express populist themes or Westerns which use Western iconography to express Western themes in Western settings. Film genres are not platonic categories and do not exist outside of time, since an audience reveals its desires through the films it watches, thus informing the particular satisfaction of desires that Hollywood puts into its films, so genres evolve as the tastes of audiences change. That's why Shane (1953) and No Country For All Men (2007) are both Westerns and Moulin Rouge (2001) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) are both Musicals. But yeah, horror is by no means one of the more rigid generic classifications (I would argue that it's the least so) and genres obviously must evolve to stay relevant to audiences (and you don't need to create a whole new “post-” to emphasize that observation). By that count, please cut audiences a break for not “getting” It Comes At Night or The Witch because movies like The Thing and Videodrome (1983) weren't exactly major sensations when they came out either (and those are films that scream out a generic evolution). Sometimes genres evolve faster than their audience and sometimes it's the reverse, but let's try to shy away from elite attitudes when an audience doesn't immediately embrace something a little different than they're accustomed to.
Now that I've exhausted everything I can say about Rose's article (and I don't even want to go in on how “Asian Minimalist auteurs” like Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have little place in this conversation because that opens up a whole other semantic can of worms that I could go on about for another essay), let me get around to being a little bit constructive within this whole mess of genre theory nonsense. What I primarily rejected in Rose's article was his overall tone of condescension, which to me speaks to a history of critics who refuse to accept that horror films can be art without adding special labels. I also object to the pretentious attitude of “these films aren't for the mainstream horror fan,” because outstanding horror films have been embraced not only by the horror fans in question, but also by mainstream audiences that have turned horror movies into cultural sensations (re: The Exorcist, Halloween, Hitchcock's oeuvre). I love horror films because they get to be one of the most unforgivingly unpretentious genres, with room for everyone's stories and a space for every type or taste of filmmaker. Horror is inarguably the most diverse genre (which is why it's so much fun to discuss in these contexts!). So, to be fair to Rose's original intent, I'll add some generic discussion of my own, but instead of using a reductive term like “post-horror,” let's instead use a classic like “post-modern horror.”
Post-modern Horror was what “saved” the genre back in the days when Carpenter was making In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and Hooper was making The Mangler (1995) (both remarkably weird and original films that are arguably good Horror films, in hindsight). Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson re-aligned audiences with the Horror genre in 1996 with Scream, which is the most clear representation of post-modern horror. Filmic post-modernism is characterized by empty references to past films, looser or self-aware genre conventions and generic bleed-through, globalization, and treating style as substance, among many other things which can be observed in films from directors like P. T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, and Wong Kar Wai, to name a few. Horror films in the vein of Scream, Slither (2006), and Behind the Mask (2006) are easiest to recognize as post-modern because they come straight out with their playful knowledge of generic tradition and an eagerness to subvert the audience's expectations; in order to evolve the horror genre to meet the sensibilities of a modern viewer, a film like Scream shows through empty citation that it is as smart as its audience. That isn't where the post-modern horror classification ends though, as more minimal and subdued films like The House of the Devil (2009), Wendigo (2001), Open Water (2003), All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), Ju-on (2002), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), The Sixth Sense (1999), Amer (2009), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and Maniac (2012), as diverse as they are, all encompass the tenets of post-modern horror with their attention to empty citation, aesthetic preoccupations, narrative re-structuring, and generic play.
It Comes At Night, A Ghost Story (2017), and The Witch (as well as other recent critical darlings like It Follows , Get Out, The Love Witch , and The Babadook ) fall in line behind a twenty-year history of post-modern horror, and in my opinion, it's really only because A24 is behind those three films and that they have that indie artsy look to them that an article like this post-horror one was even written. A24 is doing awesome stuff and giving young filmmakers the chance to make really contemplative horror movies that are getting wide releases (which is spectacular!!). But let's not pretend that this is breaking new ground, because it's really just a base standard that we should be holding all film studios to: treating horror films like a worthy genre and allowing filmmakers to have vision. In that same breath, we should hold critics to a similar standard: please discuss horror films as a serious and deserving genre, and for the love of cinema please stop creating new elitist labels for the horror films you like. Surprise, if you like horror movies then you are probably a horror fan! And that's not a bad thing.
written by turner stewart