It Comes at Night hits theatres Friday, and based on media buzz, it'll likely hit a rare sweet spot pleasing both genre fans and mainstream critics. After Get Out set the tone earlier this year, Trey Edward Shults' follow-up to his 2015 critical darling Krisha could be the latest to join a growing list of recent "prestige horror" titles. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers references not only the sheer terror of the film, but also its uncharacteristic emotional depth (a Stanley Kubrick shout out doesn't hurt either).
Shults isn't alone when it comes to cutting his horror teeth on the indie festival circuit. And It Comes at Night will be in good company as a horror film with highbrow aspirations. The last few years have seen their fair share of scary movies getting attention outside of horror circles. Films like It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Skin, Train to Busan, and The Witch come to mind, and shows like American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and Stranger Things have enjoyed a similarly elevated status on the small screen.
To figure out what's going on, VICE caught up with Colin Geddes, who's used to navigating the murky realms between high and low. For two decades, Geddes programmed the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness, which offers up over-the-top genre fare in the traditionally cult format of midnight screenings—but all within the realm of a reputable film fest. He's now a curator at the streaming site Shudder (think Netflix for horror buffs).
He hesitates to claim that something entirely new is happening, suggesting that horror is still pretty consistently held at arm's length by the gatekeepers of mainstream taste. "Horror films and horror film fans often get the short end of the stick. They get lumped into trash culture," he says. "And then every once in a while, something surfaces and resonates with the mainstream… the media always comes back around to realize these films can actually be good."
That mainstreaming doesn't necessarily mean that the films are getting better though. Geddes brushes aside claims that we're living in the golden age of horror. "It's always been a golden age," he says.
But undoubtedly, some of these films have struck a collective nerve. The most obvious example is Get Out, which isn't just good horror filmmaking (though it is a great example of the genre), but it also manages to tap into the current political climate in a way that few films—horror or otherwise—manage to pull off, and it's breaking records along the way. It's not hard to see why Get Out works so well. The story of liberal white Americans propping up violent and racist institutions is as timely as it is terrifying.
"Something like Get Out is actually lightning in a bottle," says Geddes. "Most horror films are based on copying the success of other popular horror films, but I think it's going to be very hard to copy the success of Get Out, because that film has a very specific social message. If you try to do something like Get Out, it'll just get called out as being bogus."
That particular kind of success requires a deep and intelligent engagement with current events, which can be risky. Get Out definitely pulls it off. As does 2014's It Follows, which, on its surface, seemed like a typical, conservative take on sex, with the monster functioning as an embodiment of the risks of teen sexuality. Instead, the film is a thoughtful take on consent, trauma, and rape culture. It immediately felt fresh and relevant, while playing like a solid 80s supernatural slasher flick.
"We're going to be examining every film that comes out now, which is made in the age of Trump, very differently," says Geddes. That may explain the appeal of It Comes at Night, which looks at how people cope with apocalypse. Mixing basic doomsday survivalism with zombie-like ghouls, the threat of incurable infection, and basic distrust and paranoia is bound to have some kind of resonance with audiences living in fear of Trump's eat-or-be-eaten America.
These political references are also joined by a growing demand for diverse voices. "One of the important things within the genre is that for a long time it was kind of a boys club," says Geddes, "and now that's changing quite a bit." The same goes for non-white voices: "You didn't often associate African Americans with this kind of storytelling, and it's nice to see that change." This opening extends beyond North America too. For years Geddes has looked to international markets for new talent to showcase at home. "I always joke that it's nice to see how people scream in other languages."
There are plenty of other reasons why horror's star rises and falls. "It's a genre that's really hard to put in a box sometimes," says Geddes. "It's not as easily definable as…romantic comedy." While this makes it hard for horror to get consistent approval, it also allows the genre to be malleable and to function on different levels, sometimes breaking out of its trash label, even if just temporarily: "If I was like 'hey, do you want to see a film about a woman who's going to have Satan's baby?' Or 'would you like to see Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby?' Those are very different conversations."
And sometimes specific titles bring in wider audiences in ways that are harder to predict. "Case in point is just how hugely popular The Walking Dead is," says Geddes. "A lot of people who are tuning into Walking Dead, it's not necessarily that they're fans of horror films, they just like the soap opera dramatics that get woven into that kind of story. Which is what Night of the Living Dead originally was."
Those broader themes pull us in, and horror manages to take us to dark and intense places. Geddes is quick to point to the genre's ability to put us face to face with our own mortality. "Horror films in cinemas are a safe place to have these conversations. It's very cathartic and very healthy. And that's something that I think people overlook."
If you're planning to spend time in a movie theatre contemplating life, death, and the harsh realities of the world, there are plenty of upcoming films to be excited about beyond It Comes at Night. The long-awaited Patient Zero also takes on infection and human co-existence in the post-apocalyptic world; hopefully it'll make it to a screen near you in this lifetime. Music producer Flying Lotus will release his horror-comedy Kuso on Shudder this summer, while Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller mother! looks like a promising follow-up to Black Swan.
If you aren't a stickler for something entirely new, God Particle may be another artful addition to the Cloverfield franchise, while the remakes of It and Suspiria are at least a little promising (as ill-advised as Suspiria seems, the Thom Yorke-scored, Tilda-Swinton-starring film definitely has a few things going for it).
As always, Geddes is watching the industry closely. "The thing that I'm interested in is what Jordan Peele is going to do next," he says. "And I'd like to see if he's going to be able to help empower or work with other directors and voices."
Peele's next project does sound like a great follow-up to Get Out. He'll be taking on a TV series based on the novel Lovecraft Country, which situates dark, pulp fiction fantasy tropes in Jim Crow America. "The magic is very steeped in control, race relations, and ultimately the white, inherently racist roots of this material, like H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs," says Geddes.
Geddes is less optimistic about the longevity of horror's mainstream status though. "It's going to dip again, and we're going to have the same conversation—I see this oftentimes in the medium. And then there's going to be a lot of great films that no one's going to talk about."
He's also skeptical that horror films like Get Out will end up with any Oscars. "I think it lacks the bigger bombast that the Academy looks for," he says. "I'd like to be surprised, but I just think there's going to be other, bigger films that will ultimately be more forgettable than Get Out." (That sums up the Academy's M.O. pretty nicely).
On the bright side, great horror doesn't seem to be going anywhere. You just might have to look harder for it once the current wave of excitement dies down.
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