Are They Really Horror Movies? Afraid So

Posted January 18, 2018 12:46 p.m. EST

It was supposed to be the year horror finally got some respect.

While 2017 brought some stylish small films (“It Comes at Night,” “Raw”) and a megablockbuster (“It”), the real reason for optimism was “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s trenchant indictment of liberal white orthodoxy told in the language of a paranoid gothic nightmare. Critics rightly received it as a weighty work of art, and it became the kind of prestige film that gets talked about during awards season, especially in the lead-up to the Oscar nominations coming on Tuesday.

But when it was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, it landed in the comedy and musical category, and Peele weighed into the ensuing controversy with concerns that the comedy label trivialized the subject matter. At the same time, Peele didn’t insist on it’s being labeled horror, either. He said “Get Out” doesn’t fit into a genre, and described it as a “social thriller.” (It still didn’t win anything at the Golden Globes.)

He isn’t the only one distancing the movie from the horror genre. At the National Board of Review gala this month, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher presented Peele with an award after saying that if “Get Out” is a horror film, “Jaws” is a “beach movie.”

To an unapologetic lover of horror, the attempt to push “Get Out,” a movie with body snatching, jump scares and plenty of blood, out of the genre stings, in part because it’s so familiar. Arguing over the definition of a genre, I should stipulate, is only slightly sillier than fighting over what movie should win an award, which doesn’t mean that I haven’t spent considerable stretches of my life doing both. But how we describe movies does matter, telegraphing value judgments and informing their context.

There’s a long history of movies being too good to be considered horror. Brian De Palma said he never thought of “Carrie,” his movie based on Stephen King’s novel, as horror, and William Friedkin has also rejected that label for “The Exorcist.” In his review of “Jaws,” Roger Ebert called it an “adventure movie,” while The New York Times’ Vincent Canby described it as “science fiction.” When “Rosemary’s Baby,” an inspiration for “Get Out,” premiered, Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin panned it as “sick and obscene,” before adding bluntly in a subsequent essay that it was “too well done” for a horror movie.

For many, “horror” is shorthand for cheap, unreal, bad. The genre has garnered more critical respect today, but the tradition of dismissing it remains alive. Just last year, another film critic from the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan, wrote off the entire genre in an essay that suggested he sees scary movies narrowly, a genre for escapist shocks. A similar condescension can be found from those who have told me that “Get Out” is a comedy because it has funny moments. “Hamlet” has laughs, but no one calls it a comedy. No wonder Peele prefers “social thriller.” But by using this relatively obscure term, he implies the more common designation, horror, is unconcerned with politics or social issues, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

You need only look at the career of George Romero, who imbued his zombie movies with social commentary on consumerism, race and Cold War militarism. When Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”) and Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) died last year, horror lost two of its most important artists. They left behind movies that serve as a persuasive counterargument to the idea that horror cannot be righteous, funny or beautiful. They inspired generations of filmmakers, creating tropes of fear that have been adopted and refined, building a foundation for modern horror sturdy enough to support an incredibly diverse array of work, ranging from the queasy thrills of “Don’t Breathe” to the austere shocker “It Follows” to the psychological bloodbath “Mother!”

In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott described “Mother!” as a comedy, but considering its outlandish gore, its debt to “Rosemary’s Baby” and director Darren Aronofsky’s history with skewed-world terror, I see it as closer to horror.

Horror movies are nearly as old as film itself (the first “Frankenstein” movie was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910), and to be fair, over the last century, the definition of the horror movie has shifted and is still evolving. How do you define horror? It depends on what era you are referring to. Before the late 1960s, when someone referred to horror, they usually meant the supernatural. Carlos Clarens’ pioneering 1967 book, “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film,” made only brief mention of “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” because they focused on humans, which, Clarens argued, put them outside the realm of what he considered “pure horror.”

In its current, mature incarnation, horror is applied to so many different kinds of movies that it’s harder than ever to pin it down. But the traditions of the classic Universal monster movies and the new horror of the 1970s remain influential on screens today. Horror deserves to be considered as a broad genre, not a niche that exists outside rooms where the most prestigious awards are given out. Guillermo del Toro, the greatest monster movie director alive, seemed to be making a similar case in “The Shape of Water,” a film widely described as a romance, with the lovers being a mysterious scaly beast and a woman played with terrific sensitivity by Sally Hawkins.

“Shape” is overtly inspired by “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” the 1954 B-movie about a murderous aquatic humanoid, but it also harks back to classic horror from the 1920s and ‘30s, when fans saw those monsters as new kinds of heroes, misunderstood outcasts from a cruel society. The monster in “Frankenstein” may have had violent tendencies, but that wasn’t his fault — and he had a gentle side that contrasted with the mob out to get him.

By allowing the creature not only to get the girl but also to be plausibly loved by her, del Toro has extended his sympathy for monsters further than anyone else, while keeping elements of dread and violence in the mix. He didn’t leave horror to make a romance so much as show us that romance was always inherent in horror.

When he won best director at the Golden Globes, he started his acceptance speech by praising monsters as “patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” He embraced the horror genre, ending on a historical note referring to one of the earliest and greatest scary movie stars, famous for his performances as monsters like Quasimodo that inspired repulsion but also empathy. “Somewhere,” del Toro said with a chuckle, “Lon Chaney is smiling upon all of us.”

Then he walked offstage and made his point more explicit in the pressroom, saying it’s important that “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water” stood next to movies from more traditionally respected genres. “We have a place in the cinematic conversation that has led to the creation of beautiful powerful images but also, thematic weight,” he said, as momentum surely built for his movie’s Oscar campaign.

The conviction in his voice made me think that maybe it is horror’s time after all.