Friday Fright Fest 2020: The Renaissance

Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.

They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.

The second decade of the 21st century brought with it a new self-awareness to the horror genre. Remakes and reboots were getting tiresome, many of the original films didn’t always garner enough success for sequels, and the Final Destination and Saw franchises were coming to a close (or so we thought). It was time for horror movies to be reborn. Starting in 2010, the new tone of scary films varied from intense and psychological to satirical takes on done-to-death tropes, with a bit of everything else in between.

We’re in the so-called renaissance of horror. The attitudes and opinions about the genre are changing as art houses create films that mystify audiences and critics alike and make them ask if “X film is a horror movie?” Creature features like The Shape of Water can win Best Picture, socially charged horror like Get Out makes people talk, and blockbuster horror is back from the dead. Many of these films benefit from deeper metaphorical messages where the antagonist stands in for something else like back in the classics period, but the return of practical terror instead of just gore has brought things to the next level. We have hundreds to talk about, but here are just ten notable entries in the past ten years.

  1. Excision (2012). Coming-of-age horror is a niche unto itself with a balance that can be hard to achieve. If too little attention is paid to the everyday struggles of growing up then it’s not quite relatable, and if the horror is underplayed then why market it as horror at all? This film strikes a decent balance between the two due in part to an almost dual structure. Pauline is, for the most part, your typical high school outcast; she’s not one of the pretty, popular kids and her interests make her weird. At home, she butts up against her domineering mother in a household that seems poised to collapse at any second. The only stability she finds is in her vivid dreams and fantasies of psycho-sexual surgeries and, to some extent, her ill sister. As someone who was a weird kid, I found aspects of Pauline’s character relatable to my own experiences but what I really liked was every time I found myself relating a bit too much the film would push her too far beyond the realm of acceptability. In that way, we can nod our heads and see the horror coming in some way. The vivid dreams contrast visually with the reality in spectacular fashion; this is evidenced really well in the scene where Pauline gives her virginity to Adam and the reality and fantasy collide simultaneously. AnnaLynne McCord and Traci Lords do great work as Pauline and her mother, Phyllis, because you can see the divide between them, the fear, hope, and love. A lot of recognizable faces pop up for appearances throughout the film, but McCord carries it in a way that is both endearing and unnerving. The climax feels predictable in some ways but tragic—as if you had hoped all the missteps along the way could be undone. Excision takes its young protagonist on a journey, just as all coming-of-age stories do, but also shows that horrors come in many guises. 
  2. Crimson Peak (2015). Anytime Guillermo del Toro’s name is attached to a production you know you’re in for some kind of treat. Crimson Peak follows Edith, a young woman who occasionally sees ghosts and wants to be an author, as she’s wooed and captivated by Sir Thomas Sharpe, a mysterious baronet from England. Unfortunately, he’s a bit of a package deal and comes with a possessive sister, an estate in disrepair, and mines that stain the land and water red. Oh, and ghosts. The romantic Gothic plot isn’t really anything new and anyone who’s more than a little familiar with some of the tropes will be able to predict how the movie is going to go. Also because of that, the actors fall back on caricatures of these tropes rather than adding too much nuance. That said, they play the parts well: Tom Hiddleston is at his best as the swoon-worthy aristocrat, Jessica Chastain plays it cool as his sister (her thin veneer of distain and control always well hidden but obvious to us as an audience), and Mia Wasikowska is at once the typical tragic Gothic heroine and a little something new. What really stands out and makes this worthy of one watch or more are the fantastic production designs—the manor, the costumes, the bits and bobs to make the time period shine—as well as the unique take on ghosts that drips of Del Toro’s originality. If you’re tired of the horrors of today, why not indulge in a gorgeous film that revels in the fears of yesteryear?
  3. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015). Since The Exorcist and especially in recent years, films in the possession subgenre need an extra dose of creativity to make an impact. Viewers know all the signs; we know what works and doesn’t when it comes to exorcisms and the like. So when I, a supposed Catholic, say The Blackcoat’s Daughter takes the tropes, expands them with a good use of plot and time, and then turns them in often unexpected ways—believe it. Rather than relying on a heavy use head-turning, gore (although there is some), or other mainstays, director Osgood Perkins relies on suspense and terror on one hand as the possession unfolds and mystery on the other as we try to tie another plotline into the mix. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, and Emma Roberts balance their parts well in a not-quite-ensemble cast as much of their work is rather interior yet plays off one another in different ways. The atmospheric score does nice work of building on that mentioned suspense and, while I do feel like the setting is a bit underutilized, the Catholicism of the setting fills many a scene. However, I should note that—like many other Renaissance films—Perkins’ uses a subgenre to deliver what could be a wholly unsupernatural film. When watched this way, the film delivers an additional punch. If you’re still obsessed with demons and devils then watch The Blackcoat’s Daughter and bow down to a new member of the possession hall of fame.
  4. The Neon Demon (2016). Firstly, this is not a movie for everyone purely by subject matter alone. Jesse, a model, is new to Los Angeles but quickly begins inciting envy and fascination in the industry, but, as every jaded person knows, there’s a price to pay somewhere. So if you’re not interested in a movie that really revolves around the fashion and beauty industry like an episode of America’s Next Top Model then this isn’t for you. Secondly, the horror here is mostly quiet and layered, contemplative. The most obvious is beauty and its costs—what will you do to gain or stay beautiful? Then, we have the horror of envy—what will you do when someone else has what you want? Additional terrors that are a little underplayed are the sins of pride and lust (often intertwined here). It’s easy to write this movie off as a film about jealous models and what’ll they’ll do to a new pretty face, but the power dynamics of the industry are what horrify me because they speak a larger message about our contemporary beauty industry as a whole. Regardless of themes, this is a gorgeous movie—shot like a photo shoot or a runway with plenty of the titular neon, at times reminiscent of Suspiria. A lot of the scenes offer something new by virtue of the lighting and cinematography alone. The acting is fairly well done by the cast with Elle Fanning as Jesse moving in subtle transformations throughout. A few of the scenes can be quite jarring, whether by content or trying to figure out what’s going on, so the film can be hard to follow. It moves between being too deep and too surface level without much of an in between. That said, The Neon Demon explores a few new territories and offers plenty of pretty things to look at, which is exactly what you would hope for.
  5. Tragedy Girls (2017). Take the narcissism of Patrick Bates, the social media savvy of Gen-Z, our culture’s sometimes weird obsession with serial killers, and the power of friendship; mix it together; blend with some blood, laughs, and lye; and watch. McKayla and Sadie use their powers of deduction to capture their local serial killer but, when that doesn’t get them the Twitter follows they want because of a police cover-up, they decide to continue with the murders themselves. This ends up testing the community, their friendship, and the power of social media. First off, these are not relatable characters, partly because they are caricatures of teenagers today but also because they’re socio/psychopathic narcissists. Still, they’re likeable because of the performances and the writing that keeps them balanced between parody and realism. The humor is threaded throughout which helps with the material; in this day and age, teens killing other teens is a too real topic, but the levity helps maintain their position as our protagonists. After all, we have to root for them—even if they’re doing bad things. Some of the drama is a bit over-played and, at times, the deductions seem too obvious to be ignored, but it’s also so much fun that it’s easy to ignore. The commentary on social media and the progressive desensitization to violence is on the nose but fits these characters in a way that feels natural. Not too many horror films focus on female friendships, and that makes this a rare gem that shows how two people can bond over weird stuff and stick together when the going gets gory. If you’re looking for a flick to watch with your girlfriends, why not bond over a bit of murder?
  6. MFA (2017). While the rape-revenge subgenre has occasional nuances there remains one general rule of thumb—someone will be raped and there shall be revenge. Many of the early films that have since become iconic for this plotline were directed by men and known for their exploitation but, in more recent years, different lenses and nuances have been applied to this ever-current horror. In MFA, Noelle studies art and, after a nonconsensual encounter with one of her cohort and an accidental death, makes revenge on rapists her thesis and finds inspiration in the catharsis it brings. Director Natalia Leite and writer Leah McKendrick do their best to navigate the film through more than just Noelle’s experience; they do so in a way that treats every woman’s story as valid while acknowledging finding justice is an individual and difficult journey. The rape scene itself is brutal in its realism and, while it focuses on Noelle and her experience more than her rapist’s pleasure, it doesn’t completely negate focus from what is happening in the way other modern scenes have been doing. As others have noted, the art subplot is a bit problematic in terms of its overall message: while trauma may affect a person’s art, the perception from outsiders that it elevates Noelle’s value as an artist is not great. Going through trauma, surviving, and adapting doesn’t make you a better artist than you were before—just a different one. And, I’m sorry, but a few of the MFA program details felt inaccurate to me as an MFA graduate (in writing, to be fair) so I’m not sure what the hell happened there. Francesca Eastwood’s performance as Noelle delivers nice depth, and the  supporting cast, particularly Leah McKendrick herself, do their parts to make this a relatively believable story that feels more nuanced than the average film in the subgenre. Overall, MFA portrays a more realistic depiction of the horror of rape in the modern age before delivering revenge and consequences in what feels like a new way.
  7. Truth or Dare (2018). Generally panned by critics and audiences alike, I will dare to say this film is not that bad. It perhaps came too late to the Renaissance and belongs in the Experiment. These days people are looking for ‘smart’ or ‘elevated’ horror films that make them feel intelligent and scare them too; the days of entertainment spooks are yore. But does this film dare to dream of those days! I’d pitch this as It Follows meets Final Destination using whatever-nostalgia-game-we’re-marketing-today. Is it original? Not really, but it hits all those sweet notes you want in a film like this. So six teens go to an abandoned mission in Mexico while on spring break, inherit a cursed game from a weird guy Olivia (our general heroine) met at a bar, and then are forced to choose between truth or dare. If they don’t complete the challenge, they die. The plot is simple, with a few soap opera-esque subplots thrown in for depth (one that felt especially unneeded). However, unlike in Final Destination, our characters have a little more to them and their challenges match up to their lives. This forces them to reveal secrets to each other and perform dares that drive them apart, but it makes for a more compelling plot than something just for thrills. While the film is not especially scary, it uses its plot device well enough, foreshadows the ending in a decent way, and contains a few surprises here and there. The “Snapchat filter” special effect the film is most known for felt gimmicky to me and I would’ve liked them to push that a bit more, but, hey, at least it’s memorable. Maybe this is a movie people will change their minds about in ten years (looking at you, Jennifer’s Body and Sorority Row), or maybe I’m just speaking my personal truth.
  8. Us (2019). After the huge success of Get Out in 2017 many wondered what kind of film Jordan Peele would make to follow up his horror debut. The answer was Us: a moderately original concept that mashes together many familiar horror tropes and pays homage to those that came before without being too overt. The Wilson family are on a vacation at their summer home near Santa Cruz when they’re attacked by doppelgangers, known as the Tethered, and have to literally fight against themselves to survive. This film has a lot going for it: strong performances from the whole cast (Lupita Nyong’o and Evan Alex in particular for physicality), good writing, moments of levity here and there when needed, and nice use of the set pieces to build suspense. Additionally, this film has one of the best scores in recent years by Michael Abels; the use of plucking is a superb thematic tie-in. I would say that the pacing lags at times since the plot is built from a lot of one-on-one fighting, but when the plot digs into its message and picks up then it’s worth the drag. The animal symbolism is a little heavy-handed for not being fully explained and being left up to audience interpretation; this might frustrate some people, unless you like film analysis. But, ignoring the rabbits, this is an overall enjoyable home invasion, revenge, slasher, and monster film wrapped up in one pretty red package.
  9. Crawl (2019). Move aside, creepy attics and basements, the time has come to finally pay attention to crawl spaces: you know, the area beneath a house where spiders fester, dirt digs, and darkness sinks? Let’s take one of the creepiest parts of a house, isolate ourselves there during a category five hurricane, and throw in a couple of alligators. Should be fun. Haley and her father, Dave, suffer through this scenario on your typical Tuesday in Florida. Of course, Haley and Dave are stubborn and they’re not going down without fighting. The film utilizes its claustrophobic setting well, isolating them in certain areas of safety before expanding as the water begins to rise (Did I mention it was flooding?). The moments of gore are well-chosen rather than too gratuitous and a moment with a leg bone in particular is hard to watch. The story itself works because it’s about more than two people trying to survive alligators; it’s about a father and daughter reuniting and overcoming significant odds after being estranged, and it works without getting too sentimental most of the time. The alligators are CG, but it’s the best CG money can buy these days because they look as real as possible and at least their movements and behavior are more realistic in this film than in Primeval. The cinematography does its work well and is occasionally downright gorgeous; one shot of a convenience store mirror in particular is a highlight of the film. There’s some good Florida humor, great jump scares that earn their place on screen, and the pacing only ratchets up the tension as the film continues. If you love films where nature teams up to fight against man then this is definitely one of the better ones.
  10. The Invisible Man (2020). When Universal’s “Dark Universe” bombed so eternally hard thanks to 2017’s The Mummy, we had not too much hope in future reboots and remakes of our classic monsters and villains. However, once Blumhouse and genre darling Leigh Whannell were attached to a new project, tentative hopes were again raised. Thankfully, they weren’t in vain. Updating the Invisible Man mythos for the 21st century and adding a #MeToo angle, Whannell chooses not to focus in on the antagonist as many of the previous films did (and there is a distinct lack of whacky hijinks). Instead, the film follows Cecilia, who has recently left an abusive relationship, as she comes to believe her supposed-to-be-dead ex may be stalking and terrorizing her. Elizabeth Moss delivers a powerful performance as the lead, believable in her vulnerability, confusion, and resolution whenever the scene calls for it. One of my favorite aspects is the production design and how the camera often lingers on large spaces; this purposely makes your eyes search out and linger on all the nooks and crannies a person could be hiding, if they’re even there in the first place. The paranoia and dread is palpable and helps put audiences in Cecilia’s mindset from early on, but also plays with gaslighting through the use of plot devices and a “who do we believe” type of thing. The pacing can, at times, drag and it is a bit criminal to cast Oliver Jackson-Cohen and have him be invisible for most of the film. Overall, it’s an entertaining reimagining that makes concrete some of the mental horrors that often torments survivors after they leave their abusive relationships, and does some cool things with production too.

The Renaissance doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and may last for a another decade yet. While the pandemic has delayed, shifted, and mutated several release dates we still have things to look forward to in the future. Eventually we’ll have Antlers, Spiral, and Candyman on our screens. Until then, we have decades of films past to enjoy even though I can’t wait to see what’s going to jump out and scare audiences next.

Season’s screamings!