Friday Fright Fest 2021: 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 compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those 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 a different kind of 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. Finally, the advent and popularity of streaming services has made horror (a relatively affordable venture) easily distributed and accessible to the average viewer. We have plenty we could talk about, but here are just ten notable entries in the past eleven years.

Grave Encounters (2011). By the early 2010s, found footage horror had been—largely—there and done. From the initial boom of The Blair Witch Project to the gamut of Paranormal Activity films (three at this point), it was mostly clear that this was a subgenre that was becoming saturated. This could be why this Canadian mockumentary slipped under the radar even with a viral trailer, never receiving a wide release in the States. The film follows the cast of a ghost-hunting show (similar to Ghost Adventures) as they ‘investigate’ an abandoned asylum and the eerie happenings become more real than the demands of reality TV warrant. The script, a blend of writing by directors The Vicious Brothers and improvisation, hovers between believable 2000s ghost show, horror scenario, and some lackluster moments. It does take a while for the film to dive into its true horrors but once you’re there the pay-off can be sweet. It has some of my favorite tropes and a few ones that instantly mark it as a film of the early 2010s (a particular CGI effect), but some of the scares are genuine (especially if you watch this at night). We’re given plenty of doubts in the beginning—about the show, the cast, and the asylum itself—but how those feelings are changed or flipped throughout the film makes it interesting. Additionally, we do love foreshadowing that has actual pay-off. The ending, reminiscent of others in found footage to a degree, is delightfully bleak and memorable. Overall, if this you’re a fan of the subgenre and missed this one it’s worth checking into the asylum—if only for one very long night.

The Woman in Black (2012). I only realized recently that this film was my first “real” horror experience in a theater; my high school boyfriend and I must have seen it as a Valentine’s date, which I think is actually pretty sweet. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a solicitor, travels to Eel Marsh House to take care of some paperwork, despite the rumors and deadly consequences that follow. In the almost ten years since its release, Gothic horror and ghost stories have boomed and—as such—we can actually see so many popular moves and techniques utilized by director James Watkins here. Fans of Flanagan’s Hill House or Bly Manor will find similar fun in searching the dark corners of the screen for the woman, feeling an creeping sense of being watched, and uncovering dark secrets of the past. While I overall enjoy Radcliffe’s performance, I do wonder at the casting as he was in his early-20s at this point, playing a grieving father, and I sometimes wonder what an actor with more gravitas might have brought to the role. In later horror films, Radcliffe would shake this off so this feels more like a starting point. Another notable performance is by Janet McTeer as Elizabeth Daily, who balances the figure of tragedy, odd humor, and scare well. The atmosphere of the film, aided by Marco Beltrami’s score, is delightfully eerie. If you’re at all creeped out by antique toys or dolls then this film will hit all those sweet spots, and it certainly brings the dangers of marshland to light. It also has some of the heightened, if more Gothic, scares that made Sinister a lot of fun. In the tradition of the Gothic, it’s a quiet, slower-paced film (so much so that I distinctly remember someone in the theater being told off for talking) but it works itself toward a surprising climax. This is a film that, in some ways, has been overlooked and was probably a few years ahead of the trend but, for all that, it utilizes all the right bumps in the night to make candlelight feel all the more friendly. If you enjoy ghost stories then see The Woman in Black, but hope she doesn’t see you.

Sightseers (2013). This is one of those films where, if you go in blind, the tone might catch you so off guard that you’ll spend a good chunk trying to find your footing. Such was the case when I saw this film at a little indie cinema in New Zealand back in 2013; I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for this dry-witted horror comedy about a couple spree-killing on holiday. However, if you go in knowing that this is a film that balances that fine line between horror and comedy, leaning more toward black humor and the suspense of characterization then it’s probably a good time. Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) play brilliantly off of each other. Right from the beginning we get the sense these two are off but whether that’s because they’re maladjusted to society or because they’re a little too wrapped up in each other remains to be seen. What, perhaps, leans this toward horror is the knife-edge suspense that comes with wondering when exactly each character is going to “snap” and do something violent and what is going to set them off. I love how it plays with the idea of kindred souls and then slowly pulls it apart as, even then, particular habits can still be red flags. Additionally, the cinematography by Laurie Rose makes almost every scene look like a postcard—perfect for a film about traveling around Britain. So many little moments make this film amusing—crocheted lingerie, matching owl t-shirts, a dramatic mother, writer’s block, a dog with an identity crisis—but they’re just perfect touches. I could also argue there’s a subplot about witchcraft that might explain the mayhem, but whether you read this as serial killing or the supernatural it still entertains either way. If you’re tired of being stuck at home, watch this film and do a little sightseeing today.

As Above So Below (2014). I remember the trailers and marketing for this film vividly and I also remember it was largely DOA, even if it earned well. However, as with many early Renaissance films and particularly those in over-saturated genres such as found footage, sometimes hidden gems take time to unearth. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a scholar a la Indiana Jones, recruits a team which includes her former lover, a cameraman, and experts in the Paris Catacombs to find the Philosopher’s Stone. Once they’re below ground, however, they find that hell may be closer than they expected. Firstly, Scarlett is not a character we should root for—especially in a horror movie—and it’s easy to see why her stubbornness and blind obsession with the Stone causes such chaos. However, male characters have had the same traits in media before and are allowed to get away with it, so she is too. I’ll speculate the reason the film took so long to catch on is that a lot of what makes it “higher horror” (so to say) is layered beneath tropes and tricks of the early 2010s, found footage shaky cam, and a script that mostly doesn’t bother to explain. That said, a horror movie about a descent into hell using imagery from philosophical texts with lots of guilt and grief is very much A Thing now and we love to see it. The film is unnerving in some of the ways you expect (darkness, claustrophobia, getting lost) but some scenes provide great scares; for example, a quick moment where we lose audio and realize no one can hear each other, only for a loud sound to erupt. The setting of the Catacombs is used well and made all the more authentic by the filming on location. Most of the performances are decent, although some fall more into the background and it can be a little hard to keep track of people at times (which may be intentional). Overall, if you loved National Treasure but wanted a body count then this will definitely fill that niche.

Green Room (2015). The thin distinction between what could constitute a “thriller” and what could be a “horror” film is often in the level of speculative elements within the film, with thrillers more or less taking place entirely in our reality. That said, these movies can still be scary and contain real world scenarios that you would never want to be caught in. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room could fall into the survival horror subgenre, as it follows a punk rock band who, after witnessing a crime, find themselves trapped in the titular room and attacked by neo-Nazis. So then, obviously for its time, this film was picking up on a lot of the (then relatively quieter) rise of fascism within the United States and making it a suitably terrifying villain. The pacing of the film is pretty admirable as it eases viewers into the initial situation in a similar fashion to how we’re often sold on haunted houses, and then the continual back and forth of trying to escape the green room builds and builds until a somewhat surprising climax. And, unlike other movies with this kind of violence, the end result’s message isn’t quite the same because of the ideology behind it. The performances are all around solid, enough to care about the band and tag-along Amber (Imogen Poots). Anton Yelchin balances a punk persona with the reality of being a kid scared out of his wits and hurt. Our main Nazi, Darcy, played by the ever-amazing Sir Patrick Stewart, is—terrifyingly—calm, collected, and calculating. What moments of horror there are, often using revulsion and gore, are used incredibly well. The set of the bar and green room is full of great details and the foreshadowing of lace code early on only serves as a warning for much of the film. This is an unrelenting holdout for survival that doesn’t need ghosts or ghouls to make it any scarier than reality already is.

The Love Witch (2016). During the Renaissance period, more so than in years prior (with few exceptions), traditional witchcraft found its way back onto screens. Now they no longer lurked in the background or in folklore as spooky history, but were the main characters and antagonists; in many ways, this ‘trend’ reflects our culture’s attention on women, their sexualization, empowerment, and endangerment. Anna Biller’s The Love Witch doesn’t try to hide these messages behind pretty metaphors; in this film, men literally die because of their inability to express and handle overly ‘feminine’ emotions. Elaine, a young witch desperate for true love, keeps having a rather unlucky time finding it as her spells and potions can’t seem to catch her the kind of man she really wants. To put it lightly, this film is an aesthetic. While its setting is contemporary, the film was shot on 35mm and uses much of the style and artistry of the 60s. The costumes are gorgeous and I spent much of the film entranced by Elaine’s eye makeup. Rather than representational acting, the cast uses presentational acting (breaking the fourth wall). The film dances this fine edge between feeling contemporary with its ideas and then feeling older in many of its production choices. It does take some getting used to and may leave some audience members baffled until they catch onto the finer details. It plays with its tone of horror, tragedy, and a slight comedy. Samantha Robinson makes Elaine feel like a woman to be feared, desired, and understood all in one glance. The film takes one of the most human desires—to be loved—and wraps it in the supernatural to amplify a feminist message as well as the gorgeous aesthetics. It is certainly a movie that will cast a spell on its viewer.

The Lighthouse (2019). To say that Robert Egger’s follow-up to his debut The Witch had a lot of hype would be putting it lightly. Even knowing that he’d once again fit nicely into his niche of picking a dialect, a unique isolated setting, some American folklore, and a limited cast didn’t mean we weren’t looking forward to what was in store. And it certainly delivered a unique experience. Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake set out for their term as the keepers of an isolated lighthouse on an island. Ephraim, as a new ‘wickie’, comes to learn that not everything is as the handbook says and discovers that the maddening tides and time may be just as dangerous as the man he’s been left with. First, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe obviously carry this since it’s largely the two of them for the entirety of the film and, in many scenes, it’s easy to imagine what a stage production could feel like with the same atmosphere and monologues. The cinematography, with its black and white pallor and narrow aspect, gives the film a solitary vibe from the beginning that perfectly keys into the story it’s telling. In this way, how light is used—especially in indoor scenes—becomes intriguing. The sound design as well, including a droning foghorn, is relentless in both its banality and how the diegetic noise becomes part of it all. And yet, above it all, this is a weird, slippery film. Everything feels like a tale you’re being told and yet so unreal in its delivery that it becomes a yarn, and you leave the film feeling as if you’ve been mesmerized and staring into a bright light (or screen) for too long. The urge to touch grass or speak to a loved one is strong. But, in this way, perhaps it perfectly captures that 2020 zeitgeist sooner than Egger’s could have predicted. In any case, everyone should see Dafoe’s brilliant two minute monologue beseeching the sea gods.

Underwater (2020). Simplifying this film as Alien but literally underwater isn’t too far off, but also really limits how far this film pushes our reasoning, its relentless pace, and how the key differences in the setting create new levels of tension and horror. The crew of Kepler 822, located in the Marianas Trench, attempt to escape and reach the surface as their facility collapses after a mysterious earthquake—and discover that failing technology is the least of their problems compared to what lurks in the pitch black water. I was actually surprised by how quick the movie started with its plot and had to check the time and summary because it seemed almost climactic right from the get-go; however, the action doesn’t really relent and ratchets up the stakes and tension with every small victory or setback the crew experiences. Norah (Kristen Stewart) is able to engineer or use her smaller size to work her way through most of the physical obstacles—and there are a lot. You get a sense of space terror: from the diving suits, the darkness surrounding them, failing equipment, moving from point a to point b, etc. What makes this unique is that, supposedly, this is “our world” as we know it—reality. What Underwater does well is take a situation that would already be horrifying and then create a Lovecraftian nightmare as all we thought we knew was true turns out not to be. Most of the performances are decent enough, although Stewart really carries the film. The cinematography and effects feel a bit like a videogame at times, which is both a pro and con. Overall, this is an action-packed terror from the deep that will leave you thankful for air and land.

Antebellum (2020).Upon the initial trailers for this film, a lot of people (including myself) drew parallels to Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Perhaps that was a ploy in the marketing because, let me tell you, this film plays tricks. Without giving away too much, Antebellum follows Veronica/Eden as she suffers through the inhumanities of life on a plantation and plans her escape; how she came to be there and the truth about it is another story entirely. The film deals with issues of past and present racism, conversations of intersectionality, privilege, sexuality, and remembering versus honoring history. However, in trying to communicate and show these issues, it sometimes doesn’t delve into building the basic narrative/world or character interiority versus delivering a social message. It does not shirk from the clear horrors of slavery, but many question how the film lingers and balances its imagery. In some ways, this film could fit along with revenge fantasies or exploitation films, but the realism of its history can make that an uncomfortable comparison. The performances, especially from Janelle Monáe, Gabourey Sidibe, and Tongayi Chirisa, do capture attention. I enjoyed how the structure unraveled, even if clues for the truth were more obvious than not. The pay-off in the climax is bittersweet and earned. I also appreciate the production design, particularly for the costumes and inclusion of natural hair. That said, I am perhaps in the minority that overall enjoyed the film. In the end, this is a horror film that feels terrifying and timely yet may not be for everyone.

Censor (2021). If you’re not familiar with the history of “video nasties” in the UK, don’t worry too much because the gloss you get from this film covers it pretty well. During the height of the VHS horror craze, Britain would not only censor films—taking out all those good and gory bits we love—but find ways to trade the un-edited versions in an illegal market of its own. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond in her debut, this film follows Enid, a censor who takes her job very seriously, as she comes to suspect an actress in several exploitation films may be her missing sister. This is a stylish film in a lot of different ways: the general bleakness of the everyday 80s, the sleek neon or bright color of fantasy, and the ever-present static of dead air. While it does lack some substance to its narrative, particularly in giving weight to the sister, Enid (Niamh Algar) is compelling in her drive to protect the British people because she failed to protect her sister. While it takes a little while to find its pace, this all leads to a climax that is wonderfully surreal in how it breaks reality as well as what we, the audience, and what Enid herself wish or know to be true. For its heavy subject, its mostly light compared to similar films with one heartbreaking exception right before the final twist so if you’re not overly a fan of the melancholy trauma films then this might work better for you. Overall, it’s an interesting take on a period of time when censorship could, perhaps, do more harm than good.

The Renaissance doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and may last for 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—along with new films! Plus, with the benefit of streaming, distribution of horror films is easier than ever. Soon we’ll have a new Scream, The Black Phone, and the end of our new Halloween trilogy. 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!