Separating the Wheat From the C.H.U.D.

The Case for ‘Elevated Horror’


The latest kerfuffle of no consequence to embroil “Film Twitter” has to do with a certain subset of arty horror films. Chances are high that sentence either sounded like nonsense or made your eyes do The Exorcist shuffle. The term “elevated horror” has been used by almost no one and yet has raised the hackles of many genre fans. To them, the phrase sounds like a polite way of saying “most horror movies are crap.” This is, of course, because they are sensitive about the fact that many horror movies are crap.

Nobody give me a Freddy Krueger high-five! I am a real big genre fan but an even bigger fan of honesty. So I’m here to argue in favor of the “elevated horror” designation. This is because, despite the ire of my fellow scream enthusiasts, I believe it is beneficial to our collective cause. Believe it or not, it supports our beloved and oft-disparaged subset of cinema. The greater the resistance and peevish response to the term, the more it exposes those elements of the genre we need to reform or own. Let me explain …

After Scareful Consideration

Blame Jordan Peele. I mean, don’t blame him for anything other than being exceptionally good at what he does. What he does, so far, is write and direct some of the best horror movies ever made. In response to the release of Us, a doppelgang-banger laden with social commentary, some folks ignorantly tried to declassify it from its home. They called it a “thriller” or some similar silly synonym. After Get Out left the heavily-white Hollywood Foreign Press so shook they had to call it a comedy, Peele wasn’t having it this time. He stated definitively and publicly that Us is a horror movie. Because, you know, it is.

Except, it’s not horror in the same way that C.H.U.D., the 1980s movie it heavily riffs on, is horror. Instead of schlocky effects, exploitative cinematography and abominable acting, Us likely deserves to be Peele’s second consecutive nominee for Best Picture. Somewhat organically, folks began grouping Us, Get Out, The Babadook, The VVitch, Hereditary and others into an even smaller subset of the horror subset. I’ve referred to these as “arthouse horror,” which would probably still irk the irkable fanbase, but “elevated horror” is a clearer term.

This is no different than how some dramas are called “awards bait,” how some comedies are called “dramadies” and how some “sci-fi” flicks get the fancier, fuller “science-fiction” treatment. Every genre has a term designed to separate the really, really good stuff from the other, not-so-good stuff. The fact that horror fans see this as a slight and not as a promotion is both understandable and somewhat problematic.

Loving an Elevator

If people suggest that elevated horror “isn’t really horror,” they’re dumb idiots who are dumb. But the term can and should be used to delineate those horror films that have higher production values, better acting and less cringy elements. Why? Well, it may encourage “serious” performers, screenwriters and directors to engage with this type of content. More importantly, it may help to finally ixnay those aforementioned cringy elements. You know, stuff like “torture porn” and sadistic mistreatment of women’s bodies.

When a sci-fi movie is trash, it’s usually because the effects look like drunken Microsoft Paint work. When a drama is bad, it’s often because it is too self-serious. When a comedy is garbage, it’s almost always because Adam Sandler is involved. When a horror movie is bad, maybe a woman got sexually assaulted by a tree? That’s a thing that happened in a major release! Look, every genre has its stinkers, OK? Hell, given the streaming service proliferation, you could easily argue that more than half of all movies across the board are decidedly ungreat. But what makes horror different is that it is still frequently permeated by icky elements not as commonly found in other genres.

If it helps to further minimize those elements, leads to higher-quality flicks, brings awards acclaim and, God ($) willing gets us some bigger budgets, let’s embrace “elevated horror.” The only argument in opposition feels like it arises from a defensiveness that does us no good. Right now, sitting in my Netflix queue are no fewer than five campy, non-exploitively gross horror flicks. I love ’em. But to deny the inherent difference between The Curse of La Llorona and writer/director Ari Aster’s upcoming Midsommar is to treat Walt Whitman and a Hallmark greeting card as equals; both can make a loved one cry, but only one is studied on college campuses by people breaking their parents’ hearts.


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