It’s tough to point to a film more hyped in the wake of Sundance 2018 than the horror flick Hereditary. Already hailed by critics as a modern genre masterpiece, the film’s acclaim feels oddly familiar. This is far from the first time in recent memory a horror film has debuted at a major festival and come away with more attention than anything it screened alongside.
In fact, this cycle is starting to feel far more routine than not. The past five years or so have seen the release of such a wide array of genre-defining horror films that it may be time to go ahead and call a spade a spade: We’re experiencing a genuine horror renaissance.
The festival circuit has, for some time now, yielded plenty of spectacular horror films. That’s not a recent trend by any means. Whether they debuted at mainstream events like Cannes or Sundance or found acclaim at events like the more genre-centric Fantastic Fest, horror tends to find success at film festivals. The House of the Devil, Ti West's arrival as a modern horror master, premiered at Tribeca in 2009. Subversive New French Extremity installment Martyrs (2008) was a Cannes film. More recently, Raw, a modern cannibal folk tale, reportedly caused viewers to faint at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
So what’s changed? What has pushed the genre into a place where it could grow, elevate, and, most importantly, make good horror films readily accessible to the widest possible audience?
In short, platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and the smaller, genre-specific Shudder have done more to open up a good horror movie’s potential audience than anything else in the modern horror landscape.
Before the genesis of the streaming era, even a horror film that received rave reviews like the aforementioned House of the Devil rarely got a wide theatrical release. It’s not to say that horror doesn’t get its time in theaters, mind you. It’s just that the horror films that were populating theaters at the time were more traditional and widely palatable than something like House of the Devil, which is very much steeped in the genre. House of the Devil is a slow-burn horror period piece shot on 16mm film. No, films like that would often forgo a theatrical run in favor of going straight to DVD with an occasional Video on Demand run beforehand.
Indie horror films did occasionally get their due. The same year that House of the Devil hit VoD, a little movie called Paranormal Activity turned a heavily calculated viral marketing campaign into a multi-million dollar theatrical run, critical acclaim, and a wide array of sequels. However, this was the exception to the rule, as wide-release horror skewed more toward the umpteenth Texas Chainsaw Massacre revival attempt.
Horror is, and has always been, a safe bet for movie studios. You can produce a horror film on a microbudget and make your money back, even on an underperformance.
Paranormal Activity is, remember, the most profitable movie ever made. Shot on a budget of $15,000, it yielded just under $200 million at the box office. It’s an extreme example, but very much indicative of the norm that horror is a cheap, low-risk move for a studio — losses are often minimal and reward is exponential.
Still, an easy-sell like a slasher flick full of fresh-off-ABC Family teen stars would always be more marketable over an arthouse horror movie, especially if it had a legacy attached to it in the form of a Voorhees, Jigsaw, or Krueger. There was, simply put, no need for studios to try with horror.
Mainstream horror was comfortable, but as a result it felt complacent.
Once streaming became a viable platform, though, everything changed. VoD and direct-to-DVD releases often meant a death sentence, serving as a sort of shorthand for “not good enough to watch and definitely not good enough for theaters.” Streaming has never held that stigma, plus it’s so much easier to make the decision to watch a new horror movie when all you have to do is click a button. Movies like House of the Devil (and the rest of West’s horror catalogue) went on to find an audience through streaming platforms. The same can be said for recent standouts like The Babadook and Green Room, eventual cult hits that had limited theatrical runs and then went on to streaming sites that multiplied their viewership exponentially.
The result is a viable option for an entire generation of filmmakers who may not have had a shot at wide distribution 10 years ago. Their success in streaming means they get to make more movies and continue exploring the genre they’re potentially redefining along the way.
As success stories began popping up in the modern horror landscape — the significance of James Wan’s Insidious, an original horror concept that became the most profitable movie of 2011, cannot be understated here — more and more risky scripts started to seem a whole lot less risky.
In response, studios began to find their niche as horror distributors, with industry leaders A24 and Blumhouse being responsible for virtually every popular horror film of the last five years. Everything from Green Room to The VVitch to Creep to It Comes At Night have come from these distributors, with plenty more slated to come from both in the future. Netflix itself has begun to make a name for itself as a horror distributor as well, with The Ritual and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House being two of its more acclaimed success stories.
With more opportunities and distributors who respect the genre and are willing to work with them, horror filmmakers began making movies that are more art than schlock and often tackle questions and themes one would expect from Oscar contenders. The Babadook meditates on grief, loss, and depression with stunning intensity. It Follows explores the ever-popular genre theme of young girls coming into their sexuality, but does so far more maturely than any horror film in decades.
And, of course, there’s Get Out, through which director Jordan Peele critiques white liberal racism and explores the way black people fear loss of agency. Get Out doesn’t just resemble an Oscar contender but is one; the first horror film nominated for Best Picture since The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.
Isn’t it time for us to start believing that Get Out, while a transgressive and singular cinematic experience, isn’t the exception, but the rule?
All due respect to the brilliant occult era of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen, as well as to the slasher boom of the ‘80s. Horror wouldn’t be where it is today had the filmmakers behind those classics not laid a sturdy foundation. But don’t let a ritualistic adherence to old canon fool you: We are currently living in the single most exciting era of horror cinema, with a quantity-to-quality ratio that is astoundingly high. The genre has been allowed room to grow in today’s film landscape in a way it never has before, and the result is a plethora of modern classics that will define horror for decades to come.