Where is horror now? SXSW filmmakers sound off

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Apr 11, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Being a horror fan has long meant dealing with the sneer of the genre's detractors, the idea that horror is a lesser genre made of mindless gore. But horror lovers know there's something special and important beneath the mayhem, murder, and monsters. And now, it seems like critics and the Academy are seeing that too.

This year at the Academy Awards, The Shape of Water took home Best Picture, becoming the first horror movie to do so since The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.  The romantic monster movie's maker Guillermo del Toro was awarded Best Director, seemingly legitimizing the helmer who has long been devoted to genre pictures. But that wasn't all. Jordan Peele's Get Out won for Best Original Screenplay, while his leading man Daniel Kaluuya scored a Best Actor nomination. At long last, it seemed the Oscars overcame their genre bias and once more saw the glory in horror.

On the commercial front, horror is thriving too. New titles hit theaters and VOD every month. Blumhouse has launched franchises off Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Unfriended. Get Out made an impressive $255 million worldwide. And Warner Bros. R-rated adaptation of Stephen King's IT not only pulled in an astounding $700 million worldwide but also came in as the seventh-highest-grossing film at the domestic box office, beating out such big-budgeted, super-powered spectacles as Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League.

But what do horror filmmakers think of all this? During the SXSW Conference, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with directors and cast members from the Midnighter slate to find out.

In a paired interview, Jeremy Dyson, who co-wrote and co-directed Ghost Stories with Andy Nyman, said, "We're in a golden age (of horror). And it's actually been around for quite a while. We're old enough to remember when it wasn't there. When we were first coming into horror as grown-ups, that wasn't the case. There was a period of about 15 years or more, where there wasn't great stuff. That started to change around the turning of the millennia. We just think audiences are spoiled rotten. There's brilliant stuff out there."

"Truly, I mean truly amazing," Nyman concurred, "Not a year goes by that there isn't a horror film, at least one that you think, 'F-ck, that's great.' We're just spoiled in terms of the mainstream. It's incredible that Get Out and The Shape of Water both did brilliantly."

Ari Aster, writer/director of the much buzzed about Hereditary, said, "I love the genre. I especially love what the genre is capable of doing, and there's a slew of films that I feel are exemplary of that. It feels to me [horror has] almost become like a dirty word in the last decade or two."

Alex Wolff, who stars in Hereditary, said he feels the Academy has long been prejudiced against horror movies and comedies. "It's a shame," he lamented, "It's an interesting thing because it's so not how it should be. It's fairly recent, right? That horror's gotten like that, because in the '70s it was like the coolest thing in the world, to make a scary horror movie."

In the 1970s, horror garnered more respect from the Academy than it has in the past 25 years. Richard Donner's The Omen, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Ridley Scott's Alien, and Steven Spielberg's Jaws all won Oscars, some in major categories like Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. And The Exorcist and Jaws earned Best Picture nominations, a rarity for the genre

However, even when horror movies do get acclaim, they can then be stripped of their genre labels. For instance, critics might suggest a film isn't really a horror movie, but a psychological thriller as a means of distancing it from a genre that's thought to be less-than. When I mentioned that some argue Silence of the Lambs isn't considered horror, Hereditary's child star, 13-year-old Milly Shapiro, countered, "But it very much is. It's about cannibalism!"

"There's a long list of shining examples of just great horror films that have come out recently," Aster said. "Let The Right One In is a masterpiece." He noted that recent years have given rise to "elevated horror" like The Babadook, The Witch and It Follows. "But of course, we have to say 'elevated,'" he added, admitting he struggles with this term—which has been applied to Hereditary as well—because he feels this label denigrates horror. "What other genre do we say that about? 'Oh yeah, it's an elevated comedy; it's an elevated drama.'"

"The Babadook is so good and I'm so excited to see what [its director] Jennifer Kent does next," Aster concluded. "But we've always had those examples. There's never been a time where we couldn't point to something that was in some way elevating the genre. You have to make it clear to people, like, 'Oh, this film is trying something more than [scare you]."

"I think that horror is doing wonderful things," Blood Fest director Owen Egerton, said, "And it's doing what horror has always done best. It poses as simply fun but has a way of getting under our skin about actual, real social issues. That's been the truth since Night of the Living Dead. Since Dracula dealing with immigration as an issue, with Frankenstein dealing with otherness as an issue, with Get Out dealing with race as an issue, Night of the Living Dead dealing with race as an issue."

Essentially, mainstream audiences and the Academy are catching onto something that horror fans have never forgotten. These movies are about so much more than being scary. At their best, they are films that not only give us goosebumps and make us scream but allow us to face the real-life horrors in a safe and satisfying arena.  Or as Egerton put it, "There's something fabulous is the way that horror movie makes us scream, and laugh, and then only later, think."

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