When you were six, trying to fall asleep and hiding under the blanket, terrified of your closed closet door or the black space beneath your bed, did you know what you were afraid of? Was there a person or a creature – or a combination of both – that was ingrained in your mind’s eye; leaving you to whisper a silent prayer so that it never actually materializes before you?
If you were raised on 80s, 90s and early 2000s horror movies, you would nod your head in a definite “yes.” The main contributions to the horror genre from those three decades were fully-sketched-out, nuanced villains that are now cemented cultural icons. The early noughties’ Jigsaws and Grudges were a continuation of the Screams of the 90s and the Jasons of the 80s. When you closed your eyes, you knew who you were terrified of; the boogeyman was a crisp image, sharpened by countless re-watches and a constant media presence – that recognizability is a definitive trait which, as those films age, will varnish them with originality and timelessness.
Today’s horror films, on the other hand, see a new approach to illustrating the “monster” – one that exists as a polar opposite to the diegetic conventions that were employed only fifteen years ago. There is less concentration on the monster itself and more on the fear, both innate and superficial, that its presence brings with it. In some films, the boogeyman doesn’t even make an appearance, simply opting to make himself known through ambiguous sounds and shadowy silhouettes like the witch in the Blair Witch Project (a film innovative in many different ways for many different reasons). But, does this approach always return the fear it yearns for?
In a time where modernity has adopted simplicity and minimalism as primary creative merit (both in and outside of film), it is easy to misconstrue a lack of information for high end, neurotic art – and it’s important to distinguish between films that genuinely have innovative intentions and those that refuse resolutions without purpose, if the genre’s new direction is to remain sustainable.
Though there are many films that would make for comparisons that illuminate the issue, the focus of this piece will be on The Witch and It Comes at Night – two downplayed horror films released by independent entertainment company A24 in the past two years.
To begin: The Witch is an absolute revelation of a film – critics and audiences alike were singing its praises after its February release freshened moods following the horror-film-graveyard that annually fills cinemas in the month of January. It follows a Puritan family living in mid-17th-century New England as their paranoia of a witch stalking them leads to madness and tragedy. With a 91% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes and an 83 on Metacritic, the 2015 debut from Robert Eggers shone bright and lone as the unchallenged triumph amidst the year’s rather lackluster blockbuster horror films. And in doing so, it set a standard for minimalism and simplicity – one that is far more complex than it seems.
Just as in including many elements and plot points, a lack of content also demands purpose and intention – “we wanted the audience to decide” is not a worthwhile excuse for what is essentially cinematic laziness disguised as high pretentious art. And luckily, The Witch’s mere existence can solidify the movement’s diegetic merits by distinguishing itself from copy-cats and unsuccessful imitators. One of which is this year’s It Comes at Night – a Trey Edwards Shults film that attempts to instil pure horror through failed inconsequential ambiguity.
The film follows a family of three, cooped up in a protected house, as they attempt to survive a disease that is ravaging the country – or something like that. You see, so little information is given about the world, that, instead of being afraid and invested, more time is spent trying to piece a story together out of clues that are simply not there. And this illuminates a failure that most horror movies intent upon making an impact with their lack of action or revelations, possess; by keeping a world vague and ambiguous, there isn’t enough friction to make an impact or enough edge for the audience to grip onto and stay invested.
The Witch took advantage of its lulled approach to horror: Eggers filled every bleak action with foreshadow, every hushed conversation with religious or fairy tale allusion, and every uneventful quiet moment with unabridged absolute dread. As the director, he walked the line between a lack of information and too much unnecessary plot, in perfect balance – and his formula of melding unrivaled historical accuracy with very simple human emotion, made for a project that is as terrifying as it is refreshing.
On the other hand, Shults’ decision to have the true “horror” of his film be in human nature, as opposed to some supernatural being, quite frankly isn’t new or ground-breaking: The Witch employed the same tactics, as did the incredible 2016 Korean horror The Wailing and the aforementioned Blair Witch Project. The difference is that the latter three films have a solid foundation of plot and characters and break some genre rules that had previously been stringently relied on.
It Comes at Night fails as a family drama mediation and as a horror because of one ubiquitous reason: it is a half-done film. And it is reflective of a genre that, in recent years has produced bores such as the Portuguese, The Eyes of my Mother and Netflix’s Hush, under the illusion of selectivity being unreservedly artistic.
The sense of urgency and fear that is instilled seamlessly by The Witch’s downplayed simplicity will mark it a classic for years to come. While It Comes at Night will, hopefully, be left in cinematic purgatory – neither here nor there – since the film does not possess enough substance to be neither hated nor adored. It Comes at Night and films like it will effectively have to accept the state they set out to exploit: unabashed, brazen inconsequentiality. Next time you find a horror movie boring, don’t be afraid to say it – because it most likely is.
By Michelle Krasovitski