Horror is a genre that is all too often characterized by its worst output. Mindless slasher sequels, torture porn and bad jump scares are common horror tropes, while the good stuff gets treated like anomalies.
The 2010s was a unique decade for horror, in that the good stuff rose to the top and ushered in a new era of quality horror filmmaking, one that many decided to call “elevated horror”. This was to signify that these films were actually good, unlike the typical horror shlock. Of course, that’s not the case. This was just the first time people were looking at the best of horror, instead of the worst.
Horror is and has always been my favourite genre. It’s the most adventurous, most daring and most inventive genre, turning tropes on their head, pushing boundaries, and creating new mythologys. It can tackle deep topics like grief and trauma, or societal issues like race and class, all without becoming preachy or melodramatic. On top of that, horror movies can be fun! Getting scared is an exhilarating experience, and can be cathartic. You let go of all the tension you’ve been holding and allow yourself to truly feel: the fear, the joy, the relief. Watching horror is one of my favourite experiences, and in the 2010s mainstream audiences finally got to discover it too.
The New Masters
The 1970s and 1980s are often hailed as a high point for horror thanks to filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. Sadly, the 2010s saw many of those giants leave us: Hooper, Craven and Romero all passed, while Carpenter has largely stepped away from the director’s chair.
Into that space, a new class of directors stepped forward. By the mid 2010s, we were in a high point for horror, one not seen since perhaps the 1980s. These new voices were making big, bold statements and using horror as the vehicle.
The most well-known new director making a name in horror is Jordan Peele, whose 2017 film Get Out made it all the way to the Oscars. Get Out was an incredible debut film that evoked The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby transplanted into modern American race relations, and made Jordan Peele the new one to watch in horror. He revived The Twilight Zone, planned a Candyman revival, and directed a follow-up film Us, which features an all-time great performance from Lupita Nyong’o. While many were quick to claim it was “elevated horror” or “social thriller”, Peel himself is proud to wear his horror influences on his sleeve.
The latter half of the decade belonged to Peele, but horror was already having new life breathed into it by the likes of Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Sacrament) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest). With them and indie darlings Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) all working steadily, it seems the genre will remain in good hands.
The 2000s weren’t the most creative period for horror – remakes were abundant, the splatter film wave often dubbed ‘torture porn’ came and went, and then dozens of cheap found footage films marked the turn of the decade. While the multiplex continued to play the same old, smaller horror films were able to experiment with bigger and bolder styles.
Under the Skin (2013) felt like a shock to the system in many ways. It had a big movie star in Scarlett Johansson, but it was a cerebral, visually ambitious and truly disturbing film, with one of the best scores in recent memory. ‘Visually haunting’ is a phrase thrown about in most of its Rotten Tomatoes reviews, and it’s true: ScarJo’s slinky alien leading unsuspecting men to their deep, dark deaths is depicted in a way that’s equal parts beautiful and disgusting. More visually arresting films began to emerge, like It Follows (2014), The Void (2016) and the psychedelic masterpiece that was Mandy (2018).
But it’s not all about neon colours or surrealism. Some of the most stylish and visually memorable films were ones with a lower budget that felt personal, and were ambitious in their own way. There’s no creature design that stands out more than The Babadook himself, from Jennifer Kent’s 2015 film. His tall, dark and creepishly cartoony figure inspired equal amounts of nightmares and memes, thanks to a Netflix error that made him a gay icon. (Google it).
Meanwhile, The Love Witch (2016) used retro style and an homage to Technicolor films, Revenge (2017) paired its graphic violence against bright blue skies and neon pink earrings, and Raw (2016) has some of the most gruesome scenes put to film in a long time.
Box Office Gold
While indie and arthouse horror brought excitement to the genre, it wasn’t the only area horror was dominating. The genre has always been a safe bet at the box office thanks to relatively low budgets and a dedicated fanbase, but the 2010s saw massive, mainstream success in the cineplexes. Insidious was a surprise hit that generated several sequels, and The Conjuring films kicked off horror’s only successful cinematic universe (RIP Universal’s Dark Universe, we hardly knew ye).
The Purge, a home invasion thriller with high-concept world-building, ended up tying box office success to real-world politics just as well as Jordan Peele. The hook is that murder is legal for 24 hours one night a year, and the protagonists just need to survive the mayhem. But that’s just the means for the message: murder is encouraged as a means to cleanse the streets of the poor and homeless, the rich can ignore it all and throw parties, and politicians use it as a means to scare up votes. The film launched several sequels, each more blatantly political than the last, and finally a TV spin-off.
But of course, the biggest box office success story is It. The first film, It: Chapter One broke records for R-rated films, bringing in a total of $700M worldwide, far exceeding expectations. With It and its star-studded sequel, a new era of marketable, mainstream horror has broken through. In 2020 alone we’re set to see horror take on superheroes (The New Mutants, Morbius), re-invent old classics (The Invisible Man, Candyman), and continue to bring in bank at the box office (A Quiet Place 2, Halloween Kills).
It’s a good time to be fan.