The new film version of Stephen King’s It has been an astonishing box-office success, surpassing The Exorcist as the highest-grossing horror film of all time. While not a great film, it is a solid entry in the traditional genre of horror, with great visuals and an entertaining combination of laughs and scares.
Set in a small town in Maine, It is a coming-of-age story about a group of misfit youths (the Losers’ Club) and a supernatural mystery tale about an ancient and malevolent force that manifests itself in the persona of a clown, Pennywise, who literally feeds on unsuspecting children.
The success of this quite traditional horror film casts some doubt on the recent thesis of Guardian film critic Steve Rose, namely, that we are entering an era of film-making he calls “post-horror”. Citing the success of films like Get Out, It Comes at Night and Ghost Story, Rose suggests that the new subgenre arises from setting aside the rules that have dominated mainstream horror. The conventions, he suggests, are our “flashlight as we venture into the unknown”. The new subgenre asks “What happens when you switch off the flashlight?”. The result is experimentation in style and content, a replacement of jump scares, predictable villains and tired plot lines with mysteries without clear resolutions.
Rose’s thesis usefully underscores the way a set of recent films creatively work at the edges of the horror genre. But his claim that this is novel is clearly false. Rose himself mentions Polanksi and Kubrick as examples of independent-minded auteur horror. But horror of this sort goes way back, to Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942).
In more recent years, the rules, particularly for the seemingly pervasive slasher film, have been subject to parody for some time now. The opening film in the Scream trilogy (1996), which has characters consciously wondering whether they inhabit a horror film, listed the three rules for how to survive in a mainstream horror film: don’t drink, don’t have sex and never say, “I’ll be right back.”
In one sense, the Scream films mark the denouement of a certain tendency in the modern horror film, the beginnings of which critics typically date to the release of Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960. These are early, if unusually sophisticated, slasher films.
This initial period might be said to reach an artistic peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, both critically acclaimed. Seventies films like Texas Chainsaw and Halloween helped spawn an endless series of movies with serial killers with endless lives and a seemingly endless number of sequels. (Yet another Halloween film starring the original scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, is due out next year.)
Films that focus on the surface aesthetics of violence, as slasher films do, are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Audiences that were once terrified become jaded and harder to surprise or scare. As a result, horror film-makers engage in a contest of one-upmanship trying to outdo one another in the quantity and quality of violence and edge-pushing obscenity. Hence the emergence of the subgenre called “torture porn”.
Another temptation of the horror film is to turn the evil-doer into a kind of admirable, or at least mesmerising, figure and to present his victims in an indifferent manner. The allegiance of the audience shifts from innocent victims to the character who exists beyond good and evil and transfixes our imagination with his daring deeds.
In Silence of the Lambs, for example, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1991, the most captivating character is the serial killer Hannibal Lecter. It is a masterful film, but it works in part because Hannibal is rarely on screen. In the sequels, he is ubiquitous. As we become accustomed to him and tired of the unlikeable targets of his macabre antics, the mystery and – to some degree – the terror dissipate.
There is a lesson here for horror: evil can be taken seriously only so long as goodness is as well. In the best horror films, for example, in the Friedkin-Blatty collaboration on the original The Exorcist, the mystery of evil gives way to the mystery of sacrificial goodness. On a more mundane level, the balance between the mystery of evil and the attraction of goodness is kept alive in It, even if the film deploys the oldest tricks in the horror playbook.
Horror is a growth industry. Often requiring only a minimal budget and with a reliable audience, the genre is just about the best box-office bet left in the film world. It will continue to captivate audiences and sometimes it will manage both to entertain and to instruct, to provide glimpses of the mysterious conflict between evil and goodness characteristic of the human condition.
Thomas Hibbs is dean of the honours college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University
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