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The Evils of ‘Elevated Horror’ — IndieWire Critics Survey

Is "elevated horror" a real thing, or just a snobby way of looking down at mainstream horror? Our panel of film critics offers their thoughts.

Us movie

“Us”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

Even before “Us” enjoyed a record-shattering opening weekend, Jordan Peele’s latest horror movie had already reignited a familiar debate among critics and cinephiles: Is “elevated horror” a real thing, or is it just a reductive way of forcing a high/low hierarchy onto a genre that has always struggled to be taken seriously? Below, 17 film critics weigh in on one of the more contentious questions of contemporary cinema.

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

In my experience, the term “elevated horror” usually confuses far more than it clarifies. There’s no single definition of what it means, thus causing obfuscation from the start, and it automatically adds an asterisk to an entire genre of movies; that is, implying that there needs to be a qualifying term for a horror movie that achieves high levels of acclaim or directly addresses serious topics.

Any two horror movies can have completely different approaches to the devices of the genre they’re classified under, inasmuch as the same applies to any two movies from any other genre. A good story with an important message can be told in any format, and when we use terminology that seeks to limit what is possible, we often end up moving the discussion away from talking about the very work that we applied it to.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The concept of genre is useful to marketers who are able to condition viewers to pigeonholes, and to critics who find it cozier to compare movies to other movies rather than to everything they know. But it’s especially useful to uninspired directors trying to see how little originality they can get away with in the name of convention, which is the unfortunate reason why genre films arouse low expectations and are spoken of with a virtual asterisk. It’s also why good filmmakers are given credit for elevating something that never should have descended in the first place. But it’s the directors themselves whose elevation matters; though they may be credited with taking a genre and elevating it, they’re merely making a film that’s at their own high level of artistry, and damn the conventions—except to the extent that those conventions are themselves among the movie’s subjects.

Carl Broughton (@Carlislegendary), FilmEra, Film School Rejects

For some peculiar reason, certain directors, and moviegoers dislike labeling their horror movie as anything but horror. They try to reinvent the wheel by using extra adjectives, or phrases to make their movie sound like the next big thing. Sure, this is a great way to sell a movie to producers, or when pitching, but ultimately it is unneeded. By stating your movie is an “elevated horror” you are setting a standard that doesn’t need to exist. Moviegoers will immediately go into a movie expecting a sense of elevation that simply doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, an unhealthy discourse will continue about what movies deserve this exclusive phrase, and why others don’t.

The phrase “elevated horror” is utter nonsense that does more harm than good for the horror genre and sets a grim outlook for other genres that could fall victim to similar phrases. Directors, writers, and moviegoers should come together to help elevate the horror genre, instead of sending it to the gallows by alienating its core audience.

Alonso Duralde (@aduraldeTheWrapLinoleum KnifeWho Shot Ya?Breakfast All Day

Ugh. I’m not even much of a horror fan, but I can smell the condescension and the dissembling that’s baked into this awful phrase. Anyone who says “elevated horror” is essentially telling you, “Look, I’m above this genre, but this particular example of it actually meets my rigorous demands of art, so I have to pretend that it’s somehow not related to the other kinds of films that fall into the same category.” There’s good and bad, smart and stupid, effective and inept — but “elevated”? No thanks.

"The Witch"

“The Witch”

A24

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect ShotBirth.Movies.Death.

Horror is horror whether it’s slow art horror, silly camp horror, gritty realist horror, or any other kind. If someone wants to describe a horror film as “elevated,” that’s fine. But it’s still horror, and we shouldn’t pretend like slapping an adjective in front of a genre transforms it into some wildly different genre. Every genre has it subgenres. Every film has its correlation to those subgenres. Some fit into them more neatly than others, but how well they fit is inconsequential to the overarching genre of the movie. It would be an utter waste of time to occupy ourselves with delineating every micro-division of genre in pursuit of a concrete classification system. The possibilities are endless and it would always be subjective.

And that’s not to say that calling something “elevated horror” is reproachable. There’s value in someone arguing that horror is “elevated” in the same sense that there is value in arguing that a sci-fi film is heady or cerebral. It’s just a descriptor. It helps communicate a little more accurately what the film might be like. Don’t get carried away arguing what the implications of the descriptor mean for cinema as a whole. (Suggested relevant reading: Matt Zoller Seitz on cheeseburgers.)

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague VisagesRoger EbertScreen Rant

Twenty years from now, cinephiles will probably laugh at all the tidy film categorizations, like “elevated horror,” from social media’s early years. While I understand that people are protective of their favorite genres, the rapid evolution of cinema calls for more objective conversations and less nostalgia-based criticism and labels. Some movie fanatics – some – have a way of suggesting that everyone has the same experience during a film. WE screamed at this moment, WE rooted for [character] at that moment. In 2019 and beyond, however, a new school of critics and moviegoers need to be open-minded to filmmakers that don’t play by the rules and challenge audiences to look beyond convenient labels.

For some, an 80s film like “Raging Bull” may feel like “elevated horror,” simply because Jake La Motta is so deeply flawed. But one doesn’t have to “relate” to La Motta to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking. Personally, it’s troubling whenever someone immediately dismisses a film like “Raging Bull” because the main character has some major issues. That’s the point. It can mean something different to everybody. When I finally see “Us” this week, I want it to F**K me up. Perhaps it will connect with some deep fear, or maybe it will inspire me to think more about life experiences aside from my own. No expectations, ready for the ride.

To quote Matt Zoller Seitz, “Elevated horror is like an artisanal cheeseburger. Make the goddamn cheeseburger. If it’s delicious, nobody will care what adjective you put in front of it.”

Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Just Add ColorMediaversity ReviewsSlashFilm

The term “elevated horror” is probably the same as “space opera” or “high fantasy”–there’s an air of importance given to a genre film if it seems more thoughtful or somehow more “serious.” Personally, I don’t have a problem with the term “elevated horror,” but then again, I’m not a big horror fan. But, with that said, I don’t think it’s right to say that elevated horror brings more to the culture than non-elevated horror does. Both types of films serve their purpose. I’ve come to this realization after I separated myself from my own dislike of slashers, which might have led me to believe that they were “low” forms of horror. However, that’s a personal bias that doesn’t help if I’m attempting to review film.

Films that fall into the elevated status might bring in more viewers who aren’t lovers of the genre, like me, because they are able to appeal to a broader audience. “Us,” for example, appeals to my love for psychological suspense. And every frame of the film has been painstakingly curated by Jordan Peele, which appeals to my art school side. However, traditional slasher and indie horror films also offer a lot to their core audience; hardcore fans can tell if a film showcases a true love for the genre, regardless if that film cost $100,000 or $30 million to finance.

The same is true for other genres. For instance, since “Game of Thrones” and “The Lord of the Rings” are called “high fantasy,” are they more valuable to the fantasy genre over something like “Into the Badlands”? I don’t believe that’s true. Is “Star Wars,” the biggest space opera out there, more meaningful to culture than something like “The Fifth Element,” which is much more fanciful in comparison? Is “Star Trek” worth more to science fiction than something like “The Orville”? My point is that everything, whether it’s perceived as high or low art, has its place in the conversation about pop culture. While I personally don’t like slasher films and prefer psychological suspense/horror films, I know slashers have their audience, and I will not piss on someone who likes those films.

"Hereditary"

“Hereditary”

A24

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG). Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.DeathVague VisagesThe List

“Elevated horror” is a nonsense term used exclusively by snooty critics and arrogant film fans to distance themselves from the idea that horror movies (shock!) are actually capable of being good rather than just vile, throwaway garbage meant to titillate spotty teenage boys. Horror has always been seen as low art, even before torture porn rocked up to argue there was nothing left to say that couldn’t be better communicated via slowly disemboweling some poor sod, in bad lighting, instead. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Oscars’ reluctance to include horror movies in the running for Best Picture, but the snobbery goes much further.

The tendency to describe modern horror movies, such as “It Follows” or “Hereditary,” as “art horror” or “elevated horror,” or by using any other number of meaningless descriptors, showcases how little regular folks actually understand about the genre. From how these movies are made, to the power they wield to impact an audience in the same way a comedy does (only hitting the reverse emotional receptors) or their important position in society for holding up a magnifying glass to issues of race, class, gender, and discrimination, horror comes from the heart.

“The Witch,” for example, was a powerful and hugely disturbing horror movie that dealt predominantly with the sexual maturity of a young woman. That it was a horror movie — and a properly scary one at that — rather than a teary coming of age drama didn’t take anything away from it, but the rush to anoint it as something more suggested it had to be some kind of new breed of genre hybrid for high-minded viewers to denigrate themselves to appreciate it. The fact is, horror has always occupied an important role in society and will continue to do so.

The genre has managed to flourish for a hundred years in spite of the snobbery surrounding it. Particularly when it comes to indie movies horror is the place to be. Hopefully the success of so-called “elevated horror” movies like the masterful “Us” alerts non-believers to the beauty of the outcast genre in its many wonderful forms. Take a look on Twitter and, amid all the arguments about this stupid new classification, you’ll find tons of great suggestions for movies to watch.

While we’re on the subject, though, “horror thriller” is also not a real sub-genre. Just let horror movies be horror movies, damn it. They don’t need to be qualified.

Joanna Langfield (@JoannaLangfield), The Movie Minute

I actually address the concept of elevated horror in my review of “Us” (You can read it here).Of course, any effective horror picture of any pedigree or budget is drawn from some kind of reality. Otherwise, why would it scare us? But when a filmmaker as ambitious and anxious to tackle a wide range of ideas and uses the established genre to do it, how is that not ‘elevated horror’? And, when the story is told by top talent with an impressive budget, and expected to make significant impressions at the box office and other platforms, how is that not ‘elevated horror’? And, why are some cool kids on Twitter insisting this is not a thing and we are hereby not allowed to use the term? This last question, by the way, is purely rhetorical.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen VogueMs. MagazineBonjour Paris

Horror is simply horror. I join the chorus that argues that “elevated horror” is not a real thing. To argue for its existence is to diminish the genre on the whole. When people to try to distinguish between common – pedestrian? – horror and more stylized films like “Us” and “Get Out,” it is reductive. I have yet to see “Us,” but “Get Out” was inarguably a phenomenal, nuanced, stylized, and intelligent horror film. Why the need to call “Get Out” and others “elevated”? It is a back-handed compliment which demeans the genre (much in the way that the term “chick lit” demeans literature consumed by women). Plainly, it’s not necessary. Horror, like comedy, has a long history of being overlooked when it comes to awards (there are, of course, some exceptions). Why not let the current crop of excellent horror films elevate the genre on the whole?

“It Follows”

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

The term “elevated horror” is pure snobbery. It implies that horror somehow lacks the basic artistry of other genres, except in rare cases. The truth, as any sincere horror fan knows, is that horror is as important a genre as any other. There have been artistically ambitious horror films since the beginning of cinema, and through every decade. “Nosferatu,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Alien,” “The Exorcist,” “Videodrome,” “The Shining,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hereditary” — I could literally do this all day.

People who use the expression imply that horror is essentially nothing more than exploitation fare. They subsequently brush away dozens and dozens of thoughtful, well-made, powerful titles. It’s a terrible term that no one should bother with because it devalues a type of film with plenty of merit.

Aaron Neuwirth (AaronsPS4), We Live EntertainmentWhy So BluOut Now with Aaron and Abe

I frankly find the idea behind using the term “elevated horror” to be quite snobbish. It is understandable to have a need to bring a level of praise to films deemed to be shining examples of the genre, but adding a qualifier feels like an excuse to stay away from invoking something that the involved appear to believe is beneath them. Sure, “The Witch” is greater than “Slender Man” but both films fit into the realm of the horror genre, and no filmmaker should be ashamed of such a label, nor should the “educated” filmgoer who seemingly has a need to feel better about themselves for creating a different classification to justify their approval of such a film.

It’s that sort of logic that continues to stigmatize horror. Needing to draw a clearly defined line between the genre film that fits the parameters of an acclaimed feature worthy of accolades and other films deemed lesser by nature of what they entail, how they go about delivering on sensory experience or exist to capitalize on easy gimmicks. If a descriptor for which “type” of horror film is being dealt with is necessary, then I would challenge the same folks to label every drama and other non-genre films with a similar indicator. Help the viewer see how “If Beale Street Could Talk” is elevated drama, while “Bohemian Rhapsody” is unworthy of a distinction required for accolade attention. Or perhaps the problem with creating various strands within every genre becomes more evident with that logic.

Since my ridiculous idea isn’t likely to catch on, I can only hope mainstream films like “Us” or “Get Out” continue to show that audiences will keep buying into horror cinema just like any other feature, given the incentive. Having an intriguing setup and high profile stars to match critical praise certainly helps as well. In the case of making excuses for why some of these films need to be positioned as extra special over others, however, will continue to feel like one of the lesser ways to treat films that could, if anything, serve as a gateway to so much more.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com

When I hear this term of “elevated horror,” I’m reminded of a gem of a rant on “The Soapbox” from SlashFilm’s Jacob Knight from June of last year. He contends that it doesn’t exist.  I see his argument that good and topical social commentary has always permeated and fueled the horror film genre, but I’ll disagree with Knight on the term.  I think “elevated horror” wholly does exist, and I think it should count as a badge of honor. A film should be so lucky as to be viewed, cited, and beloved as having more going on than cheap theatrics and cash grab shock value. When we adore and recognize a genre film for having a higher level of cerebral and thematic satisfaction, those special films become the crossover hits that bring new fans and new appreciation to the genre. Thanks to the lesser efforts, horror can be a no-go deal-breaker for some folks (this writer included), but when the right heady film comes along, even non-horror fans seek it out and gain a fantastic viewing experience out of it.

How do these films get to that level?  Well, that’s the other track of elevation in play. We’re seeing more and better talent, both in front of and behind the camera, embracing the potential of genre film. Better writers and filmmakers are bringing their skilled craft and artistry to material that used to be schlock. Left and right, we’ve got Oscar winners doing horror films, westerns, superhero films, and more. Sure, some of that is cashing easy paychecks, but plenty of that is also having fun and genuinely being impressed by the material. All of this infusion of talent adds to the higher results.

Oralia Torres, @oraleiaCinescopiaMalvestida

“Elevated horror” is a new-ish term to refer to (new) horror movies that offer more than a few jump-scares; it’s been popular for a while, specially after the success of ‘The Witch’, ‘Get Out’ and ‘Hereditary’. For me, ‘elevated horror’ is a clasification made by newcomers to the genre that are just discovering it, through new films, rather than a formal way to classify movies by its genre. After all, if there’s “elevated horror”, shouldn’t it be “elevated comedy” or “elevated drama”? Why are we talking about “elevated horror” right now, if there’s been brilliant and truly remarkable horror movies since the beginning of film history? What is the exact criteria to consider a movie as “elevated” or not? What’s the point of marking movies as “elevated” if horror as a genre can go as far, weird and terrifying as the script and filmmakers want it to be?

There’s some value to its use, as reference to great, new horror films, yet it’s more limiting than anything and promotes the impression that horror, as a genre, is not good and the only movies that matter are those considered ‘elevated’.

Sarah Welch-Larson (@dodgyboffin), Bright Wall/Dark RoomThink ChristianFreelance

I don’t care for the term “elevated horror,” which implies that the default setting for horror movies is “unintelligent,” and it’s indicative of the low value that’s given to genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror. There’s plenty of dreck in the horror genre, but there’s also plenty of dreck in other genres that don’t get relegated to “genre fiction,” like drama. “Elevated horror” tends to be shorthand for “this movie references Lacan/Foucault/Freud/etc,” regardless of whether the movie does a good job of actually engaging with those thinkers. A good horror movie doesn’t need to make you think. It just needs to make you feel something, preferably a chill or a controlled burst of terror, in a way that you haven’t felt it before. If we value only “elevated” horror movies, then we miss out on films like “Frankenstein,” “Halloween,” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” all legitimately good movies that don’t don’t give a rip about making you think rationally. They just want to make an impression on your lizard brain. There’s just as much value in an emotional experience that defies dissection as there is in thoughtful, puzzle-box approaches to storytelling, so why not sit back enjoy the ride either way?

Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” Oscar Wilde once said. “Books are either well-written, or badly written. That is all.” Can we finally apply some of that wisdom to genre films?

Of course, it’s common to insist that great art somehow transcends genre – people never talk about “Hamlet” as a ghost story, or “Oedipus Rex” as a mystery – they’re simply literature. But among film critics (and sometimes filmmakers) horror comes in for relentless patronizing, as if we’re somehow above it — even as we happily embrace science fiction, comedies, or gangster films.

Ultimately, horror films, like any film, are either well made, or not. “Us” and “Get Out” and “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” aren’t a separate genre. They’re simply smart works of art – just as, decades ago, so were “Night of the Living Dead,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Mad Love” and “Vampyr.”

The only thing we need to elevate is our own thinking.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of SoundThe SpoolFreelance

The phrase “elevated horror” has always bugged me. Yeah, I can see where people are coming from: stylistically, “The VVitch” takes a much different tack to horror than, say, “Jason X”. But there’s often been the air of the elitist in someone who unironically uses that terminology – if a horror film actually scares them, or chills them, or is made with a suitable air of credibility, then it’s “elevated.” It feels like a way to intellectualize yourself into allowing your tastes to encompass films you’d normally think of as lesser.

In my eyes, horror is horror is horror; they’re made with different approaches, but you can mine just as much enjoyment and cultural import out of a well-made piece of slasher schlock as you can something with more arthouse sensibilities. No one would call “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” “elevated horror,” but it has just as many striking images, as many things to say about the collapse of American normalcy as something like “Hereditary”. I get the instinct to treat horror films that look and act more like Bela Tarr than John Carpenter as deserving of a greater deal of critical consideration. But it’s worth interrogating our instinct to divide horror films into these hierarchies, rather than celebrating each of them (the good ones anyway) for their virtues, regardless of style or market appeal. We might just find ourselves more willing to unironically enjoy the things we like, rather than allowing them to threaten our own sense of sophistication or intelligence. Schlock is smart too; smart people should like it.

Q: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

A: “Us.”

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