While 2019 has been an anemic year at the box office, hope continues to spring eternal. In recent months, however, that hope has reliably been found hiding in the darkest of places: At a violent pagan festival, in the warped depths of a mirrored world beneath our feet, and — most recently — on the rocky shores of a remote 19th century lighthouse off the coast of New England.
Three of this year’s most exhilarating and successful low or mid-budget releases have been second features from filmmakers associated with the horror genre, whose debuts scared the shit out of Sundance before enjoying breakthrough success and the personal branding that comes with it.
“Midsommar,” “Us,” and “The Lighthouse” were distributed by (two) different companies, with different strategies, in different seasons, but each of them were made by idiosyncratic super-talents whose creative vision requires a degree of complete artistic control that modern Hollywood refuses to offer above a certain price point. Most of all, each of them were made by writer-directors who found themselves empowered by — and tethered to — the genre that gave them some fame in the first place.
The horror genre is an elastic framework often defined by whatever a marketing team can fit beneath its jagged umbrella, and it has long proven to be a reliable lifeline for theaters. The films are cheap, the fans are dedicated, and the communal experience is primal. And yet, at a time when the situation is — per Martin Scorsese — “brutal and inhospitable to art” for “anyone who dreams of making movies,” there’s no guarantee that a new generation of auteurs will be able to parlay even the most beloved (or profitable) of horror debuts into broader filmmaking careers. It’s the same dilemma that superhero actors face when operating beyond the safety of their franchises: Once you step outside of your designated lane, past success is all but irrelevant to future earning potential.
Nevertheless, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, and Jordan Peele all managed to slip out of this straitjacket in plain sight. In their own ways — and to their own extents — each of them used the veil of horror as a Trojan horse to smuggle a singular marvel past an unsuspecting audience. If the film industry wants to survive in at least some version of its current state, it ought to consider recognizing these artists in every way that it can.
The issue isn’t that horror is in any way less than or limiting, but rather that even our most promising filmmakers can feel limited to it. “If ‘The Lighthouse’ was not a genre film, I don’t think it would have gotten financed,” Eggers told me over breakfast in the East Village earlier this summer, a few months before his drunken sea shanty of a movie grossed more than $7 million over its first 18 days of limited or limited-wide release. “On paper, ‘Midsommar’ and ‘Us’ looked like they could make some money, and ‘The Lighthouse’ didn’t.”
“The Witch” production company RT Features first took on the project, but it was financed by Regency Enterprises with A24 handling distribution. “They all gave me incredible freedom,” Eggers said. “It was super privileged, and I’m shocked that it was made. Of course, it was because of the success of ‘The Witch’ that people were interested in collaborating with me again.”
But “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are very dissimilar movies. For one thing, Eggers actually likes “The Lighthouse.” “I was proud of it, but I was disappointed in it beyond it just being my first feature,” he said about “The Witch,” casually dismissing one of the most fiendish and well-crafted debuts of the 21st century. “If I had seen it in theaters as a paying customer I wouldn’t have liked it. ‘The Lighthouse’ is closer to my original vision.”
Another crucial difference that Eggers was eager to point out: They don’t belong to the same genre. “I totally understand why people don’t see ‘The Witch’ as a horror movie,” he said, “and I respect anyone with that opinion… but I think it’s a horror movie. ‘The Lighthouse’ is not. It’s a genre thing that plays with a lot of familiar horror tropes, but it sure ain’t scary.” In fact, Aster has enthusiastically likened the delirious story of two 19th century lighthouse keepers to a Harold Pinter play.
Horror or not, Eggers knew that “The Lighthouse” had to promise certain thrills in order to reach a wider audience than the rest of Robert Pattinson’s similarly excellent arthouse fare — it had to evoke what (most) people loved about “The Witch,” while also pledging to illuminate something new.
“We’re trying to find that line,” Eggers said, “and we do want people to understand that it’s funny. But the movie is in black and white, so already there’s a certain barrier. And so there’s always those questions [about what you can do to make the film more commercial], like: ‘Can there be more creatures?’ And certainly I’m aware of that kind of thing now, even when I’m writing. This may sound crass, but it’s like… how can I write something that’s withholding, but still offers enough interesting imagery that you can put in a trailer? If ‘The Lighthouse’ somehow makes money, that’s obviously a tribute to A24’s marketing.”
Despite the fact that he now has two critical and commercial successes to his name (neither of which seemed like slam-dunks), Eggers will only face a more difficult challenge as his budgets grow and he moves further afield of the genre that put him on the map. “I’m not going to do stupid expensive movies, because when push comes to shove, I’m always going to choose a smaller scale project that gives me more control. ‘The Lighthouse’ is more obscure than ‘The Witch’ for sure, but I think the intention is to be able to do something a little bit more mainstream and with a little bit more money, but something that still lets me be myself.”
And for Eggers, “myself” isn’t squarely located within the horror taxonomy. “I like watching horror movies,” Eggers said, “but it’s not really where I’m interested in. I’m mostly interested in the past — the atmosphere and time period are typically what come first for me — so I think that’s where I’m probably going to stay.” (Since this interview, Eggers has begun casting a 10th century viking drama called “The Northman.”)
Aster, who recognizes that he wouldn’t have been afforded to build an entire village near Budapest for a romantic comedy, similarly regards the horror genre as a means to an end. “I really care about creating worlds,” he told me during the “Midsommar” press tour. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I had written a lot of screenplays before I wrote ‘Hereditary,’ and when I wrote that it was kind of strategic because I knew I wasn’t writing cheap movies — I wasn’t writing movies that I could make for a couple hundred thousand dollars. The aesthetics are too important to me. And yeah, horror made me feel like ‘Okay, I can do what I want in this genre if I get lucky.’ And I got lucky.”
The breakout success of his debut feature put Aster in a position to pull the trigger on “Midsommar,” a concept that was first pitched to him long before he became a household name among horror fans. “‘Midsommar’ is the only script I’ve ever written for hire, and I was ready to pass on it until I realized I could marry the breakup movie I’ve always wanted to make with the folk horror genre. But this was the only thing I had in my drawer after ‘Hereditary’ that so much as flirts with the horror genre. Even though all of my stuff plays with the macabre, this is the only one I had that could be called a horror film.” An impish glean appeared in his eyes: “Even though I see it as a fairytale.”
Despite its ritualistic terrors, slasher-inspired structure, and “Hostel”-like affinity for butchering self-obsessed American tourists, “Midsommar” is clearly a film that uses horror tropes as a means to an end. The sun-blasted story of a grieving young woman (Florence Pugh) who joins her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his grad school chums on a trip to an isolated Swedish village in the midst of a mysterious pagan festival, the movie isn’t “elevated above” the genre in any way; it’s simply less interested in scaring you than it is in twisting that death-obsessed framework into a tale of rebirth.
Still, Aster knew that he was taking a calculated risk when he decided to go right back to his “roots” — he knew that “Midsommar” might further pigeonhole him as someone who just makes films about grief, death cults, and evil wooden triangle shacks. But after 10 years of working towards a place where people were actually excited about making his work, he was eager to strike while the iron was hot.
“‘Hereditary’ had left me feeling like ‘wow, there’s something about this genre that inspires people to come together as a tribe,” Aster said. “But in horror, you’re often judged on just how mischievous you really were. For me, the trap is that I don’t want to stay within the lines, even while I’m agreeing to; ‘Midsommar’ follows the trajectory of a folk horror tale in so many ways, to the point that it might annoy certain people, but my real interests lie in the relationship.”
So-called “horror filmmakers” can still get away with murder, even in this risk-averse artistic climate, but they have to keep their weapons hidden in full view of the public. In that sense, “Midsommar” can be seen as a microcosm of the market that Aster and Eggers may always be forced to navigate: Appearing to stay within the lines has become the only reliable way to tunnel beneath them.
“Midsommar” was promoted as the new nightmare from the twisted mind of “Hereditary” director Ari Aster — as opposed to a mordantly hilarious 150-minute caricature of pain, codependency, and the American philosophy that prolonged suffering is preferable to death with dignity. And it grossed $41 million worldwide, while broadening Aster’s fanbase in a big way.
Of course, that Trojan horse approach is very much in keeping with horror tradition — from Weimar cinema to George Romero and beyond, no genre has more reliably baited audiences into letting their guards down and leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. It’s a strategy that Jordan Peele weaponized to great effect with “Get Out,” a culturally and commercially seismic event which used a campy premise to expose the sinister underpinnings of a “post-racial America.” Audiences didn’t feel ambushed by the movie’s urgent themes, but “Get Out” exposed the undying soul of this country’s original sin in a more visceral and galvanizing way than a “straight” film ever could.
After raking in $255.5 million and a Best Picture nomination against a $4.5 million budget and a February release date, Peele could have done anything he wanted. And he did. On the television side of things, he was happy to lean towards science-fiction with a reboot of “The Twilight Zone.” In the film world, however, he decided to double down on what his debut had done so well. “I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of ‘Get Out’ broke my heart a little,” Peele told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I set out to make a horror movie, and it’s kind of not a horror movie.”
But if “Us” is less ambiguous about its genre constructs — the home invasion sequence that clicks the story together doesn’t leave much room for doubt — it’s also more expansive about the way it uses that story to confront social ills. A veritable house of mirrors that lured audiences into looking at their own warped reflections, “Us” twisted an amuse-bouche of familiar horror imagery (masked doppelgangers, creepy voices, lots of stabby stabbings) into a coast-to-coast reckoning with classicism, privilege, and the unseen consequences of the American Dream.
Peele sold $255.1 million worth of tickets to a movie about Hands Across America. He made another original mid-budget mega-hit that doesn’t fit into Hollywood’s current binary, and he used his brand to show people something they might not otherwise be able to see. “Us” doesn’t work because it transcends horror; it works because it forms a human chain that connects horror to everything around it.
Any rising director is faced with a perverse dilemma when making that second feature: They can repeat what already worked, or they can try to make something that people don’t even know they want to see yet. The transgressive genius of “The Lighthouse,” “Midsommar,” and “Us” is inextricable from how their respective filmmakers used the horror genre to obfuscate the difference. And the more that financiers and distributors allow them to do so, the more hospitable the industry will become to original projects.
“Call it ‘horror,’ call it ‘elevated genre,’ call it ‘whatever you want,’” Eggers said. “But from ‘Let the Right One in’ through ‘The Witch’ and ‘Hereditary,’ more and more people are seeing these movies. As the audience grows wider, people who wouldn’t necessarily be a part of like the A24 core art-house audience might be exposed to this stuff — and they might find that it’s more accessible than some people thought.”
Eggers said he was eager to take the next step towards a future where filmmakers are empowered to express themselves however they want. “I’m excited for stranger, more obscure things to come in,” he said, “and continue to shatter the outmoded vocabulary we have right now.”