How post-horror movies are taking over cinema

From It Comes at Night to A Ghost Story, a new breed of horror is creeping into the multiplex, replacing jump-scares with existential dread. We talk to the auteurs breaking all the rules

DO NOT GO SEE IT COMES AT NIGHT, ITS SO NOT WORTH WATCHING, WORST MOVIE EVER HANDS DOWN. Twitter was filled with countless such posts after the US release of It Comes at Night last month. Mainstream moviegoers went in expecting a straight-up horror; they came out unsure about what theyd seen, and they didnt like it. Critics, and a certain section of viewers, have loved the film, but its Cinemascore rating determined by moviegoers opening-night reactions is a D.

You can understand the confusion. The title alone strongly suggests It Comes at Night is a horror movie. As does the movies trailer, whose ingredients include a post-apocalyptic scenario, a cabin in the woods, gas masks, shotguns, prisoners, a stern patriarch (Joel Edgerton), and warnings never to leave doors unlocked or go out at night. Its by no means false advertising, its just that this tense, minimal movie doesnt play by accepted rules.

I didnt set out to make a horror movie per se, says Trey Edward Shults, the films 28-year-old writer-director. I just set out to make something personal and thats what it turned into. I put a lot of my own fears into it, and if fear equates with horror then, yeah, its horror. But its not a conventional horror movie.

Considering that horror is the place where we explore our mortal and societal fears, the genre is actually one of the safest spaces in cinema. More than any other genre, horror movies are governed by rules and codes: vampires dont have reflections; the final girl will prevail; the warnings of the gas station attendant/mystical Native American/creepy old woman will go unheeded; the evil will ultimately be defeated, or at least explained, but not in a way that closes off the possibility of a sequel. The rules are our flashlight as we venture into the unknown. But in some respects, theyve made horror a realm of what Donald Rumsfeld would describe as known unknowns.

Regret terrifies me Trey Edward Shults It Comes at Night. Photograph: Animal Kingdom/REX/Shutterstock

No wonder some film-makers are starting to question what happens when you switch the flashlight off. What happens when you stray beyond those cast-iron conventions and wander off into the darkness? You might find something even scarier. You might find something thats not scary at all. What could be emerging here is a new sub-genre. Lets call it post-horror.

To its fans, at least, It Comes at Night is all the scarier because you dont know exactly where the horror is going to come from. Theres a civilisation-levelling apocalypse and a contagious virus and a Blair Witchy forest, but the film is more interested in the horrors within. Edgerton and his family form a nervy alliance with another in a similar predicament, and with shotguns to hand and trust in short supply, the threat of violence is never far away. There is grief, guilt, regret and paranoia. There are family bonds, which turn from protective to constrictive. The teenage son is plagued by nightmares. And then theres simply the darkness, which the films visuals make tremendous use of. Its amazing how unsettling it can be just watching someone with a lantern wandering around in the pitch black night. Its easier to identify whats not scary.

Im aware that the title sounds like a dope monster movie or something, but it speaks to the movie thematically, not in the literal sense, says Shults. He turned off all the lights in his Texas home and wandered around with a torch to get a feel for the movie, he confesses. He also researched genocides and societal cycles of violence. But the story really stems from his personal anxieties. Shults talks of his estranged father, who had a history of addiction, and died shortly before he wrote the movie. He confessed his regret to his son on his deathbed.

Death is the unknown. We dont know, he says, And thats always terrifying. But then more so is regret. The way you led your life, the decisions you made. That terrifies me all the time. As a former business-school student who quit college against his parents advice to pursue film-making, the fear of making the wrong decision was clearly present for Shults. What emboldened him to switch careers was landing a job with local auteur Terrence Malick, working on The Tree of Life. I dont know if he knows, but he changed the course of my whole life, says Shults. What I was inspired by is just how unorthodox you can be just think outside of the box and find the right way to make a movie for you.

Low budget, mass appeal Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Photograph: Allstar/Blumhouse Productions

Thats not a sentiment horror producers really want to hear these days. Horror is the most profitable genre in the industry and its booming. This year is set to be horrors best ever, led by titles like Get Out (which has made $252m globally on a budget of $4.5m), and M Night Shyamalans Split ($277m on a $9m budget). As a result, theres a market for horrors with low budgets and mass appeal. Which basically means variations on well-established themes: supernatural possession, haunted houses, psychos, zombies.

This is the market post-horror is reacting against. Shults cites the influence of Roman Polanski, whose celebrated apartment trilogy Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemarys Baby were similar exercises in refashioning horror tropes with an auteur sensibility, as were Nicolas Roegs Dont Look Now and Stanley Kubricks The Shining. But those were in the era of well-resourced studio horror, now young film-makers like Shults must make a distinctive impression on an indie budget. (It Comes at Night has already recouped its budget many times over, incidentally.)

Refashioning tired horror tropes Nicolas Roegs Dont Look Now. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/REX

A number of other recent films could fit into the post-horror category. Last years The Witch, for example, which went into the New England woods with a devout 17th-century family. Again, the title and trailer suggested a straight horror movie, but while it was steeped in authentic satanic lore, The Witch was short on jump-scares and frantic chases, and explanations. It did, at least, have a witch in it. But again, it was marketed at mainstream audiences, who felt like theyd been conned, and took to Twitter with WORST MOVIE EVER sentiments.

Taking a different tack was Olivier Assayas Personal Shopper, which wove supernatural elements into its understated study of a Parisian fashion assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. Shes seeking a sign from her dead twin brother. She believes in ghosts, and from what we see, shes not making it up either, so when a stalker starts texting her, were not sure if theyre living or dead. Technically, its a horror movie, but nobody would confuse Personal Shopper with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. In a similar vein, so to speak, Nicholas Winding Refn brought bloodthirsty lesbian vampire supermodels to LAs fashion world in The Neon Demon a variation on a well-worn horror tropes, but in no way traditional.

The movie that could really seal post-horror is A Ghost Story, an extraordinary, exploratory film that goes on the release in the US this week (and comes to the UK in August). Again, its a title that creates certain expectations. There is a ghost, but its Casey Affleck draped in a white sheet with two eye holes cut out of it. Hes basically a human emoji of a ghost. Having been killed in a car crash, he haunts the house of his grief-stricken young widow, played by Rooney Mara, but she cant actually see him. When she moves out, hes stuck there. Forever. New tenants come and go. The building itself eventually goes. Time loops in on itself, and the story expands from personal trauma into the realms of cosmic speculation.

I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted house movies, without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film, says writer-director David Lowery, who made A Ghost Story with the proceeds of his previous movie, a remake of Disneys Petes Dragon. Look at any horror film and you can trace it back to a particular social or personal anxiety, and this film is no different in that regard: I was having a big-picture existential crisis about my place in the universe, and at the same time I was having a very personal conflict with my wife about where we were going to move to. And wrapped up in all of that was my longstanding desire to make a movie with a guy in a sheet.

Rooney Mara in the exploratory A Ghost Story Photograph: Andrew Droz Palermo/Sundance Institute

Lowery is no snob, though: I go and see most horror films that come out, but Im usually watching with my hands over my eyes. He speaks with admiration of The Conjuring 2. But Lowery also draws on a more east-Asian view of spirits and the supernatural. Tsai Ming-liangs Goodbye, Dragon Inn, for example, set in a haunted cinema where ghosts and the living sit side by side. Or the films of Thailands Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in which the ghost of a dead wife can casually turn up at the dinner table or a son can be transformed into a forest-dwelling wookiee and nobody bats an eyelid. Weerasethakuls entire career is basically post-horror.

It is telling that It Comes at Night, The Witch and A Ghost Story were all put out by A24 Films, a young company that has already found Oscar success with the likes of Moonlight and Room. If anyones pushing horror into new realms, its them, but isnt it about time? There will always be a place for movies that reacquaint us with our primal fears and frighten the bejesus out of us. But when it comes to tackling the big, metaphysical questions, the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers like a dying religion. Lurking just beyond its cordon is a vast black nothingness, waiting for us to shine a light into it.

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