The Subjectivity of Horror, Part Four – The Death of Psychological Horror?

In part three, we analyzed three recent psychological horror films, all released by A24, that have divided critics and audiences. We discussed what aspects of the films caused them to be classified as psychological horror films, drew parallels to some previously discussed classics of the subgenre, and compared the critical reception of each film with what audiences thought of it. Now it’s time to dig in and figure out what it all means. What is causing this consistent difference of opinion between critics and audiences? Could it simply be chalked up to misleading trailers, or could the real answer be something much more troubling?

The Death of Psychological Horror?

Misleading Marketing

Marketing is a common scapegoat for why general moviegoers sometimes disagree with critics on films. It is not uncommon to see a film’s trailer be misleading in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. This variance in opinion is especially true for films that debut at festivals since, sometimes, those critics are not exposed to any marketing at all before viewing the film. This difference becomes even more accentuated when the film ends up receiving glowing reviews and the studio incorporates them into its marketing campaign. In other words, these critics are seeing a movie without any expectation or preconceived notion about what the film should be and before it is gets hit with the kind of buzzwords that causes those expectations to skyrocket. In the case of the A24 releases being discussed, all three happened to debut at film festivals before releasing to a wider audience. Does this mean that marketing is to blame for the division between critics and general audiences?

This may be partially true, but it definitely does not tell the whole story. In the case of The Witch, the studio did employ some praise-based marketing (which, judging from the box office receipts, is a viable and extremely effective marketing strategy) that may have caused some expectations to not be met. One could also argue that the trailer itself may have been slightly misleading due to the fact that it largely hides the fact that the spoken dialogue in the film is in the old English accent that was true to the time period. However, the rest of the trailer feels true to the actual tone and pacing of the film. While the dialogue may have turned some viewers off, it certainly doesn’t account for the totality of the subpar audience ratings the film received, as well as the audience reviews calling it a slow and boring movie that doesn’t really get interesting until the end.

With It Comes at Night, it is a little harder to use misleading trailers to explain the significant variance in opinion between audiences and critics and there is no praise-based marketing to speak of. The film debuted less than two months before its release so the only way that the general moviegoer would have seen the high praise it was receiving would have been if they actively sought out reviews. While it is certainly possible, even likely, that viewers were expecting a zombie movie or a monster movie of sorts, that is not entirely the fault of the trailer. While the trailer did make the film seem a little more action-packed than it actually was, all the conflict shown in the trailer was still interpersonal. It even explicitly states the overall theme of the film in the trailer, “Fear turns men into monsters”.

Hereditary is probably the easiest of the three to pin on misleading marketing. For one, it garnered extremely high praise at the Sundance Film Festival and started generating early hype. Comments from the festival screening likened Hereditary as being a “horror masterpiece” and “this generation’s The Exorcist”, and were then featured in the official trailer for the film. The trailer itself made the scares look much more direct and conventional, making it seem like a lot more of a fast-paced film than it actually ended up being.

Now, here is where this gets interesting. Hereditary, which we said presented the easiest case for misleading marketing, actually had the lowest critic-to-audience review variance with a 30% gap on Rotten Tomatoes as well as the highest IMDb score of the three films discussed. Which film had the largest variance and the lowest IMDb score? It Comes at Night. The film that had zero praise-based marketing and whose trailers were the most true to the nature of the film. While it is a fair assumption to say that misleading marketing may have caused some division between critics and audiences, there is clearly more to the story.

A Sign of the Times

While a portion of moviegoers may agree that misleading marketing caused subverted expectations and led to the negative reception of a particular film, the bigger picture may be much more troubling. For every misleading trailer that a studio releases, there must be a reason why the film was presented the way it was. That reason, always, is to sell the movie. Studios like A24 have taken note of the shift in horror that happened over time and have been forced to adapt their marketing strategy accordingly. They know that presenting a film as a true psychological horror simply won’t generate the same interest in the general moviegoing audience that a fast-paced slasher or loud haunted house flick would.

This becomes all the more evident when analyzing the trailers for classic horror films and comparing them to modern trailers, like the three discussed earlier. Take, for example, the trailer for the 1962 psychological horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It chose to focus on the tension and suspense that was so prevalent in this film and used that to sell the movie. Those were considered marketable aspects of a horror film at the time and it showed, as the movie went on to be both a financial and critical success.

Now, compare that to the trailers that were discussed earlier. If the studio had been able to rely solely on tension and suspense to sell a film, these trailers would have looked a lot different. Instead, the trailers had to be spliced in a way that made the films seem more in line with the look and feel of a modern horror film in order to attract audiences. In the case of A24, they were successful in getting moviegoers to see the films but, consistently and unfortunately, audiences just weren’t receptive to the style of horror presented once the true nature of the film became evident. This speaks volumes about the state of the horror genre today as well as the fate of psychological horror films in the future.

A second, and even more direct, example can be seen by comparing the trailer to the 1979 supernatural horror film The Amityville Horror with that of its 2005 remake. The trailer for the 1979 version, as well as the film itself, focused more on the characters and the way they were affected by what was happening around them. The trailer culminates with James Brolin‘s famous line, “I’m coming apart! Oh, Mother of God, I’m coming apart!”, highlighting the psychological agony that his character experiences in the film. The 2005 remake featured much of that same internal conflict for the character, now played by Ryan Reynolds, but the trailer gave off a very different feel. This time, the trailer heavily featured jump scares and many of the same recycled camera tricks found in a large portion of modern mainstream horror. While it’s a stretch to consider The Amityville Horror a psychological horror film, it still provides an interesting example because it shows how the evolution of the horror genre caused two films, adapted from the same source material, to look and feel so different.

Owen Gleiberman of Variety shares his belief on the topic when he states that “horror films now require a kinesthetic element of funhouse sensation to engage a wide audience.” He continues on to say that “these days, the horror films that become mainstream hits tend to be so sensational, even debased, that they’re like ritualized celebrations of our inhumanity. At slasher movies, people view the killers as rock stars of mayhem…and almost any tale of the supernatural turns into a relentless carnival of Jack-in-the-box devils.” The more gratuitous the genre gets, the harder it will be for subtler forms of the genre to make their mark.

It Comes at Night is an interesting case to look at here. Is it possible that the reason audiences may have been expecting a zombie movie or some other monster movie from the trailer is in part due to the fact they have been conditioned to do so based on modern horror standards? Has horror become so intertwined with thrill-seeking that subtlety is now considered “boring”? Based on the way the genre has shifted over the years (chronicled in part two) and after seeing the reception of modern psychological horror (discussed in part three), that seems to be the case.

This is not to say that modern horror films are bad. A genre doesn’t shift the way horror has without fantastic films to guide it along the way. Films like Insidious and The Conjuring are modern horror classics that bring a vintage horror feel to the new age. More recent mainstream entries like Oujia: Origin of Evil, Lights Out, and Annabelle: Creation are genuinely scary films that fully embrace the “relentless carnival of Jack-in-the-box devils” style of modern haunted house horror. This year, A Quiet Place delivered a genuine “creature feature” that beautifully employed the use of digital effects, and expert sound design, to enhance the scares and create a quality film. Despite the failure of psychological horror to catch on with modern audiences, the horror genre itself is churning out some of the best content it has in years. Let’s just hope that, in between the heart-pounding thrills that modern horror will continue to provide, a classic subgenre will still be there to mess with our heads.

Last Word on Psychological Horror

One of the few exceptions to the recent schism between critics and audiences is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film that served as both a true psychological horror film as well as a critical and fan darling. Unfortunately, one film may not be enough to sway the masses. The good news is that a film like Get Out may hold the key to truly reviving the psychological horror subgenre. It holds more similarities to a film like Rosemary’s Baby than people give it credit for. Where Rosemary’s Baby presented a social commentary on the women’s rights movements of the 60s and early 70s and used it to create an effective horror film, Get Out did the same with a social commentary on the issue of race relations in the United States. While filmmakers certainly must be wary about overusing social commentary in films, it may just be the tool to help jump-start the psychological horror subgenre’s return to relevancy.

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