It’s just horror, and the rest is marketing
“Elevated horror,” a tired term that somehow has more lives than Michael Myers, is back in the discourse lately after the recent Shudder release of Canadian actor Jay Baruchel’s new film Random Acts of Violence.
First, some context: “Elevated horror” all started after The Witch premiered at Sundance in 2015, and critics and fans called Robert Eggers’ film “elevated” because of its emotional content, realism and close attention to period details. Critics and film writers have been debating ever since then what “elevated horror” actually means. Generally, the “elevated horror” genre includes horror films that a highbrow audience feels like they could get away with consuming, instead of “slumming it” with a genre film. Don’t worry, the elevated discourse goes. There’s no obscene Jason Voorhees here, just an artfully shot fright tale. It’s better looking and has more depth than those slasher films, so it’s not “really” horror.
People who give films this distinction usually pick from the A24 canon: The Witch, The Lighthouse, Hereditary, Midsommar, It Comes At Night, Under the Skin, etc. Hell, you could slap an A24 logo on something like Countdown and it would be bound to get some support as a campy deconstruction of the genre or something like that. That same brand of snobbery labels other films, like Jordan Peele’s Us and Get Out, elevated horror because they have scares to go along with social commentary.
People root the argument for elevated horror in ignorance of the genre and in the perception of the genre as pulp trash. Elevated horror says the genre only has value when you measure its best films against something perceived as lesser-than. If Get Out is elevated social horror, then what is Night of the Living Dead, with a Black protagonist who survived a zombie apocalypse only to have a white police officer murder him? What about Midsommar? Does the fact that people consider it “elevated” make it better than The Wicker Man? Are Oscar-winning biopics considered elevated drama?
Even if something may look like a mindless slasher or a cheesy B movie, it’s still art–not everyone’s type of art, but art nonetheless. Often, it’s the type of art that has more to say about the state of the world than people think.
The term “elevated horror” generally excludes more than it includes, and, like whether or not something scares you, is entirely subjective. And it’s entirely meaningless.
But Baruchel would have you think that all horror besides his movie is trash, and that Random Acts of Violence isn’t like other slasher films, it’s a cool, woke slasher film.
“Random Acts of Violence is an elevated slasher horror that will easily become a cult favourite; scratching the entertainment element of horror whilst searching for the deeper meaning behind the violence,” he wrote in the film’s press kit. “The film explores the idea of legitimizing cruelty, and the fact that monsters are not merely monsters, they are broken people. Stretching from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, it holds a mirror up to art, society and violence.”
Baruchel goes on to make a much longer statement, which you can find here, but the key points appear in the following quote:
“The sad truth is that horror has turned stagnant–a warehouse for outdated ideas and misogyny apologists…The vast majority of horror flicks feature characters nobody cares about, in cynically engineered circumstances that fetishize cruelty.”
Relic, The Invisible Man, It, Black Christmas, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, In the Mouth of Madness, Cabin in the Woods, and The Happy Death Day franchise would like a word, to say nothing of numerous horror films over the years.
Ugh. Baruchel’s full statement reads like a high-school English student trying to up the word count on an essay that’s due in two hours. It also looks down upon the very fans that might support his movie, if he gave them a chance. He reportedly later walked back the quotes, saying it was a joke he made in order to pitch investors to fund the movie. He should have pitched harder.
Even by elevated horror standards, his movie doesn’t make the cut; it’s not saying anything groundbreaking about our society, and actually works more as a scuzzy piece of “cruelty fetishism” than as a horror movie with a point of view.
Horror has been an effective film genre for the entire history of the medium. It doesn’t need grandstanding by genre elitists who think that an “artful” horror film is the only horror film worth watching. There’s no such thing as elevated comedy and elevated drama, just like there’s no such thing as elevated horror. There’s just horror.
Did it scare you? Then it’s horror, whether it came from Vincent Price or Ari Aster.