I didn’t grow up as a horror fan. I wasn’t one of those kids who flocked to the theater on the opening weekend of the latest slasher movie or supernatural fright fest to be scared silly. There were times I’d brave the theater for the occasional horror flick — David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly comes to mind — but watching movies through my fingers was never really my thing. Because of that, I didn’t see a lot of those great ’80s horror flicks until well into adulthood, something I regret simply because I missed the chance to experience them in a theater, with an audience, the way they were meant to be enjoyed.
As I matured, and my love of film turned into an appreciation of cinema, I also came to understand the nature of horror and its power over audiences. People love being scared, for the screen serves as a safety barrier that reminds them it’s all pretend and allows them to feel safe in an otherwise unsafe world, which is maybe a little less scary in comparison to the violent world of the film. It’s easy to lose yourself in horror movies because they serve as wish fulfillment, to some extent, given that no matter how many people die onscreen, the viewer (typically) survives. Sometimes, watching people lose their lives in gruesome ways reminds us of the fragility of our own. Other times, a good horror movie allows us to escape whatever stress or misery we might be experiencing in our own lives, which may look better in comparison to the characters who aren’t lucky enough to survive a horror movie.
Because of that, I now seek out horror movies I would never have watched before, and those that can actually scare me — or even just freak me out a little, really — get extra points for their trouble. It’s not hard to frighten someone, but it is hard to do it intelligently, for a steady stream of jump scares gets old fast. To be thoughtful about consistently scaring people over the course of two hours, though, is an art, and an underappreciated one at that.
How underappreciated? That’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? Horror is like comedy, in that it doesn’t really get the respect it deserves. A truly great horror film, just like a really funny movie, is infinitely harder to pull off than a straightforward drama — even a high-quality one. Thoughtful, intelligent horror movies are generally few and far between, simply because there’s a long checklist to do them successfully. You have to make the audience care about the people being threatened, have them believe these characters are actually at risk of dying at any moment, and consistently surprise the audience with scares while also spacing them out enough so as to not let viewers get either too comfortable or too bored. As with comedy, timing is key to an effective genre movie, because if you pile on the scares one after another after another, it gets boring.
Add it all up, and, as you can see, horror is really hard to pull off. Hell, it’s hard to make a bad movie, so that makes it infinitely harder to make one that’s actually good, and if you factor in these other considerations, the degree of difficulty rises exponentially.
We’re lucky to get one really good horror movie a year, and yet, somehow, against all odds, this year has been a gift to horror fans, as 2022 is one of the best years for genre films in recent memory. It’s something worth celebrating, and what better time than now, in the middle of October?
Through the first 10 months of the year, we’ve been blessed with X, Prey, Barbarian, Smile, The Black Phone, Pearl, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Nope, Scream, Hellraiser, Watcher, Men, and Halloween Ends, and that’s just a partial list. Now, not all of them are classics, it’s true — I would have liked that last one, especially, to have been better, but I admired the big swings it took, even if several of them whiffed — but that’s a lot of really good, entertaining, scary movies in the span of just a handful of months.
I’m trying to remember another year when a bunch of films in a single genre were this good, and nothing jumps out at me. Did Covid encourage writers to embrace their dark sides, or was there just something in the water bottles handed out by assistants at horror factories such as A24 and Blumhouse. Did we get a stars-and-planets-aligned moment wherein a lot of development people had the same bright idea to move forward with these smart, entertaining, and perhaps most importantly, cheap projects without meddling too much with the filmmakers?
Or, is it possible that we’re in the midst of a horror renaissance? Even as romantic comedies die and movie theaters are ceding more and more screens to big-budget action fare that basically boils down to Superheroes Fighting! these days, this string of strong genre films doesn’t feel like a one-off. It actually feels much more like the start of something. Something scary good.
Why now? Is there something special about this particular moment in time that has allowed this to occur? Actually, as it happens, yes, I think there is.
As noted above, the great thing about horror movies is that they don’t tend to cost a lot to make, and they have something of a built-in audience because of the public’s loyal love of all things genre. Barbarian, for one, cost less than $11 million and has thus far grossed roughly four times that worldwide. Smile, for another, cost about $17 million, and is closing in on 10 times that worldwide. That’s a common theme for horror flicks these days, as each of the above-listed films — with the exception of those that went right to streaming, like Hulu’s franchise entries Hellraiser and Prey — were big money makers, which tracks. If you make a horror movie, chances are you’re going to get solid box office returns. If you manage to make a high-quality horror movie, the world is your oyster.
Horror is a great business due to the relatively low cost of horror movies and the high upside they offer. They won’t all be good movies, but I’m all for supporting anything we can do to combat the superhero invasion.
The more horror movies that are hits, the more horror movies we’ll get, and that’s good news for us genre fans, as well as those who create content catering to us. Success can be scary — look what happened to the found-footage genre — but today’s genre filmmakers seem up for the challenge and ready for the moment.
Those superheroes should be shaking in their boots.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.