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The Meta Movie Monster Milieu: The Postmodern Horror Film…

Horror films have historically performed very well.

They never really get the same attention or focus as more prestigious genres like drama or even comedy or action, but they tend to chug away reliably in the background. Since the explosion of blockbuster filmmaking during the seventies, horror has always had several innate advantages over other genres. Horror films are cheaper to produce than star-studded dramas, period pieces, or epic spectacle, meaning that they have to earn less money to be profitable. Horror films are also largely seen as disposable and fun films, so there is always a market for these films and they tend to be insulated from bad reviews.

Indeed, there has been a miniature horror revolution over the past few years, itself building on the low-budget found footage revolution of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Very few people seem to talk about it, but director James Wan seems to have built what is Hollywood’s second successful shared universe with the nexus connecting films like The Conjuring and The Conjuring II to movies like Annabelle and The Nun. Indeed, the success of these films has even led to a sort of weird hybrid of revived seventies horror stylings with blockbuster narrative sensibilities.

However, there has also been a quieter revolution in horror storytelling, with several low-budget and independent horror films gaining critical and cultural traction. Films like The Babadook were greeted with enthusiasm. Get Out become one of a handful of low budget horror films to secure a Best Picture nomination. Films like Hereditary emerge from the festival circuit with considerable buzz. Horror movies have always been pointed towards and engaged with contemporary politics, often in a manner more visceral than the prestige dramas around them. However, it seems that is finally being acknowledged.

With all of this happening within the genre, there has been something else bubbling through contemporary horror cinema. Films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place represent a fascinating shift within the genre towards more self-aware storytelling. There is a decidedly meta quality to horror films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place. As with horror films like The Babadook and Get Out, these are films that hinge on the audience’s understanding of the mechanics and structure of horror films, weaponising the viewer’s expectations.

However, these films are markedly different from companion horrors like The Babadook and Get Out, films that use the language of horror to construct broader allegories. Instead, films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place are horror films that often seem to be explicitly about the experience of watching horror films.

As has been discussed before, It Follows and Lights Out are movies about the “rules” of horror movies. Of course, horror movies have always had rules. Audiences have always understood that horror movies have rules. The monster is summoned in a particular way; saying Beetlejuice’s name three times, saying Candyman five times while staring into a mirror. The monster has particular needs and wants; vampires want to feed on blood, zombies want to eat flesh. The monster can be destroyed in a particular way; through completing a ritual, denying it a host, shooting it with silver bullets.

What makes the preoccupation with rules so notable in films like It Follows and Lights Out is the manner in which the characters interact with such rules. The rules that govern the behaviour of such creatures are not just a framework to provide a structure for the film’s scares and storytelling, but also a system with which the characters can play and interact. Indeed, It Follows finds its young protagonists testing and probing the rules, as if adopting something approaching the scientific method to the central monster. Sure, the creature is invisible to all but the person it pursues, but is is solid? Can you throw a sheet over it?

In short, the characters in It Follows approach their pursuer more like members of an audience than victims of a creature. They are curious about it. They poke at it. They look to find loopholes to exploit. It is not a creature with a complex and overly elaborate back story expressed through arcane text books and ancient legends, it is something that can be tested and validated. There are stretches of It Follows that play like the kinds of conversations between horror fans in late-night pizzerias. It is all those idle “but what if…?” and “how about…?” questions rolled into a narrative framework.

It Follows is not the only example of this sort of self-aware and meta-textual horror movie storytelling, the kind of horror movie that seeks to incorporate the experience of watching a horror movie into the narrative framework itself. The most obvious example of this approach is probably Cabin in the Woods, a wry and winking deconstruction of the genre that seems likely to endure as a cult classic. The film focused on the behind-the-scenes management and orchestration of a horror story from the perspective of anonymous workers crafting a blood sacrifice for the audience.

Of course, Cabin in the Woods was itself an extension and extrapolation from earlier horror movie trends. Like Scream, there was a wry and postmodern aspect to the film, as the characters seemed to exist on the verge of existential awareness; those orchestrating the carnage understood that they were effectively positioned within a horror film. Similarly, the Japanese horror Ringu (and the American remake The Ring) were horror movies in which the monster itself was arguably a horror film, the vile fiend bursting out of a television set to murder the characters.

However, there have been many films since that have subtly built upon the knowing quality of these earlier films. Most notably, they tend to be rather traditional horrors rather than avant garde fare. Modern cinema is decidedly low key in its embrace of these self-aware attributes, less showy in its willingness to play with the format. Lights Out is a great example, focusing on a monster that cannot move when it is in the light. The film offers an in-story justification for the creature’s unique aspects, but the net effect is that the monster in Lights Out is most dangerous when the audience can’t see it.

It is a clever literalisation of both horror movie storytelling and the experience of watching a horror movie. The monster in Lights Out embodies the fact that movie monsters can be anywhere once they aren’t on camera; that Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers can be lurking behind any closed door or just outside of any frame as long as they aren’t actually on screen. More than that, the premise of Lights Out makes it dangerous for the audience to take their eyes off the screen, weaponising the audience’s impulse to look away or cover their eyes. It is a movie that dares the characters, and the audience, to look.

Similarly, the monsters in both Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place hunt their targets based on sound. In Don’t Breathe, the villain is a blind man with almost supernatural hearing. In A Quiet Place, the countryside is populated by creatures with no sense of sight but finely tuned hearing. The protagonists in Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place find themselves forced to remain deathly silent while being pursued, in the face of sharp physical pain or mounting horror. The fiends in Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place feed their bloodlust on gasps and screams.

Again, there is something very playful in this, another nod to the experience of watching a horror movie. If the rules governing the behaviour of the monster in Lights Out dare the audience to keep their eyes transfixed on the screen, the villains in Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place challenge the audiences not to gasp or scream. Reinforced by sparse ambient soundscapes that reinforce the lack of human sounds, watching Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place with an audience is a fantastic experience, as the audience seems to fall silent in line with the protagonists.

There is something very interesting in this minor trend in modern horror, in the sense that horror films are actively incorporating the experience of watching a horror film into the execution of the horror film. In some ways, it perhaps reflects broader shifts in popular culture, particularly an increasing awareness of the audience’s knowledge of narrative and genre conventions, an understanding of the audience’s appreciation of the mechanics that drive these sorts of film. In some ways, these are horror movies that (metaphorically) celebrate horror as an art form.

Indeed, it is tempting to look on these trends within horror movies as a more canny and creative variation of the broader nostalgia sweeping through popular culture; the trend of sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. Indeed, this nostalgia is arguably present within the horror genre itself. The Conjuring and The Conjuring II are both conscious throwbacks to seventies horror, a vibe that can also be felt in precursors like Insidious and Sinister. (Annabelle goes back even further into the sixties, playing with the horror of the Manson Family Murders.)

This nostalgia is a celebration and a comfort, a reminder of what past pleasures and an excuse to relive something that was once a source of joy. There is something thrilling in watching beloved characters and concepts resurrected on the screen. In its own way, perhaps this is what motivates the literalisation of the horror movie experience in feature films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place, in seeing characters effectively forced to live the visceral experiences familiar to horror movie audiences. Figure out the rules! Don’t look away! Don’t jump or scream or gasp!

Of course, it should be noted that if films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place can be said to be driven by nostalgia, it is a more interesting form of nostalgia than that driving the Baywatch or CHiPs or Power Rangers reboots. This nostalgia is not rooted in a yearning to recapture a particular object, like a given character or brand icon. Instead, this nostalgia is rooted in a desire to recreate an experience. There is something inherently creative in that, something that feels bolder and more adventurous than simply revisiting old concepts. (Horror has enough of that, after all.)

Perhaps this nostalgia overlaps with something deeper, an understanding that modern audiences approach narrative in a fundamentally different way than earlier generations. Modern film and television audiences have grown up with shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, television series that do not just embrace the conventions of storytelling, but actively engage with them and explore them. Modern audiences have not just grown up with the stock horror tropes, they have grown up picking apart the stock horror tropes.

Indeed, many of these films take the audience’s understanding of the genre and its conventions for granted. It Follows and A Quiet Place are both very efficient narrative machines, wasting a minimum amount of time on awkward and clumsy exposition because they trust the audience to be able to parse the important aspects of the concept in a very direct manner. It Follows and A Quiet Place both consciously avoid providing back story or motivation for their monsters, treating them as abstract plot devices. Indeed, it could be argued that Don’t Breathe works very well until it tries to explain the motivations of its villain.

Of course, cinema and television have always had postmodern and absurdist strands. The Prisoner was a mindbending television series that can keep pace with just about anything short of Twin Peaks: The Return. The found footage horror film can trace its roots to Cannibal Holocaust, almost forty years ago. Nothing is as new as modern audiences like to think. However, the difference is that this sort of deconstruction and examination of horror storytelling became much more mainstream in the late nineties than it had been before; most modern horror audiences are passingly familiar with Scream or Buffy.

In fact, even family television has gotten in on the act. On the BBC, Doctor Who is a beloved institution intended for children of all ages. However, under showrunner Steven Moffat, the series embraced exactly this sort of postmodern literalist horror. Many of Moffat’s monsters were literalised horror movie concepts; the Weeping Angels could only move when the audience wasn’t watching them, the Silence could manipulate the narrative through the power of editing, the clockwork monster that would just keep coming no matter what.

(Indeed, it is fairly possible to draw a clear line between these sorts of horror movies and what Moffat has done on Doctor Who. The Weeping Angels introduced in Blink seem to prefigure the monster in Lights Out, only moving when they can’t be seen. The creature in It Follows has a number of similar counterparts in Moffat’s Doctor Who canon, from the unstoppable lurching spectral figure in Heaven Sent to the killer that only the victim can see in Mummy on the Orient Express. This seems enough to extrapolate a minor trend in modern horror movie storytelling.)

Perhaps these sorts of playful self-aware horror movies are just a combination of and elaboration upon these two trends, the collision of a strong nostalgia for the experience of watching a horror film with an increased awareness and understanding of how these stories are supposed to work. Modern audiences understand how the genre works, both in terms of the internal mechanics driving it and in terms of the subjective experience of watching it. Indeed, Ghost Stories blends these two competing impulses beautifully; at once a nostalgic throwback to old horror films and an existential exploration of horror as a genre.

It Follows, Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and A Quiet Place are horror movies that celebrate horror movies for audiences that have grown up on horror movies.

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