Let’s Talk About ‘Elevated Horror’

Why is this newfangled genre term so controversial? And what it might mean in terms of a hyper-corporatised film industry?

The 2010s closed with lists of its bests and worsts, but film discourse also seemed preoccupied with what the next decade might mean for cinema. If anything defined the medium for the last 10 years, it was its hyper-corporatisation; after gobbling up Star Wars and Fox, the Disney empire accounted for $11.1 billion (33%) of U.S. box office earnings in 2019, alone. Alongside talks of undoing the 1948 Paramount Decree, it sometimes seems this increasingly capitalistic industry has made smaller, less risk-averse films harder to make and see. That isn’t necessarily true; for better or worse, streaming has broken down barriers to accessing international and/or obscure movies with smaller budgets (Atlantics is available now on Netflix!). However, Martin Scorsese isn’t wrong, either; in this new cinematic landscape, streamlined, corporate-funded franchises crowd out smaller films from the box office, and theatrical exhibition, altogether. Additionally, the fallout of conglomerate buy-outs reaches beyond the box office, to higher-brow corners of criticism and consumption (see the MCU’s annual attempt to storm the Oscars). These industrial complications have given way to an even more complicated debate about what constitutes artful cinema in the face of its corporatisation, a cornerstone of which lies in the cultural quibble about ‘elevated horror.’ 

In the cultural history of movies, the horror genre has largely been thought of as ‘trash’: unintellectual movies for unintellectual audiences. As you might imagine, this is more of a social fabrication than a reflection of these films’ cultural value or quality. In Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics, scholar Jeffrey Sconce summarises Pauline Kael’s landmark 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies”: “academics overly eager in their attempts to elevate popular movies into significant art would use auteurism, cine-structuralism, and good old-fashioned textual explication to… ultimately dissipate the mindless pleasure of films” (Sconce 3-4). In other words, ‘trashy’ genres live at the margins of taste, style, and politics. 

In the context of an increasingly corporatised film industry, however, ‘horror’ has entirely different connotations. Companies like Blumhouse (the Paranormal Activity and The Purge franchises) and directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us ) have come to demonstrate the genre’s potential to break into an otherwise monopolised box office with low-budget, seemingly less risk-averse filmmaking. What makes the genre so contemporarily contentious, however, has less to do with its moneymaking potential and more to do with the ‘elevation’ of horror from trash to Oscar-worthy prestige.  

‘Elevated horror’ is a colloquial sub-genre invented as recently as 2015. It is meant to describe a more sophisticated iteration of the horror film that demands a higher cinematic literacy of its audience. Contemporary scary movies like The Witch and Midsommar positing social commentaries or arthouse aesthetics are labelled as more intellectual, culturally valuable versions of the genre from which they are derived. The problem with this label, as indicated by its ongoing cultural controversy, is its ignorance toward the genre’s history of taste politics. From auteurs like David Cronenberg to the Child’s Play franchise, horror flicks have always had complex narration and avant garde form, and have always promised more than cheap thrills. ‘Elevated horror’ also assumes new horror lacks the trashiness of its generic predecessors when, in reality, Midsommar is more campy and melodramatic than it is revolutionarily political. 

On its surface, elevating horror praises intellectualism and mocks mindlessness. However, horror movies are no less simple, aimless, or obscene than they were forty years ago. The difference between these eras of horror is really only defined by a gloss of wokeness, painted by certain filmmakers and critics on movies with enough celebrity and marketing to both make a dent in Disney’s box office and compete for a little gold statue. So, in terms of its taste-making politics and historical ignorance, the elevated horror movement can be offensive. However, its plight is not unfounded; Martin Scorsese names elevated horror baron Ari Aster as a beacon for the survival of art cinema in the shadow of Disney-esque dominance. 

There is also salience to what the label might evoke in an increasingly monolithic culture. Promoting intellectualism, albeit elitist and ahistorical, might be more legitimate at a time when your average American only sees a few movies a year, all of which might belong in the MCU. It would be hard to prove its effectiveness, but there could also be value to the genre in getting people to be interested in seeing movies on the big screen. A key part of the cinematic panic about a corporate industry is the dominance of streaming and its aforementioned potential erosion of theatrical exhibition. Get Out was the “second-biggest R-rated horror movie ever in North America,” undoubtedly because of its demand to experience movies of its kind ‘with an audience.’ 

In my opinion, ‘elevated horror’ is a bunch of bologna. Its pervasion beyond film discourse to my family Thanksgiving, however, is promising. If artificial prestige is what it takes for people who aren’t on ‘film twitter’ to care about independent film, I’m willing to turn the other way. Nonetheless, I am wary of how it might affect conceptions of genre as film industries continue to change. If horror were to become an insider-championed, Oscar-bait standard, the marginalised filmmakers and audiences who conceived horror trash would be shut out of its newfangled success.

by Clare Ostroski

Clare Ostroski (she/her) is a freelance writer and MA/PhD candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University. Her favorite movies are Moonstruck and Beetlejuice. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd @clarefranceso.

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