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Among Us: On Jordan Peele and Elevated Horror

The good news: Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) broke records with its opening weekend haul of $70 million, guaranteeing we are likely to see more horror films in theaters in the immediate future.

The better news: Jordan Peele’s Us isn’t a sophomore slump. While opinions vary on where it stands compared to his first film Get Out (2017), most critics within the genre community agree that it’s good.

The bad news: so do mainstream critics.

The problem here isn’t that Us doesn’t deserve praise outside of genre circles. The film is smart, funny, weird, and, most important, difficult. Peele makes decisions that don’t always work but those occasional missteps turn the movie into a fascinating experience because you’re able to see someone with immense talent taking creative risks. It would have been easy to make another Get Out, but thankfully, Peele didn’t do that. For that alone, Us deserves praise. But the nature of the praise the film is receiving is precisely the problem.

The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk describes Us as a “meta-satire,” and one that confronts the genre with a “Hadean version of itself.” The Ringer titled its review “‘Us’ Is a Horror Movie. It Works Hard to Be So Much More.” And that persistent curmudgeon Richard Brody, he who sniped that Luca Guadagnino’s camera “sees nothing” in his review of Suspiria (2018), softened just enough to write: “Us” is a horror film—though saying so is like offering a reminder that “The Godfather” is a gangster film or that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is science fiction. Genre is irrelevant to the merits of a film, whether its conventions are followed or defied…”

Us sits alongside other recent films — all released since 2010 — that are said to transcend or elevate the horror genre. Back in 2017, coinciding with the release of Peele’s Get Out, critics and writers for mainstream news and culture publications began discussing “post-horror.” The basic premise was that post-horror films were horror films that were… well, not scary. Writing for The Guardian, Steve Rose coined the term and argued that these kinds of movies (notably It Comes At Night [2017], A Ghost Story [2017], and Get Out) eschewed traditions like stingers and jump scares so they could frighten audiences with existential dread and metaphysical terror. At roughly the same time, the term “elevated horror” crept into the critical vernacular like an evil slime seeping up from the sewers to consume all life (and intelligence) it touches. In a 2018 article for The Ringer, Jane Hu wrote that “Get Out was only incidentally a horror film,” and described movies like The Babadook (2014) and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) as elevated horror to the extent that they “remixed” the genre.

Subverting the tropes of horror movies isn’t new. The genre has existed since the birth of film, from George Méliès’s Le Manoir du Diable (1896) to the German Expressionist movement of the twenties, and filmmakers have been playing with and criticizing genre conventions for just as long. As early as the forties producers like Val Lewton were tackling issues of sexuality and identity in films like Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), and beginning in the sixties, filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman toyed with concepts found in traditional horror movies in their films Repulsion (1965) and Hour of the Wolf (1968). And this is to say nothing of the contributions of surrealists like David Lynch whose Eraserhead (1977) “remixed” genre conventions so profoundly that the film was (and still is) seen as terrifyingly weird by audiences.

Us is a horror film through-and-through. Peele himself has stated as much, the most amusing example being when he actually tweeted out “‘Us’ is a horror movie.’ on March 19th. That the film includes criticism of the genre shouldn’t be revelatory. Get Out included metacommentary, obviously, but Peele has expressed admiration for genre mischiefs like Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling. Subversion and social commentary were hard-coded into the horror genre from day one. So why are mainstream critics so quick to dismiss both Peele and his films’ positions within the genre?

With the ushering in of each new generation there’s a tendency for adults of that new era to take seriously what the previous deemed frivolous. Crime films, treated as lowbrow entertainment in the thirties, forties, and fifties, were reappraised in the sixties after French New Wave directors like François Truffaut spoke affectionately of American B-movies and gangster films. By the early seventies, the term film noir had entered the cultural lexicon and the subject was a hot topic of critical and academic inquiry. The same is true of genres as disparate as the Western and the superhero film. But horror has been the one holdout. Despite the valiant efforts of academics, writers, and critics operating outside of mainstream recognition, who are too numerous to list here, there’s still an apprehension by mainstream critics and writers to accept horror as anything but lowbrow. That dissonance that goes into praising Peele while slighting his preferred genre says more about the paternalistic role of mainstream film criticism than it does anything about Peele’s ability to transcend genre. Peele has written and directed two fantastic horror films. But they don’t transcend genre. They embody it.

Horror, at its core, is about subversion. It has always been about making audiences uncomfortable by exposing them to mirror images of themselves and reflecting back their deepest anxieties. Sometimes this is figurative, as in the zombies of George Romero’s Living Dead series of films, but just as frequently it’s literal, as we see in Us. Horror is more than stingers and jump scares, though it can be that too. But just as often it’s class warfare (Society [1989]), racial conflict (Ganja & Hess [1973]), and social satire (American Psycho [2001]). Sometimes it is high art probing our darkest obsessions (The Silence of the Lambs [1991]), and sometimes it’s satire masquerading as camp (Slumber Party Massacre [1982]). The horror films of twenty-tens aren’t unique because they’re politically-minded or socially conscious. They’re part of a long history of antagonism. To claim otherwise ignores precisely what makes so many of those films — and Us specifically — successful. Stop trying to elevate horror. Embrace it.

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About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

One comment

  1. Great until the escalator. Shoulda just stopped there.

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