The new film version of Stephen King’s It has been an astonishing box-office success, surpassing The Exorcist as the highest-grossing horror film of all time. While not a great film, it is a solid entry in the traditional genre of horror, with great visuals and an entertaining combination of laughs and scares.
Set in a small town in Maine, It is a coming-of-age story about a group of misfit youths (the Losers’ Club) and a supernatural mystery tale about an ancient and malevolent force that manifests itself in the persona of a clown, Pennywise, who literally feeds on unsuspecting children.
The success of this quite traditional horror film casts some doubt on the recent thesis of Guardian film critic Steve Rose, namely, that we are entering an era of film-making he calls “post-horror”. Citing the success of films like Get Out, It Comes at Night and Ghost Story, Rose suggests that the new subgenre arises from setting aside the rules that have dominated mainstream horror. The conventions, he suggests, are our “flashlight as we venture into the unknown”. The new subgenre asks “What happens when you switch off the flashlight?”. The result is experimentation in style and content, a replacement of jump scares, predictable villains and tired plot lines with mysteries without clear resolutions.
Rose’s thesis usefully underscores the way a set of recent films creatively work at the edges of the horror genre. But his claim that this is novel is clearly false. Rose himself mentions Polanksi and Kubrick as examples of independent-minded auteur horror. But horror of this sort goes way back, to Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942).
In more recent years, the rules, particularly for the seemingly pervasive slasher film, have been subject to parody for some time now. The opening film in the Scream trilogy (1996), which has characters consciously wondering whether they inhabit a horror film, listed the three rules for how to survive in a mainstream horror film: don’t drink, don’t have sex and never say, “I’ll be right back.”
In one sense, the Scream films mark the denouement of a certain tendency in the modern horror film, the beginnings of which critics typically date to the release of Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960. These are early, if unusually sophisticated, slasher films.
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