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The Horror, the Horror

With Suspiria and Halloween, a genre copies itself for the intellectual property era

It is surprising that in recent years, as Hollywood filmmaking becomes more and more dependent on YA fiction, comics, toys, and other pop culture intellectual property, original horror films have had a resurgence in both critical and box office success. Recent movies like Get Out, A Quiet Place, and Split have been surprise smash hits, while smaller successes like Hereditary, It Follows, and The Witch have developed quick-and-ready followings outside traditional horror fandom. This has led to a slew of industry trend pieces proclaiming horror to be the most “bankable” modern movie genre, while culture critics are quick to identify “art house horror” or some variation as backhanded praise for “horror, but refined.” 

Most of these trend pieces brush over two important and related details, though: 1. almost all of the recent horror hits are original (or sequels to recent original hits like The Conjuring or The Purge), and 2. as recently as a decade ago the opposite was true, and the industry depended on remakes of older properties. The 2000s were a dark time for most horror fans; the Kevin Williamson/Scream ironic slasher phase had played itself out, and mainstream hits like The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath were too story-focused to be easily replicable. Enter Michael Bay and his new production company Platinum Dunes, which remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, grossing over $100 million. They followed that with dull remakes of horror classics The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, while other studios took swings at everything from House of Wax to The Hills Have Eyes and The Evil Dead. These films had varied success at the box office, but with few exceptions are largely forgettable and forgotten by all but the most diehard horror fans.

This endless recycling of older properties was wearing thin in 2009.

This endless recycling of older properties was wearing thin when, in 2009, Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions struck gold with Paranormal Activity, which with a budget of $450,000 and gross of over $100 million is still the most profitable movie ever made. This propelled Blumhouse to the forefront of horror production for the next decade, stringing together modest horror hits, often from first-time directors. In recent years newer content providers like Netflix and Amazon have also jumped into the fray, with more mixed results.

Of course, whenever there is a money-making trend, bigger Hollywood players take notice and raise the financial stakes. The major outlier of recent horror successes is the New Line/Warner Brothers 2017 production of It, based on the well-known Stephen King novel and 1990s miniseries. Although burdened with a $35 million budget, around seven times the standard $5 million for a Blumhouse non-sequel, It bonked box office records on its way to $700 million globally, becoming the highest grossing horror movie ever. And so an industry that has been thriving on moderate original products is about to get an injection of bigger, older properties: behold, the horror tentpole.

If It is a harbinger of what’s to come in horror movies, then this year’s Halloween and Suspiria show different models for how non-original horror can work, or fail, today. Both are mining consensus horror classics from the late 1970s for both material and name-recognition, albeit in different ways and to different ends. With Halloween, director David Gordon Green is careful to check all the boxes for what fans of the property want, resulting in a slick but empty compilation of the franchise’s greatest hits. Suspiria could not be more different in its approach to its source material: director Luca Guadagnino dives deep into the more cursory elements of the Argento classic, and the result is a truly bizarre film that bears only passing resemblance to the original. Halloween is an algorithmic grab-bag of pre-existent franchise tropes, while Suspiria might be one of the few films where “art house horror” is an appropriate descriptor: it is a Hellraiser for the feuilleton set.

All Meat, No Bones: Halloween (2018)

Although it bears the same name as the 1978 John Carpenter classic, David Gordon Green’s Halloween is not a reboot but a direct sequel, one that ignores or retcons everything else in the franchise. A Blumhouse/Universal co-production with a modest $10 million budget, Halloween brings Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode, who forty years later is still dealing with the trauma of being stalked and attacked by Michael Myers one fateful Halloween night—never mind that this setup is identical to the premise of 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. When Myers escapes from prison, she must confront her attacker and help protect her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak).

The original Halloween is often celebrated as the first “slasher” film, and although earlier entries (like Black Christmas) exist, it certainly popularized the genre. What made Halloween so influential, and what makes it resonate today, was its gothic minimalism. Carpenter abandons the “criminal psychology” element that grounds murder movies from Psycho on; there is pointedly no explanation for why Michael Myers killed his sister as a child or why he is returning to kill again. Instead we spend time with the victims, in ordinary suburban situations, with the threatening Myers lurking in the background or periphery. There is no reason for why he attacks, or whom; he is the bogeyman, a pure embodiment of the evil that lurks even in the “safe” middle class suburbs.

The new Halloween, like many of the 1980s imitations of the original, takes this frame and adds to it until it crumbles. Much has been made of Green’s decision to ignore all the previous Halloween sequels, including the tacked on motivation of Halloween II (Laurie is Michael’s sister). That was a smart move, but then the movie goes on to adopt the themes of many of the Halloween sequels: inherited/generational horror (Halloween 4), the long-term effects of trauma (H20), the authorities that enable and encourage evil (Halloween 6), and even the media fascination with horror and violence (Halloween Resurrection). These allusions to previous movies are not just thematic but also explicit: virtually every scene features an Easter egg or callback to a previous film. Many have likened this “greatest hits” allusiveness to The Force Awakens, but for a fan of the franchise the cumulative effect is more akin to the referential exhaustion of Spielberg’s pop culture orgy Ready Player One. It’s as if, worried about pleasing everyone, the filmmakers decided to just cram everything in one movie.

This tentativeness is also reflected in the film’s tepid generational politics. The heroine of the film is Laurie Strode again, played wonderfully by Jamie Lee Curtis in a captivating performance more reminiscent of an aged version of her Blue Steel (1990) NYPD officer than the original final girl. But a slasher needs teen girls, and so Halloween dutifully passes the torch to Allyson (Andi Matichak), Laurie’s granddaughter. Allyson’s friends provide much of the victims necessary for a respectable body count and not much else. But the generational differences between Laurie and her granddaughter (and daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer) are peppered with Gen-X style humor on the peccadillos of millennials (or Gen-Z). Male intimacy and banh mi jokes abound, vacillating between “kids these days” conservatism and try-hard attempts at teen relevance. These milquetoast stabs at humor drown out strong performances by the three central women. 

The closest the movie comes to a stylistic statement is in its brutality, although even that has been done before (in the Rob Zombie remakes). Many of the kills are more reminiscent of Jason Voorhees and his elaborate violence, and a couple scenes are pointedly pitiless. But even this would be too much of a thesis; one scenes teases a real horror movie taboo before pulling back into mainstream normalcy. In fact every aspect of the movie seems to have its own course correction: of the moment but not too much, funny but not too much, hyper-violent but not too much. I imagine that this perpetual compromise is intentional, literally or figuratively focus-grouped.

The best moment of Halloween may also be the worst: it involves a character expressing their own interpretation of who Michael Myers is. It is equally clear that the character is wrong and that the film doesn’t have an interpretation itself. This confusion could be a strength: the whole point of Myers is his vacancy, what he means for the other characters (and for us). But then the scene veers to the next character, the next kill. There’s so much to get to! The original Halloween is a classic because of its emptiness, but that emptiness isn’t effective if there’s also a bunch of stuff in the movie. The new Halloween manages to feel simultaneously like too much and not enough; it points to everything else while not being much of anything itself. 

Gesamtkunstwerk of the Matriarchy: Suspiria (2018)

Like the original Halloween, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is important for cutting the fat from its genre. In this case, though, Argento’s vision marks the end of a genre rather than the beginning: the giallo. Drawing from the fantastique and krimi genres from France and Germany, Italian gialli tell increasingly complicated murder mysteries featuring ever more elaborate death scenes. They often focus on the complexes or perversions of the (usually male) killers as well as the eroticized murdered bodies of the female victims. Argento made several classic examples of the genre earlier in the decade, but with Suspiria he eliminated the labyrinthine plots and armchair psychology in favor of a tightened focus on the female victims and their deaths. Argento could never be accused of Carpenter’s gothic minimalism, though; he uses the cinematic space previously occupied by detectives and psychologists to create ever more elaborate and hallucinatory murders. Suspiria is a modern horror classic not because of its story or mythology, but for the purely sensory combination of sound and vision; at its heights, Argento’s sets and the soundtrack, by the band Goblin, combine for some of the most beautiful violence committed to film.  

A movie that is famous for its style rather than substance seems like a bad idea for a remake, which is one reason why Luca Guadagnino’s film is so brazen. Like Green’s Halloween, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) takes the bones of a simple story and adds a lot of new meat. However, unburdened by a franchise, buoyed by the recent critical success of Call Me By Your Name, and seemingly unconcerned with whether horror fans (or anyone) likes what he’s doing, Guadagnino is free to sneak all sorts of radical ideas into this generically canonical brand. The result is one of the weirdest horror movies of recent memory, and thanks to the name recognition of both the original and the director, it is about to be unleashed on a relatively wide and unsuspecting audience.

Like the original, Suspiria is the story of a young American Dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who arrives to a new dance school in Cold-War era Berlin only to discover that the school is run by a coven of witches, among them the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). As in the original, dancers are gruesomely murdered. Guadagnino takes these plot elements, which are cursory at best in the original, and expands on them; the film has a lot to say about postwar Berlin, about dance, and about groups of women.

Although the original movie was also set in Berlin, Guadagnino foregrounds this setting, particularly in its connection to historical guilt and contemporary alienation. The movie is introduced with a title card as “Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” and radios and newspapers throughout report negotiations with the leftist terrorist group RAF. Although the movie is set primarily in West Berlin, Guadagnino shoots the exteriors of the Helena Markos Dance Company at The Volksbühne, an avant-garde theater that has been running in East Berlin for decades (including, importantly, in the DDR). For most of its existence the Volksbühne has been known for its radical political adaptations of canonical texts, an approach that Suspiria embraces wholeheartedly. The movie addresses the radical power and potential of violence in a way complex enough to make most viewers, myself included, uncomfortable.

Suspira’s ultraviolent climax plays like a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk about power and matriarchy.

This sort of political performance is reflected not only in the film itself but also in the production that the dance company performs. Fittingly named “Volk” and inspired by the aftermath of WWII, the dance is central to the plot and move of the film, and the performance is one of the moments where Guadagnino approaches the sensory overload of the original. Unlike the elegant but minimal ballet of the original, the dance in the new Suspiria (choreographed beautifully by Damien Jalet) is heavy, physical, and emotionally wrenching. The physicality of dancing and bodies is juxtaposed to that of bodies in pain to great effect.

Guadagnino’s primary interest, though, seems to be in women, in groups of women. In removing the male psycho-killer in the original, Argento created a horror movie in which nearly everyone, villain and victim, was a woman. Guadagnino pushes this to the limit: the movie explores what female relationships and female power might look like with no male presence of any consequence. The only two characters played by men are passively and ritually humiliated (notably, Tilda Swinton plays another male character in old-age makeup). Suspira’s ultraviolent climax plays like a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk about power and matriarchy. It is dark and glorious and completely divorced from the original movie.

In terms of industry trends, there isn’t much to say: Halloween opened to $76 million, behind only last year’s It for horror movies. Another sequel is already in the works. Suspiria has received mostly positive reviews from the festival circuit, but expectations for the box office are low and I wouldn’t be shocked at an “F” Cinemascore. The best hope for the Suspiria model is that the critical accolades are enough for the seemingly bottomless pockets of Amazon, which is trying to break into movie production. More likely, though, is that another wave of safe horror sequels and reboots is coming—relentlessly and inexplicably, like the original Michael Myers—and that Suspiria will stand out as an exceptional and radical oddity. Welcome to the horror of the intellectual property era.