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Art House Films Are Changing Horror

The Artistic Breakthrough We've Been Waiting For

Nosferatu, 1922, Directed by F.W. Murnau

No one can deny that the horror genre has been blowing up significantly since 2016. With socially driven movies like Get Out and coming of age movies like It, horror is dominating box office sales across the country.

Recent films like The WitchThe Babadook, SuspiriaHereditary, and It Comes At Night have become instant classics in the horror genre. These films leave a lasting impact in particular because they fall under the world of art house horror.

So, what is art house horror? First, let’s talk about what it isn’t.

Horror movies tend to fall under the standard horror category. Standard horror consists of jumpscares, gore, weaker plots, and less character development. This includes movies like, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Conjuring, Insidious, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and more.

In contrast, art house horror movies are categorized as indie films that emphasize artistic expression, symbolism, and meaningful themes. Generally, this aesthetic is achieved with longer takes, wider shots, specific pacing, and intentional filmatic choices that create a specific emotion in movie watchers.

Art house horror isn’t a new trend; it actually dates all the way back to 1921 when the first horror movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, came out. Then in 1922, Nosferatu came out and was considered art house horror as well. Both movies exhibited heavy, German expressionist techniques like elongated shadows, twisted architecture, and deep symbolism.

The classic film Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, and it truly represented the intensity and unsettling nature of art house horror. Throughout the film, there is an underlying feeling of terribleness lurking during Rosemary’s pregnancy, and the insidious truth behind her baby. And who can forget that eerie ending, where the baby is revealed but we aren’t shown its face? The true horror was Rosemary accepting this demon as her child, as the credits roll and a lullaby plays.

In the 1980s, Stephen King’s classic, The Shining, was released. The Shining is a prime example of art house horror because it emphasizes the agonizing dread of isolation and insanity through the main character, Jack Torrance. We also witness the effects of the Overlook Hotel on Danny and his “Shining” powers. As Jack’s insanity worsens, we watch as the whole Torrance family self-destructs.  

The history of art house horror has inspired the new wave of horror films today. One of the most successful horror films of 2018 was Hereditary.  Through the lens of a family in their time of grief, Hereditary truly captures the horror and pain of losing a loved one. The movie exhibited an underlying feeling of discomfort and eeriness as the mother, Annie, grappled with the decapitation and tragic death of her daughter, Charlie. On top of this, Annie was still processing the death of her mother, who was a powerful figure and leader of a satanic cult. Overall, the film successfully created fleshed out characters with an emphasis on their interactions and relationships.

Overall, the film successfully created fleshed out characters with an emphasis on their interactions and relationships.

In today’s world of film, standard horror has improved as well. With the inspiration of art house, many standard horror films are focusing on developed characters and plots, too. For example, the new It movie focuses heavily on the Loser’s Club and their strong friendships that brave the horrors of Pennywise the clown. And of course, there are several jumpscares, but we wouldn’t expect anything less of Pennywise.

At the end of the day, not all horror films will reflect art house horror. However, these specific films are breaking the norms of standard horror as we know it through believable characters, artistic expression, and emphasis on atmosphere. As the artistic breakthrough continues, it will be extremely exciting and inspiring to see the impact of art house horror in real time.  

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