When isn’t a horror movie a horror movie?

Twitter being Twitter, some of the responses were reversed, like “It’s a wonderful life” and “Cats”. But there were also big hitters like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Parasite”. Children’s films, including “Pinocchio” and “Bambi”, were selected. It shows that horror is what scares you, not me.

Horror has always been an elastic and refreshing genre. It draws inspiration from and mixes with all types of cinema: comedy, science fiction, action, romance, fantasy, documentary. Its flexibility dates back as far as the monstrous love story of “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and as current as the bloody melodrama of “Malignant”.

But how do you know if you are watching a horror movie when there is no killer or monster, exorcism or blood? It’s a decades-old question that arises about new movies blurring the line between a horror movie and a horror movie.

Among them, “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s dark, comedic family drama that takes place at a Thanksgiving dinner; “The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s next eerie character study of a college professor at a Greek beach resort who becomes obsessed with another vacationer and her daughter; and perhaps unexpectedly, “Spencer”, Pablo Larraín’s speculative and dreamlike psychodrama about Princess Diana.

The film follows an unstable Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) as she spends a Christmas vacation on the precipice of madness that may not be real. In his review for The New York Times, AO Scott called it a Christmas movie, psychological thriller, romance, and “horror film about a fragile woman held captive in a spooky mansion, tormented by sadistic monsters and their treacherous servants “.

Read the reviews and these movies sound like Shudder originals. In The Times, critic Jeannette Catsoulis used the words “monstrous,” “desperate,” “strange” and “sinister” to describe “Humans,” concluding that the family was stuck in a haunted house. IndieWire said the drama “blurs the line between Chekhov and Polansky – Broadway and Blumhouse” and is “the first true 9/11 horror film.” (Two of the family members were at Ground Zero that morning.) The Guardian said that “The Lost Daughter” tells the story of a woman who “haunts the complex like a ghost while other ghosts her. haunt ”.

For some directors, putting the word “horror” anywhere near a movie that they don’t consider a horror movie would be a mistake or a provocation. Not Karam. He was fascinated by horror films as a child in Scranton, Pennsylvania; her gateway drug was the Disney ghost story “The Watcher in the Woods” (1980), with Bette Davis as the owner of an English mansion mourning her missing daughter.

Now 42, Karam remains an avid horror fan, citing Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski as inspirations for “The Humans,” which he directed and adapted for screen from his Tony award-winning play. 2016. Karam takes pride in the horror elements of the film, as they help viewers visualize “how people conquer or deal with their fears in a spooky story”.

“It’s important for me to think of a movie, a play, or any story I tell as having a strong, confident personality,” Karam said in a video interview. “I’m not wondering if this is a horror movie or a family drama, because the definitions can upset people who take ownership of what a horror movie is. “

“The Humans” takes place in a better days duplex newly occupied by Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun). The working parents of Brigid, Erik and Deirdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) come from Scranton; and Momo, the mother of Erik (June Squibb), who suffers from dementia. Brigid’s sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), who lives in Philadelphia and just broke up with her girlfriend, also joins her.

At the family table, there’s good-natured turkey and baby back ribs, but also tough conversations about work, love, and depression. It’s a family filled with love, but also resentment and sorrow. Typical Thanksgiving dramatic stuff.

But from the start there is a feeling of unease, as if something terrible is on the way. Parts of the walls ooze and bubble with pustules like growths on a David Cronenberg mutant. There are weird portraits of scary people, like the art of a possessed castle in a Hammer movie. Frightening jumps, loud sounds, darkness, stillness: they are all thrilling. Horror movie stuff.

So what is a horror movie? It boils down to intention, said Wickham Clayton, film specialist and editor of “Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film.” Horror films, he said, speak of an “uncomfortable, unstable and deranged” audience.

Sometimes all it takes is an antagonist or a terrifying mood, not an entire movie. Think of Robert Mitchum as a villainous preacher in the nightmarish fairy tale “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), Faye Dunaway as a toxic Joan Crawford in the dark camp “Mommie Dearest” (1981) or Robert De Niro as a bombshell. retardation Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976).

Are they horror movies? Not enough. Are they scary? You bet.

“In each of these movies there are moments, scenes and sequences that are so precisely and skillfully designed to make us feel unsettled, horrified and scared,” Clayton said. “We are forced to feel this even though there is nothing obvious onscreen, or as far as we know offscreen, to be afraid.”

What else is scary about “The Humans” and “Spencer”? They both take place during the winter holidays. Andrew Scahill, assistant professor of film at the University of Colorado at Denver, said it was no coincidence: For many people, shameful family reunions and year-end evaluations are terrifying. It’s no wonder that in his Christmas film class he includes both the wellness musical “White Christmas” (1954) and the heart-wrenching proto-slasher “Black Christmas” (1974).

“Some genres are more elastic than others,” said Scahill, author of “The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema”. “A mystery is to surprise your audience. A romantic comedy wants to meet all expectations and not violate the gender contract. Horror forces itself to continue to innovate.

This conversation about definitions will continue, and that’s a good thing, as young filmmakers take horror in unexpected directions and forge new, shape-shifting films. When “Scream” (1996), “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) and “Get Out” (2017) each made waves, they were saying: it’s time to give a shake.

Another reason this discussion is going nowhere is that the old debates still have legs. Look at what happened earlier this year when writer Elle Hunt tweeted, “Horror cannot be defined in space,” and horror fans got all kinds of pissed off, responding with examples like “Alien” (1979) and “Jason X” (2001).

“Horror,” writer Cory McCullough tweeted, “can be anything.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

About Laurence Johnson

Check Also

Fleetwood Mac’s ’70s Christine McVie ‘enjoyed the storm’

Christine McVie reflected on being seen as Fleetwood Mac’s peacemaker during their turbulent years. But …