Spotlight on Horror: The Arthouse of Horror

Natalie Howarth

An expressive genre that has been a playground for creatives to place artistic and experimental centrality and emphasis at the forefront of their films, arthouse horror is a subgenre of horror that exists outside the mainstream and typically defies conventionality of clichés and expectations in horror films. Impact‘s Natalie Howarth discusses the notion of arthouse horror and shares her favourites to stream over the Halloween weekend.

Arthouse horror is marked by multiple conventions, including close to detail visuals, using features like lighting, oblique and obscure camera angles, soundtrack, and ambiguity in its themes that are complex and remain open for a myriad of interpretations. Although it is not exclusive to arthouse horror, slow pacing is a feature used to slowly uncover the horrors hidden beneath the surface.

not everyone will enjoy this genre of film as it is often marked by its transgression, ominous and unsettling essence

A significant thing to remember about arthouse horror is its unconventionality and its desire to avoid conformity. Often people are quick to criticise the air of pretentiousness that comes from this genre; however, it is just different. Film is a very subjective endeavour, not everyone will enjoy this genre of film as it is often marked by its transgression, ominous and unsettling essence.

In the past decade, there has been a rise in arthouse horror production thanks to the American independent film distribution company, A24. The company house an impressive collection of films that dare to go outside the box and approach their films with nuance and a lot to offer.

emotionally charged scenes blended into disturbing images

The films that are distributed by the company tend to deconstruct the trope of predictability in horror films and prioritise creative freedom: think Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary, an unsettling critically and commercially successful film that subverts traditionalism in horror films, using emotionally charged scenes blended into disturbing images.

It does not take a surface level approach to the characters, emotionally and psychologically delving into the themes of family, grief, and trauma with an abstract mode of storytelling. The storytelling element of Aster’s chef d’oeuvre is disorienting and immersive yet compelling, a confusing complex: you are brought into an unsettling atmosphere and yet you are enrapt.

unarguably a visionary and unique portrayal into the theme of social distress and dread

Moving more to the avant-garde scene, David Lynch’s disturbing debut Eraserhead – released in 1977 – is a surrealist body horror that confronts Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) fear of fatherhood. The antagonist who is referred to as The Baby takes the form of an unhuman, snake-like figure that never stops crying to the point where characters are driven to the point of insanity. Lynch is a director whose work is often misinterpreted and misunderstood: whatever Eraserhead is supposed to symbolise, it is unarguably a visionary and unique portrayal into the theme of social distress and dread.

When talking about arthouse and body horror, there is one man who is an unavoidable subject: Mr David Cronenberg. The king of body horror who constantly pushes boundaries using visceral and physically convulsing body transformations, holding an established reputation for decades in the industry.

His latest body horror 2022 film Crimes of the Future was screened at Cannes and received a mixed reception with walkouts due to uneasiness caused by the on-screen body mutilations, the human body subjected to biological change, for example characters with an ability to consume and digest plastic as food, harvesting new organs within a living body and many bizarre experiments that constituted as performance art.

A very unsettling and nauseating watch about an unknown futuristic realm where humans must adapt to a synthetic environment, the advancement of new technologies post-Cronenberg’s breakthrough in the 1980s/90s enabled this film to be more visually frightening but also maintaining the Cronenbergian body horror that he initially introduced.

Another arthouse horror that has truly frightened me recently is Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, a film that has achieved notoriety for its prophetic and perilous scenes that critique the potential dangers of technology and consumerism. While the technology featured in the film like VHS and cable TV are practically obsolete in the new age of technology, the message still translates into the modern day. From shocking body modifications, exposure to the abhorrence of graphic violence, television as an intrusive medium, this is frightening in a socio-political context that has a lot of hyperbolic consequences portrayed in the film.

a pastiche of gothic, vampire, and revenge films

Moving towards the supernatural, Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a modern arthouse vampire film that takes place in a fictional Iranian city named Bad City. It is a genre defiant film that is a pastiche of gothic, vampire, and revenge films, a very triumphant yet frightening film. The narrative follows a femme fatale, skateboarding vampire who targets and preys on men who disrespect the women of Bad City. Filmed in greyscale with a minimal soundtrack, these features are used to place sensation, ambiance, and the social commentary of women’s reclamation of the streets at the forefront of the film as a reflection on the microcosm of Bad City and how it is the reality for so many places in the world.

Saving a personal favourite to last, Andrzej ?u?awski’s strange arthouse horror and psychodrama Possession. Released in 1981, it obliquely follows Mark and Anna’s relationship crumbling and Anna’s desire to get a divorce while Mark refuses, driving his wife to her descent into insanity. An intense and overwhelmingly complex plot that is feverish and mind-bendingly overflowing with accusation, infidelity and madness, it features a tentacle monster designed by the creature-designer who made E.T. 

A fragmentary and distorting narrative structure that leaves you in a state of discombobulation with its camera angles making Anna feel physically and structurally small in her marriage with Mark, Possession is a forever prolific film starring the talented, Cannes-winning Isabelle Adjani.

Arthouse horror is a highly elevated subgenre of horror that focuses on the psychological, aesthetic, and cinematic quality rather than jump scares and classic horror tropes embraced by Hollywood cinema. While there are so many incredible arthouse films to revisit, I look forward to the future of arthouse horror with new technologies emerging into the cinema industry.

Natalie Howarth

Featured image courtesy of Edilson Borges via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article image courtesy of @a24_movies_art_gallery, @possession_1981 and @crimesofthefuturemovie via Instagram. No changes were made to these images.

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