Elevated Horror - A Complicated History of Neglecting Genre, German Expressionism and Jordan Peele
Before one can analyze Elevated Horror, one must first examine its relation to the greater horror genre of which it inhabits, or indeed the very origins of the horror picture itself.
The past decade saw a rebirth of ingenuity in the horror genre. After a decade of 'Torture Porn' and half-baked remakes of genre classics; 2010 brought a wave of subversive horror pictures, called 'Elevated Horror'. On the surface level, this term acknowledges a certain level of sophistication that previous horror films didn't have. However, a more cynical analysis would opine that this term neglects any previous achievements of the genre. Further analysis will include how the term acts as a bridge between what the layman might call 'low' and 'high' art, and why films such as Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018) owe so much to film history’s overlooked trends of horror. Lastly, we'll hypothesize how the term may pave the way towards awards recognition for genre filmmaking.
Before one can analyze the Elevated Horror sub-genre; one must first examine its relation to the greater genre of which it inhabits, or indeed the very origins of the horror picture itself. As a genre, horror has been innovating cinema since its birth. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the world was introduced to a major stylistic movement, German Expressionism. Prior to this, the German film industry operated in near isolation. This changed after the premiere of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The film was noted for its stylized sets and atmosphere, as well as the jerky, larger-than-life performances of its actors. Unique characteristics such as these, defined the style of German expressionism. This artistic filmmaking style lends itself toward the eventual evolution of standard horror, which then served as the foundation for ‘elevated horror’.
German expressionism is defined by its reliance on mise-en-scene; often incorporating distorted buildings on painted backdrops. In the expressionist style, it is necessary for the sets to blend with the actor’s movements, creating harmonic dream-like imagery. Granted, at the time many would not go so far as to definitively call these films horror. It is through a modern lens that film historians consider these films to be of the genre. So much so, even the biggest detractors of horror, whose view of the genre as populist trash that could hold no value, adhere to accepting that these films are indeed true works of art. The themes of Expressionism were short-lived, but integrated into later films of the 1920s, in which only two films were produced, F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Two of the major factors in expressionism’s decline were that of the later entries' excessive budgets, as well as many key figures of the movement simply losing interest, some even transitioning to work in Hollywood. German Expressionism to this day continues to be a source of inspiration for many contemporary filmmakers and is remembered as perhaps one of the most distinctive styles of the era.
Considering how far removed these films may seem from contemporary releases such as Get Out, one might question what connection German Expressionism has to Elevated Horror. Firstly, one could contend that while both being subgenres of horror and therefore ostensibly products of a lesser art, critics and scholars alike have not relegated these films to the gutter. Films of both the German Expressionism and Elevated Horror movements have been hailed by contemporary critics who've single them out from blockbuster films critics might otherwise thumb their noses at. Examples of this can be found in noted film critic Roger Ebert’s assessment of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Ebert exclaimed that the film is arguably “the first true horror film”. Robert Wiene’s film would go on to serve as a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir. The tropes the film introduced into these genres include the twist ending and the unreliable narrator. These two narrative techniques have become key components of the horror genre. Examples of these techniques can be found in films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019).
Furthermore, one can draw parallels between Us and Metropolis. Set in a futuristic urban dystopia Metropolis follows the exploits of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the wealthy son of the city master and Maria (Brigitte Helm), a saintly figure to the underbelly working class. Together, they attempt to overcome the disparaging gulf that separates the classes of their city and bring the workers together with Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city master. The film is interlaced with criticism of an uber-capitalist society and the grievances that could arise from two classes so heavily separated in lifestyle. The opening reveals a future where wealthy industrialists live in shimmering skyscrapers while the working-class reside underground operating the machinery that powers not only the city, but the very lifestyle of the elite. The climax involves a secondary robotic version of Maria who leads the under-dwelling class on a revolt to destroy the machinery that powers the city. This results in catastrophic flooding of the metropolis above. Concurrently, while the second version of Maria inspires havoc, the workers' children are selflessly saved from the flood by the real Maria above ground level.
Interestingly enough, it is Jordan Peele who is perhaps linked to ‘elevated horror’ more than any other filmmaker with his directorial debut Get Out prompting critics to coin the term. However, it’s his second feature, Us that shares its themes with Metropolis. The 2019 film centers around a young family vacationing in Santa Monica, California when wife and mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’O) is confronted by literal under-dwelling monsters that reflect her previously forgotten trauma. Despite the film’s contemporary American setting, there are noticeable thematic similarities between the two films. Similarly to Metropolis, Peele’s film delves into themes concerning the overgrown and unregulated reaches of capitalism, by extension, the American consumerist culture’s effect on a classist society. Like Metropolis, the film’s under-dwelling characters represent the downtrodden and underprivileged members of society. The difference here is that Us presents the disenfranchised working class as supernatural doppelgangers of their upper-class counterparts, whose origins are largely left open to interpretation.
However, further comparisons between these films can be found in the latter’s plot thread of doppelgangers, who in Peele’s film are known as the ‘Tethered’. The climax of Metropolis features an evil doppelganger version of protagonist Maria. Likewise, Us introduces an evil doppelganger of Adelaide named Red. Although introducing the doppelganger plot device in the film’s first act, Peele builds on its thematic and narrative similarities to Metropolis. The film’s thematic portrayal of exaggerated classism is reiterated and heavily layered throughout its narrative; portraying the classes inhabiting a world very much like our own. Like Metropolis, it also features a literal chasm separating those classes and their vastly different realities. A prime example of this is about halfway through the film when Adelaide’s neighbors the Tylers are brutally murdered by their own doppelgangers. The film quickly establishes these doppelgangers as an allegory for the working class. However, in the film’s second act, viewers are informed that these doppelgangers have fled from their under-dwelling prison to wreak havoc above ground and take the place of their privileged counterparts.
Us introduces the Tylers as the quintessential upper-middle-class family, who flaunt their wealth while being oblivious to their own privilege. Despite this, their murder is incredibly impactful because in many other films they would represent the idealized version of the American family. The beautiful husband and wife, along with their two teenage daughters are nothing but casualties of the American consumerist culture. Flaunting their superficial lifestyle and possessions above all else, Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) drinks a glass of rose while bragging to Adelaide about her recent plastic surgery. Noting the Tylers position towards the top of the classist pecking order, let’s compare them to their doppelgangers. These under-dwellers are named for being forever linked to, yet remaining beneath, their above-ground counterparts.
While their origins are largely left ambiguous, the film does reveal that the Tethered are actually genetic clones of the American populace created by the government to control their counterparts on the surface. When the experiment failed, the Tethered were abandoned underground for generations, so now they mindlessly mimic the actions of their counterparts as they inhabit dungeon-like tunnels and consume raw rabbit meat. Red, who acts as the film’s antagonist and a revolutionary to the Tethered, goes so far at one point to proclaim that they share a ‘soul’ with their above-ground counterparts. It is due to this, that they must live a half-life, acting as mere puppets of the upper class.
Considering this, one must wonder how it’s possible for someone living in such depraved conditions to not absolutely despise their privileged counterparts who are completely unaware of the others’ suffering? In truth, it isn’t possible and leads to the murder of the Tyler family. The carnage culminates in a somber moment when Dahlia, the Tethered version of Kitty takes a rare moment to indulge in her own vanity. Kitty’s bedside mirror and make-up are luxurious and Dahlia almost doesn’t know what to do with it. She tentatively applies lip gloss before staring at her reflection with tears in her eyes. This action is then followed by Dahlia taking a pair of scissors and scarring the side of her face, thus mimicking her counterpart’s plastic surgery.
Through the actions of the Tethered, we see the film mirror the climax of Metropolis. Both feature depictions of a disenfranchised underbelly class, rising up against the elite who live above them, going so far as bringing about the complete destruction of society to do so. Of the film’s politics, critic Noel Ransome views Us as being about "the effects of classism and marginalization” adding that "the Tethered are effigies of this same situational classism. They're trapped—mentally and physically—and ignored”. In other words Us serves as a sort of cautionary tale, one that warns of societal collapse if there is no reconciliation between the classes. The film received near universal praise upon its release, with many commenting positively on the timeliness of its social messaging.
However, the same can not be said of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Critics of its era criticised what they saw as communist ideology. One such critic at the time, Mordaunt Hall decried the film as nothing but a “technical marvel with feet of clay”. Furthermore H.G. Wells called the film “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general”. The consensus of the film would change with the following generations of film historians reappraising it. Roger Ebert would go on to claim that, “Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made.” Considering the film’s reverence today, it’s easy for one to surmise that Metropolis was simply ahead of its time. With that in mind, its impact on genre in the century following its release is quite recognisable. It is for reasons such as these as well as its stylistic contributions that German expressionism can be seen as a precursor to the art-house film, or perhaps more accurately the art-horror film.
It’s true this current trend in horror, ranging from art house horror to societal thrillers, proves to be an exciting and even thought provoking chapter in the genre’s cinematic history. However, these trends are nothing new. They are indebted to the countless works of artistic brilliance that predate them by nearly a century. There have always been good and bad works in every genre. Within each genre one can find films ranking from low to high quality. Why is it that horror and those who admire it find their intelligence called into question? A good story with an important message can be told in any format. Yet when we use terminology that limits what storytellers are capable of saying, it’s a tragedy to the greater culture. While the term ‘elevated horror’ is well intentioned; it’s just further reductive speech to delegitimize the artistic merits of the genre and those who create within its boundaries.