Long Live the Modern Horror Auteur

There was a solid set of horror directors a few decades back. We had glorious releases from John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, and dozens of others in the 70s and 80s that created the vicious language we have in our spook-shows today. While others dipped into the horror genre, there was something special about the way that many visual artists took to it and never looked back. It created something that feels like a community of weirdos that have something to say about the world they live in by means of sheer terror.

We’re experiencing a flux of new auteurs that are doing wonderful work in the modern era of horror. Instead of commenting on larger issues, such as small-town politics or post-war agony, these focus on more personal and newly-focused-on social issues such as race and class division. I wanted to discuss a few of these that I’ve grown fond of because I think we’re living in a really wild era that’s pumping out modern classics. We’ve grown a new crop of auteurs, working with the seeds of the past to create something for the future.

Ari Aster: I’m askin’ people, what more could you want from someone? Ari Aster burst out of the gate last year with the slow-burn hit Hereditary, and he’s been on my mind ever since. The discomfort of all-too-real family issues that mix together with a supernatural series of occurrences mix to make me freak the hell out. While the film isn’t terrifying all the way through, the final half hour feels like the release of a pressure cooker as burning, painful steam bursts out and relieves the tension. He hit another home run with Midsommar earlier this year, a lengthy but intensely disturbing offering that pulled influences from several different European folktales and cults. Aster has stated he’d like to step away from horror for a bit, but his films have brought decidedly poignant personal stories to the table for discussion. Horror isn’t just a commentary when filtered through Aster’s eyes, it’s human and pulled from life experiences.

Jennifer Kent: There’s been some divisive discussion on Jennifer Kent’s feature debut, The Babadook, since its release in 2014. That thing was unstoppable for a bit, with fans going apeshit for two wonderful performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. That kid is seriously deranged, and the talent on display from Wiseman as a damaged kid that is breaking his mother’s brain was…disturbing. Kent’s latest film, The Nightingale, is receiving a lot of attention for the brutality it displays. This goes wide pretty soon and from what I hear you shouldn’t miss it.

Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead: What’s better than making beautiful horror? Making it with your best buddy, that’s what! Benson and Moorehead popped up in 2012 with the film Resolution, a devious little horror/thriller set in a cabin in the woods. These two established early on that they enjoy playing with more Lovecraftian elements, allowing creatures and rules beyond complete understanding (though they seem to have these rules down) to bend audiences to discomfort and horror. They popped out a pretty decent segment for V/H/S: Viral before coming out with their full sophomore effort, Spring. What makes a romance horrific? Nightmare creatures, duh. The film was all of sweet, eerie, creepy, and beautiful. This was my first exposure to the duo, and by the time their third film dropped I was all-in. The Endless feels like a victory lap, despite the fact that they’re only a few films in. Tying into Resolution and holding just enough homage to Spring to feel like it’s all cohesive, these boys revealed that their films seem to all take place in concurrence. There are few as imaginative as these weirdos working on the scene, and their fourth film Synchronic is coming out later this year. I can’t wait.

Luca Guadagnino: He’s done one horror film, but I’m counting it for a variety of reasons. See, I was a young man in the era of Platinum Dunes slasher remakes. I sat through the (admittedly coherent) remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in 2003. I found their take on Friday the 13th super-disjointed but mildly entertaining. But then I saw their remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. This still isn’t the worst of the remakes (other studios tried as well) but it was bad and the spark had faded at that point. So jump forward to 2018, when Guadagnino took on THE slasher film – Suspiria. Following a series of films that ranged from comedy to drama, he suddenly just…decided to tackle horror. The original film is a masterwork, but it’s more due to its visual language and badass Goblin score than it is for the plot or characters. What the remake sacrifices in bright colors, quick pacing, and blasting music it makes up for by devising an elemental story that feels all of relevant and freaky. Couple that with some of the freakiest visual images I’ve seen in years and…yeah, they nailed it. I don’t want Luca out of the horror conversation. In fact, I’d like to see him descend further into it.

Mike Flanagan: I want to throw some titles out at you. Hush, Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House, and Gerald’s Game. Flanagan has been killing it in modern horror, utilizing his understanding of not only the classics but the modern culture to be able to weave his nightmares into woefully beautiful pieces of modern populist hits. While most of his work has been stuck on streaming services, this instant access has allowed him to reach a wider audience quickly and landed him gig after gig. He sticks to color palettes similar to David Fincher, works with scripts that remind me of classic slasher films, and like Paul W.S. Anderson he sticks his wife in as many projects as he can. There’s nothing new under the sun, but Flanagan is able to put everything together in ways that keep the thrills coming and the blood pumping. He’s not original, but he’s a master of execution. They put the guy in charge of Doctor Sleep, a new Stephen King adaptation that will boldly serve as a sequel to The Shining. I can’t wait!

Robert Eggers: C’mon, you know you loved The VVitch. When this premiered at Sundance it got discussed on podcasts, in reviews, and in interviews for months before any of us lowly horror fans got to see it. When I sat there, lights dimming around me, I didn’t know what to expect and I can honestly say I’ve NEVER seen anything like that. It wasn’t just a period piece, it was a boldly accurate piece and it used language and lines of thought that I hadn’t ever considered. I’m not going to go on and on about this one, if you haven’t seen it that’s your loss but I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Robert Eggers new film, The Lighthouse, drops in a couple of months and the advertising looks like it may be the wildest horror film of the year (and I say that realizing that Midsommar was incredible). 

We live in a magical era for those of us that love being creeped out, disturbed, and utterly terrified. I’ll bastardize a quote from Troy to close this out, sure. I love that movie:

“If they ever tell my story let them say I walked with giants. Directors rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Robert Eggers, tamer of actors. Let them say I lived in the time of Ari Aster.”

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