As viewers of Scream could tell you, arthouse horror, or “elevated horror,” is gaining a stranglehold of the tried and true genre. The pastiche showcases a few familiar tenants, particularly the meditation of a theme infused through horror’s macabre sensibility. That said, horror and its innate versatility create a pandora’s box of creativity for filmmakers. Revered directors like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, M. Night Shyamalan, and Julia Docournua continue to gather beloved fanbases by envisioning their creative and articulate perspectives on the big screen.
I love the modern wave of auteur-driven approaches. Going to the theater in the wintery months of the 2010s often represented a risky proposition for horror fans like myself. The dredges of The Forrest, The Boy, and The Devil Inside presented an overt carelessness that haunted screens like an ominous specter. By comparison, most arthouse horror films at least take sincere risks with their material. I can note several praiseworthy aspects in even the films I don’t particularly care for from the subgenre (Relic).
Some are less optimistic about the growing trend. I’ve seen many already express weariness with meditative horror’s dominant presence is in the marketplace, often fixating on the genre’s lesser examples that reek of derivative artfulness. This perspective isn’t exactly unfounded, as the popularization of the approach continues to lead to several poorly-formed copy-cat offerings coming out of the fray.
Considering the divisiveness, I wanted to look at X, Master, and Uma – three new horror releases approaching the meditative sensibility in their own light.
X – Directed by Ti West
X Synopsis: A group of actors (Mia Goth, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi, Jenna Ortega, Owen Campbell, and Martin Henderson) sets out to make an adult film in rural Texas under the noses of their reclusive hosts, but when the elderly couple catches their young guests in the act, the cast finds themselves in a desperate fight for their lives.
The House of the Devil director Ti West returns after a nine-year feature-film reprieve with the 70’s set slasher X. Tuned into his creative frequency, West crafts a blood-soaked tribute to the era’s slashers while inserting his own thoughtful meditations.
West amassed a passionate cult fanbase for a reason, often approaching various compelling topics through different horror pastiches. With X, West descends into familiar tenants of the slasher genre as we follow a group of self-assured “professionals” filming their latest porn project. The opening hour patiently allows these characters to establish their playful personas – with sharp dialogue interactions articulating a group of aspiring artists who see merits in their form of sleazy entertainment.
I appreciate West for not being single-minded in his approach to the era and its contents. Instead of coming off as vapid dreamers, West allows his ensemble to feel like full-fledged people who approach their work with sincerity. A star-studded ensemble also enhances the thoughtful characterizations. Kid Cudi and Brittany Snow share an electric rapport as a pair of adult film stars. Owen Campbell is fittingly goofy as a pretentious filmmaker opining over his craft, while Martin Henderson delivers as the group’s shady organizer. Ultimately, it’s Mia Goth who steals the show in her dual role as the young star Maxine and the bitter host Pearl. Goth conveys both characters and their dissident personalities with exacting precision, allowing for the dual role approach to radiate greater thematic connotations.
The group’s artistic pursuits make for an interesting clash when the ensemble’s archaic hosts begin to exhibit their sinister intentions. West cleverly juxtaposes the promiscuous freedoms of our central characters with the stern prudishness of their aged counterparts, creating a conflict that’s well-entrenched in the era’s cultural sentiments. I don’t think his ruminations build a truly captivating thesis – but the concepts still serve as a thoughtful reflection of the slasher genre and the pearl-clutching audiences who continue to denounce their merits over time.
Thankfully, West never forgets time-honored pleasures behind a great slasher film. Once the kills kick into gear, West and company dream up an array of twisted set pieces that push the team’s creativity and grungy craftsmanship to its limits. I continue to respect West’s ability to lean into different horror genre tenants while still charting his own artistic pathway.
X isn’t particularly revelatory in its contents, but that doesn’t stop West and company from crafting a bloody-good time at the cineplex. I am already excited to see what the filmmaker brings to the table with his already-filmed prequel Pearl.
X is now playing in theaters.
Master – Directed by Mariama Diallo
Master Synopsis: At an elite New England university built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill, a black student (Zoe Renee), professor (Amber Gray), and administrator (Regina Hall) strive to find their place. Navigating politics and privilege, they encounter increasingly terrifying manifestations of the school’s haunted past and present.
The college ecosystem continues to strive for diversity, often plastering together agreeable ad campaigns that depict a well-rounded campus center. For the most part, these advertisements only work to mask the ongoing struggles between colleges and their lackluster understanding of race relations. Writer/director Mariama Diallo delves into this conceit with her debut feature, Master, a nuanced and emotionally captivating film that displays Diallo as a breakout filmmaker to watch.
As an offshoot of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Master exemplifies a finite understanding of elevated horror sensibilities. Diallo intimately delves into the ostracized treatment of black participants at each institutional level, showcasing how each character operates inside a culture that constantly reminds them of their outsider status and tokenism treatment. While the university’s damaged history serves as a mere footnote to most attendees, the troubling past remains an inescapable specter haunting our central protagonists in their day-to-day lives.
Diallo and her handle of the subject matter always feels authentic in its approach and empathetic to its subjects. Her insights felt personally resonant to me as my girlfriend endured similar struggles when we integrated into our college lifestyle. The lack of cultural understanding at colleges is a facet of the education system that does not get enough recognition among mainstream circles – and I give Diallo ample credit for exploring this topic with the gravity it deserves. Stars Regina Hall, Amber Gray, and Zoe Renee deserve similar praise, with Hall continuing her journey as a thoughtful dramatic voice in independent cinema.
The skilled filmmaker also excels at infusing horror trademarks to enrichen her themes. At their best, Diallo and Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby morph familiar social situations into nightmarish reflections from our characters’ perspectives, including a club scene that transform the frat-boy anthem Mo Bamba into a haunting war chant of sorts. Diallo’s only major misstep comes with some of her narrative devices, as her somewhat generic lore-building lacks further elevation of the visuals and themes.
As a whole, I love what Master brings to the table. The film serves as an apt reflection of arthouse horror and its distinct strengths, articulating piercing statements about race relations within our flawed educational systems.
Master is now playing in select theaters and on Amazon Prime.
Umma – Directed by Iris Shim
Umma Synopsis: Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) live a quiet life on an American farm, but when the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea, Amanda becomes haunted by the fear of turning into her mother.
Last – and ironically enough the least effective of these films – is Iris Shim’s feature-length debut Umma. When critics of arthouse horror bemoan the growing trend, Umma represents the kind of aimless, substance-free experience they are referencing.
As a filmmaker, Shim never possesses a confident hold over her material. Ruminating on the generational baggage passed between a Korean family presents ample opportunities for intimate character-building. That said, the film coasts by without enacting a real purpose. Most scenes during the sparse 83-minute runtime feel drab in their conception, often incorporating played-out framing choices and inconsequential dialogue exchanges that lack any artistry. The failed approach creates an experience that rests solely on the surface level, which isn’t helped by Shim’s timid descent into the horror genre (I would honestly call this more of a drama than a horror film with its infrequent scares).
Umma is never dreadful, but the film is an oppressively ineffective experience on its horror and thematic fronts.
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