“Post-horror” is apparently a ‘thing’ now, at least according to Steve Rose, film reviewer for The Guardian. The thing is, it’s really nothing new.
It’s not surprising that “post-horror” is a new buzzword. In the age of the Internet meme, buzzwords can help something achieve that Holy Grail of digital marketing: “going viral” (I see what you did there, Steve). Beyond this more-or-less self-serving function, there’s an apparent need to describe and classify the more innovative releases among the recent crop of horror films.
Rose’s piece focuses on Trey Edward Shults’ recent release, It Comes at Night, but also cites as examples Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016), and Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). Furthermore, Rose boldly asserts that the just-released A Ghost Story, written and directed by David Lowery, is “the movie that could really seal post-horror.”
When something is “posted”, the implication is that it has been surpassed, made irrelevant by inexorable progress. Still, “post” often also involves a reuse of the elements of what has been left behind, albeit with different meanings and purposes. Examples include the irreverent and exaggerated use of the themes and tropes of literary modernism by post-modernist authors and the consumerist and selective adaptation of second-wave feminist ideals by post-feminists.
When it comes to horror cinema, however, the coining of “post-horror” seems premature. This type of horror film actually has been around for quite awhile, albeit under other banners. Think “art horror”, “smart horror”, “psychological horror”, and even “avant-garde” and “cult” film. As specific examples of “exercises in refashioning horror tropes with an auteur sensibility” that are similar to It Comes at Night, Rose himself mentions Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (including the horror classics Repulsion  and Rosemary’s Baby ), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). These are certainly not new films.
A more radical example, it seems to me, is Munich-born auteur Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Made in Austria with German dialogue, Funny Games (1997) technically qualifies as a home-invasion horror film. The film also allegedly critiques Germanic bourgeois values (as displayed, for example, in Heimat movies) and the violence found in American cinema. Still, Haneke ‘went Hollywood’ ten years later to do a shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games with an American cast. Ironically (and appropriately so), the remake tanked at the box office as American movie fans refused to show Haneke the money.
A likely reason for this failure is that Funny Games (in either version) is much more ironic and self-reflexive than the average American home-invasion movie. In doing so, it plays freely with (and often subverts) the conventions of this subtype of the slasher film, which itself falls within horror cinema. As Rose points out in his article, average American movie fans, by and large, do not like it when directors tinker with horror movie formulas — as much (or more) than they dislike reading subtitles in non-English films.
Such tinkering, of course, is exactly what Rose says that contemporary “post-horror” directors do. Yet Haneke does the same in Funny Games — which he made twenty years ago. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” to paraphrase the Preacher. Beyond this snarky observation, I also argue that the film plays with and subverts basic principles of a core theory of film spectatorship known as “Screen theory” — more on this later. For now, it’s enough to note that Haneke likes to play ‘funny games’ with his audience (and not just in this film).
The basic plot of Funny Games is as follows: an upper-middle class family drives to their well-appointed summer home for a vacation. Soon after their arrival, the three family members (a mother, a father, and their young son) find themselves at the mercy of two sadistic young psychopaths, who also appear to come from well-off backgrounds. These two young men, the apostolically-named Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering), play a ‘funny game’ with their captives: they “bet” that all three will be dead before twelve hours have elapsed. This story concept activates learned horror story templates and cliches in viewers’ memories, setting them up to be blindsided by Haneke.
[CONTINUED IN PART 2]