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The Subtle Joy of the Small Horror Movie

The best of this season’s scary flicks resist the temptation to grandstand.

Courtesy of Brigade Publicity
Anna Maguire and Madeleine Sims-Fewer play sisters in "Violation."

Horror movies have sidled into a dominant place in entertainment; you can hardly have missed how many of them are available on Netflix or wherever you get your online thrills. On the broadest level, this genre revival is down to the fact that horror movies tend to yield a better return on investment and effort than, say, the average costumed comedy of manners, and Hollywood is low on resources. But Hollywood is also notoriously low on imagination, which is why studios have attempted in vain to reproduce Jordan Peele’s unreproducible 2017 social satire Get Out, creating a whole new subgenre—call it prestige horror, with the usual scare quotes in place—in the process. Recent movies made in this style (Hereditary, Midsommar, A Quiet Place, the It reboot, Promising Young Woman) devote a lot of time to ponderous themes like grief and trauma before wrapping up in a shower of blood and screaming.  

That there exists a booming streaming service devoted solely to horror might suggest it is chock-full of more of the same. The appeal of the AMC-owned Shudder, however, is that its offerings are less self-consciously prestige, and prove that big concepts are sometimes best realized on a smaller scale.

Take the new movie Lucky, which will premiere on March 4. Our lead girl is May (Brea Grant, who also wrote the film), a pretty blonde writer of self-help books. One night she is attacked by a masked intruder in her home. She and her husband Ted fend him off, and the assailant vanishes, but the mystery of his identity remains.

What starts off as a classic home invasion story then takes a sharp turn. That’s the man who comes to their house to kill them every night, Ted explains to May over breakfast the next morning, as if reminding her. When she protests, uncomprehending, Ted storms off between the flower beds, saying, “I can’t be with you when you’re like this!” 

As promised, the masked man continues to reappear, and every night May has to improvise a new defense. She can’t work, or communicate with her friends: How can she be polite, when she’s in a constant state of emergency? She grows increasingly sleep-deprived and frustrated with the cops, who can’t seem to help her. She gets snappier and more entitled. Is she hallucinating? Does she have multiple personalities? Nobody is more confused than May, and the film seems on the verge of falling apart. 

Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that this demonic perpetrator is not an individual. This abstract space at the heart of the story, where a murderous ex-boyfriend smoldering over a grudge is usually found, is disconcerting and magnetic. Lucky is about being attacked, and the way harm of various kinds can isolate us, put us beyond the understanding of others, and generally disrupt the direction of one’s life. But there’s no moralizing in the telling of it: Lucky declines to apportion blame between killer and victim, because it doesn’t matter. May doesn’t know what she’s even afraid of, just that she’s afraid, and that’s the subject of the movie. 

Last year, Shudder released 26 new titles, most notably Host, a Zoom séance story, and La Llorona, Jayro Bustamanta’s restrained and terrifying film about genocide and ghosts. Its other new offerings in March include Violation, a story of cold-blooded revenge by a lake, and Elza Kephart’s Slaxx, about a line of homicidal jeans. Slaxx uses almost lo-fi theatrical techniques to turn objects into monsters. When a new line of body-shaping jeans begins eating its wearers, a retail outlet’s staff are picked off one by one in a long night of locked-in terror. The denim is haunted by the spirits of agricultural workers at the other end of the supply chain, who fell into harvesting machinery and died. It’s a neat way to tether the clothing store to the outrages of globalized trade, and, crucially, the menace works: The jeans come to life through some excellent puppetry work, and the bites they inflict with their zipper jaws feel horribly realistic. Slaxx transforms one kind of violence—agriculture’s draining demands on workers—into an unexpectedly scary form of cartoonish viciousness.

Violation, by contrast, is a very minimal story told with orchestral abandon. There are no supernatural elements, no special effects, only a betrayal of trust that drives Miriam (played by Madeleine Sims-Fewer, who also co-wrote the movie, with Dusty Mancinelli) over the brink of sanity. Violation goes heavy on sensory information—insects buzz in the background, sunlight dances among prickling hairs. Miriam snaps amid firelight and fog, by dappled water and at the edge of a cold forest. In some subtly revolting scenes late in the film, Violation shows bones being ground to dust and blood decanted between containers with an almost tender fascination, honoring the disgusting beauty of bodies. 

It’s not a surprise that a genre service like Shudder would offer such a strong hand of new titles, and not only because horror is a welcoming prospect for young filmmakers looking to experiment with form. Because of the pandemic, debut films no longer go from festival to theatrical run and online streaming according to a predictable schedule. Instead, new movies either get indefinitely delayed or jump directly from festival to internet. There is a limited number of viable platforms that make that leap viable, and Shudder is one.

Shudder is one of many smaller streaming platforms to have joined the distribution game, and it has enjoyed a special growth during the pandemic. The online-only conditions of life on lockdown have privileged providers that can offer a depth and breadth of immediately available content, and Shudder offers its new releases alongside a deep catalog of cult classics. The service surpassed a million users last year. 

Lucky, Slaxx, and Violation all stand out for the modesty of their aims and execution amid a crowded horror scene awash in overambitious world-building. All three offer a twist of some trope in the horror genre that feels both subtle and genuinely novel. Notably, they all deal with the concept of retribution and blame but conjure an evil that is curiously diffuse or hard to perceive. Theirs is an invisible malevolence; the sort that kills you slowly, without you noticing.

The open-ended stakes of these genre experiments are rebellious at a time when horror movie messaging can feel so heavy-handed. Also riding the prestige horror wave, for example, is A24, the studio that distributed the Ari Aster hits Hereditary and Midsommar. Aster’s movies are often described as stories about trauma and its reverberating effects on the mind. Such movies are, as a friend of mine memorably put it, trying very hard to forgive themselves. Thanks to shifting cultural priorities around issues of social justice, Hollywood has decided that it makes good business sense to have serious justifications for exulting in bloody violence and suffering on-screen. As a result, these movies radiate the awareness of anticipated criticism. 

The best in new horror writing rejects defensive stances and instead presents smaller stories, focused on the devil’s well-known but often inaccessible purview—the details.