From Jordan Peele to Ari Aster: How auteurs shaped the horror genre for the modern age

Daniel sinks in Jordan Peele's "Get Out." Courtesy Universal Pictures.
By Jordan O’Brien

For all it’s unanswered questions, Friday’s trailer for the upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot revealed one truth: Jordan Peele has become the face of contemporary horror. Launched by the extraordinary success of “Get Out,” which made $250 million over it’s $4.5 million budget, the comedian-turned-director will host the iconic series.

CBS couldn’t have chosen a stronger artist to relaunch the show.

“Get Out” is the most commercially successful independent horror movie of all time, pulling just ahead of 1999’s sensational “Blair Witch Project.”

His upcoming film “Us” could prove just as profitable. With its first trailer garnering 13 million views on Twitter within the first 24 hours, the project appears to be highly anticipated.

But Peele’s work transcends profit and popularity. His translation of genre and inventively original scripts make his films stand out from fellow hits like Cary Fukunaga’s “It.” Allowed complete creative control from emerging independent studios, Peele advances what American film critic Andrew Sarris called “auteur theory.” Poignantly expressed through the work of French New Wave auteurs in the 1950s and 60s, the theory describes visionaries like Peele who direct the look and the feel of their films with authorial precision.

But within the genre of indie arthouse horror, Peele isn’t alone. “Get Out” symbolizes the culmination of a movement that’s been working to reimagine horror for several years. The process hasn’t been coordinated. Like the French New Wave, it evolved in response to increasing sterility in mainstream genre filmmaking.

Auteurs like Ari Aster, Darren Aronofsky and Jonathan Glazer have identified ways to challenge the conventions of the past and reinterpret them through the lens of innovative filming techniques. While no auteur has come close to matching “Get Out” from a commercial perspective, they’ve helped establish a new language for communicating horror to mass audiences.

The vernacular of this shift can be extrapolated from broad, thematic patterns. While each filmmakers’ style differs, those who are working within this movement express themselves in remarkably consistent ways. Catalyzed over a number of years through numerous directors, indie arthouse horror is in the midst of a burgeoning New Wave.

Here are the filmmakers that are making it happen and the ideas they are reinventing:

Jordan Peele, “Get Out”: The Sacred Nowhere

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Daniel enters his “sunken place” in “Get Out.” Courtesy Universal Pictures.

This New Wave explores the boundaries between psychological space and reality. Like novelists who isolate their characters’ thoughts through interior dialogue, these filmmakers take audiences into arenas of psychological imagination. But they’re still tethered to the real world, albeit loosely. Similar to how animals use vivid, aposematic colors to scare off predators, these places forebode impending disaster.

Part of the ingenuity of “Get Out” stems from Peele’s reimagining of this concept. After Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his girlfriend’s Obama-loving family for the first time, he begins to question their intentions as a series of revelations come to light. For one, the family wants to harvest his black body, bringing what they perceive to be superior traits into their bloodline. To the sound of a spoon tinkling inside a tea cup, someone hypnotizes Chris, bringing him into the bowels of his “sunken place.”

Peele imagines this space as an otherworldly black pit. His mind hijacked, Chris sinks into the floor and falls weightlessly through an immeasurable void. Isolated in a little square above him, his dwindling window into reality closes shut

Not only does the scene bring “Get Out” into a psychological context, it introduces a kind of elevated filmmaking that sharpens Peele’s style. The sacred nowhere blurs artistry and industry, bringing horror into a mode typically unreserved for genre filmmaking.

Johnathon Glazer employs this technique in “Under the Skin.” Scarlett Johansson’s character lures men to their deaths in a sunken place of her own. So does Robert Eggers in “The Witch,” when he brings Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) to the strange house in the forest.

Trey Edward Shults, “It Comes at Night”: An Ambiguous Enemy

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David Pendleton in “It Comes at Night.” Courtesy A24.

In these films, the antagonist is invariably unclear. Even in Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” which appears to be a monster movie in the vein of “Nightmare on Elm Street,” a family threatens to destroy one another. In “It Comes at Night,” Shults executes this tension brilliantly.

Hidden in the forest after an unidentified apocalyptic disaster, Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family are forced to reconcile security with morality when two young parents and a child arrive at their doorstep seeking refuge. “You can’t trust anybody but family,” he tells his son. It will be the film’s defining sentiment as the characters—and the audience—struggle to determine who the enemies are.

Shults uses this ambiguity to great effect. Like in John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” the audience knows little about the events that precipitated the end of civilization—neither do the characters. Set in the woods where an unseen and unknown threat resides, the film’s lack of answers generates suspense. A dog, barking at something imperceptible in the dark, becomes Shults’ most resonant device. Keeping the audience blind and dumb, he leads them to question the intentions of the strangers and Joel’s family. As both camps begin to doubt one another, the film quickly shifts from monster thriller to psychological family drama. Horror, according to Shults, emerges from within humanity, not from the creatures in the dark.

A host of indie horror films employ this effect to varying degrees, including “Hereditary,” “The Witch,” “Mother!” “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” and “Under the Skin.”

Darren Aronofsky, “Mother!”: The Foul Intentions of Strangers

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Jennifer Lawrence in “Mother!” Courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Shults’ emphasis on ambiguity broaches another theme: The general malevolence of strangers. Whether it’s the Armitage estate in “Get Out” or the cult of Paimon in “Hereditary,” indie horror auteurs tend to regard strangers with considerable distrust. As in “It Comes at Night,” this tension often produces most of the thrills. It generally stems from what audiences are not told about strangers, creating a calculated atmosphere of antipathy.

Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” is an extreme example of this technique. Disrupted by a knock at the door, an architect (Jennifer Lawrence) and a poet (Javier Bardem) find a strange man waiting outside their idyllic home. To the discomfort of Lawrence (who is referred to as “Mother” in the credits), Bardem warmly encourages him to spend the night.

But then the man’s wife arrives. Then his adult children show up. In exponential increments, more and more strangers appear at the home, until hundreds of people are in Lawrence’s dream home, destroying it from within.

While absurdist and experimental, the film rests on familiar devices. The strangers who arrive are conundrums to both Lawrence and audience. While Bardem, to the dismay of his wife, fosters deep, reciprocal relationships with them, Lawrence is left watching them interact at a distance. This mystery becomes the focus of the film, which evolves into a hospitality-horror hybrid. Rife with biblical undertones, the film asks the audience to question humanity’s worst inclinations.

Jonathon Glazer, “Under the Skin”: The Impenetrable Personality

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Film poster for “Under the Skin.” Courtesy A24.

As “Mother!” illustrates, distrust is one of several mechanisms that horror auteurs use to frighten their audiences. In each of these films, there’s often a character that personifies this trait. From a writer’s perspective, characters are best feared when they are not understood. While this notion transcends genres, indie horror utilizes it regularly. By severing the audience’s connection with certain characters, directors can instigate feelings of trepidation more expeditiously. Milly Shapiro’s tongue-clicking character in “Hereditary” exemplifies this notion. So does Michael Myers in the first “Halloween.”

While Johnathon Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is unique in many respects, it unusually distances its audience from the main character. Scarlett Johansson portrays an alien who prowls the streets of Scotland looking for men to seduce and capture. While her goal seems clear, her intentions are not. The audience doesn’t know why she’s there, and they never find out. Glazer prioritizes his larger ideas over plot, and it works. Her opaque motives elevate the suspense and sustain the film’s central mystery: Who is she?

The horror begins to settle in once audience realizes what occurs to these men once she imprisons them. Submerged in a boundless pool, they are crushed and consumed by an unseen force. But the terror doesn’t spawn from that premise alone. In conjunction with Glazer’s use of score and cinematography, Johansson’s impenetrable character drives the film’s overwhelming dread. By not knowing who she is, where she comes from or what her intentions are, the audience is left clutching the armrests of their seats, bracing themselves for inevitable—but unforeseeable—sensations of discomfort.

This technique is an extension of what Steven Spielberg (unintentionally) pioneered in “Jaws.” By not showing the shark in that film, audiences were left uneasy, dreading the beast beneath the water. The same effect is at work in “Under the Skin,” but with a slightly different focus: Glazer does not identify what the terror is.

Robert Eggers, “The Witch”: Nebulous Settings and the Beyond

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Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in “The Witch.” Courtesy A24.

Environments in these films are generally indefinite, foreboding and mysterious. Not only are these settings ambiguous, they often represent a cryptic “beyond” that straddles psychological space and reality. The Shimmer in “Annihilation” achieves this effect. While the area may be measurable, the characters’ reactions to it evoke an illusion of boundlessness.

Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” balances this phenomenon masterfully. After being exiled beyond the outskirts of town, a family in 1630s New England fosters a new living at the edge of a large forest. The darkness that lies between the branches and leaves will turn them against one another, provoking apprehension towards what lies beyond—and within.

Eggers selects his shots to create a character out of setting. In one scene, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays with her newborn brother at the boundary of the forest. Almost inexplicably, he cuts to a wide shot of the trees. Holding onto this frame, he pushes in slowly, inviting us to peer into the dark patches and find whatever might be there.

He cuts. Seconds later, the baby is gone, leaves rustling in the distance.

What lives inside the forest becomes a point of tension for the characters and the audience. Like with the woods in “It Comes at Night,” they are both meant to see nothing in that immeasurable expanse. These mysteries destroy the families in both movies, and help drive each auteur’s larger message.

Ari Aster, “Hereditary”: A Violation of the Sanctity of the Home

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Still from “Hereditary.” Courtesy of A24.

The destruction of the family is a topic that excites indie horror auteurs. Indeed, house guests literally tear Jennifer Lawrence’s baby to shreds in “Mother!” In “The Babadook,” Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to kill her child with a kitchen knife. Kids dies, relationships are tested, and enemies violate the sacrosanct home. While teenagers traditionally bear the brunt of these offenses in mainstream movies like the recently released “Happy Death Day 2U,” indie horror tries to appeal to an adult market.

The latest and clearest champion of the family destruction motif is Ari Aster, who directed “Heredity” last year. In the wake of her mother’s passing, Annie, and the rest of her family, begin to experience supernatural events. As secrets about her mother’s family history emerge, Annie must reckon with the forces that conspire to ruin them all.

Suffice it to say, she is unsuccessful: Her daughter is decapitated, her husband is incinerated, and her son becomes possessed by one of the eight kings of Hell. Like in “It Comes at Night” and “The Witch,” horror stems from violating the intimate connections between members of the family unit.

But unlike genre conventions, these relationships are ultimately severed within the family itself. The ghosts don’t decapitate Charlie; her brother Peter does.

As in “The Witch,” supernatural elements are employed to achieve this outcome. Indie horror auteurs want to know how the family responds to the beast. They could care less about how the beast devours the family—because that’s a certainty.

Jennifer Kent, “The Babadook”: The Portentous Symbol

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Still from “The Babadook.” Courtesy Capelight Pictures.

Indie horror auteurs pride themselves on their symbols. Whether it’s the crystal bulb in “Mother!” or the red door in “It Comes at Night,” a central visual metaphor generally identifies the auteurs’ main point. They also foreshadow doom.

None are more successful than Jennifer Kent, who tackles grief in “The Babadook.” After finding and reading a book portending the arrival of the Babadook, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her troubled son begin to think a threatening presence is terrorizing their home.

While the film flows like a supernatural monster movie in the vein of “Insidious,” Kent prioritizes the relationship between the two family members, who are recovering after Amelia’s husband dies in a horrific accident.

While the Babadook elicits scares, it importantly informs the divide between the pair in the wake of this tragedy. It possesses Amelia at one point, which nearly leads her to kill her son. But the two successfully overcome grief’s influences and purge the Babadook from her body, locking it in the basement where they can control it.

Starkly allegorical, the film demonstrates how horror auteurs incorporate symbolism in their work. While they often blur the line between psychological space and reality, these filmmakers are not afraid of telling their audiences which symbols to pay attention to.

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