Men and the End of Elevated Horror

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<i>Men</i> and the End of Elevated Horror

When the trailer for Alex Garland’s Men was unveiled to the public back in March, I felt a bit incensed. Chic distribution and production company A24 has a habit of releasing similar trailers for the horror films they acquire: Sterile string plucking, piano key-tapping escalations of fast edits culminating in silence and a lead’s eerie one-liner. These previews serve to showcase, in part, that the company is both largely interested in the same kinds of horror films and also in promoting them in the same recognizable way. It’s wrong to judge a movie from its trailer; trailers can be misleading, intentionally and unintentionally, and should not be considered true markers of quality for a completed feature that one has yet to see. A24, for all its weirdo stans and pick-and-choose marketing style, also happens to release very good films, and Garland, an acclaimed screenwriter who previously helmed Ex Machina and Annihilation (the former of which was also distributed by A24), tends to make them. But the topic and title of Garland’s latest haven’t done it any favors since the trailer and, it turns out, the full film follows suit. Its heady superficiality and innate meaninglessness make it feel like a parody of modern horror.

A woman (Jessie Buckley) finds reprieve in the English countryside, only to be increasingly encroached upon by a series of antagonistic men who all share the same face (Rory Kinnear). Based on the premise showcased in the trailer and the title alone, it seemed a little too apparent what Men would be attempting to tackle at feature length. Along with the irritatingly composed trailer, it came off like another pseudo-intellectualized tackling of real-world social and psychological issues in the yearslong attempt to legitimize the perceived “low-brow” horror genre. Intrinsically bloodless, completely full of itself and a chore to get through. But I should be clear: The term “elevated horror” is just as annoying as the worst films within the designation. A horror film is a horror film, whether or not it’s got its head up its ass.

Still, Men immediately comes off as compounding the worst instincts of this misguided concept: Gore is sparse, indulgent metaphors abound and it wants to be taken very, very seriously. Adopted across the board by a large swath of modern American horror, these elements represent an approach to the genre that I have increasingly grown to detest. A24 is not alone in the distribution of these films. You can find them anywhere. It’s the style du jour, dealt by everyone from Neon (The Lodge) to 20th Century (Antlers). Even the better ones bog themselves down, trying to be topical in overt, heavy-handed ways. The otherwise delightful Fresh beats you over the head about the dangers of gender dynamics in modern dating. Sleazy slasher X (an A24 acquisition) discomfortingly stalls in its fixation on the horror of aging. The Night House ruins nearly every beautifully ambiguous detail with an ending that both explains everything away and literalizes its own metaphor.

And then you have Men, the ultimate culmination of what’s perceived as A24’s horror house style. A film that is so “about something” that it manages to mostly be about nothing. The camera lingers on imagery like a student film, as if holding the shot will encourage meaning to spring from an object instead of simply eating up time. Its crux is the idea that, as I wrote in my mixed-positive review (an opinion that has since soured, especially after a rewatch), women in horror are tormented by an interchangeable series of different, hostile male tropes which is transferable to how women are tormented by men in real life.

Admittedly, it’s a more interesting post-#MeToo take on patriarchal oppression than I’ve seen in the past, and a creative way to apply the horror tropes that plague female characters as a functional metaphor for real-life sexism. But it’s also a bit too obvious, especially watching the film as a woman, knowing it was written by a man. (Interestingly, Garland’s previous two directorial efforts also center on women and gender dynamics.) It’s just a simple fact of life that your stalker can metaphorically (or, I’m sure, quite literally) share the same face as the police officer meant to protect you, as in the film. But as I am a loud proponent of art which leaves questions unanswered, as too many films (like The Night House) are unwilling to do, I superficially admire Men’s ambiguity. It has a speculative nature and trusts its audience to come away with an interpretation based on their individual experiences and perspectives on the material.

Yet, held up to the smallest amount of scrutiny, Men reveals itself as having too many bones and not enough meat. The film concludes feeling as if Garland was unable to meaningfully finish his thesis on his own subject matter, evoking provocative images and conjuring trains of thought that evaporate without proper interrogation. The final sequence comes off like a hasty conclusion paragraph to a research paper, tacked on by a student the morning it was due. In the post-screening Q&A I attended last month, Garland spoke about how he was inspired to create the film’s disturbing ending only after watching the anime series Attack on Titan. Even he felt that he needed to be more creative, feeling a certain insecurity about where his film had led before deciding to wrap up with a hasty addition.

Audiences want more creativity, too, tiring of only these “elevated” horror offerings in the mainstream. This felt clear with the populist success of James Wan’s Malignant last year. I wouldn’t say the film—a gonzo horror crime-caper about a woman who shares the back of her head with a cancerous, conjoined twin who occasionally takes over her brain and kills people—is really “about” anything other than what happens when you share the same body as a bloodlusted pervert. But, like most films, most horror has been “about something.” Even the sleaziest B-grade slop has something it’s trying to convey beyond what can be drawn from the surface-level text. Of course, David Cronenberg’s body horror work obviously offers up plentiful readings to be studied. But Cronenberg’s perversions of the flesh can also be considered a few things that many of these bastard horror children are not: Beautiful, textured, shocking, revolting. Fun. Most importantly, the text and the subtext are in equilibrium. This creates a genuinely entertaining work that, for example, seamlessly and intelligently considers the relationship between modern technology and the human condition.

The issue with trendy modern horror is that the metaphors tend to overpower everything else, and this seems to be the point. The quest is to reclaim horror, a genre that’s text was often so sleazy and galling that it was the perfect place to sneak in some overlooked subtext, as serious. The inherent quality of the work is easily cast aside; neo-horror wants you to take it seriously on the presumption that the genre has never earned it before. But I’m not wholly opposed to these so-called “elevated horror” films. Some of them—many of them, actually—are very good. If you want to consider any of these as even loosely “elevated,” Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge is great, as is Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, Lee Cronin’s incredibly underseen The Hole in the Ground, both of Robert Eggers’ A24 ventures. I even enjoyed, multiple times, what many consider to be the trend’s poster child, Hereditary.

But my most recent watch of Hereditary, with my parents just a few months ago, got me thinking about the film differently, and not because my tastes changed pretty substantially since I saw it last as a college undergrad. The number of times my mom and dad laughed and riffed with one another during the gravely solemn film, about a grieving family’s inherited curse (a mental illness metaphor), didn’t indicate their disconnect to the story. Nor did it show an unwillingness to take the material seriously. And there I was, joking at the film alongside them when it had once disturbed me so acutely that I had felt rattled for the rest of the day.

The experience was a revelation for me. Yes, this is all a bit silly, isn’t it? Granted, this has a lot to do with my general exasperation at this style of horror; Hereditary is at least more thematically well-realized and visually stimulating than Men. After watching the latter, part of me wondered if Alex Garland was in on the joke; if he had intentionally set out to make a horror film so threadbare and painfully metaphorical as to satirize the trajectory of the genre and the Hereditarys of our time. More likely, however, is that it is yet another tiresome stepping stone on that same path to nowhere.


Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.