The Dork Universe: On recent trends in non-sequitur horror

It is no revelation that the reputation of Horror has vastly improved in the past decade’s time. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to say it is fully redeemed and in a new golden era. Funny to think that as recently as a few years ago it was common to hear people say, “I don’t like horror, but Hereditary (2018) is great. It’s about trauma, you know?” Fortunately, the cringe-level media illiteracy of such statements has mostly gone away. The one-two punch of Blumhouse and A24’s successes could have been a double-edged sword only opening up acceptance to Horror in a judgmental way; that is, acceptance only for certain styles deemed classy enough. But the voice of reconsideration once again found a home thanks to the return and staying power of Joe Bob Briggs, adding the important embrace and reverence of cinematic trash to the equation. Along with many other occurrences like the full bloom of Horror conventions, the success of Shudder, and the rebirth of Fangoria, a perfect storm formed. All this is an oversimplification of course, and there will always be those desperate to scream out “Well actually I respected exploitation cinema since I was born with a copy of Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) clenched in my baby butt.” Nevertheless, the 2020s are an era when all sorts of different types of Horror have an equal chance at getting the fair treatment they deserve.

Still, human nature tempts all to find a punching bag, and who can argue with the fact that social media brings out the worst of human nature? This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as a bad movie, nor that it is wrong to hate a film regardless of it being popular or popular to despise. Upon its release, Malignant (2021) met with an intensely divided audience. The numerous plot twists, slapstick style camerawork and framing, sudden inclusion of a ’70s-era women-in-prison scene, and the full-blown martial arts action ending made many call it absurdist garbage. Of course, if one were to remove the Horror motifs from the film, this sort of bombastic “who knows what comes next” storytelling is exactly the formula that has made the Fast and Furious franchise a cultural touchstone. In a way, this is also the same approach to narrative in contemporary superhero films, all of which makes sense that Malignant was directed by James Wan who also has his hands in the Fast franchise and the DCEU. These are all swashbuckling adventures that rely on journeys through many lands, providing the thrill of new unknown horizons for the viewer to explore. Yet Malignant isn’t the only film recently to use this style of back to back to back to back non-sequiturs. Nor is it the only Horror film in this style to receive quite a backlash.

The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) is a sort of perpetual devolution into the cartoonish. Anything grounded at the beginning has all its layers pulled away by the over-the-top CGI ending. If one can look past the temptation to hold it up to any expectation of being a film like The Exorcist (1973), this is a treat. The film is a fantastical candy starting with refined classy flavors, licked away to brighter and sharper layers of sour and, at last, pure diabetic-inducing over-indulgence. Wonderful colors and imaginative design reward the audience for surviving the suspense-filled portion of the movie. Action saves the day and lastly, the titular Exorcist is presented as a superhero for hopefully many ridiculous sequels to come. Again, the response here has been at extremes, although it has the good fortune of being released the same year as an official Exorcist franchise entry, too restrained for most and thus looks even better in comparison.

Two movies vaguely taking the same approach of bubble gum quality, constant unpredictable tonal shifts, and embrace of action hardly establish anything. And a third only proves a line, as they say. A crowd of films doing this firmly plants the seeds of an artistic movement though. And there is a crowd of them.

Much more unpopular than Malignant and The Pope’s Exorcist is the full-throttle adventure horror of The Devil Conspiracy (2022). It constantly juggles serious tones of suspense, wacky mad scientist mysticism, sacrilegious exploitation, and straight-up rubber creature-feature scenes. This is the filmic equivalent of houses with so many decorations in October that people drive by and say, “That house barfed Halloween.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the beloved Barbarian (2022) is comparatively reserved in its giant twists, but with each act offering such unpredictable ones, it feels unlike anything else and shows that this love for non-sequiturs growing among Horror filmmakers’ works is in an elegant wrapper as well. Nope (2022) also maintains a high cinema veneer but dares to add far more left-field elements with flashbacks to sit-coms, a huge cast of characters all offering different tonal lenses to the same story, and a CGI Kaiju ending. It isn’t surprising that Nope left some audiences wishing for a return to the streamlined morality tale of Get Out (2017). Upon inspection though, Nope is not just a wacky collection of carnival rides. It relies upon having so many elements to reflect on the long history of all cinema simultaneously: in terms of the very real injustices towards black innovators in the industry, and in terms of the philosophical concepts of seeing and being seen. And thus ultimately culminates in the present when the power to both film and be filmed is in everyone’s hands because of social media. Nope isn’t just the weirdest of Jordan Peele’s films, it is also the most sophisticated.

Unfortunately lost in the shuffle of Disney buying out Fox, The Empty Man (2020) is a Creepypasta odyssey, following the journey of a depressed self-appointed detective through worlds of the supernatural. The plot is Alice In Wonderland-like, going from ghost story to slasher to noir to cult genres, never to revisit any. It is ultimately a journey into insanity which must be exhausting and couldn’t work any other way. And it is impressively humorless for such a goofy journey. Quite the opposite is the very Adult Swim Yule Log (2022), which functions as much as a comedy as it does a gross-out splatter-fest. It may also be the most ambitious of any movie discussed so far in terms of how many different styles it weaves together. Taking place in many time periods at once, each has its own aesthetic, all tied together through an experimental editing style that puts the structural aspects of filmmaking first. What begins as a found footage film doesn’t simply switch to not being one by the end, but rather stretches the rules of one over and over again until they break completely. Drawing a line where the style changes isn’t clear and doesn’t matter. This is combined with also being the most non-sequitur heavy of anything in this essay, jumping from slasher to home invasion to alien attacks to period drama to Twilight Zone deal-with-the-devil, to Satanic cult film on a whim. The ending then takes on a whole other twist which highlights the punctuation points of race and economic themes from throughout the narrative, bringing them to a head in a way that begs for discussion between viewers; Yule Log asks some hard questions about inherited trauma, love, and what the film calls “time privilege” that feels like a strong push towards understanding these issues beyond pre-prescribed liberal or conservative philosophies. For a film that could easily be seen as the dumbest of the lot here, it’s jaw-dropping at the end when it becomes one of the smartest. Given just how masterful the editing is though, is it any surprise that the artists behind it knew what they were doing?

So here are a handful of contemporary films all expressing a similar love for maximalist storytelling that is not afraid to shatter the audience’s idea of what sort of movie they are even watching: the flip side to recent trends in liminal horror which are patience-testing levels of reserved. These films range from loved to hated to wildly debated, but regardless of acceptance, show a growing interest among filmmakers towards a distinctive but versatile style. Around 2010 two notable examples of films exploring this emerged. Doomsday (2008) jumps styles with each act, from its bummer end of the world opening to cannibal movie to medieval faux period piece to Mad Max car battle. Then Detention (2011) showed director Joseph Kahn masterfully translating his music video experience into an explosion of styles channel surfing at breakneck speed. A film released on the cusp of this boom though, and was instantly dismissed as a failure, is the Tom Cruise Horror swashbuckler The Mummy (2017).  Due to studio ambitions of creating a franchise of films called The Dark Universe, it was as sprawling as a Marvel film and jumped tones in almost every scene. The most notable surprise was the insertion of a battle with Dr. Jekyll which was truly unexpected for a movie about Egyptian mummies, a movie that happened to take place in the sewers of London, or something. Considered a mess by many, in light of current trends is worth revisiting, not necessarily as a film that explicitly inspired those discussed here, but one that stumbled into history at the birthplace of this unorganized, organically arising movement. While Universal’s hope for The Dark Universe never manifested, something else did. Something that embraced the ludicrousness of this style, pushing the unexpected and genre-jumping techniques into intentionally absurd places without fear of looking stupid. Not a dark universe, but what the world got instead is The Dork Universe. A loose sub-genre that can be a punching bag in Horror and only be stronger for it. What a beautiful time to be in.

Author

  • Brian Miller

    Brian is the founder of the Deathbomb Arc record label and writes film essays at various sites under the guise Neon Zen.