2021 Was The Year Auteurs Reinvented Themselves With Horror

While 2020 as a year for film was largely marked by what movies were pushed back instead of which ones were actually released, 2021 saw things get somewhat back on track in terms of not just big movies getting seen by the public, but also returning to the big screen. However, even among the influx of movies that saw theatrical release in the back half of the year when theatres reopened, there was a distinct pattern when it came to certain horror films, and who doesn’t love analyzing patterns in film releases?

In particular, 2021 seemed to be the year that multiple big ticket auteur filmmakers decided to revitalize their personal directing style using the horror genre. Today, we’re going to talk about three of them, and why they became some of that year’s most important horror offerings.

M. Night Shyamalan Saves Cinema With Old

The central cast of Old stares at a skeletal ribcage
Old | Dir. M. Night Shyamalan | Perfect World Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures, and Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan does not miss. Since 1999, he has released twelve films in theatres, and out of all of those, only two were not profitable at the box office (Lady in the Water and After Earth, if you’re curious, and After Earth still pulled in $243 million worldwide). Given that he’s probably the most consistent filmmaker of the past two decades when it comes to successfully launching original genre films into the theatrical marketplace, it made perfect sense for his latest film to be one of the earliest releases when theatres reopened. While Old had a mixed reception from critics and audiences, it continued Shyamalan’s winning streak in his self-financing era by generating $90 million on a budget of 18. However, even more interesting than its financial performance is what the movie represents in the wider scope of Shyamalan’s artistic trajectory.

Shyamalan’s career at this point can be neatly sliced up into three distinct portions, each containing four films. His early era, starting in 1999 with The Sixth Sense all the way to 2004’s The Village, was marked by his out of the gate, immediate popularity, establishing many of his conventions, and generally containing his most well-liked films. His middle era, starting in 2006 with Lady in the Water and ending in 2013 with After Earth, saw his budgets start to grow larger, public sentiment soured on him, as well as his only gun-for-hire IP work with The Last Airbender. His late era, starting in 2015 with The Visit and continuing to now, has seen his work not just generally be better received, but also marks his return to modestly budgeted horror and thriller films that take best advantage of his directorial sensibilities.

Yet what’s most important to understand about Old is how it exemplifies what his late era truly represents: a shift in tone from his early work that has become colder and more open about his horror roots. Shyamalan movies tend to land somewhere on the spectrum between “spiritual sentimentality” and “dark horror impulses,” with his early work often leaning more towards the former. With The Visit, Split, and now Old, Shyamalan has moved far more to the other side, with some of the body horror in Old (the hypocalcemia lady in the cave!) being among the most overtly scary imagery ever put in one of his movies. We may never know why Shyamalan’s latest output has moved in this direction, but it’s a fascinating transformation to have witnessed in real time, and Old is the purest “horror” artistic statement he’s ever made.

James Wan Is In On The Joke With Malignant

A dark figure looms behind an old man looking out of a window in this still from Malignant
Malignant | Dir. James Wan | New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures

James Wan is one of the most important directors of 21st century horror. Despite having dipped his toes into the blockbuster scene more than once with Furious 7 and Aquaman, his true impact on the film industry will always be the places where he was a trailblazer: namely, his work with 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious, both of which would end up setting the stage for what horror would look and feel like for the next several years following each of their respective releases. Saw generated an influx of “torture porn” copycats (which is very funny when you remember that the first Saw doesn’t really fit the bill of what torture porn became and is far less gory than you remember), and Insidious was one of the progenitors of the so-called “elevated horror” movement where horror became glossy and “respectable” again, often under the watchful eye of Blumhouse Productions.

Directors changing the trajectory of a genre once is enough to become historic; Wan pulling this trick off twice means he’s essentially legendary. Yet what he’s chosen to do with his clout in the horror space resulted in one of the most enjoyable and off-kilter films of 2021: Malignant, a movie that devolves into pure camp spectacle at first jump and never lets off the throttle. It’s the sort of movie that rarely sees even a middle tier budget or theatrical release anymore, but Wan took his “one for me” ticket after Aquaman to make a movie that isn’t just a sharp diversion from his previous work, but a statement of intent against what his work generated: “elevated horror” is a nonsense moniker, and horror is better when it’s fun.

And “fun” is the order of the day with Malignant, which makes the (at this point in time, fairly generous) ask of the audience to set aside our current preconceptions of what horror as a genre is supposed to be. It’s a roller coaster slaughterfest hiding under the guise of Wan’s name as a respected filmmaker, in the same way that Gabriel hides under the skull of his conjoined twin sister. Obviously not everyone will vibe on Malignant’s wavelength. It’s too specific and (for lack of a better term) cheesy for everyone to be on board with. But for those that are open to it, Malignant is the perfect example of a great director playfully taking the piss out of their personal brand to spectacular effect.

Edgar Wright Drops The Act With Last Night In Soho

A young girl looks at a bright light with makeup caked around her eyes in this still from Last Night in Soho
Last Night In Soho | Dir. Edgar Wright | Film4 Productions, Focus Features, and Universal Pictures

Edgar Wright’s entry in this piece is in many ways the exact opposite of James Wan’s. Where Wan embraced cheesy camp spectacle to undermine his imitators, Wright sheds his previous goofball image to try something far outside his wheelhouse. Unlike Shyamalan and Wan, Wright isn’t typically known for being a horror director, instead being known for comedies, but it would be inaccurate to say that horror influence hasn’t shaped some of his previous films. After all, Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie, and The World’s End incorporates imagery commonly associated with 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi horror. However, Wright had never made an out and out horror film until Last Night in Soho, which represents a startling repurposing of his previous style.

Unlike every previous Edgar Wright movie, Last Night in Soho is never really aiming to be funny. Whether it’s the Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and even to a lesser extent Baby Driver, Wright had always traded in films with numerous emotional registers that tend to stick in the audience’s memory because of what he does best: his signature laser-guided editing and irreverent humour. With Soho, the editing stays, but the humour does not. Wright finally expands his canvas by pulling influence from giallo and classic era horror instead of leaning on his usual bag of tricks, yet Last Night in Soho never loses sight of the specificity that makes his work unmistakable. It may not always look or sound exactly like what you expect from a Wright movie, but it always feels like one.

While the experimental nature of Soho resulted in not-quite unanimous praise like his films usually enjoy, Wright’s ability to break free of his typical tone and conventions is commendable all the same. We’ve discussed previously on Castle of Chills how the film is a metaphor for maturing into an adult with autism, but it’s worth reiterating how specific Wright, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and leading actress Thomasin McKenzie get when delving into protagonist Eloise’s portrayal despite never saying the word “autism” out loud. Whether or not anyone involved in the production was intentionally trying to make a movie about being on the spectrum is up for them to specify, but it’s an interpretation that doesn’t just line up with all the elements some viewers found shaky, but it also makes for the first Wright movie that feels vital for what it represents just as much as for how it entertains.

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Carlos Morales


Carlos Morales (he/him) writes novels, articles and Mass Effect essays. You can follow his fixations on Twitter: @CarlosAlonzoM

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