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A New Wave of Highbrow Horror

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is one of several ‘social thrillers’ from A-list directors that go beyond slasher and gore films; ‘I think horror can be of the mind’


Ellen Gamerman

A pivotal scene in “mother!” is so disturbing that it’s hard to call this new film anything but a straight-out horror movie. Yet the moment also is meant to serve as an allegory of climate change, species extinction and other environmental woes.

“We’re all on this planet together with a tremendous amount of bounty, but it’s definitely finite and we’re seeing the results of our insatiable appetite,” director Darren Aronofsky said in a recent interview. “I took that energy and tried to weave it into something that’s not really about that, but has that energy and that passion.”

Social thrillers, as some film experts call them, are enjoying renewed cachet in Hollywood right now. While horror movies packed with deeper cultural meaning have always existed, industry observers say high-profile filmmakers who might not have been drawn to such movies a few years ago are rushing into the genre with new projects.

Ouiz: What’s this Horror Movie Really About?

Filmmaker David Fincher, an Oscar nominee for “The Social Network” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” is set to direct the “World War Z” zombie-movie sequel. Director Dee Rees, whose drama “Mudbound” is generating awards buzz, is developing a horror film about black lesbians in small-town America. Jordan Peele, writer-director of the commercial and critical hit “Get Out,” where the monster is racism, is working on new social thrillers to release over the next decade.

More filmmakers are willing to wrap their stories in terrifying packages, said producer Jason Blum. “I have to believe the world is just a scarier place,” said Mr. Blum, founder of horror hitmaker Blumhouse Productions. “There’s a shaking energy or a nervousness to people and that’s not a good thing—but it’s good for horror movies.”

“The Purge” series of scary movies, which Mr. Blum said explore issues around gun control, helped lay the groundwork for the most recent resurgence of social themes in mainstream horror films. Then came “Get Out,” which broadened the appeal of such allegorical horror films well beyond New York and Los Angeles. The roughly $4.5 million movie grossed more than $252 million world-wide. Mr. Blum, who produced both pictures, said he now is seeing more such scripts, including horror films with Trump administration allegories.

Stephen King’s ‘It,’ starring Bill Skarsgard just had the top horror-film opening ever.Photo: Warner Bros.

Filmmakers like horror movies because they’re relatively cheap to make and have the potential to turn into goldmines. “It,” the Stephen King story about an evil clown, just had the top horror film opening ever. The roughly $35 million movie brought in about $189 million world-wide on its opening weekend.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” about a cardiac surgeon’s strange relationship with a boy, is to some fans a meditation on justice and retribution. At a post-show interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, which launched last week, an audience member asked director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos if the film’s villain was God or the devil. “The point of it is he’s complex and ambiguous,” said Mr. Lanthimos. “You have to decide for yourself.”

“To see new voices, new ideas, new spins on old stories, that’s what really excites me,” said Peter Kuplowsky, a curator at the Toronto festival. He said he was tired of seeing scary movies with stories “about a 20-something white dude trying to win over a girl and a horror situation occurs.”

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, is to some fans a meditation on justice and retribution.Photo: A24

Veterans of comedy like Mr. Peele aren’t as unlikely transplants to horror as they might seem. Mr. Kuplowsky said both genres create intense emotions, and the setup and delivery of jokes and scares are similar. “Comedians are people who speak to cultural anxieties and social problems,” he said, adding that in horror “the punchline just tends to make people scream.”

Horror films often spring from a basic premise: “It started with a simple idea—to answer the question, ‘What’s scary?’ and ‘What hasn’t been done to death?’” said Fede Alvarez, director and co-writer of last year’s home-invasion horror hit “Don’t Breathe.” Among its possible meanings, the story can be viewed as an allegory for the disillusionment of baby boomers, the younger generation’s seeming indifference to them or both, the filmmaker said. Fans and critics have seen the theme of social decline. The movie, which cost roughly $10 million to make, racked up about 15 times that amount in world-wide grosses.

Director Darren Aronofsky, right, said his new film ‘mother!’ starring Jennifer Lawrence, left, grew out of his overarching fear about the state of the planet.Photo: Paramount Pictures

Many newcomers to the genre contend that it’s not enough just to be scary. “When the film is just a string of setups for someone more or less saying ‘Boo!,’ while that’s perfectly fun, that doesn’t have anything to do with why this kind of creative work is important,” said Robert Eggers, writer and director of “The Witch.” The 2016 horror film set in 17th-century New England was seen by critics as a​cautionary tale about religious extremism. Mr. Eggers praised psychological horror films that “probe the darkness within ourselves.”​

The marketing for “mother!,” which opens Friday, includes an image of star Jennifer Lawrence holding her own disembodied heart in her bloodied hands. But instead of an interest in blood and guts, Mr. Aronofsky said, the film grew out of his overarching fear about the state of the planet.

The director, an Oscar nominee for the 2010 movie “Black Swan,” said he wrote the screenplay for “mother!” in “a fever dream” over five days. He held three months of rehearsals for the film, a relationship story about a young woman and the famous older male poet she adores, and pressed the actors to examine several levels of meaning in their lines. “There’s a lot of language in the film that had to be very precise, that had to play with all these other references,” he said.

“It’s a very interesting genre and I think for a while it was hijacked by and still is hijacked by slasher films and gore films,” he said. “I think horror can be of the mind as well.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com