Bret Easton Ellis on the Problem With Modern Studio Horror Movies

Spoiler alert: This article is about plots from the movie “The Barbarian.”

Bret Easton Ellis’ work often dips into horror — he wrote the iconic 1991 novel “American Psycho,” the screenplay for the 2020 slasher film “Smiley Face Killers,” and the upcoming semi-autobiographical serial killer novel “The Shards,” out in January . In addition to his writing — eight novels, a book of essays and many screenplays that have been produced and yet to be produced — Ellis is also an intrepid cultural commentator who enjoys talking about pop culture, often horror, on “The Bret Easton.” Ellis Podcast.”

As horror fans continue to check out this year’s offerings, Diversity spoke with Ellis about his horror history, what he fears most, and what the future of the genre might hold.

Ellis believes that the new generation of studio horror often makes one key mistake.

“Especially in the 1970s, horror movies didn’t have stories or answers to them that explained the horror,” he said. “Why is Regan obsessed with the devil in ‘The Exorcist’?” we do not know. Why a shark cruises Amity [in ‘Jaws’]? you do not know. Where did Carrie White get her powers? I do not know. We could go on and on about the mystery of these movies, and what made them so much more terrifying was that they weren’t explained. I often feel like horror movies now go too far into the background, in terms of explaining why these people are doing what they’re doing, or why this monster is doing what it’s doing, it really diminishes the horror.

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“I think ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is a great example. We just don’t know what this family is. We get hints of what happened to them, but we don’t even get an explanation of what created Leatherface. For some reason, I find this particularly scary in ways that other films in the ‘Chainsaw’ franchise don’t. The sequels explicitly detailed why things happened, and the backstories are usually completely insane.”

Ellis made his point by analyzing the highs and lows of one of the year’s most high-profile horror films, “Barbarian.”

“I like the movie,” he said. “I thought it had a great, slow build, with that epic shock in the middle, and then it becomes this completely different movie. We are very interested to see how these two movies will come together and let us know why this happened. I had a friend who liked it just as much, but he also thought it explained too much in the third act. It was no longer scary to him and there was something about this thing, Mother. It was more terrifying just to think that this thing lived there and went hunting at night.’

In addition, Ellis and his colleague agreed that the ending is very successful in a uniquely modern way.

“This friend, a filmmaker, told me that at the time the film went off the rails for him too, because he didn’t really have the courage to stand up for his convictions, which meant that Justin Long’s character had to be punished somehow and the girl had to live, ” he said. “I was hoping for a slightly more pessimistic ending because ‘Barbarian’ seemed to be going in that direction. It felt like a throwback to 70’s horror and I loved the weirdness of the monsters. He wasn’t afraid to look completely stupid or goofy, and that was scary, and I loved that he wasn’t CGI. It was a very scary, real, tactile, analog thing.”

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Ellis noted that while studio offerings may be too sanitized in the current culture, a vibrant underground can keep subversive ideas alive.

“I like to think of it as cyclical,” Ellis said. “Yes, now we’re going through it and turning away from it, and then we’ll have a tougher, less ideological consciousness [in horror]. We won’t have to worry so much about certain tropes and go back to aesthetics and scares.”

One of the current films Ellis cited as a return to gritty, classic horror is “Terrifier 2,” which he heard about through word of mouth.

“I was complaining about the lack of really gritty, scary horror movies,” he said. “But someone said to me, ‘You know, Bret, if you really want to find it, you can find the most disgusting horror movies. They are outside. You just have to find them. They may not be featured in the mainstream, but trust me you can find them.'”

Ellis goes on to recall a conversation with Miramax CEO Bill Block on his podcast.

“I went back to what Bill Block said about how people are always going to have to confront this subject and see these images and they’re either going to be repulsed or compelled,” Ellis said. “So I don’t know if it’s ever going to go away, the only thing that matters is if it’s going to be in the corporate mainstream, which really doesn’t seem to want anything to do with anything like this except the most bland, inoffensive stuff. I hope there will be a shift, but there is so much content out there that I think you can find almost anything you’re looking for.”

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Reflecting on the impact horror movies had on him growing up, Ellis saw them as a way to deal with the difficult world around him.

“Being a child of the ’70s, I was obsessed with horror,” he said. “I don’t know why, but there were a lot of them and I was drawn to them. I think they were a reflection of something that I personally went through, because my childhood was really a free-range world made up entirely of adults, and nothing was sugarcoated. There was a kind of realism to everything and you weren’t treated like a child. The world was still made for adults – basically you were left to your own devices and figured out how scary the world was in different ways.

“Horror films in the 70s had this appeal of being a reflection of a dysfunctional household: my parents’ marriage was falling apart, my father was an alcoholic, I was aware that I was gay. There were a lot of questions floating around and horror movies acted as the most explicit way for me to acknowledge or connect with whatever anxiety and fear I was going through on my own. They were soothing in a strange way.’



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