What’s in a name?

How does one define a horror movie? Thrills and chills? Blood and guts? Elements of the supernatural and the super-demented?

In a word, yes. All of these tropes are acceptable for the horror genre, yet they still remain restrictive. Using the word “horror” casts a wide net—covering anything from the personal to the political, the intimate to the public, the minimalistic to the graphic—leaving most viewers to identify horror movies the same way United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

The Stanley Film Festival (SFF), which recently wrapped its four-day occupation of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, is a festival dedicated to exploring, and testing, the boundaries of the horror genre. Twenty-one features, 19 shorts, and 8 student films screened during the four-day boot camp, all providing an indication of where the genre might be headed.

The Invitation

The centerpiece of SFF was Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, a movie that can be described as “the dinner party from hell.” Taking place almost entirely in one house located high in the Hollywood Hills, The Invitation is much more than an exploration of social politeness and transgressions, but a terrifying example of how grief can transform the person you love. As Kusama told me, The Invitation—and horror in general—has, “something to do with our most profound fears and anxieties becoming literalized.”

“Drama has ways to sort of skirt around that [issue],” Kusama continues. “And horror has ways to demand that we confront the thing we’re most afraid of.”

That confrontation, lies at the heart of two other movies featured at SFF, Tim Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare.

In Director’s Commentary, Kirk uses a familiar horror staple, Frankenstein’s Creature, to possibly explain (or at least exploited) the monsters that can be willingly created. In this case, a serial killer, one that takes his devotion to the acting craft one-step too far.

The Nightmare

Much like Kirk’s Director’s Commentary, Ascher’s The Nightmare, relies heavily on a transformation of form to drive its point home. The Nightmare is a documentary that explores the terror of sleep paralysis that eight subjects confront nightly. Ascher uses re-enactments to visualize the terrors the subjects describe, echoing Kusama assertion that horror is, “profound fears and anxieties becoming literalized.” For Kirk’s movie that is the creation of a monster twice fold; for Ascher, it’s about giving those invisible terrors physical form.

The term “horror” means many things to many viewers and labeling something may define it, but that definition is inherently subjective. In some cases, it can be damning.

“I don’t necessarily call it [horror],” Kusama referring to The Invitation. “I don’t want to derail people’s expectations that demons are going to jump out of closets or anything.”

In other words, focus on what is happening and not what you think should be happening.

The Nightmare will be released on June 5, Drafthouse Films will release The Invitation later this year and Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein has not yet acquired distribution.

Director's Commentary Terror of Frankenstein