Streaming screams: Shudder and the online subscription revolution (2020)

Streaming screams: Shudder and the online subscription revolution first published by Sight & Sound, November 2020

Horror is a niche genre and its audience tends to like it that way. While horror films have always had their place in mainstream movie theatres, and more and more frequently in ‘respectable’ generalist film festivals too, their natural home is in the shadowy margins – the grindhouse, fleapit and drive-in, the late-night slot on television, ‘direct to video’, or in specialist festivals dedicated to the genre and haunted by a hardcore fanbase. This pattern is also reflected in the digital delivery platforms of our online age – for while the big streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Mubi, and even to a limited degree Disney+, certainly include some horror on their slates, a site exclusively devoted to the genre has also inevitably been spawned from the ether. 

Owned by AMC networks, Shudder launched five years ago in the US. According to the subscription service’s general manager Craig Engler, “A Shudder film should be one or (ideally) more of the following: entertaining, scary, exciting, provocative, interesting (historically or stylistically), fresh, essential. The hope is that a Shudder member, whether they are diehard horror hound, a casual fan or a total newbie, will feel welcome, guided and find something worth watching, whether classic or contemporary, mainstream or independent, iconic or obscure.” They are also all horror films, or at the very least horror adjacent.

Since 2015, Shudder has been steadily expanding both its collection (movies, series, podcasts and short-form content) and its availability (from the US to Canada, UK, Ireland, Germany and recently Australia and New Zealand). Its carefully curated films are a combination of older “library” titles, and newer Exclusive premières picked up from festival markets. A further addition to the service is Shudder’s ‘Originals’. “We’re increasingly commissioning our own films, series (both scripted and unscripted), and documentaries,” Engler explains, “and also partnering with other companies on co-releases and co-productions. We only expect the number of Shudder original productions to grow.” This original content, of which Shudder is the sole distributor, includes their ongoing Creepshow series (building upon George A. Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 anthology film of the same name), Xavier Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), Jayro Bustamente’s Guatemalan ghost allegory La Llorona (2019) and most recently Rob Savage’s intensely of-the-moment Host (2020) – a feature about a Zoom-mediated séance gone wrong that was shot entirely in lockdown conditions, and only gains in its unnerving immediacy if viewed at home on a computer.

“We’re definitely more of a complement than a rival,” says Engler of Shudder’s relationship to horror’s other media. After all, some of their exclusives (like Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, 2017) and even originals (like Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, 2018) have enjoyed a theatrical run before appearing on the service, and Host has had special limited screenings in cinemas after first appearing on the site. Engler adds: “because horror fans love collecting physical media, we’ve also released some of our films on DVD and Blu-ray – and even on collectible VHS — following their Shudder premières.” In other words, Shudder is feeding right into horror’s pre-existing culture and legacy while providing a new, readily accessible forum online. As the genre continues to evolve, it has found in Shudder another mask to wear, and another dark niche to fill.

Anton Bitel