Like all great horror movies, “Antebellum” is barely fiction. 

In modern classics like “Get Out,” “The Babadook” and “Antebellum,” the fantasy comes not when the monsters show their ugly faces, but when they are vanquished.

Even at its most outlandish, the terror in “Antebellum” is not only plausible, but already happening. More than that — it is woven into the fabric of American society itself. “Antebellum” dives headfirst into the roiling open wound of American slavery and shows how, while its horrors may never be defeated, they still must be fought, tooth and nail. 

The film follows two characters played by Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight”), modern-day author and activist Veronica Henley, as well as Eden, a woman enslaved on a pre-Civil War plantation. In the film’s searing narrative, these two lives are revealed to be shockingly intertwined. 

With a powerhouse performance by Monáe, a visual brilliance that comes along once in a blood-red moon and twists to make you leap from their seat and clutch your hair, “Antebellum” is the best horror film of 2020. It’s also one of its most important movies, period. 

Without spoiling one of the most bone-shattering twists in horror since “The Sixth Sense,” the film draws colorful, shuddering cords between the hell of antebellum slavery and the modern era. It does so with a realistic, inquisitive and unflinching eye to befit the topics that it grapples with. Simultaneously, it’s absolutely chilling. Who knew that a movie which utters “intersectionality” could take your breath away?

Why, though, has “Antebellum” been so panned? Wouldn’t a “great” horror movie have more than a 29% on the Tomatometer? It deserves far better, but the cinematic establishment never takes horror easily. 

One critic called it too pedantic, more interested in making a “Big Point” than trying for any artistic merit. Another lamented that the film “is not subtle about what it is saying and what it is doing.” These have been common talking points for horror-bashers throughout cinematic history.

When “The Exorcist” shows a girl sexually assaulting her own mother, it is being too “indelicate” for the cinematic establishment, too obvious in its symbolism and too embarrassingly proletariat in its smarmy subject matter. When “Antebellum” has Janelle Monáe, one of the most iconic and lauded Black icons of the modern era, face off against a Confederate general, it is deemed too simple … lazily reminding us of the cruelty of America’s past.

Is Alien’s invocation of violent misogyny “pedantic”? Are the brutal treatises of mental illness in “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” “pedantic”? What about the exploration of hysteria in “Invasion of The Body Snatchers” and “Night of The Living Dead”? “Gojira” isn’t shy about symbolizing nuclear trauma. Look into that giant lizard’s ravaged face and call him “pedantic.” I dare you. 

Maybe horror has always been “pedantic.” Maybe it has always made stomach-churning, blood-soaked “big points.” Maybe it has always depicted the inexplicable with little qualms to expose the real social wounds that lurk behind the rubber suits and plastic teeth. 

Yet by doing so, horror forces viewers to grapple with the ungrappleable in a medium without limits. The sheer creativity of great horror can unpack taboo topics before the mainstream even deigns to turn its head. No other movie could pierce the cyclonic political climate of 2020 like “Antebellum” and offer such a sweeping, necessary catharsis. 

“Antebellum” drips with cinematic talent. Its use of color is incredible, contrasting oversaturated reds, yellows and greens with the grime and sulfuric gaslight of the antebellum era to show how an ancient, systemic horror lurks behind the saccharine flash of modern life. It also builds to a revenge-fueled climax that rivals the genre’s best. Sigoruney Weaver’s (“Alien”) Ellen Ripley has a modern sister in Monáe’s Veronica Henley. 

It’s past time horror was taken seriously, because, in recent memory, has the world ever been so horrible? Racist terror haunts the headlines every single day. Movies must hit it head on, and why should horror movies be excluded? Genre shouldn’t determine a film’s value — quality should.

Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at warricka@umich.edu.

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