We Are Living Through The Horror Film Renaissance

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These surely are some strange times. Not unique times by any means, nor are these the end-times that some would have you believe. Just strange times, is all. Globalisation has boiled up a steamy political situation while recent advances in technology may have allowed for more connection between people than ever before but they’ve also caused more division and isolation. We’re dealing with a reckoning in the way establishments deal with race and gender. We’re also still struggling with increasing disparity of income between the highest earners and everyone else.

You know all this because you have access to the internet and you don’t live under the rock. Everybody deals with it all differently, some tune it all out, some tune right on in. Either way it’s a lot to handle. Perhaps that’s why we seem to be going through a bit of a resurgence in top quality horror films at the moment.

It’s common knowledge that Hollywood runs on sequels and remakes these days so perhaps it was inevitable that we’d get another Halloween reboot eventually. They’ve damn sure made enough sequels and remakes over the years – and this new one even features Jamie Lee Curtis reprising the role that made her famous, good old Laurie Strode. It sounds about as generic as it gets, really. But then a funny thing happened… people loved it. It’s had the second-best opening weekend box office haul ever seen in the States by an R-rated film, cashing in big time while delighting fans new and old. And the weirdest part about it? Critics are digging it too.

That’s no common thing. There’s always been a market for a good scare but getting a good scare and a quality piece of art in one slice of pie isn’t always easy. Horror movies are genre movies so they don’t tend to get a lot of respect and it obviously doesn’t help that they’ve got a reputation for being B-Grade and cheap too. Also quite visceral, graphic and uncomfortable, making them pretty vulnerable to people’s individual tastes. Then there are the fantastical elements that put people off. Stories about murderous aliens, demonic possession and unauthorised brain transplants don’t exactly incite high artistic values.

But there’s no genre of film that better utilises the value of subtext than horror movies do and these things are almost never about what they seem to be about. The Shining (pretty much the GOAT) is about a homicidal father suffering from cabin fever and the malicious whisperings of ghosts but is really a meditation on alcoholism and domestic abuse. Amongst many other things, Kubrick being Kubrick. The Exorcist is really about motherhood and faith. Night of the Living Dead is about racism. Dracula is about sexual repression. The Wicker Man is about questioning fundamental values. The genius in these films is layered. The deeper allegorical themes matter as much as the scares on the surface and those are what sticks with you long after you’ve chucked the empty popcorn bag in the trash and emerged back into the light of the real world.

There’s been a bit of a run of well-received horror films lately and that seems appropriate at a time when there’s a lot of anxiety out there that could use the big screen reflection. Same as has always been the case. Think the gothic monster horrors of post-depression Hollywood (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy). The scientific freak-outs of the early atomic age and nascent space race (Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space). The supernatural terrors that emerged with the counter-culture – both criticising the establishment by finding deeper creepiness within or relying upon it by exploring the fear of the other/alternative (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now). Through to slasher films in the feminist late 70s, body horror in the egotistical 80s, stalker films in the information age 90s, etc.

I haven’t seen Halloween (2018) yet so I can’t tell you much about why it works, though crucially I have read that it’s very much a product of the present day. There’s nothing worse than a remake which is pure nostalgia. If this new one’s got something to say then, tell ya what, I’m sold. I have, however, seen Get Out. And I’ve seen Hereditary. And A Quiet Place. It Follows. The Witch. All of them are superb, all of them are reflections of the times that we live in, in one way or another.

I’m also eagerly awaiting Luca Guadanigno’s Suspiria, that new Pet Sematary one with John Lithgow, Nick Cage’s mad Mandy and a few others. There are just so many great horror films coming out these days. Basically, if you didn’t think there was a trend going on when Get Out won an Oscar then you’ve been convinced by now. Horror films have always been crowd pleasers but it’s been at least twenty years since they had a moment as profound as this one.

And, you know, it’s only right given the times that we live in. It’s not so much the actual real horror of things as it is the perceived horror that’s presented to us. 24-hour news cycles and permanent connectivity, partisan politics and the backlash to progressive social movements. Terrorism is not ever going to be a threat to most people’s lives but there are a lot of folk who would benefit financially from having you think it will – unless you count gun violence in America in which case, sure, it very well might be, but the people who could stop it (politicians, lobbyists, gun sellers) are the ones mixing up the narrative to try suggest that what we need to stop people getting shot is actually more guns. Yeah, sure. That’ll do it. That’ll keep you up at night.

Point being that of course there’s a horror film renaissance going on. We need to face these fears to learn to live with them, after all. So in that light it makes perfect sense for a new Halloween film in the age of #MeToo, just as it makes perfect sense for Get Out to emerge as White Privilege became an accepted concept. Some of those other films I mentioned are universal themes – Hereditary and grief, A Quiet Place and family, It Follows and teenage sexuality – but that’s what happens when a renaissance occurs, all the terror is ripe for the picking.

The Wildcard Recommends…

Hereditary (2018) – Knockout performance from Toni Collette in a supernatural thriller that’ll have you in sweats every time you hear someone click their tongue from now on. Absolutely nutty ending too, and definitely a scary viewing.

Get Out (2017) – You’ve probably already seen it but watch it again. Turns out Jordan Peele is a bit of a genius. Plus no film with LaKeith Stanfield in it is a film you can get away with avoiding.

It Follows (2014) – Young woman sleeps with her boyfriend and finds out she’s been passed a deadly curse that’ll kill her if it ever catches her unless she passes it on in turn. Great concept and really brilliantly done from writer/director David Robert Mitchell. Maika Monroe is excellent in the lead role.

The Witch (2015) – 1600s puritanical New England. Isolated farmland. Intimidating and oppressive father figure. A potentially demonic goat. Religious paranoia and supernatural creepiness. Dark and eerie atmosphere. Basically if you’re not sold on this one yet then you’re missing out.

A Quiet Place (2018) – The aliens will get ya if you make a noise. They’ve already gotten everybody else. A family tries to survive. Emily Blunt’s amazing in this one… then again, what else is new?

Also: It Comes At Night (2017), Creep & Creep 2 (2014/2017), Don’t Breathe (2016), Bone Tomahawk (2015)

A Few Old School Belters…

The Shining (1980) – The gold standard, the greatest ever. Jack Nicholson is a recovering alcoholic and a struggling author becomes caretaker of a frozen hotel with a dark past and bad things happen. A Stephen King adaptation but a very loose one in the hands of the meticulous Stanley Kubrick.

Possession (1981) – Aoteroa’s own stars Sam Neill in this visceral and pulsating film from Andrzej Żuławski about the breakdown of a marriage and the distrust, the tragedy, the violence, the horror, the insanity that it causes. Soundtrack’s awesome. Isabelle Adjani is untouchable.

Don’t Look Now (1973) – Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie giving Daphne Du Maurier’s tale of a grieving couple struggling with the death of their daughter some sting. Deeply suspenseful thanks to Nicolas Roeg’s ambitious direction. It’s massively symbolic, set amidst the canals in Venice, and psychologically excruciating.

The Wicker Man (1974) – I love me some Christopher Lee, one of the all-time greats. I coulda filled this up with those fantastic Hammer Horrors but instead I’ve ditched the kitsch. This is Lee’s greatest film – he always said so. A straight-laced and pious copper investigates a missing person case on a small Scottish island where the people have abandoned Christianity to embrace paganism. Folk horror at its absolute finest.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – There have been many remarkable vampire performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Gary Oldman… but none ever got at the sheer torture of eternal bloodthirst like the brilliantly bonkers Klaus Kinski. And working with his old mate Werner Herzog we have a classic of the genre. Dismal and draining, these are not the sexy teenaged vampires of more recent notoriety, mate. Not at all.

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