“Some movies aren’t just movies. They’re closer to voodoo; they channel currents larger and more powerful than themselves.”
– EW Film Critic Owen Gleiberman
What makes a horror movie transcend its often ill-respected genre and become a lasting part of the cultural zeitgeist? The answer is the same thing that makes a horror movie not just incredibly scary, but disturbing to your very core. This secret ingredient is going to sound rather dry: it’s the film’s social-political subtext. But bear with me here, because without it, zombies become silly, ghosts become nostalgic and homicidal maniacs become an empty excuse to engage in exploitation, merely appealing to a filmgoers’ most base desire to stare at the traffic accident for signs of gore as they pass.
While it’s safe to assume the average filmgoer does not select a horror film based on its sub textual weight, they’d be misinformed if they didn’t think it contributed mightily (and when at its best, stealthily) to the films overall scare factor. For instance, it is highly dubious anyone chooses to view ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ for its 1970’s post Vietnam era allegory about the Have-Nots of America feasting upon the privileged, oblivious youth of our nation.
And yet it is the subtle underlying social and political subtext of that film’s story (discussed in depth later) that brings the otherwise exploitive terror into some other realm of our consciousness. The characters and plot tell a story as an allegory for the very real horror taking place in the here and now of our world. It gives the film an extra layer of reality that at its best is undetectable, yet is working on us all the same.
While the following list is in no way meant to be a comprehensive one (and is listed in a thematic order rather than best to worst), these fifteen horror films are excellent examples of films that transcended their genre in large part due to their ability to use their horror story as allegory to tap into the all too real terror quietly eating away at our unconscious lives.
1. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
Frank Darabont’s brilliant, often underrated 2007 film (based on Stephen King’s 1980 novella of the same name) was the only studio released horror feature at the time to use its story as an allegory for the most terrifying and inexplicable event of our time: 9/11 and all of its ensuing repercussions and reactions.
An overnight storm knocks out all power and communications for miles in a small New England community. The town folk head to the local supermarket for supplies which soon becomes their stronghold when a mysterious, thick mist rolls in over the mountains, concealing deadly creatures of unknown origin. And before you can say Patriot Act, the town is turning on one another. Old prejudices come to roost, a woman once thought to be the town’s religious nut becomes a Rapture-bound leader (Marcia Gay Harden in a performance as deeply rooted as it is completely unhinged), and no one will help a single Mother get back home to her small children she left alone, not even our hero David (the always believable Thomas Jane). In this post-Mist world…you tend to your own, period.
Within the mist hides unseen creatures, a terrifying, completely foreign enemy, just as the United States found itself completely terrified, mystified and in a strange, new kind of war, with an enemy who was “out there” but could neither be pinpointed nor understood. This environment became a breeding ground for paranoia and for the already paranoid to seize their moment in the sun. This is exactly what transpires in “The Mist” yet Darabont handles this allegory in a very tactful manner. No direct references are ever made to 9/11. In fact, Darabont worked with his production designer to purposely land the film in a kind of anytime U.S.A., where cell phones exist alongside Military Privates in 1970’s uniforms and driving jeeps.
By the time the shocking, desolate ending rolls around we see Thomas Jane’s character, in absolute ruins as a man, see a vision of the now rescued single Mother, her kids by her side; a painful reminder that the worst horror of all is for a man (or a country as a whole) to lose its humanity in the face of an incomprehensible enemy. All of this from what is essentially… a kick-ass creature movie.
2. The Host (Bong Joon-Ho, 2006)
Bong Joon-Ho’s truly loopy “The Host” delivers a potent mix of creature feature scares mixed with scathing social-political criticism and humor. When a giant amphibious and carnivorous creature of unknown origin attacks tourists along the Han River, a dim snack shop owner’s young daughter is taken. Only by reuniting with his fractured family does he stand a chance of finding her alive again.
While most creature features reach for social-political meaning within the origin story of their monster (ie: “Godzilla”) Bong Joon-Ho seems more interested in how his country would react to such a situation. In fact, it would appear Bong Joon-ho finds the South Korean government’s inferiority complex to their United States’ advisors to be just as if not more scary than the creature itself.
Bong Joon-Ho starts his story in the year 2000 at the closing of an American Military base in Seoul, where an American mortician orders his Korean underlings to dump old leftover radioactive aldehyde formula down the sink and into the Han River (which is based on an actual incident at the Yongsan U.S. Army base in Seoul, sparking widespread anti-American sentiment in 2000.) Flash forward to the present, when a giant fish-toad creature with razor sharp teeth leaps from the Han River attacking tourists along its banks.
As the South Koreans flee for their lives, we see an American tourist stand his ground to fight the beast! Americans don’t run. He is of course, effortlessly and hilariously gobbled up in seconds. Later, an American Military Advisor, in order to avoid an international incident, tries to hide the entire event by claiming there is an Asian Virus, born of these parts in order to contain their culpability for The Creature.
Meanwhile, the American presence is also felt within The Park family, itself the very model of a fractured and dysfunctional American nuclear family. Only when The Park family reconnect and join forces do they rediscover their strengths complement each other’s weaknesses, and vice versa. It turns out the thing they feared the most, becoming an old fashioned South Korean family, is the very thing that may save Hyn-Seo.
The subtext here is a deep indictment of South Korean passivity in the face of American Imperialism, and on top of all that, Bong Joon-Hu, working with San Francisco FX house The Orphanage, delivers one of the most original, organic, and frightening creatures the genre has ever seen!
3. Audition (1999)
We move from the social-political underpinnings of creature features and into the realm of sexual politics with this extraordinary feature from Japan’s Takashi Miike. Aoyama, a slumping television producer and long suffering widower is convinced by his friend to jump start his life anew by auditioning women for a new project but with the secret intention of finding his next wife and mother for his teenaged son.
As crass as this idea sounds, Miike invests so much genuine pathos and time into Aoyama’s grief (aided by an incredibly sympathetic performance by Ryo Ishibashi) that we find ourselves hoping against hope that these fake auditions might actually yield results for the lonely man. Then along comes the enchanting and demure Eihi (Asami Yamazaki, in a tour-de force performance that literally gets under your skin). She is the answer to his dreams, perhaps to every man’s dreams: beautiful, young, sensitive, wise and submissive. The prototypical Geisha in a sense eager to be for Ryo exactly what he needs.
But her true identity is revealed when Ryo, desperate to continue a relationship with Eihi, calls her at home, and Miike finally brings us into her real world; a sparse studio apartment where she sits by the ringing telephone next to a large burlap sack. When the sack violently shifts on its own, the dark clouds begin to gather and the stage is set for what will ultimately be Ryo’s downfall and one of the most terrifying and grueling last half hours in cinema history.
By the film’s end, Miike has waged a true war not only against the myth of the submissive woman as the pinnacle of female beauty and love, but against women who use this mask as a way of preying upon the men who desperately need this fantasy out of their own fear of the opposite sex combined with their own need to experience actual love. In essence, it is a sad war of the sexes this “auditioning” masks for one another, and Miike seems to be saying that it is exactly this fear that ultimately destroys men and women’s chance for love in equal measure. “Audition” is, to paraphrase a line of Eihi’s: a “deeply, deeply, deeply” disturbing film.
4. Videodrome (1982)
If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, David Cronenberg is certainly the Master of Body-Tech Horror. David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” was a film ahead of its time in 1982. Despite the film’s obviously dated use of VHS tapes and cathode ray tube television sets, “Videodrome” may still be ahead of its time today.
Cable Programming Executive Max Renn (James Woods at his coolest, jittery best) has stumbled upon a “pirated” television feed of what looks to be a cross between an S&M sex channel and pure violent snuff. It’s disgusting, degrading, inhuman, and in his eyes… “It’s what’s next.”
After falling for radio talk show host Deborah Harry, and showing her the feed as well, she becomes obsessed with the channel and disappears, only to reappear on Renn’s TV as part of this dark and twisted world. This leads him and us down a rabbit hole of demented hallucinations filled with pulsating videotapes, televisions with elastic, flesh-like screens (wonderful practical effects work by Rick Baker) and the unbelievable sight of James Woods belly button turning into some sort of cross between a vagina and a videotape playback receptacle as he ushers in “the new flesh”.
The most widespread critical complaint against “Videodrome” was its narrative incomprehension as it becomes increasingly difficult to parse out when Renn’s hallucinations begin and end. But that is exactly Cronenberg’s point: when does the content we view with our sensory apparatus take hold and become enmeshed into our very being? When does it cease to be a separate cultural experience but become part of our nervous system, our identity? And when does technology’s delivery system of such sights and sounds become a part of our flesh as well? A brilliant meditation on our sexuality, ability to love, and to engage in life socially becoming fused with technology over thirty years before some might say, it has begun to happen.
5. Dawn Of The Dead (1979)
Another feat of cinematically reading the tea leaves of his times, George Romero’s sequel to his classic “Night of the Living Dead” (to be discussed further in this article) foresaw the 1980’s Reagan-era with its belief system of happiness through consumerism. Four survivors of the Zombie apocalypse choose the only place that could supply them with everything they might need to survive: the shopping mall.
The horrific chaos of the outside world becomes existential boredom as the four begin to experience a life where having it all at their disposal means nothing. But they are not the only ones who have ideas of living inside the mall as they not only must fend off a motorcycle gang and various outside forces from the living, but even the dead need a place to shop. More and more of the living dead gather and begin to force their way inside, as if the only remaining memory of life they have is to shop and consume junk food.
While Romero’s social satire may not be everyone’s taste, it serves an excellent purpose for his point, allowing the audience to relax, almost become complacent in the humorous boredom of consumer culture before delivering blow upon blow of epic, graphic violence and immediate danger. In essence, Romero is adroitly using a play on words in his sub textual drive: In our lust for consuming inanimate objects, we in turn become dead or inanimate creatures with only one last desire: to consume that which may still be left alive, if just to have a taste of life as it once was.
While Zack Snyder’s 2004 action horror remake of Romero’s classic is actually an excellent piece of thrilling entertainment, with a script credited to Romero and to the talented James Gunn (“Slither”, the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy”), it is surprisingly devoid of social-political subtext below or even near the surface, as the mall is seen as a solid stronghold with supplies, period. Interesting, as this seemed to be the driving point for setting the story in the mall in the first place.