Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The second decade of the 21st century brought with it a new self-awareness to the horror genre. Remakes and reboots had been done to death, many of the original films didn’t garner quite enough success to get sequels, and the Final Destination and Saw franchises were coming to a close. It was time for horror movies to be reborn. Starting with Black Swan and Insidious, the new tone of scary movies was psychological, tense and terrifying, and more than meets the expectations.
It’s no longer just zombies, vampires, or serial killers chasing innocent people through various settings. Now there’s deeper symbolic meaning as horror is used to address issues of class, sexuality, race, and mental illness. No longer are things as obvious as they first seem, and, frequently, the evil doesn’t have an understandable reason for being malevolent. But isn’t that realistic? The Purge shows us the evils of bureaucracy and class, American Mary uses student loan debt as its excuse for violence, and Oculus deals with the effects of childhood trauma. Many of these films benefit from the deeper message, but the return of practical terror instead of just gore brought things to the next level. There are hundreds to talk about, but here are just five notable entries in the past six years.
- You’re Next. Home invasion horror films are usually fairly predictable—this one is not. The Davidson family gather at their Missouri vacation home, only to be attacked by masked assailants bent on killing them all. What really pushes this movie is Sharni Vinson’s amazing performance as Erin, a girl who actually does the logical things that audience members usually scream at the screen. Full of tense stand-offs and black humor, this is a film that knows its subgenre well and works with it and against it for a great pay off in the end.
- The Cabin in the Woods. When Joss Whedon co-writes a horror movie script, you know you’re in for a treat. Taking one of the most tired and overused tropes of horror, this take on the five stereotypical people spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods both subverts and pays homage to every film that came before it. There’s so much to the subplot of the story that I can’t reveal anything because the surprise is worth it, and the twists and turns keep coming so fast and hard that no one can predict quite what’s going to happen. This film is a loving satire of what had happened to horror during the decline and resurgence, but its tone in dealing with that is what makes it a true renaissance piece.
- The Conjuring. Bringing ghost stories back to the forefront of horror, this plot is based on the true investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators. Looking into the haunting/possession of the Perron family, the Warrens find themselves up against possibly their worst adversary ever. This is a film that knows what it’s doing at the imagery and sound level even as it throws jump scares and creepy dolls in the audiences’ faces. It features a lot of the old school scares that always tend to work without relying on special effects or blood when it’s not needed. It’s a genuinely terrifying ghost story, and one that deserves a watch this season.
- The Babadook. While not successful in its home country of Australia, this psychological horror gained ground and reputation in America after a well-received run at Sundance. It revolves around the relationship between Amelia and her son, Samuel, after they find a disturbing children’s book that gives Samuel nightmares and drives him into fits. It’s a story that works at many levels as viewers question whether the Babadook is real, whether Samuel is just doing it for attention, or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. There’s a beautiful subtext about depression and expression through art, but it’s not completely necessary for a first viewing. The Babadook is creepy as hell, and seems like it’s straight out of Scary Stories book. Make it a bedtime story and watch it Halloween night.
- The Witch. You don’t get many historical horrors these days—especially not of the Puritan kind—but that’s what makes this film so unique among its peers. The slow-building horror of an isolated, religious family who are cursed by a witch is tense and full of the use of unseen terror. I imagine if a pilgrim was shown this movie they would have a heart attack and die because people these days aren’t as God-and-Devil-fearing as they used to be, and witches cease to be as real as they once were. The setting and historical accuracy are signs of a well-researched film, and they help audiences to become absorbed in the story without thinking too much. It deals with sexuality and religion in interesting, but beautiful ways with an unpredictable ending that surprised me the first time I saw it.
So there you have it: The Classics, The Heyday, The Decline, The Resurgence, and The Renaissance. We’re living in a new age of horror and I’m sure that no one can predict where we’re going to next. There are some exciting projects on the horizon—a new Saw, a remake of IT, The Monster—and I can’t wait to see what’s going to jump out and scare audiences next.