For the longest time, I was a steadfast advocate for horror movies of the 70s-90s. This was arguably the golden age of horror, and even though I always found movies throughout the 2000s to enjoy… very few made my “of all time” list, with Ginger Snaps (2000) being one of my only exceptions. My biggest complaint was that, although the earlier horror films were often problematic (ie violence and sexuality), many of them at least offered a lot of food for thought.
Consider this – horror is an entire genre based around the idea of facing what scares us, as a society. Therefore, throwing on a horror film (especially an iconic one) is a really quick and easy way to “check in” with society, and where our brains are at the moment.
To name a few:
- The Stepford Wives (1971) – a horror thriller about how the women’s lib movement might alter (or threaten) the dynamic of domestic sphere
- Carrie (1976) – a supernatural horror about the trauma of sexual repression and religious oppression
- Dawn of the Dead (1978) – a zombie flick about the dark side of mass consumption and capitalism in an increasingly materialistic society
- Halloween I and II (1978 and 1981) – a slasher franchise about the paradox of violence in the suburbs
- The People Under the Stairs (1991) – a horror largely about gentrification
- Original Scream trilogy (1996-2000) – a slasher franchise about the tropes of horror cinema and how they impact society
But then the 2000s hit, and things came to boring, derivative lull. In the absence of having something to say, horror filmmakers turned their attention to having something to show – excessive violence and torture porn in worlds populated by dumb, predictable teens (much like some of the not-so-stellar movies of the 80s, actually).
But recently, that has changed. We are living in strange times, times when anything seems possible, and not always for the best. And, this isn’t the first time society has been in the midst of drastically changing attitudes and ideological divides that seem too wide to be real. Arguably, it seems we might now be most closely mirroring the social atmosphere of the 70s, when those great horror films first found voice.
Today, technology is outpacing us, and some find that incredibly nerve-racking (hence all the YA dystopia, but that’s for a slightly different conversation). Social consciousness seems to exist in two extremes, those who want progress, and those who long for a “better” time (better for who, not sure exactly). And in the midst of all this, horror filmmakers have found their voices again.
So, if you’re looking for a social check-in, or are just plain curious about what a Horror Renaissance may have to offer, I highly recommend some of our recently critically acclaimed films of the genre. Here are five films to get you started (spoiler-free).
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
This film is brought to us by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who have worked together previously on the Buffy TV show and comics). As you might expect, it’s unexpected – it’s witty, it’s meta, and it’s directly talking to us. It satisfies that hankering for satire at the perfect time, just as the original Scream did. Like Scream, it calls out the tropes, it points out our expectations, and it plays with them. But, unlike Scream, it also refuses to work within the framework it’s commenting on. It’s refreshing, and surprising, and funny. All this while laying out some very interesting commentary on spectatorship and horror fandom.
It Follows (2014)
This film leaves you with a lot to think about. Against an extremely creepy backdrop, this film offers a discussion that at once reveals the dangers of sex and the necessity of sex. Why we fear it. Why we yearn for it. What it can take from us. What it can give to us. Sex, in this film, is both death and life, which can be an uncomfortable thing to think about. But, this film asks us to in a way that is honest and revealing.
The Witch (2016)
This is a deep-dark-dive into the fear and hysteria that ravaged the “New World” at a time when being accused of being a witch could cost you your life. What makes the film so relevant today is its connection to the idea that being a woman makes you vulnerable and robs you of your voice… and yet it refuses to accept that, showing how dangerous a concept that really is, for everyone! In a world where women have gained so much progress but need so much more, this film points to the ideas that we are currently pushing to finally dismantle, once and for all. The film also explores themes such as religious persecution, sexual awakening, human nature and the likes.
Get Out (2017)
This is a bone-chilling, socially-aware horror film that is, without a doubt, unlike any we’ve seen before (though, it does draw a lot on films like The Stepford Wives). What makes this one so unique is how filmmaker Jordan Peele earnestly and unapologetically discusses race relations in America (and other places) today. And, it’s not just a film “for black people.” For non-white people, it’s an extraordinary feat in representing what we face in our everyday lives: a continuum of racism, that ranges from outward hate to (more common, in my experience) micro-aggressions that perpetuators probably aren’t even cognizant of. Which brings me to my next point, what’s in the film for white people? A chance to become cognizant. To feel that Othering and experience it, second-hand. In short, to learn something.
A Quiet Place (2018)
This horror film builds off of the sub-genres of sci-fi and dystopia, to create a world that highlights the resilience of human beings. Take away everything we so readily rely on today – civilization, electricity, media and (perhaps most significant here) constant noise – and what are you left with? Silence, love and the will to survive. The film also does a great job at highlighting the importance of understanding how to communicate. How to really communicate. In a world where speaking aloud will get you killed, and devices require the long extinct electricity, this family finds that they are privileged just to know sign language, a happy consequence of having a deaf child. In a world where it feels like we are always talking, and never hearing each other, this film feels extremely relevant.
While I won’t go as far as to say the new Halloween movie (starring Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode), is representative of the Horror Renaissance, it deserves at least a nod. The film deals with the aftermath of a horror trope it helped put on the map: the Final Girl. The original Halloween was one of the first modern slashers (though more tame, scary and thoughtful than most that followed), making it one of the first to feature the archetype of the Final Girl. Laurie, like all final girls of the time period, was virginal and innocent and smart. She survived Michael’s wrath largely due to her ability to see and to react and to fight. But surviving is only the first step, dealing with what she’s seen is the next. The new film handles this in a way that feels authentic, and gives Laurie an opportunity to face that ghost (or, boogeyman), and take her power back. And isn’t that what so many women are fighting for today? A chance to take our power back.