I’d be willing to argue that almost all good horror movies are metaphors (with the added caveat that not all horror movies are good). While I realize that some folks may not be fans of the genre, I wish it were given a little more respect. Although there are plenty of goofy and campy monster movies, there are also quite a few that deal with more serious issues. As with other fringe genres, horror movies have the freedom to deal with weighty social matters—race, gender, and social inequality—through metaphor.
The recent documentary The American Nightmare makes this argument by mostly focusing on the horror movie renaissance during the 1960s and 70s, its main thesis being that during this time of great social unrest, many issues were being worked out through horror movies. Pittsburgh’s own George Romero is featured in the film, and admits that Night of the Living Dead was partially inspired by the violence he witnessed during the civil rights movement; and famed make-up artist Tom Savini found working on special effects to be a cathartic experience after the horrors he witnessed in the Vietnam War.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to take all the fun out of the horror genre (I can appreciate a good, campy horror movie with the best of them), I’m just trying to make the case that there’s a lot more to this most lowly of genres than gory effects and spooky noises. Here are my picks for a few intelligent and original contemporary horror movies:
Monsters was shot on a meager budget with non-famous actors, but is a solid monster/alien movie. After aliens land in Mexico, the central part of the country is quarantined. An American tourist trapped south of the quarantine line attempts to travel through the “infected zone” with the help of a local journalist. What starts as disaster-monster-road movie morphs into a love story about the horrors of xenophobia.
This movie does something kind of impressive—it makes you feel sympathy for the Mexican cannibal family at the center of the film. After all, they don’t want to eat people—it’s just what they’ve always done. We Are What We Are starts with the passing of the father of said cannibal family, and then examines the dysfunctional dynamics of the clan as they try to “provide for the family” after the death of a parent. [Side note: this movie was just remade in the United States, and has been getting mostly glowing reviews.]
Ghosts are spooky, but do you know what’s even more terrifying? Grief. After moving to a creepy old house in Seattle, George C. Scott is trying to get over the death of his wife and daughter—but a malevolent ghost won’t leave him alone. The Changeling is neither gory nor violent, but earns its ‘R’ rating by being just plain scary. Technically, it’s not a contemporary horror film, but it only recently became available on DVD. If you like haunted house movies, this one’s for you.
This horror-comedy definitely subverted all my expectations. We all know the set-up: college kids on vacation at a lake encounter scary looking backwoods boys. Except in Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil the heroes are the two hillbillies, who are a couple of nice guys just out to enjoy a quiet vacation in the woods. The misunderstanding between the college kids & the two lovable rubes reaches a comic, and grisly, conclusion. Warning: this movie does contain a good deal of gore, but is also smart and very funny.
Who knew that Michael Cera could play such a creeper? Picture being trapped and isolated in a foreign country with one of the most obnoxious travel companions you can imagine. That pretty much sums up Magic Magic, in which the protagonist slowly starts to unravel after not being able to sleep and not understanding the local language or customs in rural Chile. This is an unsettling movie, and not recommended for anyone who has ever dealt with the horrors of insomnia.
What scary movies are you watching this Halloween season?