Whoever said that horror shouldn't be taken seriously?
Well, a lot of people, actually. Although some of the most widely recognized artistic geniuses of our time have dabbled or even specialized in horror, from Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, the genre still tends to receive less acclaim, at least when compared to more "respectable" story types like straight drama or period pieces. Nevertheless, as you prepare to celebrate Halloween (the official holiday that falls on October 31, not the informal one that most people celebrated this past weekend), it would be helpful to remember that there are horror films which can make you think as well as shiver. Which brings us to...
While the 1980s remake of this film is also excellent, it's hard to dispute the topical timeliness of the original. Released shortly after the downfall of notorious red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and during the height of the Cold War anti-communist paranoia, this classic movie about the invasion of an alien species which impersonates human beings and gradually destroys our world from within is a remarkably sharp parable about the dangers of mass paranoia. Whether the shrill use of the communist charge as calumny occurs during the Eisenhower era or the Obama one, it remains a potent issue — and as such, Invasion of the Body Snatchers retains its relevance.
Though usually thought of more as an arthouse film than a horror one (I mean, it was directed by Ingmar Bergman), The Seventh Seal has all of the elements one normally associates with horror: It involves a supernatural enemy (the Grim Reaper), visions from another world, and of course, the backdrop of one of the most horrifying events in human history, the Black Death. It is also one of the most philosophically charged motion pictures ever made. Despite being iconic enough to be regularly referenced in pop cultural media, it is at its core a sobering study on the existential implications of our own mortality. This may not be the most thematically appropriate pick for those wishing to revel in the gothic imagery of the Halloween holiday, but if the idea of watching a medieval soldier play chess with death floats your boat, there is only one place to go.
As stories about bullying continue to dominate headlines and the remake of Carrie plays in theaters, it is more fitting than ever to return to this Brian DePalma classic. Sissy Spacek's performance as the titular character is as harrowing to watch today as it was more than 40 years ago, while the visual imagery is arresting enough to sear itself into the memory. In addition to its oft-remembered message about bullying and harassment, Carrie also offers a terrifying look at the seamier side of religious fanaticism, as manifested in the character of Carrie's overbearing mother. Remakes notwithstanding, the original Carrie holds up remarkably well both as cautionary tale and supernatural thriller.
More than a quarter century before it was parodied/celebrated by the cult classic Shaun of the Dead, the original zombie milestone Dawn of the Dead was a biting satire (pun intended) of human nature. Note the zombies mindlessly shambling through the corridors of an abandoned shopping mall, a cheeky visual gag that underscores the dehumanization wrought by our modern consumer culture, and gasp in horror at the brutal lengths taken by warring bands of survivors to dominate society in the post-apocalyptic chaos. While the original Night of the Living Dead kicked off these tropes in the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead perfected them in a way not even popular series like The Walking Dead have been able to match. As Roger Ebert put it, Dawn of the Dead is "brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society. Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste."
While anti-consumerism was only an element of Dawn of the Dead's social message, it was the driving force behind the story of They Live. Indeed, this little-known John Carpenter flick in many ways feels like a fusion of Romero with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It tells the story of a wandering homeless man who accidentally discovers, vis-a-vis a pair of special sunglasses, that the global economy is secretly run by hideous aliens who exploit the human working class (with the help of homo sapien collaborators, of course) by subliminally influencing us into working for them and buying their products. Its box office failure was a sad reflection of what John Carpenter called a trend among moviegoers to not "want to be enlightened."
As much a moving character study as a gripping horror film, Ginger Snaps is the tale of a pair of teenage sisters whose co-dependent relationship and gothic infatuations belie a more layered alienation from the stifling conformity and mean-spirited prejudices of the modern suburban society they inhabit... until one of them gets attacked by a werewolf. Some people just have the worst luck, right? Without spoiling too much, suffice to say that the potentially ludicrous set-up evolves into a surprisingly poignant coming-of-age story about a damaged soul who gradually, forcefully, learns to develop a mind and agency of her own. As much a true feminist horror flick as anything by Joss Whedon, Ginger Snaps is definitely worth a watch.
While Scream is widely regarded as the meta-horror film du jour, Behind the Mask deserves a place right next to its better-known predecessor on the mantle of great deconstructive horror. Ostensibly a faux documentary in which a news team covers the antics of a slasher killer in the Michael Myers/Jason Voorhies/Freddy Krueger mold, Behind the Mask has enormous fun breaking down not only the tropes of the slasher teen genre, but the deeper psychological implications behind the lasting appeal of these types of movies. With a script that reads like something written by Freud himself and enough genuine thrills to keep viewers engrossed, Behind the Mask is a hidden gem.
If ever a horror franchise has had its reputation damaged by the derision of film elitists, it is the Saw films. While most of the Saw installments have their strong points, few are as pointedly political as Saw VI, in which the Jigsaw Killer forces a health insurance company executive to undergo a series of challenges deliberately modeled after the death panels which they construct when making decisions on the lives of their customers. While it would have been enough for Saw VI to simply contain eloquently crisp monologues on the moral and logical flaws of the pre-Obamacare medical system (although it also does this in spades), Saw VI's strength lies in the powerful metaphors provided by the traps themselves. Indeed, Saw VI is a film so good that one half-wishes it had come earlier in the franchise, when perhaps the "torture porn" stigma wouldn't have been so firmly fastened that masterpieces like this could get overlooked.
Hillbilly power! Like Behind the Mask, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is an incisive parody of a horror genre staple, namely the crazy-hillbillies-in-the-woods canon. In this version, however, the real enemy is prejudice — namely, the paranoid assumptions of a gaggle of braindead college yuppies. At turns gruesomely hilarious and sweetly moving, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil tells the story of the aforementioned teens mistaking an act of kindness from local country boys as an act of Deliverance-school malevolence and overreact accordingly. Smart and darkly funny, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is one of the few movies this writer can claim to have enjoyed as much on repeated viewings as he did during the first sit.
Along with being thoughtful horror, ParaNorman is also one of the thematically bravest kids movies ever put out by a mainstream studio. Without spoiling too much of the story, it can be safely said that ParaNorman boldly confronts issues like social prejudice, mass hysteria, parent-child misunderstandings, and bullying in a manner that retains its honesty even as it makes itself appropriate for children. Don't mistake this as a sign that this is a serious film, though: ParaNorman is also packed with some of the funniest one-liners and visual gags of any kids movie in quite a while. While I wouldn't recommend it for the youngest views, children over the age of 10 should be able to appreciate its intelligence while getting caught up in the story.