Disclaimer: I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t even really watch scary movies if I can help it. Every once in a while, I get coerced into watching something I’d rather not by a group of friends, and I sit there and take it usually by clutching a pillow and talking way too much.
But I do know that there have been several films in the last five years which have revitalized the genre of horror, and had such an impact on the film world that even I, the person who is afraid of everything, managed to sit through a select few of them.
For years, audiences have flocked to theaters to watch gory, usually low-brow films with demons, ghosts, or your everyday psychopathic killer with a chainsaw terrorizing some middle-of-nowhere town. That used to be enough to constitute as a horror movie, or at least one that would attract fans of the genre.
But today’s audiences are less and less entertained by traditional “slasher films.” They’ve become predictable and formulaic: a creepy, possessed, cannibalistic creature in a basement is just not exciting anymore. And while the film industry seems to have no problem recycling old material and continuing franchises until they become stale, the horror genre has had to step up its game.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways of refreshing the slasher movie, and murder will always be entertaining, but Jason, Chucky, and Freddie Krueger need to keep up with their audience – which has gotten a lot smarter.
So how do you scare the horror fans (and the broader moviegoing audience) of today? Two words: social commentary. That may not sound exciting, but just think about a recent thriller film that have received both mass critical acclaim and audience appreciation: “Get Out,” released in 2017, changed the game. Centered around a young Black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents, “Get Out” explores the issue of racism in contemporary American society. It’s a slow burn, with some subtle tension between the boyfriend and the parents early on, and a general feeling of unease that you can’t place until later when the tension comes to a head. Director Jordan Peele, previously known for his work as a comedian, delivered a thoughtful and provocative film that is equal parts suspenseful and funny. It was so shocking and compelling it stuck with audiences long after they had left the theater, launching a conversation about the less blatant forms of racism we still see today.
Another comedy-thriller from 2019 that blew audiences and critics away was Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” Ever the master of social critique, Bong Joon Ho makes you comfortable just before jolting you into a dark and twisted reality, scaring you and impressing you at the same time. The film is a comment on class division, much like his 2013 precursor “Snowpiercer.” It is a tale of two families: The Park family, living in wealth and luxury, and the Kim family, who fold pizza boxes just to scrape by. When the Park family needs a tutor for their daughter, the college-aged son of the Kim family, Ki-woo, steps in, securing the job, and performing a bit of intel on the Park family in the process. He discovers the Parks are also in desperate need of an art therapist, and decides to enlist his sister, pretending that she is a family friend of his. The siblings then devise a plan to trick the Parks into hiring their whole family, and the chaos ensues. What starts out as an ingenious idea and an exciting premise suddenly changes course and becomes a nightmare – not in a slasher film, zombies-are-attacking kind of way – more like a brilliant and psychologically stimulating kind of way. “Parasite” was original, cunning, and masterfully directed, earning Bong Joon Ho a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
Also in 2019, Ari Aster brought us “Midsommar,” which at first glance may not appear to be a social comment, but as Salon film critic Matthew Rozsa, puts it, “Midsommar isn’t just a great movie…it is also one of the best movies ever made about living with mental illness.” The protagonist, Dani, is on medication for anxiety that is so severe that her boyfriend Christian is emotionally exhausted from being with her, and would dump her but for the horrific personal tragedy of Dani’s sister and parents dying in a murder-suicide. Dani’s ensuing mental breakdown and Christian’s exasperation sets the tone for the entire film, with the couple joining Christian’s friends for a midsummer festival in idyllic Sweden that quickly turns ugly. Rozsa argues that most of the characters “must try to survive” the evil rituals of the cult they encounter, while Dani must not succumb to the cult’s “false promise of family and comfort.” While not as blatantly obvious as “Get Out,” “Midsommar” forces audiences to think about Dani’s struggles and Christian’s response to them, a comment on how we deal with mental health in a day and age where we’re more open to talking about it than ever, but not yet adept at handling the problem.
This kind of social commentary is what seems to attract today’s audiences, who are much harder to impress, and to scare. Why is that? The age of social media has brought with it a revolution of knowledge, more social awareness than ever, and shorter attention spans – none of which bode well for a conventional horror film, which have become worn out with time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences know more SAT words than previous generations, but they do know more about what’s going on in the world, and therefore our entertainment needs to reflect that.
This is an important shift for the industry – a good shift, even – creating a space for independents to assert themselves and bring new and different ideas to the Hollywood table. We’re also asking for our filmmakers to use their platform as grounds for social change, and why shouldn’t we? Film is ultimately a medium with which to send a message to a wide audience about the state of society, which has seen some dramatic pitfalls in the last decade. Gun violence, racism, and class warfare – these are the issues plaguing us today, and it is essential that filmmakers address them, because it is those powerful, frightening films that can move people to wake up, get inspired, and make real change.