Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hot Take: Horror Has Always Been Political

Something I've noticed in recent years, in light of the release of the increasing number of horror films with an overt political or social message (something that, IMO, can pinpointed to Get Out's success as a "social thriller", something I touched upon to with last week's Performance Piece post) there has been an increasing amount of backlash. People have been coming from all ends to claim that the horror genre has never been about politics and that recent works like Jordan Peele's works, Sophia Takal's Black Christmas remake and Hulu's Into The Dark series are just "ViRtUaL sIgNaLiNg" and "PaNdErInG". So, I'm going to make my opinion clear: I don't think that a horror movie (or any movie) needs social commentary to be great; I can get into a good meaningless romp. However, I am of the mind that there have always been works, including works within the horror genre, that have a message of some sorts to them. And that's why I've put together a list of films within the genre dating from all the way back to the 1930's to the present that I believe carry a message of some sort. Hit the jump, and we'll get started!

Freaks (1932)

When Freaks was originally released in 1932, the film was infamous for terrifying audiences due to the fact that director Tod Browning stacked the vast majority of the cast with visibly disabled performers to play the characters. Although the decision was made partly for the sake of authenticity and partly to further hammer home the point Browning was trying to make, that the disabled characters were good people and the able-bodied characters were the real freaks, audiences were horrified by this decision. To the point that the studio cut out a third of the film's runtime, including its original ending. It also more or less killed Browning's career as a director, with Browning making only two more films afterwards before retiring completely at the end of the 1930's. Nowadays, however, the film would actually be more accepted due to the conversations around authentic representation for minority groups. With the demand for trans actors to play trans roles, queer actors to play queer roles, people of color to play characters of color, Browning was completely ahead of the curb in casting an entire roster of disabled actors to play disabled roles. While in 1932, he had his career ruined over the choice, in 2020 he would be seen in a considerably more favorable light.

Rope (1948)

Admittedly, this one is somewhat of a stretch, but hear me out: While the 1940's did not have much of in the way of overt political horror, one film can be argued to be an exception: Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. While the film is about the real time efforts of two killers (played by Fairley Granger and John Dall) to conceal a murder on their part from dinner party guests they have invited over, Rope falls into political territory due to the fact that this is one of the earliest examples of queer representation in horror films. In the original 1929 stage play, also titled Rope, the relationship between the killers was explicitly queer and when adapting the film in 1948, it is as close as queer representation could go in terms of mainstream cinema with the Hays Code still in full swing. It also falls into similar lines as Freaks's authentic representation, with Granger and Dall being queer actors playing queer characters and the film's screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, also being openly queer. Without Rope helping to start paving the wave, we may not have as much queer representation in horror as we do today.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

There are four versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the original stands out the most: In addition to being, in my opinion, the best version, it's also arguably the most political out of the quartet of movies. While every version of Body Snatchers is some type of exploration on the dangers of blind conformity, the original version is known for its McCarthyism-steeped connotations and indictments of Communism. The plot revolves around the attempts of protagonists Miles (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky (Dana Wynter) as they attempt to stop the gradual takeover of their California community, and subsequently the world, by alien pods that create exact duplicates of people minus anything resembling human emotion. Film critics and scholars have discussed for decades how the emotionless aliens are symbolic of the American perception of Communists, especially as the film was released during the "Red Scare" era were accusations of communism were commonplace. The ending, where Miles is assured by the authorities that the pods will be stopped, completes the film's purpose as propaganda, as it gives the lead character (and the audience) assurance that the American government can put an end to the aliens (RE: communists) and that American values will be maintained over this attempt at a shift from an out group.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was an enormous success and remains an influence to succeeding generations of horror films to this day. In addition to essentially being the definitive zombie film that laid the groundwork for so much more zombie media to come, the film has also received a lot of notice for its casting of African-American actor Duane Jones as the film's lead protagonist Ben. While Romero constantly denied that Jones's ethnicity had anything to do with why he was chosen for the role, it is undeniable that the casting of a black man in the role of the hero gives the film additional depth. Ben is the sole black (and sole non-white) character in the entire film, and he is shown to be much more rational, level-headed and likable than the white characters around him. To the point where he makes it to end of the film...almost. In a very cruel twist ending, Ben manages to survive the zombie chaos only to be shot to death by a group of white people surveying the damage the zombies caused. While there are other layers to be analyzed, one of the undeniable messages, even if the filmmaker himself tries to do just that, to take away from Night is for us to uplift and support black lives instead of truncating them.

Black Christmas (1974)

Before Halloween, Friday The 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, there was Black Christmas: A slasher film courtesy of Canada that revolves around an enigmatic killer, only known as Billy, stalking and murdering the women living in a sorority house during Christmastime. Black Christmas has endured in horror history partially because of its status as one of the earliest slasher films, succeeded only by a few including Peeping Tom and Psycho. However, another component of its legacy is the subplot that revolves around final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) learning she's pregnant with her boyfriend Peter's (Keir Dullea) baby and deciding to have an abortion. The film not only never shames Jess for wanting an abortion, but fully supports her decision as the narrative shows Peter demanding she not get an abortion in a negative light and her choice in an extremely positive one. Black Christmas's pro-choice stance can be summarized with Jess's dialogue in response to Peter's demands: "Do you remember when we first met? You told me about your wanting to be a concert pianist, how it was your greatest dream. And I told you about some of the things that I wanted to do...I still want to do those things. You can't ask me to drop everything I've been working for and all my ambitions, because your plans have changed. Be realistic."

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust is an extraordinarily infamous film: Not only is the film known for including several unsimulated murders of animals, but also for the film's director Ruggero Deodato's arrest after the release of the film in its native Italy. Deodato was accused by the Italian government of actually murdering several of the film's cast members, whom he had to produce in court to prove his innocence. What sadly gets lost about Cannibal Holocaust underneath these controversies is its commentary on the media's exploitation of foreign cultures and its addiction to sensationalism. The film follows professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) as he obtains footage of the attempts of an American film crew to film a documentary about an indigenous tribe named the Yacumo. The professor and television network producers watch the footage that shows the crew, unsatisfied with the footage they have obtained, resorting to staging more and more escalating situations to get the dramatic and exciting footage they desire. This includes physical abuse of the natives, a massacre by fire and a gang rape of one of the native women. By the end of the film, you will be asking yourself the same question as the protagonist, "I wonder who the real cannibals are?"

Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games, an Austrian film made by famous foreign filmmaker Michael Haneke, can be seen as a continuation of what Ruggero Deodato tried to convey with Cannibal Holocaust. Except with better reception, thanks to Funny Games not being overshadowed by controversy, as well as as the considerable prestige brought to the plate by the aforementioned director/writer. Haneke crafts Funny Games with the intent of using the film as a commentary on the desensitization of film audiences to violent content in media. Like Cannibal Holocaust, Funny Games revolves around a series of escalating acts of violence committed towards one group by another. In this film's case, the aggressors are friends Peter and Paul (Frank Giering and Arno Frisch) and the victims are the family of three, Anna, Georg and Georgie (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe and Stefan Clapczynski). Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, the film is embedded with pure nihilism on Haneke's part, with the increasing content lacking the overt criticism Cannibal Holocaust had. Instead, his intent is for everything to have no meaning or reason; It's a test for how much the film's audience can endure, as well as an indictment for how much the film's audience wants to endure. Haneke isn't bothering with having his characters ask "What are the real funny games?", he basically just wants his audience to know if they're seeking this content out and enjoying it, there might be something (or a lot of things) that needs to be addressed...

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Darren Lynn Bousman's Repo! The Genetic Opera was written off by many upon its release. Some dismissed it for the casting of Paris Hilton as one of the main characters, and some avoided it for being a rock opera with a screenplay is almost entirely sung instead of spoken. This is despite the fact that the film has the word "opera" in its title. Well, what those people missed was the fact that the movie has a lot to say about the state of corporations, the health care industry, the media and society's potential future. In the future Repo! Presents, an epidemic of organ failures caused by mass media consumption creates a demand for organ transplants. Businessman Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) founds GeneCo, a corporation dedicated to giving affordable "designer" organs to customers. Despite the reality that these designer organs are pricey and are open to be repossessed by GeneCo's "repo men" (RE: Hitmen who butcher GeneCo's customers to reclaim the organs in default), the masses ignore it as GeneCo's grip extends to the media. The media has not only made out GeneCo organs to be the next level of fashion, but they shine a regular spotlight on GeneCo-appointed celebrities including Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) and Rotti's children Luigi (Bill Moseley), Pavi (Nivek Ogre) and Amber (Paris Hilton). Combine the anti-health care corporatism critique with satirical approaches of the media and fashion and beauty industries, and you've got yourself quite a political rock opera.

Scream 4 (2011)

Remember when, in my last New Flesh post, I talked about The People Under The Stairs and how one of Wes Craven's directorial trademarks was making films with some type of message to them? Scream 4, the director's final film, is the caper on that tradition, providing some real ahead of its time commentary with its main killer's motive. The killer in Scream 4 goes into depth during the franchise's trademark villain reveal monologue about how they want to become famous through any means necessary, which includes staging themselves as a victim in the killings and using their new victimhood to gain fame quickly. They even shout the iconic line, "I don't need friends, I need fans!" A line that is the exact embodiment of what Craven is trying to convey with this film: With the rise of the internet, social media and viral stardom in the twenty first century, we've reached a whole new technological stage of what was being conveyed Cannibal Holocaust and Funny Games. We're at a point where anybody can use this technology to manipulate things to their advantage in their quest for stardom, and where viral fame addiction is at a critical point. Which makes it all the more poignant that Sidney (Neve Campbell) is a character who refuses to use her victimhood for a quick ticket to fame and refuses to let the killer get away with their plot. It's a decision that not only remains consistent throughout all four Scream films, but also hammers home the commentary Craven presents in his final entry.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Jumping to the present year, we have Leigh Whannell's remake of The Invisible Man. The film updates the original Universal monster movie for a new era partly by adding an entirely new message to it. The remake follows Cecilia (The iconic Elisabeth Moss), a woman whom attempts to flee from her abusive partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Despite managing to escape their home and hiding out at the home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), Adrian, now invisible, proceeds to stalk and attempt to gaslight Cecilia to the point of involuntary commitment. Whannell, who both directed and wrote the film, and Moss, who stars and was also given the ability to contribute to the screenplay and creative output of the film, collaborate to modernize the film into an exploration of the effects of abusive relationships and the trauma that lingers thereafter. It takes a very explicit stance against abusive partners, never once romanticizing Adrian and the horrors he inflicts upon Cecilia and those close to her. Whannell and Moss also make Cecilia a smarter protagonist than you might expect, allowing her predicament to be not about what is happening to her, but rather how does she prove her abusive ex is trying to terrorize her into submission.

No comments: