A Horror Film, Or Not A Horror Film – That Is The Question
As Tim Dirks has put it, horror films are there to awaken the viewers’ underlying and deepest primal fears while at the same time entertaining and fascinating the viewers. As a result, they often give the viewers a cathartic experience.
When it comes to the horror genre in the eyes of an average mainstream audience, jump scare is arguably the hallmark of a typical horror film, making it almost synonymous to the entire horror film genre. So, it comes to no surprise that nowadays, many people seem to have a narrower criteria of what’s considered horrifying in a movie. As YouTube film critic, Chris Stuckmann has aptly put it, modern film viewers have forgotten what true horror is due to how people nowadays withhold this perception that fear can merely be triggered by obvious tangible effect.
I’m sure by now you might figure out, I am writing this article to suggest a few recommendations of some of the good unconventional horror films. I also wish to help those viewers who have a lack of knowledge about horror films in general but are willing to explore more of this genre. Hopefully, this will make the transition easier and help to get those of you out there started.
Good Horror Films: When Horror Meets Depth
1. Hereditary (2018)
Hereditary (2018) is a supernatural film that incorporates cultism, which explores the familial dynamics prompted by the emotional and psychological effects of loss and grief in a family. What I really find interesting is the film’s intelligent uses of unconventional jump scares. When it does employ a jump scare, it’s done in a creative way through the incorporation of a mouth clicking sound, which is not as appealing as the typical jump scare effects for its lack of loud sound. However, the film surely does not fail to arouse the anxiety of the audiences to long for the next moment despite of such a subtle use of jump scares. Its mysterious ambience is built by the longer take of static medium close-up shots of the actors. It acts as a cinematic device to conceal what the characters are looking and reacting to, heightening the suspense and tension.
2. A Quiet Place (2018)
Fitting to its name, A Quiet Place (2018) is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror film that follows a family trying to survive in an almost -silent post-apocalyptic world, which is invaded by blind aliens with a pin-drop-needle-sharp sense of hearing. Besides having a highly acute sense of hearing, these monstrous creatures are highly agile by having impenetrable armour as their skin. In presenting the monstrous abilities of the aliens early in the film, the film shows that the stakes are absolutely high. Every sound that is made, at the minimum, can create chaos, and, at the maximum, can be deadly. I personally find the use of silence as a tool to incite true horror in a horror film is a brilliant take on the genre.
3. Annihilation (2018)
Annihilation (2018) is a sci-fi horror film revolves around a military group of all-female scientists who enter a mysterious quarantined area filled with mutating creatures and terrain called “The Shimmer”. As the viewers follow the story, the Shimmer is revealed to have first begun from an extra-terrestrial meteor crash. “The Shimmer” appears in this iridescent electromagnetic field that looks like a layer of oil-slick-coloured slime called Area X. This group is then on a mission to reach the lighthouse where the crash originated.
Aligning with the sci-fi tradition, the film explores the philosophical aspects of life and humanity, in particular, the self-destructive inclinations (as the film’s title may suggest) and the inevitability of change that challenges the notion of free will. This plays into our primal fear of the unknown, which is why I think the film is so effective in expressing these themes through this genre, as horror is initiated by our lack of sense of control of the unexpected event. Similar to his previous work, Ex Machina (2014), Annihilation (2018)’s director, Alex Garland intentionally films in a slow-burning way in which he builds suspense and tension, often resulting in this rather pensive sci-fi horror piece.
4. Get Out (2017)
Get Out (2017) is a thriller-psychological horror film about a young black man, Chris Washington who visits Rose Armitage, his white girlfriend’s family home. The interesting aspect of this film is the fact that the director, Jordan Peele decided to provide a social commentary about the implicit racism (especially in the Trump’s era America) in a horror genre film. In order to deliver such theme, it portrays the discomfort and awkwardness that a black person might feel in the presence of a predominantly white crowd, which is shown by how the white people in the film casually point out Chris’s blackness and the stereotypical traits associated with being ethnically black.
5. The Witch (2015)
The Witch (2015) is a period supernatural horror film surrounding a Separatist family set in 1630s New England. As the title may suggest, the film hints of an antagonistic force represented by witchcraft and Satanism. The film examines the horrific psychological effects of religious paranoia and isolation that comes from the expulsion of one’s religious community. Due to its heavy religious themes, the horror elements about witches and Satan are very much the allusions to sin, which is in relation to Christianity.
6. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook (2014) is a supernatural horror film about a woman named Amelia who is having a hard time coping with the difficulties of single parenthood and the loss of her husband. One of its central themes is the inability of Amelia to actually move on and heal from her grief due to her emotional suppression. This is shown in her inability to even verbalise her internal sufferings and her husband’s death. Cleverly portrayed, the story’s monstrous entity, the Babadook is a metaphor of Amelia’s self-denial, showing the horror of emotional suppression.
I find the message at the end of the movie is very powerful: In order to have emotional control and freedom, one must be able to face one’s emotion with acceptance while knowing that it’s something that one must manage for a long time. Rather than painting the image of dread and suffering due to the presence of grief and depression, the film paints a very empowering message about the power of nurturing love and acceptance of even the ugly part of self.
My Final Thoughts
While I know the films that I have just recommended are not everyone’s cup of tea, as mainstream audiences often confirm the dichotomy between film critics and mainstream film goers. I’m of the belief that it is necessary for any artform or genre to break conventions. While for the horror genre films, they would have to push the boundary of what can be seen as scary. In doing so, something fresh could be brought to the film realm, thus, celebrating creativity that makes the industry alive.
For those who are willing to be challenged as audience members to perceive how the horror conventions can be used in more intelligent ways, I hope you would find the list useful. Even if you’ve watched all these films, I personally think that these films have a great “rewatchability” quality to them, with plenty of layered symbols hidden upon them that would allow you to decode them on your second time of watching.
Happy bingeing and you’re most welcome.
Written by Pamela Ting Li Wang