‘Tis the season for a scare and scream for those who love watching scary movies as a bit of Halloween fun. Here is a short analysis of horror films with a list of five (fairly recent) films that offer something fresh and invigorating to the horror genre. In horror films, there is a general formula that can be found within plots which use gender roles, stereotypes and monsters that represent society’s fears to connect with audiences. The monster can often represent the fear of the “other,” which are usually minorities, immigrants or foreigners that may be viewed as a threat to a society (a fear that is false and does more harm than good for everyone involved).
An Example of the General Formula:
A monster (symbol for the “other” or fears of a society) hunts down female victims (usually white) whose actions (often involving sex, lust and desire) go against what is expected of them (as a virgin, mother or wife). The female victim is often saved by a male figure (again usually white) that represents what is considered “good” within a society. The monster is killed (sometimes survives unknowingly to its victims) and society is restored back to normality for the time being. Classic examples of this General Formula can include: “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), “Dracula” (1931), “Frankenstein” (1931), “King Kong” (1933), “The Wolfman” (1941), “The Cat People” (1942) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954).
A monster can also represent conflicts found within a society’s actions and beliefs. For instance, the fear of science countering religious beliefs can be found in “Frankenstein” (1931). The fear of nuclear or chemical warfare is evident in “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and a fear of outer space and aliens is seen in movies such as “The Blob” (1958) and “The Thing” (1982). Most of these fears did not appear with the invention of the cinema and movie-making but have been around for a while, usually as the subject of novels starting in the late 1700’s.
The general formula for horror films has created a long-standing foundation that can be seen in films today. Because of this, there is something more terrifying happening beneath the surface of these films, making them a highly volatile medium in popular culture. Horror films are a tool used for social critique and issues in the social and cultural spheres, but regardless of their cultural importance the horror film is often shrugged off or dismissed since they are a form of entertainment usually directed towards the young.
With some basic knowledge of the general formula in horror films—as well as the role they play in society—here are five selected films that may be considered “going against the grain”. These films give a new twist on something all too familiar to the general formula audiences see today. Information about these movies is given, including a rudimentary synopsis and key points in relation to this discussion while trying not to give away any spoilers.
Disclaimer: All of these movies are Rated-R for a variety of content that may be considered disturbing (including but not limited to) blood, gore, explicit language and nudity. These films can be watched for a small price on Amazon Video.
“The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)
Running Time: 1hr 35 minutes
Available on Amazon Video for $2.99
The Horror Film about Horror Films
Breaking stereotypes of characters, monsters and plots in the horror genre, “The Cabin in the Woods” is a fundamental movie that should be watched by any horror film fan. It breaks down the general formula, including the female (white) victim, while introducing a twist on the concept of what the monster is, giving the role a larger influence and reflection on society. The victims are a selection of friends in college, who play out their own stereotypical roles: the jock, the slut, the stoner, the virgin and the “token” black guy* who also serves as the bookworm. This film is injected with “self-conscious” characters that comment on the actions of people in their situation which adds humor and critique to the horror genre, all while the monster’s role is uncovered and presented to audiences as an unavoidable force.
*The “token” character is seen as an effort to be inclusive of minorities in films. This action usually fails since the character is quickly “killed off” or supports an underlying fear of the “other” reflected in the Monster.
Trigger Warnings: Gore
“American Mary” (2012)
Running Time: 1hr 43mins
Available on Amazon Video for $3.99
Beauty and the Female
This film questions image, beauty, gender and education. In this dark and bloody story, a female medical student strapped for cash begins performing under-the-table surgical procedures for a select group of individuals that express themselves through body modifications. This film raises awareness of the role of females within society by making the main character—an independent woman with a career—interact with women who are regarded as purely sexual bodies obsessed with beauty and image. This is a film that comments on social and cultural issues in regards to women’s rights and feminist movements while blurring the lines between body, gender and socially accepted roles. Arguably, the end of this film can be considered a fall back to the general formula, but the story as a whole and the role of the characters provide audiences with a more reflective view of societal norms.
Trigger Warning: Rape, Abuse, Violence.
“Evil Dead” (2013)
Running Time: 1 hr 31 mins
Available on Amazon Video for $2.99
A Remake Featuring Fears of Evil and Rehab
This film is a remake of the original “Evil Dead” first released in 1981. This version of “Evil Dead” presents a female junkie trying to kick her addiction with the help of her friends; demonic possession and evil ensue. It raises questions on issues regarding drug abuse, relationships and the role of the female victim. True evil is presented as a force that preys on and victimizes females because they are more likely to succumb to evils such as substance abuse. The role of the female in this plot is crucial—from the beginning audiences are reminded of the witch burnings that ended about 300 years ago setting up a discussion for the rest of the film: are they evil women? Or is it just pure evil (in the form of drugs) at work here? In the end, there is a twist that spins roles, gender and trademark elements from the original “Evil Dead” on its head and gives it a fresh and extra-bloody approach.
Trigger Warning: Gore, Blood, Dismemberment
“When Animals Dream” (2014)
Running Time: 1hr 24 mins
Available on Amazon Video $2.99
The Fear of ‘Hereditary’ Mental Illness
A Danish film that explores the boundaries of mental illness as the monster. Mental illness to this day is not fully discussed and not given the appropriate attention it needs in terms of education, help and information for family members. Issues that arise out of having a friend or family member suffer from mental illness can lead to various responses from those affected and the community in which they live. This film addresses these issues as well as the psychosis of the main character, a sixteen-year-old girl that struggles with her mother’s illness while odd events begin to occur in her community. This film can also bring to mind the past diagnosis of females for illnesses such as “hysteria” or “housewife syndrome,” illnesses that attempted to manipulate the female and her actions within society.
Trigger Warnings: Blood, Gore, Violence
“Get Out” (2017)
Running Time: 1hr 44 mins
Available on Amazon Video for $4.99
A Terrifying Reflection on Racism and Identity that gets Under-the-Skin
Race, body, politics and culture—all wrapped up into one. A young African American man goes to meet his girlfriend’s rich white family; what happens next is a quick descent into disturbing reflections and commentary of race in America. This film critiques racism within America’s history and present day while acknowledging elements of the horror genre including creating a space for the “token” black character. The film also provides a few laughs here and there that lift the mood when characters become self-aware of how others act in their situation (within scary movies). This is a unique film because the characters discuss and show audiences the ways in which race is addressed in basic social interactions. Some moments seem so real and true to everyday life, audiences are forced to reflect on the horrors found in our own reality up close and personal. In the end, after a handful of mysterious and strange encounters with his girlfriend’s family, the young man quickly realizes that more is at stake than just his relationship status.
Trigger Warnings: Disturbing Images, Violence, Scenes of Peril
This is only a small selection of films that put the general formula to the test while raising pertinent questions about social and cultural issues, such as civil rights and equality for all within today’s society. But there is still plenty of room for horror films to expand and grow in these terms. There are many who cannot identify with characters in horror films, and if they do most of the time the characters are played in stereotypical ways that are offensive. It would be ideal for the future of horror films to take on more modern and serious thought towards representing more minorities within our society in a positive way, instead of simply defaulting to the general formula. This would allow audiences to acknowledge that when it comes to running for your life and defeating monsters, everyone is trying to survive. All-in-all, horror films are for fun times as well as serious thought. Horror films bring audiences in for entertainment but leave them with questions for the real scary stories that we live with every day. The struggle for social justice, civil rights and equality in our society is an attribute of horror films that adds more to our popular culture than just regular entertainment for the masses.