Not much love for horror movies.
Let’s face it – as far as cinematic genres go, horror movies tend not to get much critical acclaim as art.
There are, to be fair, some good reasons for artistic dismissal. A hefty percentage of horror flicks are fairly sloppily made excuses to satisfy a viewer’s bloodlust and desire to objectify women. Particularly today, when the ‘torture porn’ genre seems to rule the roost, folks can be forgiven for not thinking there’s much creative or artistic value in the genre.
Yet horror films need not subsist on graphic torture and sexual objectification. The art of horror is the art of exploring the unknown; the side of life that we run from; the shadows around us, and inside us.
What richer source of creative artistry could one ask for?
So today, we look at 8 horror movies that step up the creativity, and defy the unfortunately low artistic expectations surrounding the genre. We’ve chosen some less-than-common ones, so hopefully you can discover some new gems you haven’t yet seen!
#8 – Let the Right One In (2008)
Let the Right One In came out of Sweden in 2008, in the heart of the contemporary vampire craze – yet this is a vampire film like no other. We follow 12-year-old Oskar, a bullied and isolated boy growing up in a snowy suburb of Stockholm, as he befriends the ‘young’ vampire next door.
The story, based on a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, includes common vampire tropes, yet with a fresh adolescent-tinged spin. Victimhood and villainy are conflated with realistic perspective – it’s never easy to pinpoint one or the other through the movie. And after all, aren’t we all somehow both victims and villains in middle school? Vampiric fiction has always been pierced with currents of sexuality; in Let the Right One In , we experience these currents through the lens of children entering puberty, still trying to come to terms with their own bodies and emotions, let alone the supernatural.
Beyond the hauntingly cold Swedish scenery, what really sets this film apart aesthetically is the incredible acting. Casting for Let the Right One In involved a year-long process, traveling all over Sweden, and the two leads, Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (Eli, the vampire) seem born for their respective roles. Hedebrant evokes with finesse the muted emotions of the frail and tormented, while Leandersson crafts an unforgettable portrayal of the old vampiric soul in an ever-young body, the murderous spirit within a child’s innocence.
Be sure to catch this one in the original, with subtitles. There was a decent 2010 American remake, Let Me In , but the original Swedish film is the one to watch.
#7 – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Tucker & Dale vs Evil is, simply, one of the funniest horror movies I’ve ever seen. A group of college kids go for a camping trip deep in the woods, and encounter a pair of hillbillies heading out to their forest cabin. Mayhem and chaos and terror ensue, but hardly in the ways you’d expect.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil pay tribute to all of the genre conventions you’d expect from a cabin-in-the-woods type horror film, and flips them upside down without outright mocking them (which is always a cheap way to get meta-laughs). There’s real love for the genre here, and we feel we’re laughing with horror conventions, rather than at them.
The bouts of mayhem are everything you’d want or expect from a campy slasher. The film’s got its blood and jumps and cringes covered – and above and beyond that, it’s got laughter, feeling, and sympathy. Throughout, it crafts a surprisingly poignant evocation of acceptance, friendship, and compassion.
#6 – ParaNorman (2012)
ParaNorman is a stop-motion family horror-comedy film, in which we follow young outcast Norman, a boy who can see ghosts and communicate with the dead, as he tries to save his town from a zombie awakening and a malevolent witch.
ParaNorman is another horror-based film that inverts genre conventions, playing with the tropes we know and love, while allowing us to look deeper into them – and see ourselves, and the assumptions we make in constructing narratives around us. What might be the resolution of a typical horror film (“the monsters are just trying to live – and perhaps we are the actual monsters!”) becomes a second-act inversion in ParaNorman , creating the space to dig deeper into issues of judgment, fear, and assumptive defensiveness.
The visual aesthetic of ParaNorman is stunning. The stop-motion filming creates a colorful, visceral, and absorbing environment we immediately sink into. This is the first film to use a 3D color printer to mold all of the faces and expressions used on the characters, allowing for fine control of character expression and facial communication.
Though a family film, ParaNorman creates rich characters with emotional depth, if easy-to-digest archetypical appearances. A subtle revelation of one character’s sexual orientation creates what could possibly be the first openly gay character in an animated children’s film; an openly gay character, moreover, who doesn’t conform to trite stereotypes.
Whatever your age,
is a beautiful film you’ll love.
#5 – Funny Games (2007)
Funny Games is not a pleasant film to watch. You will cringe. You will wince. You will be exasperated. And yet you will (probably) come away recognizing Funny Games as one of the most under-your-skin and evocative horror movies you’ve seen.
Funny Games follows a family of three (plus dog) arriving at their lake house for a nice relaxing vacation. They’re soon approached by ostensibly civil young neighbors, Peter and Paul. Tension mounts, and the ‘funny games’ ensue, with Peter and Paul playing cruelly with fear, lives, and audience expectations.
Funny Games is not the sort of exploitative cringe-inducer that creates an environment where the audience eggs on the bloody torture-porn by the bathtub-full. Rather, the villains twist conventions and social ‘rules’ until we, as the audience, beg for it to stop. Though the film has its share of violence, it’s the social boundary-crossing that really makes us cringe. Writer and director Michael Haneke turns the film’s gaze back onto us, forcing his audience to look at their complicit role in a culture of violence and sadism.
Funny Games was initially a 1997 Austrian film; the same writer/director, Haneke, created a new English version in 2007. Though the two are nearly identical, watch the 2007 English version to really sink into the immediacy of the characters and situations.
#4 – Videodrome (1983)
is a sci-fi/horror film by the inimitable David Cronenberg. The movie portrays a television executive, Max Renn, whose quest to broadcast ever more extreme violence and sexuality to his hungry audience leads him to ‘Videodrome’ – the seemingly ultimate expression of humanity’s underbelly, in video format. Through the film, Max’s reality bends and warps around Videodrome, as the lines between reality and hallucination meld and intersect.
Cronenberg is the master of body horror , which explores our collective fears surrounding bodily transformation and physical infection. In Videodrome , Cronenberg explores the psychological and physical extremes of a cultural addiction to extreme media; the realm where virtual reality and bodily reality literally combine.
In many ways, Videodrome feels ahead of its time. The situation Cronenberg depicts – a world whose underbelly hungers for the most extreme of violent media, a world hyperconnected to its technological infrastructure of virtual existence – is more than a little reminiscent of our modern internet-connected culture, where the average person of any age spends at least hours every day looking at a screen, and where an outrageous percentage of the web is dedicated to pornography of all stripes).
Cronenberg is not always the easiest director to engage; as with many of his films, Videodrome at times dips into surreal territory, eschewing any simple narrative. Though it might not be the easiest to digest, this is certainly a horror flick to watch – at least once.
#3 – Trollhunter (2010)
Trollhunter isn’t an easy film to classify. Part horror, part mockumentary, part satire, part comedy. It all comes together to create a fun, fresh package.
We follow three film students as they set out into the Norwegian wilderness to film a documentary about an apparent bear poacher. What they find is a worn, deadpan, rugged hunter – on the chase of trolls, and employed by the Norwegian Wildlife Board.
Trollhunter situates the dark world of fairy tales and mythology within the context of modern bureaucratic government. Our trollhunter, Finn, is as much wearied and horrified by the stifling horrors of paperwork and legal logistics and governmental supervisors, as he is by the building-sized trolls he encounters.
Trollhunter crafts a novel perspective to engage the creature-feature horror genre. The troll encounters create enough shock, suspense, and terror to satisfy horror expectations, while filtering everything through an ultradry humor. The Norwegian setting, at times coldly bleak and at times terrifyingly magnificent, creates an absorbing atmosphere that brings it all together with memorable flavor.
#2 – Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods is one of those movies that might be better the less you know about it before watching. So if you’re the sort of person that enjoys watching those movies knowing nothing, stop reading this. Really. If you like horror movies, you’ll love this one, so you can safely stop reading this section.
You’re sure you want to read on?
Ok – don’t worry, we’ll still keep it sparse on spoilers.
The Cabin in the Woods is the ultimate postmodern horror film, crafted with a meta-fictional self-awareness that recognizes and pokes fun at genre conventions without degrading into bland mockery or pedantic film theory. The Cabin in the Woods is the rare film that can engage postmodern self-awareness and still be a fun movie. And oh boy, is this movie fun.
Plot-wise, we join five college-aged kids as they head up to a cabin in the woods for a vacation of raucous revelry. But nothing’s as it seems, and there are some sinister forces at work. Let’s leave it at that for the plot – yes, it sounds like a thousand other horror flicks, and no, this one is not like any you’ve seen before.
If I’ve been a little vague here, it’s just so that you’ll enjoy the movie more. So go watch it.
#1 – Pontypool (2009)
Pontypool is one of the most unique perspectives on the ‘zombie apocalypse’ sub-genre.
The film joins shock-jock radio host, Grant Mazzy, on what seems at first to be just another cold morning in Pontypool, Ontario. We soon discover, from the calls coming in, that a strange situation is developing in the quiet Pontypool community – hordes of people are acting savagely, and chaos and paranoia quickly settle in. The sickness, whatever it is, seems to be spreading not through bites or the air – but through language itself.
The linguistic bent of the film alone sets it apart from other zombie flicks. Language itself is infected, and our interpretive faculties and meaning-making tendencies are themselves our greatest weakness. Lovers of post-structuralism or linguistic theory will have a field day.
Beyond its philosophical inquiries, Pontypool excels in creating a palpable atmosphere. Almost all of the film is confined to a single radio studio, and mostly to a single room. Yet dynamic shots and careful introductions of folks calling in to the station leave us never feeling cramped or bored – though we might feel tense and terrified in isolation. As with any great horror movie, Pontypool excels thanks to what it doesn’t show or tell us, leaving things to our own imagination.
As soon as I finished Pontypool , I wanted to start it over and watch it again. And if that’s not a sign of a great movie, I’m not sure what is.
Have you seen any of these movies already? What do you think of them?
What other horror movies do you think belong on the list? Let’s hear your opinion – join the conversation in the comments!
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