Over the years, the horror genre has gone through its ups and downs but has evolved along the way. Groundbreaking works such as Hitchcock’s Psycho brought a psychological dimension to terror, showing that people are far scarier than otherworldly creatures, while Kubrick’s The Shining incorporated the use of a chilling background score to enhance Stephen King’s tale of alcoholism and domestic violence.
In recent years, this legacy of finding the social and psychological foundations of horror has been carried on by directors like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Darren Aronofsky with a touch of elegance.
Here are five horror movies that not only explore and expand these dimensions of horror but bring a new sensibility to the genre from outside the mainstream.
Midnight Mass (2021)
Mike Flanagan’s Netflix drama Midnight Mass has all the markings of a cult classic.
Set on a small American island, the series interrogates the line between belief and blindness that comes about from the existential crisis of living an isolated life in a dying community. The fishing village of Crockett Island has seen a slow dwindle of its residents over the years. But, when a charismatic priest comes to town, it gives it a desperately needed shot in the arm, with things that even seem miraculous. However, not everyone in the town is clearly convinced of his heavenly calling and as the series plays out, darker truths come to light.
The show demonstrates the importance of faith but also critiques its potential as a tool of manipulation and how it can lead people to blindly ignore their conscience due to their inbuilt beliefs. As Alejandro Jodorowsky said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness”.
With its crisp camerawork and unique score, the series skillfully creates a claustrophobic environment and can lead to a profound existential experience about what it means to be human through a tale of blood and horror.
Midnight Mass can drag a bit in spots and some of the acting hits the wrong notes, but as a whole, it solidifies Flanagan’s legacy as one of the most interesting auteurs working in the genre today.
Remember that tingling to check your house for a secret compartment after watching Parasite? Zach Cregger takes it to the next level, frightening you to the core with his twisted, wicked, and disturbing debut film Barbarian, which elegantly melds social commentary with some surprising laughs.
Tess, a woman staying at an Airbnb, ignores multiple red flags and allows a stranger claiming to have mixed up his reservation into the house in a scary neighbourhood. The film builds slowly, exposing us to the horror elements at a reserved pace that builds the tension. The apt framing of elegance, good score, nifty production design, and the acting from Georgina Campbell all add to a thrilling time.
Then, there’s a twist. Midway through this escalation, we switch to a different lead character played by Justin Long. It’s a brave decision as Long brings his characteristic humour to proceedings. However, it only adds to the film’s texture and tone, and by the time the movie reaches its great climax, it grips you with the feeling of surviving a harrowing experience.
The ending of the movie has a humane touch, but the terror lingers long after the credits stop. It’s an excellent entry in the genre and a fine showcase of Cregger’s chops.
Saint Maud (2019)
Maud is lost. Literally, the word ‘lost’ means that someone doesn’t know how to move forward. At times in life, we are vulnerable and we cling to anything that illuminates a path out of that fog. At that point, morality goes out the window and, before you know it, fantasy has turned to reality in your head and in trying to find a path forward, you lose yourself completely. That is the story of St Maud.
Traumatic events from Maud’s past have pushed her to religious extremes that conflict with her natural character. As part of working through that trauma, she changes her profession from hospital nurse to personal nurse. Her obsession with her patient, Amanda, grows stronger as the film advances and she starts to believe she is the saviour of her soul.
The tension between Amanda and Maud because of their conflicting interests and contrasting view of life grows to a destructive level. It reaches its peak when Maud is humiliated in public and Amanda says, “You must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen”. Maud reaches a point where her extreme emotions and views overwhelm her and her road to heaven slowly leads her further and further down.
Rose Glass creates an excellent arc for her character, subtly foreshadowing the sensitive topic of people’s views on mental health. It’s easy to misjudge someone’s personality and people who struggle with mental health are often labelled ‘weird’ or mocked for their loneliness. When even people who seem progressive mirror these same ideas, the self-inflicted nature of ‘self-harm’ becomes questionable.
Saint Maud is artfully crafted, much like a difficult painting that would take its place in a top art museum. A painting that is hard to accept, but shows the reality of life.
The House (2022)
A Netflix original animated horror film, The House pushes the boundaries of animation and leaves you with a mixture of emotions at the end.
Western animation has always faced the barrier of considering children as the target audience. As such, the few animated films that tackle the horror genre are lightly eerie at best but do little to try and frighten you. But, sometimes, allowing animation to tell stories more complex than those intended for children can lead to excellent stories for mature audiences like Mary and Max and I Lost My Body. The House is another entry in this small niche.
The movie tells three stories revolving around a house in different eras focusing on different creatures. It begins with a tale of human greed leading them to ruin. With the unique character design, the movie creates an uncomfortable feeling from the start that embeds itself in your brain, partnered with the particular eerie atmosphere of stop motion.
Before you have a chance to recover, The House whisks you away to a different time for a disturbing tale of rats and bugs. A rat, a pushover real estate developer, tries to sell the house he gave his life up to build and gets roped into a situation with two potential tenants. Over time the parasitical journey between the group grows at a measured pace, slowly upping the creep factor and, in the end, it even leaves you with a surprising dash of humour.
The last story in the anthology is a visual representation of the idea ‘it's the hope that kills us.' This time our residents are cats and the house is flooding. Our protagonist is stuck in denial of his present situation because the past has come to define his life.
As the credits roll on an aerial view of The House, the movie leaves you with a feeling of serenity, despite the horrors that lurk within.
Following the success of X, Mia Goth and Ti West return to the peak of horror with Pearl. Goth in particular wasn’t just the lead actress, but also the movie’s core as she came up with the idea for the prequel. With her charming performance and disturbingly beautiful writing, she’s become a new scream queen for the goth crowd, which seems fitting.
While the set of X was washed out, Pearl is set in its colourful heyday. But as our protagonist, a hopeful girl having trouble dealing with her emotions, grows older the colour turns blood red.
Pearl begins in 1920s America, reeling from a pandemic and World War I. People are no longer the same. We all went through a similar feeling of terrible isolation during the height of COVID. We all know how isolation can get to your head. While it doesn’t necessarily make you relate to Pearl, it gives you a perspective to understanding on understanding her a bit, similar to how Jack’s cabin fever in The Shining made more sense during the lockdown.
Pearl is different from other people and can’t deal with her own outbursts. But instead of getting help, she is stuck with an emotionally dysfunctional mother and a paralysed father. The film follows Pearl’s failed dream of finding a better life outside the confines of this poisonous house.
Small details like insects eating rotting pig carcasses add a feeling of queasiness to the entire movie as it moves towards tragedy and seals Pearl in her ultimate fate. Even Martin Scorsese, a difficult man to please, called it ‘deeply disturbing’ and said he had trouble sleeping afterwards. I like to think he jumped out of his seat and screamed: ‘Cinema!”.
Pearl is another example of the quality work to be found in the genre nowadays. Work that horror geeks will hold up next to classics like The Shining and Psycho. But it also works that regularly misses out on the mainstream accolades of Oscars or other end-of-the-year awards. They are worthy watches regardless and have a great deal to say about human nature and society.
This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.