In a connected world which is increasingly verging on the brink of some form of socio-political abyss, modern horror filmmakers are striking a resonant note with the public, creating new, poignant narratives which serve to frame society’s subtext.
In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out, the comedian turned his sharp and layered focus onto the issues which underscore the modern discussion of race in America. Indeed, Peele’s satire has been honed cunningly in the brilliant Key and Peele, which along with Keegan-Michael Key has consistently challenged ideas of race, social motility and politics. He continues this perspective in the bubbling unease of Get Out. The film, which is constructed as a satire of white, liberal middle-class guilt does not appear on the surface as such. Indeed, the tropes of the Horror genre allow for the subversion of typical expectations in a manner which successfully flies under the radar. Certainly, we have seen this in Raw which has sparked discussions on the nuances of body-image and feminist discourses of the nature of desire.
Cannibalism – and indeed the Horror genre to which Raw pertains – act as a lens for wider discussions. For instance, the consumption of human flesh is a succinct allegory for notions of sexuality, self-identification, body-image and conformity to societal norms of beauty. Furthermore, the chief protagonist of this film is one who becomes increasingly aware of the pressure to lose weight. Certainly, the ambient buzz of increasing fear which pervades this film is akin to the slowly building tension present in her head. By losing weight Garance Marillier’s Justine will become more attractive and hence gain the acceptance, both within and without of her peers.
Undeniably, this is a potent issue which is an ever-present element in our modern-day society. Everything from daily tabloids to the world of business, advertising to our highest seats of government; how you look and how you much weigh are tied together in a permanent dance with what you contribute to society. This is something that debut director Julia Ducournau investigates to maximum effect. Whilst the visceral nature of the piece is something which immediately grips the public imagination, the socio-cultural subtext, through which the Horror genre acts as useful meat-grinder, allows for greater clarity on the complexity of human emotion and experience. Especially, as the genre in of itself is not typically seen as the dark horse for bringing contentious issues into a wider audience. This is something which Peele echoes in Get Out which uses a calm surface to strike directly at the heart of contemporary social morés.
Cast the mind back to last year, this commodification of the tropes of Horror was emulated in 2016’s sleeper hit The Witch. Firector Robert Eggers’s masterful debut combined 17th century patois with the feminist subtext of the power of witchcraft. In term of pure plot, a puritanical 17th-century English family are tormented and harried by a wicked and malicious witch who steals their children’s souls. On the surface, yet that surface there lies a more potent discussion. Is their victimisation at the hands of an unrelenting supernatural entity an expression of mental illness? The internal demons with which the characters do battle an exploration of the ravaged landscape of the human mind in this period. This is an evocative and nuanced stance that penetrates beyond the hokey scares or jumps of more commercial Horror fodder such as insidious or paranormal activity. Indeed, all these directors have the uncommon ability to magnify the internal conflicts which pervade our society by exaggerating these conflicts via the tropes of Horror. Indeed, in the witch, Eggers’s maintains the internal claustrophobia, supplemented by the naturalistic setting/lighting, by setting the tensions within the characters’ worlds, heads and psyches.
Ultimately, the power of modern Horror does not lie in creating scares or giving us nightmares on the power of demonic dolls. Rather it is a zeitgeist capturing firebrand that can ignite conversations on the nature of human beings. As demonstrated in Raw, Get Out and The Witch, just three examples, the conversation in 2017 and beyond is not found in the action adventure or thriller genres. Rather, it is Horror which is subverting, teasing and beguiling our generation with its poignant and acerbic analysis of what issues haunt us now and in the past.
Words by Niall Flynn