If you grab an average person off the street and ask them how they feel about the recently departed 2016, they’d probably give you a detached thousand yard stare. Or burst into tears. It was, for the world as a whole, not a great time to be alive. However, it was a great year for horror movies. And that makes a twisted sort of sense. As we discover new ways to fear and despair, the movies will react accordingly. Whether by accident or design, horror cinema represented everything we dread in 2016. How it will react to the actual events of this past year has me fascinated…and terrified.
Looking back at the past twelve months, it’s astonishing just how good horror cinema has been. It was there when we needed it, offering an avenue of escape and, when necessary, a dark mirror to examine our inner demons.
It’s All Politics
While horror movies often get shuffled into the “escapist entertainment” corner, a way to escape the world and just let your inner animal hoot and holler at blood and guts for 90 minutes, there are few genres as ready, willing, and effective at actually reflecting our real-world fears and anxieties. When writer/director Jeremy Saulnier set out to make Green Room, he surely had no idea that his gruesome siege story would quickly transform into one of 2016’s most apt and unsettling cinematic metaphors. In a year where white supremacy came out of the woodwork and landed a devastating blow against progressive America, here is a movie about a young, defiant punk rock band trapped in an isolate music venue’s green room after witnessing a murder. With a small army of neo-Nazis literally at the door, defiant posturing matters no longer – staying alive does. Green Room is a tremendous film for a number of reasons and it’s the most purely intense experience of last year, but the mere concept has taken on a new meaning – we’re surrounded by Nazis and there’s no easy way out.
While Green Room‘s politics emerged through eerie timing, The Purge: Election Year wears its views on its sleeve like a badge of honor. Director James DeMonaco‘s high-concept horror series, where a dystopian America legalizes crime for one night a year so citizens get their murder on, sounds like an excuse to just witness depravity and mayhem for a few hours, but the series has quickly shifted its focus. The subtext of the (mediocre) first film has become text in the (far better) sequels: the Purge is the authoritarian government’s excuse to declare war on the lower class, as the privileged have the resources to survive the night while low-income families get wiped out. Of course, this bleeding heart message is surrounded by chainsaws and insane killer costumes and plenty of gore. The combination of preachy social politics and junk food horror shouldn’t drive a hugely successful horror franchise, but here we are. Birth.Movies.Death. writer Jacob Knight dubbed this movie “wokesploitation” and there is no better way to describe it.
American horror filmmakers weren’t the only ones getting political in 2016. Babak Anvari‘s Under the Shadow was rightfully compared to 2014’s The Babadook for how it uses a truly terrifying monster tale to explore motherhood, but the setting ensures a very different experience. Set in post-Islamic revolution Tehran, Iran, the film follows a young mother (barred from resuming her studies at the university for her “leftist” political views) who finds her apartment under assault by a merciless djinn. With the city under constant attack by Iraqi artillery and the authorities completely uninterested in what a woman has to say, she must find a way to battle a supernatural entity in a society that offers her zero support. While this could be heavy-handed, Anvari offers the perfect blend of politics and jump scares. Each “boo” moment is only a reminder of how unvalued, and unsafe, our characters truly are.