This past week I saw both Deliver Us From Evil and Snowpiercer in theaters, and the obvious differences between the films had me thinking about horror’s genre parameters. Of course, Deliver Us From Evil is just another panel-written, formulaic movie churned out by studios who have whittled American “horror” films down to a handful of repetitive images. You’ve got your slightly-flawed but ultimately noble white male hero, your creepy kid’s room full of demonic toys (there’s literally a scene with a jack in the box, and I was the only one laughing in disgust), and your drawn-out exorcism scene. I almost expected the demon to say “we are legion,” but instead he said some other comically-vague demonic-sounding name.
So what’s so exciting about Snowpiercer as an evolutionary step for horror? Well, for starters, it’s not technically billed as horror. Instead, it’s sold to cinephiles as Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language thriller, and it’s sold to mainstream US audiences as an experimental dystopian action thriller. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Why can’t we just call Snowpiercer what it is? It’s beautiful and emotionally resonant, yes, but it’s also definitively and staggeringly horrific. I’d argue that “thriller” has become a stand-in genre tag for horror films that are actually good.
Snowpiercer plays beautifully in an imaginative dystopian world characterized by paranoia and corruption. The plot unfolds as our heroes get further into the body of an unstoppable train, and we delve deeper into a post-apocalyptic government system that is up to mischief far more disturbing than the characters could have predicted. The true and potent “horror” in Snowpiercer is the film’s final revelation that even the most intelligent political dissidents are unable to comprehend the full scope of what complete power does to a man. There’s a climactic moment in the film where something disturbing is found under the floorboards in the train’s final compartment: without spoiling any of the film’s stunning, disturbing fun, I’ll say that Snowpiercer works as both a horror and adventure film because it’s full of tonal surprises (these are, of course, Bong Joon-Ho’s wheelhouse).
Even if Snowpiercer is too far from our contemporary understanding of the horror genre to herald in 2014’s renaissance, it can be coupled with other recent media based on tone and artistic strategy. What makes a horror movie exciting in 2014? Simply (and yet this is rare) with the incorporation of something new. Bong Joon-Ho understands (see his wildly imperfect The Host) that experimentation is worth the risk as long as some of his directorial free-falls work. Another horror artist to understand this set-up is Guillermo Del Toro, whose first television show The Strain premieres this summer on FX.
Del Toro has a better track record than Bong Joon-Ho for foreign-language projects finding a successful foothold among US audiences (see Pan’s Labyrinth). He also has some lesser English-language projects under his belt (seeboth Hellboy films), and this has allowed him enough star power to draw in audiences on FX. Perhaps this will welcome the world’s most creative horror directors to surprise and taunt American audiences in English! No word ye ton The Strain‘s effectiveness, but its moving parts in pre-production look promising.
Americans have begun to understand that their most successful horror films are mostly adaptations of Japanese and Korean films (which are usually better, except in the case of Rungu and its beautiful American adaptation The Ring). What we’re about to get with Hong Kong’s Rigor Mortus suggests a new channel of media straight from China; the international trailer for the family-drama horror looks visually interesting enough that I’m not curious about an American reboot (although if it gets success abroad, you can get Hollywood will make an attempt with a pretty white actress playing lead).
You can watch the trailer for Rigor Mortus here:
Horror film-making has reached a fever pitch elsewhere in the world as well: Australia brings us indie-festival darling The Babadook in 2014, and Sweden awaits the release of The Hybrid, a film based on the paranoia still surrounding Soviet history and the rumors of dark, cruel medical experiments which occurred behind closed doors. I’ve included the trailers for both films below.
As long as foreign and domestic filmmakers keep attempting to find disturbing elements of words still unexplored by the genre, we may find ourselves with better nightmare fodder in the next few years. Kevin Smith has lined up an experiment with horror in his film Tusk, and dark-comedy genius Bobcat Goldwaith has been advertising his new Bigfoot handheld thriller (yeah, you read that correctly) Willow Creek for almost a year. I’m excited for both films just by virtue of them feeling new.
After all, the philosophical explanations for successful horror (the uncanny valley?) have already given us a road-map to what works on screen. Part of what makes films like Deliver Us From Evil so stale is the suffocating sensation that everyone involved with the film was terribly bored.
I, for one, would much rather watch an imperfect or sloppily-conceived horror film that at least made a pass at innovation. I mean, that’s the only reason I still watch American Horror Story and Hemlock Grove. You’ve got to admit that they’re at least trying to get something new going! Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s Queenie having sex with a Minotaur. You win some…
Luckily, we’ve got some upcoming television on the horizon that looks almost as good as Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain, although I make no promises. Horror television is still firmly rooted in its contemporary re-genesis, has not reached Twilight Zone levels of excellence, but I still believe. The jury’s still out on Halle Berry’s horrific space-pregnancy drama Extant, but I’ll be watching the pilot, at the very least.
“But Emily, didn’t you already write about monstrous pregnancy on film?” Why yes, reader, yes I did. Here’s that post.