This Is a New Golden Age for Horror Films
They've kicked out cliche and instead are making persuasive political points with big scares to match.
The runaway success of Get Out showed that the horror genre isn't out of ideas yet. Often criticised for relying on the same tropes, when done well horror can be political and persuasive, while still administering scares. A clutch of offerings at the London Film Festival gave similarly reassuring evidence that film-makers are not ready to stop gorging on the genre in new and interesting ways.
"I've always felt that horror films, when they're done well, are the best kind of films to reflect society," says David Freyne, writer-director of The Cured, a Dublin-set picture that follows in the rich tradition of smart social critique being delivered via movies about cannibalistic zombies. Its premise is simple but ingenious: rather than arriving at the onset of a viral outbreak, we join the drama in its aftermath, an antidote already devised and administered.
The film follows the survivors of the title – ex-zombies, basically – as they are reintegrated, shellshocked and stigmatised, back into civil society.
If Freyne's goal was to reflect the mood of the times then he's done a stellar job: The Cured depicts a fractious and fearful world where the powerless are treated with authoritarian brutality, and social turbulence has given rise to tub-thumping demagogues.
"I started writing it six years ago," says Freyne, "just when the recession was taking hold in Ireland and there was a real mood of anger. We wrote in a character who was based on populist politicians like Farage and Le Pen, who were riding this wave of anger and manipulating people's fear. Obviously now, with Trump, there's a far more obvious parallel."
Look closely and you'll spot suggestions of the Troubles, the Holocaust and the refugee crisis, but where the great zombie films of the past had to smuggle in their politics via allegory and allusion, The Cured takes a more direct route. "Politics is so frightening now that to make a scary film, all you have to really do is embellish that," says Freyne. "If you want to make a political film that also scares people, there's no need to put it in a Trojan horse any more."
Five decades on from when George Romero kicked off his masterful Living Dead saga, The Cured ensures the age-old law remains firm: if you want sharp social commentary, go see a zombie film. As Freyne says: "I wonder what it is about savage cannibalism that so reflects human nature?"
It's a question also posed by Good Manners, an eye-poppingly bizarre exploration of race, class and flesh-starved werewolves in downtown Sao Paolo. The film follows the story of Clara, a cash-strapped nurse hired by well-to-do loner Ana as a nanny to her soon-to-be-born child. The two develop an unexpected bond, which is nice, but Ana sleepwalks when there's a full moon, which is a lot less nice, not least for the neighbourhood cats. And whose is this baby anyway?
"The werewolf has always been a metaphor for our struggle between instinct and rationality," says co-director Marco Dutra. "We have sexual and violent impulses, but loving impulses too. Here, that opposition is brought into other contrasts between the characters: social class, racial difference."
But even before the clever stuff, Good Manners is a gleeful reminder of how the best horror bleeds liberally into riotous comedy. It takes in social-realist drama, lesbian romance and body horror – and one of the most gloriously grisly birth scenes in film history. "The idea of giving birth to a child is scary," explains Juliana Rojas, who also co-directed. "There's bodily transformation, it's beautiful but disturbing and emotional. And at the back of your mind is a fear of disease or defect."
Good Manners imagines that fear made flesh, so to speak. By the end, the film perhaps hasn't quite met its own ambitions, but that's not to say it isn't something special. But you've already read too much: go see it for yourself. Movies this brilliantly, brazenly strange don't come around often.
If both these films eventually succumb to pleasing chase-and-chomp convention, the same can't be said for Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse, a folk-horror that takes the trauma-of-motherhood theme and runs for the Austrian hills. In keeping with a recent vogue – termed "post-horror" by one writer, to much online outrage – it forgoes jitters and jump-scares in favour of stillness and simmering menace. It, it ain't: the inky shadows don't hide any grinning maniacs, just a directionless dread. Rather than crowd-pleasing boo-moments, we are treated to our protagonist, for reasons unclear, fellating a wild mushroom and pissing on a dead rat. Nobody said post-horror was a barrel of laughs.
Like Hagazussa, Joachim Trier's Thelma, a Norwegian chiller, is a slow-burn nightmare of sexual repression set against painterly scene-scapes. It's about a first-year student who flies the nest from her intensely joyless Christian parents to encounter booze, nightlife and Anja, a beguiling female classmate. In the title role, Elli Harboe does anguished self-discovery with a wonderfully hypnotic blank quality, and it's all crafted with the sort of dab-hand assuredness that marks out a proper film-maker. Think Blue Is the Warmest Colour meets Carrie.
Adolescent trauma, the ordeals of parenthood, god-fearing fanaticism, sexual awakenings: these films are not short on thematic overlap, but perhaps the thread that runs most strongly through all five is gender. Three tell the stories of female protagonists, while the other, The Cured, owes much of its traction to co-star and executive producer Ellen Page.
Make no mistake: these aren't token attempts at hitting Bechdel quotas or providing standard-issue Strong Female Characters – many of the ones on offer here are anything but – which is a worthy claim at a time when on-screen gender roles remain desperately unequal in a whole host of ways.
Presence behind the camera is limited, less hearteningly, to a single co-writer/director, Good Manners' Rojas – but she believes the sands are shifting. "The last few years, things have been changing in how women are represented in horror films," she says. "In the 60s and 70s you had many popular films whose female characters were sexualised: the trend was to mix horror with eroticism. Even in films I love, the women are portrayed as sexual objects – and the virgin character is the one who survives. Now, there are more women working in horror films, using the fantasy element to talk about female struggle."
Certainly, if her lesbian werewolf fairytale proves anything, it's that horror's hunger for breaking new ground isn't sated yet.
More coverage of the BFI London Film Festival. Thelma is on general release in the UK from the 3rd of November.