I’ve made it over the hill! The romantic comedy hill! The Notting Hill. Hugh Grant’s charm has worn off, for the most part. I’ve been waiting for something to bring me back to life, to strike inspiration, to move me. It turns out that horror movies hit the sweet spot. This week, I indulged myself with cult classics that I came across on Netflix: Train to Busan (2016), The Babadook (2014), Scream (1996), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
Well-crafted horror films capture both individualized human emotion and deep-seated social problems in a palpable, corporeal way (i.e. gore). These are all very different films but they do share similarities. Here are quick summaries of each film and why I loved them.
Train to Busan (2016)
Train to Busan made me livid, and it wasn’t because of the blood. (Okay, sometimes it was because of the blood, but I’m pretty mentally resilient towards guts and whatnot). One of the things that made me most unsettled about this movie was the moral ambiguity, particularly the callous willingness to harm others in order to survive. Yet I felt myself empathizing with these people. I also felt myself empathizing with zombies, even just for a split second every now and then. In their maddened craze, they still felt very human. And yes, this dang zombie apocalypse film brought tears to my eyes.
Directed by Yeon Sang-Ho, this film is about avaricious fund manager Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), who is so possessed by his work that his marriage crumbles apart and his relationship with his daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an), becomes incredibly strained. For her birthday, Soo-an wants to go to Busan to see her mother, Seok-Woo’s ex-wife. Suffice to say, this kid has a really bad birthday. Daughter and father hop on the train to Busan. Things take a nasty turn on their ride. Passengers on the train quickly become afflicted with a virus that turns them into incontinent, hysterical zombies, who convert people through biting. Seok-Woo and his daughter befriend a pair of teenagers, a married couple, and a homeless man as they fend off the zombies.
- Why I loved this movie: This movie portrays fear in a physical way. It poses a question about what it means to be human: Are we selfish animals in the game of survival? Or do we need each other to survive the worst situations? Tangentially, how do we see people who are different from us? The protagonist is obviously posh and affluent. But he ends up fighting zombies with a brave, salt-of-the-earth blue-collar-type man and a vagrant. Many people on the train give the latter man strange, fearful looks, although he later turns out to be one of the most selfless people in the movies. Unlike many Western bildungsroman stories, Seok Woo’s moral journey is one that he does not take himself—he realizes that he needs others in order to survive. He especially needs his daughter whom he so often neglects, his innocent moral compass amidst the horror that unfolds before his eyes.
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is an Australian psychological thriller that follows the story of a disturbed young boy named Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who feels the presence of a monster in his home. The monster first appears as a scary character in a children’s book that Sam reads each night. His mother Amelia (Essie Davis) works in a nursing home for the elderly. She’s a single mother, who is made a widow after her husband dies in a car accident while rushing her to the delivery room. She is weary and at times, delusional. Feeling the presence of the Babadook, Samuel behaves peculiarly and aggressively, building weapons to defend his mother, who doesn’t believe in the monster. Until it possesses her.
- Why I loved it: The poignant relationship between mother and son pushes the story forward and makes viewers care. The Babadook monster is ultimately an allegory for the process of grief and the capacity to build trust in the process of grief. This isn’t a movie that relies on gratuitous jump cuts—the real horror lies in never being able to completely shake off the loss of a loved one and consequently being forced to consider our own mortality. The film argues that we must not dispose of grief, but rather, confront it. The intersection of horror and grief reminds me of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, in which the protagonist awaits a sign from her deceased twin brother.
The Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
After years of barely understanding Freddy Kreuger allusions, I finally sat down and watched Wes Craven’s slasher Nightmare on Elm Street. Given the technical capacity of horror films today, this cult classic doesn’t feel super scary. But it’s still morbid. The creators definitely weren’t shy about blood. The film begins with an all-American girl named Tina Gray, who has a nightmare about being stalked by a physically disfigured man (cough, Freddy Kreuger) wearing bladed gloves. She wakes up. When her parents leave town, she has a sleepover with her best friend Nancy Thompson, who soon rises as the heroine of the film as her friend group suffers the wrath of Freddy Kreuger. Nancy is more intuitive, more strong-willed than her boisterous, impressionable best friend. This can be both a setback and an asset as she tracks down Freddy Kreuger.
- Why I loved it: I kept questioning whether or not Nightmare on Elm Street is a feminist film. In the end, I think it is, at least for 80s standards. (Though, as most older American horror films go, the victims are often young, upper-class white women.) The women in the film are delicate and fragile, even the protagonist herself. Nancy is led by her emotions and her impulses, so she often seems borderline hysterical. No one believes her when she says that Freddy Kreuger is coming after her friends in their dreams. This dynamic between a victim and her community is chillingly reminiscent of how mainstream society reacts to women who speak out about abuse. Additionally, we also see instances of stalking and harassment in the film when Freddy Kreuger goes after the young women and their lovers. The gore serves to concretize patterns of abusive behaviors from men who seeth at women who reject their affections.
Wes Craven comes back for another scream, with, well Scream. Scream might be the quintessential teen cult movie. It’s a comedic slasher version of a typical teen drama. I recall watching it as a child, but I definitely did not appreciate it until the second time around. It’s a cheeky movie. It begins with Drew Barrymore and her on-screen boyfriend getting horribly eviscerated. People begin to die throughout town by the hands of a person—or thing—wearing a Halloween grim reaper mask and robe. The masked being continues to stalk a high school student named Sidney, who is occasionally sweet, appropriately brazen, and mostly nervous. She’s anxious about her mother’s murder and fears that her anxiety is preventing her from being a good girlfriend. Scream is a blast of humor, suspense, snark, and gore that makes for a satisfactory movie night in. It’s a pleasure to witness campy performances from the likes of David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Henry Winkler, Skeet Ulrich, and Neve Campbell.
- Why I loved it: First of all, I loved this film’s wit. This is a self-referential and cheeky movie. It makes fun of horror genre cliches (including tropes that Wes Craven himself has perpetuated)—like getting attacked if you forsake sexual purity and how horror movies make everyone a suspect until they are dead. It can be a clever film if of course, you don’t mind blood. I also loved how the filmmakers played upon the blurring of reality and artifice with the advent of new media technology. There are moments when we ask things like, did we really hear that sound or did it come from the television? Who did we really hear on the phone? This blurring definitely adds to some delightful and ironic twists in the movie.
Anyway, that’s a wrap on my mini horror movie fest this week. I’m watching Annabelle Creation soon, so I’ll report back with some of my thoughts on the movie!