Get Out’s Jordan Peele and Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum are not alone in arguing that politics are crucial to the horror film.[i] Spanish director Yayo Herrero’s film Maus had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2017, and it is a deep dive into the politics of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992 to 1995), its lingering aftermath, and the current tensions in Europe surrounding immigration and terrorism. Both in his introduction to Maus at Fantastic Fest, and in the Q&A afterwards, Herrero insisted that politics are crucial to horror, that horror is good because of its politics. He also made the point that what is important about Maus is not any particular message, which he resisted stating directly, but the debate that it will stir up. And, indeed it will stir up debate.
Thoroughbreds (USA; 2017) is written and directed by Cory Finley, his first feature film. It began life as a play, but, as Finley was writing it, he told the audience at Fantastic Fest, he realized that he was seeing parts of his story cinematically. So Thoroughbreds became a film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Lily, and Olivia Cooke, who plays Amanda.
Lily and Amanda are two wealthy former friends (sort of) finishing up high school in Connecticut. They are thrust together when Amanda’s mother pays Lily to tutor her. From beginning to end, the film is about the two girls’ relationship, which flourishes under Amanda’s relentless unconventionality and honesty, as she pushes Lily to be more honest about herself. It doesn’t take long for Amanda to learn that Lily hates her stepfather (Paul Sparks). Does she have reason to hate him as much as she does? Maybe. The film goes to the brink of portraying him as abusive, possibly to Lily, possibly to Lily’s mother, but it stops short and we wonder if maybe he’s just a rather run-of-the-mill jerk. Either way, the amoral Amanda suggests an unthinkable plan to Lily, and the plot then takes a dark turn, wending its way into increasingly unexpected terrain.
This post contains spoilers; I thought about it long and hard but was unable to write about Mother! without discussing the ending.
Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film was preceded by a suitably vague trailer that quite effectively, as it turned out, disguises what his film is actually about.
And much of the film, like the trailer, is intriguing because it doesn’t give away what’s going on, what kind of film Mother! is. It trades in many horror film conventions, raising all kinds of expectations: there’s a couple isolated in a house, each with a mysterious past; there’s a house that seems itself to be sentient, alive; there are uninvited guests who quickly turn hostile (is this a home invasion film?); and there’s an uncanny pregnancy (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is one of the principal cinematic touchstones of Mother!). Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of playing the standard “haunted house” protagonist, especially after she becomes pregnant, a woman who may or may not be seeing what’s actually there, may or may not be experiencing hallucinations. Indeed, for much of its run-time, Mother! seems like a gothic horror film, a subgenre that is notable for featuring strong women and feminist themes.
A 2015 Mexican-French production co-written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, Desierto is an intensely interesting film. Its stark plot tackles head-on one of the issues that has convulsed the US (and defined its relationship with its southern neighbor) since the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. Desierto is a horror film about immigration—specifically an illegal crossing from Mexico into the US, and it thus joins the equally provocative Undocumented (Chris Peckover, 2010) in what I’m sure is poised to be a newly emergent preoccupation of the horror genre.[i]
Desierto’s plot is simple—perhaps too simple (one of its flaw). A group of Mexicans are covertly crossing the border when their truck breaks down and they are left to head in the direction of the US on foot. Enter Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his dog, Tracker, who picks off the members of the group one by one until only Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) are left.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is the kind of film that makes you wonder what everyone involved was thinking, including some generally good actors (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, John C. Reilly). It’s a hot mess of a film—incoherent, pointless, lots of execrable writing and wooden acting. And it gratuitously and shamelessly pulls from other (better) films—notably Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993).
Kong does say much about how horror films (and maybe life) work, however. Cast as a kind of reboot of the first King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), Kong shows how utterly bound to the need for borders and for “others” the horror film tradition is.