If there’s any upside to this presidential election, it’s the next wave of horror movies dealing with all these issues we’ve raised
It’s probably fair to say that horror films – speaking in the most broad terms possible— are often not given the political consideration they rightly deserve. Many countries with an emerging film industry use the horror genre as a stand-in for their national cinema, sharing traumas from their recent past with a broad audience under the guise of thrills and chills. Our country’s own history with the horror genre is littered with thinly veiled commentary about xenophobia and isolation. This means when something causes us anxiety as a country, it isn’t long before that anxiety finds its way into the subtext of brand new horror film. The Cold War. Vietnam. Over-population. Global warming. If it keeps us up at night, someone will find a way to make to turn it into midnight movie.
The best horror movies find the sweet spot between low-budget and high-concept, spreading a subversive political message into thousands of theaters across the country. This means that the horror genre is uniquely suited to deal with the xenophobia and “miscegenation” fear-mongering that has become the standard in certain parts of our culture. We’ve all seen the effects of Donald Trump’s campaign for president firsthand and know the toll it’s taken on our society. Certainly, racism and anti-immigration policies are not new issues, but we’ve never seen them so blatantly courted by politicians during the 24–7 news cycle. People of every nationality are constantly being presented with talking heads who try to rationalize a violent hatred for Mexicans or black people or political refugees. It’s frightening, it’s disheartening… and it’s perfect fodder for the horror genre.
We’re already seeing the first wave of horror films that are in dialogue with the concerns of this election cycle. Next week, more than a year after its debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Jonás Cuarón’s immigrant horror film Desierto will finally get a theatrical release courtesy of SFX Entertainment. Variety’s Justin Chang described the film as something of an “exaggerated nightmare vision of murderous xenophobia run amok,” but was quick to point out the catharsis of rooting for the illegal immigrants and against the villainous redneck played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. As a Mexican filmmaker, Cuarón has made an undeniable political statement by painting illegal immigrants his heroes and white American southerners as the horrifying monster. It’s a shot across the bow of alt-right voters everywhere; it’s also bound to get more than a few of them into the seats.
And then there’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This past week, Blumhouse released the first trailer for the February release, a horror film about a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. In an era where trailers seem determined to show as much as possible, the trailer for Get Out is deliciously vague, hinting only at an affluent rich community that has appropriated black lives in the most literal sense possible. Like Desierto, this is a horror film about the experience of otherness written and directed by someone who knows what it means to not be part of the typical white audience. Peel, like Cuarón, is asking us not only to step into his culture’s shoes, he’s also asking us to look the anger and fear that some white audiences have for his culture directly in the eyes. The old adage that you cannot understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes is suspiciously quiet on how well you’ll know them after you’ve spent ninety minutes running away from their enemies.
While both films might be modestly budgeted and lacking in A-list celebrities, they also have more to say than your typical teen slasher. These isn’t modern exploitation cinema, where white directors and screenwriters piggyback on people of color for a few bucks at the box office. These are people making horror movies that show – at least partially – the fear and hatred that they themselves are subject to on a daily basis. Just as important, they’re making a statement about those who excuse racism by not stepping up to condemn it. They’ll hardly be the last. Peele and Cuarón have the (pardon the expression) good fortune of releasing their movies in the midst of the political crisis, but what of the filmmakers who are only now sitting down to work on their films? The financial considerations of Hollywood do cause the industry to operate on a bit of a lag; if we’re at peak Donald Trump right now, then, we’re reasonably months away from films that engage with the presidential campaign at its nadir.
I’d say this makes it an exciting time for horror movies, but the truth is, it’s almost always a good time to be a horror movie director. The rules are just different for horror; as movies like Don’t Breathe and Lights Out have shown, you don’t need big names or big budgets as long as you’ve got a few good jump scares and a half-decent makeup artist. Young artists – hungry artists who have something to say – might just decide that the horror genre is the best home for their political message. And woe to everyone when a generation of pissed-off millennials turn to horror movies as their mode of getting even. I have no idea how our country can possibly heal itself after months of violent opposition; all I know is that our next wave of horror movies is going to be no-holds barred when it comes to the topic of race, and I cannot (expletive) wait.