Have Horror Films Turned Into A Different Genre?
Something quite extraordinary has happened to the humble horror film. After a century of vampires, werewolves, serial killers and zombies it seems to have finally grown up.
Horror had always been planted with the seeds of its own destruction. It felt like a cultural dead end, any nascent intelligence trampled flat by the need to provide shocks. Yet pre-Code there had been shocking cerebral horror films like 1934’s ‘The Black Cat’, considered by many to be the film that created and popularised psychological horror. It emphasised atmosphere, sound design, the darker side of the human psyche, and emotions like fear and guilt to deliver its scares, something that was not usually used in the horror genre.
‘The Innocents’, ‘The Haunting’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ raised the intellectual stakes, but while Hollywood was still turning out ‘Halloween’ knockoffs Europe had moved fully into psychological territory with films like ‘Sleep Tight’ and ‘The Orphanage’.
Hollywood finally caught up by doing what it always did; hiring the directors of Euro-hits. The horror film has split into two now. There are films like ‘It’ and TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ for kids. But ‘Us’, ‘Get Out’, ‘The Gift’, ‘Hereditary’, ‘Midsummer’, ‘Climax’, the ‘Suspiria’ remake and ‘It Follows’ showed that the genre could be used to deliver subtle, insidious tales of the unknown.
Now comes the best of the batch to date. Bong Joon-ho is the most unexpected of directors, morphing from tales of the future (‘Snowpiercer’) to cautionary satires (‘Okja’) and this year to ‘Parasite’, an almost imposssible to categorise comedy-drama-thriller-satire-horror that makes you laugh even as it proves ever more deeply unsettling.
Kim, his wife, daughter and son live in reduced circumstances in a bug-infested ‘semi-basement’ in South Korea, scraping a living from folding pizza boxes. Yet all of them have skills and past achievements; they just have no way of using them in today’s zero-hours economy. Enter a friend of the son’s, who is giving up his job as an English tutor to a wealthy family.
The boy becomes indispensable to the family, and soon one by one the members of his own family find outrageous ways to insinuate themselves into their rich new surroundings, where they must pretend not to know one another. Luckily for them the household is presided over by a dimwitted trophy wife who believes everything they tell her. But this perfect new life can’t last, and the film delivers a perverse twist that spins everyone off in a new direction toward a gory final reckoning.
‘Parasite’ defies categorisation but comes from a director who has always been in tune with the genre of dark fantasy. In the UK, the ilm is opening late to try and capitalise on award nominations. It already won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival – and yet remains a crowdpleaser, proving that both are possible.