I want to expand a bit on my recently-reiterated frustration with many late-stage “Elevated Horror” movies becoming more explicit in their thematic messaging, bordering on didactic patronizing. At worst, this will result in an overlong, pretentious, dour slog that isn’t scary and is more interested in being A Statement On Its Deep Message (that isn’t even all that deep) than being a good movie on its own, like Midsommar and Men. Those are bad, but also easy to discard and put out of my mind.
But sometimes, I’ll have to deal with something that is almost a terrifically-executed genre thriller, that is scary and memorable… but then clumsily ties itself to some real-world issue in an allegorical way that falls apart when you examine it. I can’t just say, “Well, that sucked,” and move on with my life because those movies work outside of that thematic muddle.
Take, for example, The Invisible Man. Good movie, right? Tense as hell, excellent use of negative space as a way to insinuate that the invisible Adrian might be anywhere. Elisabeth Moss was amazing in it. So far and away Leigh Whannell’s finest achievement as a writer and director it’s ridiculous. But it was also “about” gaslighting and how people rationalize and diminish domestic abuse in a way that was… admirable, I guess, and made Adrian a threatening presence from the jump. But that also confuses the stakes of what we see onscreen.
Cecilia’s abuse isn’t disbelieved. She has friends who support her and help her escape from her terrible situation. Even her ex’s own lawyer brother admits he was a monster and never once disputes her account of what living with him was like. When she says, “I’ve been abused by Adrian,” no one belittles or brushes her off. Unlike some… *ahem* other people in the real world I could name.
It’s only when she claims that Adrian faked his own death and constructed a bodysuit that makes him totally invisible that the people around her disbelieve her, which isn’t a reflection of culturally-ingrained misogyny or the ways that abuse is minimized so much as a perfectly rational response to a story that is quite literally unbelievable. “Believe survivors,” yes, absolutely. “Believe survivors even when they tell you a far-fetched story about their abuser possessing science fiction technology” is not only a bad idea but may actually put the survivor in danger if they’re legitimately suffering a break from sanity and need professional help. Adrian’s invisibility could represent the ways that the lingering trauma and memories of abuse continue to haunt the survivor even after the relationship is over… but also, the specter of abuse doesn’t slit people’s throats and frame their exes for murder as Adrian does. So that reading doesn’t track, either.
Does this make The Invisible Man a bad movie? God, no! I still really enjoy it. It succeeds in all the fundamentals of good scary moviemaking… but the fact that it’s so good in all other respects and Moss gives such a tremendous performance makes this odd misalignment between its text and subtext all the more frustrating.
Or take Hellraiser, a movie I expressed quite a bit of excitement for last month. And credit where it’s due, I guess: David Bruckner’s reboot is indeed the best entry since the 1980’s (though that is a comically low bar to clear), and I share Joey’s curiosity in seeing where this series goes now that it’s (mostly) back to the weird sexual undertones and far-flung cosmological milieu of Clive Barker’s original conception.
But it’s… odd, to see a Hellraiser story decide it has to be A Commentary On Addiction, specifically opioid addiction, when the mechanics of the puzzle box don’t support that metaphor. Yes, I understand how Riley’s brother being condemned to the realm of the Cenobites after he went out to search for her in her relapsed state parallels how addiction drags down and destroys an addict’s loved ones. But also, she deliberately weaponizes this symbol of addiction to destroy the new Chatterer and also her treacherous boyfriend and, like… that’s not how addiction works. Granted, I have never struggled with substance abuse or chemical dependency, so maybe I’m completely off on this, but Riley’s decision to reject the Cenobites’ “gifts” at the very end… does that match up with recovery in some way I’m not aware of? Because even if I were to squint and see that final decision as analogous to a recovering addict, say, letting their ex-spouse or a former friend go because some bridges just can’t be unburned, isn’t this decision to not even try to bargain for her brother or her roommate, when it is made clear that she has the power to do so, condemning them to an eternity of otherworldly pain? Addiction recovery doesn’t lend to a monkey’s paw “be careful what you wish for”-type of story without being very selective in how you make those connections.
It’s especially strange to see this insistence on the puzzle-box-as-drug-addiction in the main plot when Roland’s arc fits much better into the mythology of the Lament Configuration. He’s not only the real protagonist of the movie, as Riley’s borderline comedy-of-errors actions are almost entirely driven by him, but telling a story about an indescribably wealthy elite inflicting horrific suffering on everyone around him to satisfy a ravenous desire for an ill-defined “more,” at the cost of his own humanity and even his own happiness, feels like a more graceful alignment of a grounded emotional throughline with the kind of cosmic hedonistic horror movie Hellraiser wants to be. I can see how someone like David S. Goyer would trip up and make that kind of oversight in drafting the story for this semi-reboot/remake, but Barker himself? That is surprising and a bit disappointing.
When it comes to social commentary in horror movies, less, far more often than not, really is more. If your only aim is to make the scariest movie you can, grounded in a good story and compelling characters, the broader socio-political subtext will find its way into your movie simply by virtue of you being a product of the culture and era you’re making it in. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the broader thematic context of your story entirely… but you also don’t need to insist on it. Don’t overthink it. George A. Romero didn’t set out to make arguably the decade’s most brutally honest and sophisticated statement on racism in Night of the Living Dead; he just held open auditions and an African-American theatre actor happened to be the best candidate for the lead role of Ben. John Carpenter only realized the similarities between The Thing, his paranoid sci-fi thriller about a shapeshifting lethal body invader that can be detected via blood test, and the AIDS panic of the 1980’s long after it was released in theaters. Though I don’t know this for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if the trauma angle was the last thing Parker Finn nailed down when he expanded Laura Hasn’t Slept into what became Smile, and it shows, to arguably better effect than in Hellraiser.
When people complain about movies becoming increasingly “woke,” I think a lot of them are actually talking about movies becoming increasingly inelegant in stating their big ideas (well… that or they’re just bad-faith reactionary pissants like Award Radar’s favorite special boy Ben Shapiro). There’s plenty of feminism, anti-racism, progressive social commentary, and transgressive subtext baked into classic horror movies. The great filmmakers of that era didn’t need to “show their work” so ostentatiously for those insights to reveal themselves, and neither do modern filmmakers today.