It's not just okay for science fiction movies to be politically charged -- it's expected. Well-liked 2014 releases like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Snowpiercer mix fantastic imagery with angry, charged ideas and everyone is rightfully impressed. It's one thing to make an entertaining movie, but it's another task altogether to make that entertainment feel like it means something more than what's on the surface. No genre has proven more fertile for this kind of storytelling than science fiction... so why is sci-fi's close cousin, horror, so hesitant to follow in its footsteps?
That's not to say that politically charged horror movies don't exist (we'll get to them momentarily), but they're rare enough that it feels like an event when one comes along. 2013's The Purge wore its class warfare subtext on its sleeve and the upcoming sequel The Purge: Anarchy looks to be even less shy. Opinions on the first film were decidedly mixed, but you'll find few horror fans who didn't appreciate the film's political commentary. Set in a vague dystopia that looks very similar to the modern United States, these films take place on the one day of the year where crime is legalized for 12 hours, letting citizens murder, loot and assault as they see fit. Of course, the wealthy get to wait things out in their fortresslike homes while the poor tear each other apart. And, of course, some of the one-percenters get in on the action, too, venturing into the the heat of the action to get away with murder themselves.
In short, it's the kind of movie that directly comments on America's simmering anger in the year 2014. The first Purge film was flawed, but it held up a disturbing mirror to our own society while most horror films don't even acknowledge the existence of a mirror. And why is this? Like sci-fi, horror films are built on a foundation of the unreal and the fantastical. They're the perfect medium for metaphor and commentary because the message can be masked in thrills, chills, gore and what have you.
The Best Political Horror Movies
Although horror as allegory can be traced back to the earliest days of the genre (namely, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), no movie has better shown off the genre's potential for political commentary than 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Capitalizing on the Red Scare and America's fear of a Communist invasion, the film creepily depicts an alien invasion that replaces individuals with "pod people" devoid of personality or emotion. Although the film's effects are dated today, the message remains relevant as long as people and groups continue to blindly devote themselves to causes that they do not understand or comprehend. It taps into universal fears to create its cinematic monster.
However, no horror filmmaker has better meshed horror and politics than George Romero, who cranked out half a dozen zombie movies over nearly five decades and instilled each of them with his own personal commentary on America, war and mankind. The politics are at their most obvious (and memorable) in his first two masterpieces, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
The former, with its black protagonist and utterly bleak ending, offers a dual commentary on race relations in America and the disastrous Vietnam War, plunging its characters into a hopeless battle against a simple but unstoppable enemy (whom they fail to stop because no one can get along). The latter moves the zombie apocalypse to a shopping mall, where the stores are filled with brain-dead creatures wandering the aisles. Yes, it's a funny, gross and thrilling movie, but it manages to do all of that while maintaining its cheeky anticonsumerism bent.
There are other scattered examples. Romero's The Crazies is political, but its remake, with its broad antipollution message, is even more forceful. Candyman takes time away from its scares to examine the impoverished state of Chicago's black neighborhoods. American Psycho plainly equates capitalism with mass murder. And then there's the ultimate political screed disguised as a genre adventure: John Carpenter's They Live, which tells the story of a world taken over by aliens who brainwash the populace with subliminal messages and advertising.
Still, it's tough to find any kind of real message in most horror movies. Even the cream of the crop, like last year's truly phenomenal The Conjuring, usually aren't about anything beyond their scares. However, something completely fascinating will occasionally fall into your lap and often from a surprising source.
After five films of occasionally entertaining slasher nonsense, the bloody Saw franchise got uber-political with Saw VI. Following an opening scene where two shady money lenders are forced to butcher themselves to stay alive, the plot really kicks into gear when an insurance company executive finds himself the latest victim in Jigsaw's torturous game. Like most Saw films, he wanders from room to room in a maze designed by his kidnapper and has to solve a horrifying puzzle in each area. Unlike most Saw films, each puzzle is a direct reflection of his company's policies, forcing him to think like an insurance firm or a human being. As far as satire goes, it's clumsy... but man, it sure is satisfying to find any kind of satiric edge in any Saw movie.
Countless people are going to see The Purge: Anarchy for the blood and the kills, but maybe (just maybe!) it'll actually give horror buffs something to chew on beyond "oh, that was a good kill." There's no reason for horror movies to devalue metaphor and commentary. Deliver some good kills to get people in the door and then sneak the message right alongside the severed limbs. Smart movies make smart audiences and it's time for this genre to do its part.
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