Every list of “best” horror movies seems derived from the author’s unique but very hazy metric. If we judge movies by which are the most unsettling or frightening, why do comedies like Cabin in the Woods so often appear at the top of these lists? Perhaps horror’s flirtations with other genres is a product of necessity or frustration, but whatever the reason, high-quality, “pure” horror films have always been a rarity. But if horror-comedy films always appear on “best of” lists, why not dark fantasy, or even children’s movies? In the spirit of inclusion, and embracing the pure subjectivity of lists like this, here are my favorite horror movies made since 2000, presented without justification or qualification.
VERDICT: Go see this movie on the big screen. And see it in IMAX. Crimson Peak delivers unforgettable visual storytelling, which sets it far apart from the bulk of mainstream horror.
Edith, the protagonist of Crimson Peak (Mia Wasikowska), gives the audience a half-winking clue for how to read this movie when she says of her own ghost story, “The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” They’re not the only metaphors in Allerdale Hall; I can’t recall any movie in recent memory so thick with visual symbolism, the majority of which is boldly unsubtle (HINT: the red clay looks like blood), quite in keeping with the larger-than-life tradition of Gothic horror. This is a movie that benefits from being on an IMAX screen. You’ll want to see every stitch, every snowflake, and every trail of red clay oozing down the walls.
Despite a power trio of lead actors, the characters are not the stars of the film — that honor goes to Allerdale Hall itself. Like any good Gothic story, the architecture becomes the focal point, both as a major obstacle for the heroes and as a symbolic reflection of everyone’s inner turmoil. And Allerdale is perhaps the most extreme Gothic horror setting ever conceived: impossibly proportioned, it is a cathedral of hubris, built from the same red clay that it slowly sinks into. The roof of the foyer has a massive hole that provides no protection from the elements, and the upper levels are infested with giant moths. Allerdale is teeming with Gothic imagery, and it is a macabre delight to be shown through its labyrinthine corridors past endless curiosities.
As if to make its literary influences plain, the film is also full of books, and also seems aimed more at bookish types than horror fans. Edith’s peers mock her for wanting to write: “Jane Austen died a spinster.” Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” In a world where “ghosts are metaphors,” stories and storytellers gain power; “Crimson Peak” is not only the name of the estate, but the name of Edith’s completed manuscript. Books are as layered and mysterious as a giant Gothic manor — as when Edith is shown a book whose pages reveal a hidden, improper picture when they are held together at an angle. Like this book, every detail in Allerdale adds to the pervasive sense that there are many layers of secrets in every corner of the building, and within every frame of the film.
Few reviewers have denied the effectiveness of the film’s atmosphere, its status as a “horror movie” has been a point of contention. So let’s get this over with: the film is not scary in the slightest. There is a bit of the trademark Guillermo del Toro gruesome violence (remember the bottle scene in Pan’s Labyrinth?), but the legitimate “horror” sequences are few, far between, and rely a bit too much on jump scares. After a while they even become tedious. This is somewhat disappointing, but thankfully the true center of the film’s horror is Lucille (Jessica Chastain.) Chastain invests a captivating performance into a conventional Gothic villain, which seems to fit the film’s overall project of breathing new life into a very, very old genre.
The movie has flaws, but any issues stem from its unflinching dedication to being authentically, unapolagetically Gothic. I admire del Toro for refusing to engage with realism, which has become the dominant mode of modern horror (e.g. found footage). I will admit, however, that I didn’t find the plot particualarly interesting, nor the *big twist* especially shocking. Even 18th century Gothic novels descended to much lower extremes of depravity. I had also expected the story to do a little more with its female characters. It plays with but ultimately rejects the “male savior” trope typical of the Gothic (but I would expect nothing less). And though Edith consciously subverts her gender expectations in the beginning of the movie, her proto-feminism becomes forgotten as the plot progresses and atmosphere dominates.
Negatives aside, I cannot recommend seeing this movie in theaters enough. The production design is worth the price of the ticket alone. Guillermo del Toro names movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Omen as having inspired his desire to make a large-budget horror movie, but when leaving the theater I was reminded less of these films than of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Besides a number of similarities in their premises, both films are the product of daring directors who place their vision above all else and succeed tremendously. Crimson Peak will handsomely reward those who let themselves be drawn into the captivating world del Toro and his team have created. Typical horror fans may be bored or baffled, but in a horror movie landscape dominated by campy comedies like Cabin in the Woods and lazy trash like The Conjuring, it is very refreshing to see such a gorgeous and interesting project of passion.
They told her the baby died. But it can’t be, not after all that. Rosemary finds herself in the neighbors’ apartment, staring into a black bassinet. She covers her mouth.
“What have you done to it? What have you done to its eyes?
“He has his father’s eyes.”
She looks to her husband, but he is covering his face. “What are you talking about? Guy’s eyes are normal. What have you done to him, you maniacs?”
“Satan is his father. Not Guy.”
“He came up from hell and begat a son of mortal woman.”
And so on and so forth. On paper, this seems a rather conventional horror movie ending. It’s the payoff after a long buildup and a succession of clues. All at once, Rosemary and the audience receive the answer, their fears confirmed. It’s shocking, hard to believe. But it’s also funny.
The true twist of the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby is its sudden drop into camp during the finale. The revelation leaves us aghast and agog, sure, but it’s hardly a surprise, and it’s certainly no plot twist. Either her baby was going to be a monster, or it wasn’t. Yet when Rosemary’s lurking fear is revealed to be true, the film denies the audience its payoff. When we expect the film to horrify us, we are instead given a campy collection of cultists followed by a strangely jokey baby shower for the Antichrist.
There is a comic dissonance between the dire implications of the event and the celebratory and often casual attitude of the guests. For the audience, it feels like we’re being pranked. The cultists come off as petty and silly. (I remember watching the movie for the first time, thinking the Castevets were just playing an elaborate practical joke and waiting for the “Ha, ha!” moment.) A man excitedly takes pictures. A woman sticks out her tongue when Rosemary approaches her own baby. Even the black bassinet where the baby lies looks like something from a parody of this story, with its upside-down cross hanging where there ought to be a mobile. One wonders when the cake will come out and they’ll all start singing “Happy Birthday.” The levity of the scene only winds down at the very end:
“Rock him,” says Roman.
Rosemary hesitates. All the guests have gathered around the bassinet, creating a wall. “You’re trying to get me to be his mother.”
“Aren’t you his mother?”
She rocks the baby, and begins to smile.
This, finally, is the payoff. Roman exploits Rosemary’s desire for maternity and normality. Her acceptance of his premise is an acceptance of the absurd yet dangerous reality these cultists live in. It’s a tragic and chilling decision, and one that’s also made for her. When the film ends, we are left to imagine for ourselves what the consequences will be for Rosemary, and for the entire world. When all is said and done, we realize there’s nothing funny about the situation at all.
There has been much criticism that analyzes Rosemary’s Baby through a political lens: It’s a story about a society that seeks to limit and control a woman’s bodily autonomy, and there are many obvious connections to be made with our country’s ongoing debate over reproductive rights. Such criticism has even reemerged recently in the midst of the 2010s’ War on Women, but the vast majority of these analyses focus primarily on the story. As we head into the 2016 election, I have begun seeing further political implications in the unusual performances and direction of the film, and how its unusually campy finale creates a deep sense of horror.
“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus,” — she hits the Fs pointedly — “on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
She shakes with righteous anger.
“This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up in and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”
The crowd claps and cheers.
Carly Fiorina stole the show at the second GOP presidential debate. At a slogging three hours, the debate was wearisome to behold, but Fiorina’s moments of pathos stood apart from the chatter. Her ferocity was a far cry from the other candidates’ more measured statements (excluding Trump, although his shtick was already tiresome by this debate). Fiorina’s over-the-top performance was absurd, thanks to the dissonance between her speech’s emotional potency and its complete departure from truth. It became camp.
Every election cycle, Republican candidates are quickly marked as fodder for entertainment. This season’s primaries, with the slate of 15 Republicans, has given us a clown car’s worth of entertainment that was in high gear during the debate. I admit that I watched the debate as much to laugh as to stay informed. But after each moment of excess, camp, and clownishness, I felt my stomach churning, my conscience telling me there’s nothing to laugh about – that I should be horrified. It’s the horror in recognizing that, despite their over-the-top rhetoric that’s ripe for comedy, the men and woman of the GOP aren’t winking. It’s the horror in realizing that Fiorina will tell whatever bold lies necessary to be noticed, and that her anti-choice acolytes spend hours of their personal time terrorizing women trying to enter health clinics. The horror that Trump won’t give specifics about his harsh deportation plan because it would necessitate raiding cities and creating internment camps. It’s an absurd horror, in which my dread and dismay are preceded by a spurt of disbelieving laughter.
It’s the same horror I experience watching the end of Rosemary’s Baby.
When she first stepped into the room, he covered his eyes. In shame? But now he approaches her, looking around the room awkwardly before crouching to her level.
“They, uh, promised me you wouldn’t be hurt. And you haven’t been, really. I mean, supposing you had the baby and you lost it. Wouldn’t that be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.”
She spits in his eye. He walks away, wiping his face.
A recent story on NPR claims that millennials are disappointed with the state of our political system. “Disappointed” would be a gross understatement to describe my own feelings on the GOP, but the article focused on disappointment of young Republicans, who the journalist believes are less judgmental than their older cronies:
“I’m a registered Republican, but I’m definitely more of a progressive Republican,” said Alex Drechsel at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire. “I consider [myself] a millennial Republican.”
Dreschel, a business student from a military family, wasn’t supporting Trump; he’s more a fan of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but he came to see the show with his dad out of curiosity.
“My opinion — the Republican Party needs to evolve a little bit,” Dreschel said, “so I’m more relaxed on some social issues than other Republicans wouldn’t be.”
He seems at least a little ashamed of his party as he distances himself from older Republicans. But of course he was not ashamed enough to stay home, so perhaps NPR’s benign word “disappointed” suits him well. He is the political counterpart to Guy in Rosemary’s Baby, an unfeeling new disciple of an evil organization whose ultimate “disappointment” amounts to nothing. Guy pretends to feel shame, to have sacrificed, when he speaks to his wife, but it’s all a charade; it’s clear from the beginning that he doesn’t love Rosemary. His betrayal costs him nothing.
Dreschel’s feelings about the GOP are a similar charade. His stance on “social issues” is made meaningless by his voter registration, and his privilege prevents his views from being a sacrifice. He will never need to rely on Planned Parenthood for an abortion. He isn’t directly hurt by candidates’ statements that Mexicans are rapists, that Muslims shouldn’t be president, that the NFL Red***ns shouldn’t have to change their name, that black voters are motivated only by their desire for “free stuff,” etc., etc., etc. Dreschel is not alone; many young Republicans claim a “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” viewpoint, falsely believing that they simply exist between two extremes. Comfortable in their moderation, they can allows themselves vote for an extremist candidate, content to support one of these political monsters. Like Guy, if they get spat on, they can simply walk away.
The way we react to the election has consequences. I need to remind myself that the monsters of the GOP don’t exist in a vacuum for the entertainment of liberal audiences. They survive and thrive due to the active support of millions and millions of Americans. I know why we tend towards laughter – it’s hard to do anything but laugh when the alternative is horror. And when the lead-up to election night lasts more than a year and a half, living in horror for that long would only damage us. However, those of us who do laugh must confront the fact that by giving them attention, we help give them power. The debate was the second most-watched program in the history of CNN, and I doubt that’s due to a spike in earnest political interest. So if we must laugh, we must allow the horror in as well, or else risk forgetting what’s at stake.
“Rosemary, go back to bed. You know you’re not supposed to be aroused.”