By Tobi Ogunyemi
It's that time of the year. Sweater weather, pumpkin spice overload, colorful foliage and the works. Halloween is here, with the horror films that accompany.
There are the usual franchise players that are constantly rewatched or producing new entries. Your Friday the 13ths, Child's Plays, and Halloweens. As well the new films looking to find their way into the horror firmament, hoping to become franchises themselves. But in modern times, the flavor and dynamic of the horror genre has changed with a breath of fresh air that is able to paint with a more colored and diverse brush. Atmosphere, themes, mood, violence.... horror taps into a primordial sense within us (that can stand having that sense activated and reached of course) that not nearly any other genre can. And within that there's a particular distinction that horror films directed by women carry and bring forth.
Women have been directing horror films forever, just they have been directing everything else in general - in spite of the hurdles the industry has always put in their way - but they have done wonders indulging in what has been the typical template since the turn of the century; grossness with no context behind it, or schlock with no consideration. Approaching a plot with a patience and consideration that really brings more to the surface as stories move towards their climax. The mood is thick and the violence is more damaging because of the care exhibited beforehand.
There are a handful of current films that really hit the spot that should be watch to give anyone's Halloween a more than spooky kick up a notch.
The Babadook (2014)
Directed by Jennifer Kent (Streaming on Pluto TV)
Already having cemented itself into the horror lexicon, Kent's Babadook is a sterling piece of gripping work that tackles a number of dense themes (motherhood, loneliness) while providing enough scares to really get underneath one's skin.
After her husband's untimely death, a single mother (Essie Davis) deals with raising her son who becomes more and more unhinged. Continuing to out in unnerving ways after he reads a book named 'The Babadook' that speaks of a creature haunting any house that the book is read in. The film aptly handles the metaphor of handling immeasurable loss and grief in the form of confronting monsters (figuratively and literally), and is centered by one of the best performances by Davis - which is up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary, Lupita Nyong'o in Us - who goes through the gambit of dealing with the everyday pain of existing after a horrific life changing event, exasperation in that and taking care of a child at the same time and then understanding on how to move forward.
The titular creature of the actual film, and the book inside said film, is a dynamic creation in of itself. Enveloping with dread and an encroaching sense of inevitability which eventually goes away. But that's the point, as one learns to live with the feelings that boil and simmer inside all of us.
The Wind (2018)
Directed by Emma Tammi (Streaming on Netflix)
The thing about genres overall, is that their largely marketing tools to the public. Yes, each form comes with its own tropes and moreover, their own expectations. But that doesn't mean genres can’t be blended, merged, and remixed within each other. Just like how Ridley Scott's Alien is a horror film set in space ("where no one can hear you scream"), Tammi's film is a horror Western that dives deep into what unsettles us: an environment where there is nothing and there is nowhere to hide.
We’re introduced to Lizzy, a woman living on the Western frontier with her husband. Surrounded by nothing and no one, but the wind around her stretch of land that always seems to be howling, she begins to feel a distinctly sinister presence, with her concerns dismissed by her husband. And when a new couple arrives near them, the line between what might be real or what might be supernatural begins to blur.
Admittedly more sizzle than steak, the sizzle does more than enough heavy lifting to gently tickle the nerve endings. From the bleak, dark and harsh cinematography emphasizing the vastness around the home to the score heightening that minimalist tension even more so. A classic mark of allowing evil into your home, your sanctuary, this keeps your trying, trying and trying at your wits about you in increasingly terrible ways, and at a time no less that is no less harsh against women themselves. Just like Lizzy, how long can one hold out for?
Directed by Julia Ducournau (Streaming on Hulu)
To be frank, maybe one of the most batshit premises to come across theater screens in a while. This Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival does what Ducournau's previous film - Raw (2016) - brings about in having the traditional horror aspects in the background, on the fringes, while the really fucked up eerie and unexplained stuff happens right in front of you. With her at the helm, it serves to unnerve and baffle the audience even more in exciting ways.
This is probably a case of the film's reputation proceeding it, but to be even more frank, this is the noted French film where the girl has sex with a car. After growing up from a severe car accident that had a metal plate surgically implanted in her head, edgy car model Alexia has her aforementioned sexual vehicle encounter, goes on a crime spree and to hide from the authorities searching for her, pretends to be the long-lost son of a firefighter captain found again. And that's just the beginning.
The film is a living transmutation, moving and evolving from one aspect to another until a revelation of an ending, but it uses horror as the engine's energy along the way. One has no idea where it's going and that's the thrilling joy, as it speaks on forgiveness, family, sexuality and gender fluidity all while trying to find yourself after so many things have happened to us in life.
Bodies, Bodies, Bodies (2022)
Directed by Halina Reijn (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video)
Who would host a hurricane party? And, how could the host of a hurricane party possibly expect everything to go smoothly? A group of drug addled Gen Z’s apparently.
In a hyper aware hilarious send-up of generational paranoia, buzzwords and what it means to spend time with people who you thought were your friends and people who you thought loved you but might be ableist instead.
After coming out of rehab, Bee, accompanying her new girlfriend, meet up with her wealthy friends at a rich squalor to hang out over the night. But when a storm hits, the Wi-Fi gets cut off and the night turns into a blend of mistrust, betrayal and online discourse being used in person while a killer may be on the loose, picking everyone off one by one....
This film revels in everything relevant with social media right now. If you're on TikTok and Instagram too much, all of this will feel eerily familiar to you (so much so, one might complain that they're in this picture and they don't like it). A great and hilarious ensemble, led by Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Rachel Sennott and Lee Pace in a well-used bit of generation crossover, the tension in captured and carefully honed throughout the film as the hilarity marches right alongside it (keywords and phrases such as 'toxic' and astrology litter the film in pointed ways). Blending horror and comedy in a neon-tinged setting with hijinks, the film does a fantastic job of delving into the modern social aspects of what is terrifying - fear of missing out, gaslighting, toxic masculinity, what others really think of each other via texts and podcasts - and uses that to create an atmosphere of what is lurking in the shadows. Literally in the rain drenched night, and figuratively inside each of us. When the storms passes and after so many things have been said and done, can any of us ever be the same? Once the cell reception comes back on, hopefully that can be the case.
And, the best use of Pete Davidson one could ask for.
Directed by Chloe Okuno (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video)
The 'hysterical woman' is a well-worn motif (possibly to the point of being past its use by date now) in the horror game, but it has been around so long, that there are different venues in a postmodern setting where it can be used and still be worth some deliverance, as it is done here in Watcher, starring Maika Monroe.
Young couple Julia and Francis have moved to Romania for the latter's new job position. Feeling like fish out of water culturally, Julia begins to try to acclimate into her new surroundings... until she notices someone watching her in apartment from across the way. Is she seeing things due to her unrestful paranoia with what is taking place in her life, or is there much more here than those around her aren't aware of, or letting on?
The film does a class job of spinning numerous plates - language barriers, true crime, circumstantial evidence, women minimizing themselves for their make partners - all in the service of making the audience feel as off kilter as Julia herself feels. Maybe it is nothing. Maybe she actually is being paranoid and isn't used to various customs here. But then, as is the case of this genre, when so many shoes drop, more and more things become muddled in a way that really makes the parts gathered together equal the entire sum overall. And it does much more playing around slightly with form, such as what if the husband actually did listen and take his seriously wife? What if the woman actually did confront who might be stalking her early on? Those touches bring more out of the film accordingly, even as those expectations revert back to the norm (since this is a horror film after all and the thrills have to take place accordingly), but that leads to an ending that not only packs a literal blood punch, but also satisfies in what this woman has to go through in order to get her own closure.