Sunday, 10 July 2011

If Zombies vote Conservative and Werewolves are Catholic, what are Vampires?

Yesterday I was watching the excellent trailer for Cuba's first horror movie, Juan of the Dead, which makes quite explicit links between political revolution and fighting zombies, and it got me thinking that as with westerns and sci-fi, the horror genre can (if properly employed) be a fantastic instrument through which to analogise aspects of society or human issues.

Westerns are a particularly useful tool for investigating internal struggles. The open spaces, guarded characters, slow-burn conflicts and lack of law provide the ideal landscape on which to build characters exploring conflicts of very primal nature. Most obviously High Noon, which explores how far people will compromise their own moral framework when forced to choose between two evils.

There are myriad examples of sci-fi doubling for social commentary: Silent Running and Wall-E for humanity's inherent avarice and attitude to the environment, Soylent Green exploring the theme of limited resources, Planet of the Apes exploring the nature of humanity, and so on.

So why should horror be any different? In the modern American studio horror output exemplified by the Saw and Hostel franchises, serious social commentary is pretty thin on the ground. This absence of humanity in horror has infected the independent sector as well: Can anyone tell me that The Human Centipede and its forthcoming sequel have opened debate about anything other than how depraved the movies themselves are?

Horror as a genre is older than either westerns or sci-fi. Stretching back to the great gothic horrors of literature, the centuries-old stories of Frankenstein, Dracula and the like are still being replayed in different iterations and guises to this day. What contemporary horror has largely forgotten is that these classic stories have stood the test of time because they address issues at the very heart of what it means to be human, and that true horror is in humanity's conflict with itself.

Zombies were popularised in the 60's by George Romero and are enjoying a revival courtesy of films such as Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later (much though Danny Boyle protests, the mindless nature of the infected gives the film the trappings of a zombie movie, and if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well...). Zombie movies offer an easy homology between the status quo, as represented by zombies, and those who see something wrong with it. All of the best zombie movies are a more or less direct attack on a failing of society.

The majority of werewolf films have explored the nature of guilt. From my personal favourites, Dog Soldiers and An American Werewolf in London, to alternative takes such as The Howling and Ginger Snaps, all lycanthropes in film have addressed their guilty consciences in different ways, whether railing against the monthly transformations or surrendering to the id.

Vampire movies, tackling as they do the topic of immortality, all explore the fear of growing old, not letting go of childish things. Vampires are invariably depicted not with the wisdom one of expect of an immortal, but with juvenile greed. Thanks in no small part to Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers, vampires are regularly imagined as thirsting not only for blood, but also for glamour and power. Occasionally vampires are as pure predators (Blade 2 and 30 Days of Night, notably), and in these cases, the vampires are rather more fun and less objectionable: I found it very hard to sympathise with beautiful immortals played by R-Pattz, Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, frankly.

So, can anyone recommend me some good, modern horror films which have something to say?

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