“Fear plays an interesting role in our lives. How dare we let it motivate us? How dare we let it into our decision-making, into our livelihoods, into our relationships? It’s funny isn’t it, we take a day a year to dress up in costume and celebrate fear?”
— Robert California (James Spader) from Spooked [The Office, 2011]
As I get older, the line between “thriller” and “horror” continues to blur. What we commonly classify as horror films tend to put the macabre and gore front and center, while thrillers rely more heavily on anxiety and dread. While I have seen some macabre and gory stuff in my time, it is precisely the aforementioned anxiety and dread that are very real presences in my daily life. As a result, what moves me to fright seems to change over time and it doesn’t always look like a monsters, murderers, and the overtly supernatural (though my love for these things in film remains strong).
I offer nothing new when I point out that historically, many of the best modern horror films (and I use “modern” very loosely—I’m thinking Night of the Living Dead and after) blur the lines of genre and don’t adhere strictly to particular tropes or expectations native to that genre. Some evoke the most dread by never revealing anything explicitly horrifying. Other genres use elements of the expectations of horror to create something new, and this equation can be especially potent in comedy. Largely, the following films queer the lines of genre in one way or another, while honoring horror at their core. Some display more allegiance to the genre than others, some are comedies that exploit the trope for laughs, and some are straight thrillers that put the mind in places that explicit simulacrum of gore and the macabre could never achieve (see: Funny Games and The Vanishing).
All, I think, can be enjoyed by horror fans and skeptics alike.
What We Do in the Shadows: From the early films of Peter Jackson to last year’s Housebound, New Zealand has been responsible for putting out some incredible horror comedies and I think What We Do in the Shadows is one of the very best of this cross-over genre. A mockumentary about 4 vampires living at flatmates, it owes a great deal to Christopher Guest, and, in my option, surpasses many of his films (and is on par with Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap). It features, among others, the hilarious Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Concords fame.
Creep: Between Creep, It Follows (below), and a handful of other films that have recently emerged, it feels like we exist in a new era of auteur horror. Creep is “found footage” done right in that it is more character driven than focused on the “found footage” conceit itself. It is a lot of fun and puts the viewer in proximity to a number of uncomfortable and seemingly plausible scenarios. In the title role, Mark Duplass is fantastic.
DEATHGASM: Another New Zealand horror comedy, Deathgasm isn’t as smart as Shadows but it’s fun nonetheless. Kids in a metal band accidentally summon demons and are then faced with fighting said demons off. In some ways, it feels like Napoleon Dynamite meets This is the End and so what it lacks in intelligence, it makes up for in charm.
It Follows: I feel like It Follows was huge and beloved among critics, but I’ve found very few people who have actually seen the film. It is about a handful of kids in their late teens / very early 20s who are stalked by something supernatural. It’s beautiful, feels incredibly menacing, and builds a sense of anxiety masterfully. It creates the lingering feeling I always felt in the back of my head, and sometimes front and center, between the ages of 17 and 25. On the surface it’s about horror, and underneath it might be about sex, coming of age, and/or figuring out how to make it in the face of the collapse of modern capitalism.
Nightmare On Elm Street II: If you’re already in the know this is super old news, but this is “the gay Nightmare on Elm Street.” It is full of gay allegory and imagery, and stars then-closeted actor Mark Patton, who was clearly sorting through the material on and off screen. It is certainly the most genre specific on this list, but you should definitely watch it in preparation for checking out Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. The documentary is about Patton, the industry in the 80s, and the impact the film had on a segment of the gay community.
Sunshine: Sunshine is long and slow, but builds sort of beautifully. It is typically overlooked for Danny Boyle’s more on the nose horror contribution, the spectacular 28 Days Later. It owes a great deal to Alien and I’m guessing a ton of acid. Looking back at this, Alien, and The Martian, we as a species have a tremendous anxiety about getting stranded in space, huh?
The Vanishing (1988): If you don’t know anything about this, just watch it without reading up on it. Oh my God.
Funny Games (1997): Go with the original as opposed to the American remake. There is something about the feel of 80s and 90s French and German thrillers that feels particularly exploitative. (I’m thinking the French precursors to movies like Irreversible and Martyrs in particular.) The Vanishing (above) matches this description as well. Maybe it’s the film stock or the lighting, or that, shot with lower budgets, they feel a little cheaper and uneasy and even more terrifying. Supposedly, Funny Games is essentially a lecture to the viewer that they are barbaric idiots for undergoing the experience, but in a world in which ISIS videos are a thing, the commentary sort of feels moot. That said, it is so terrible and tense and upsetting, and defies a great deal of expectations while still offering interesting insights on an audience’s relationship with fiction and reality. It is fairly safe to say you won’t be able to guess how it ends, or some of the twists that occur, and that it breaks paradigms that existed somewhat rigidly before it came along.
Shivers: For a movie that came out only a handful of years before it seemed like AIDS was going to make entire populations go extinct, Cronenberg’s film about an outbreak of a murderous STD feels remarkably prophetic. Trigger Warning for lots and lots of sexual violence.
Every Roseanne Halloween episode ever: Growing up in a working class household in the 80s and 90s, Roseanne was the closest representation to my existence I knew of as a kid and I loved the Halloween episodes. They captured that feeling that it was nice that there was a season in which you could celebrate being someone/somewhere else, particular when times were tough as they often were for the fictional Connor family. Here, Geek Legacy examines the best and the worst of Roseanne episodes.
Hocus Pocus: Come on now. Not horror whatsoever, but very best for the whole family. We watch it with our daughter every year.
The Office: The series had a handful of amazing Halloween scenes, but Spooked (2011) takes the cake. The show got a lot of crap (from me and many others) for having gone off the rails when Carrell left, but there were a number of delightful moments. This episode features many of those moments coming together and works incredibly well for a number of reasons. It the apex of the reintroduction of James Spader as charismatic psychopath.