Horror is a genre of subtext. It's all about repression, about what lurks beneath the surface, or in the shadows. About what we can't quite see. It's a dark, distorted mirror held up to the real world. Even the most fanciful horror story usually has some kind of real-world allegory at work. The smartest horror movies often have surprising hidden meanings - and even the dumbest ones have unexpected depths.
From satires of consumerism to allegories about the AIDS crisis, from anti-fascist fairytales to parables about "coming out," these films all offer more than meets the eye at first glance. If you've seen these films before, watch them again through a new lens and see if they can give up some previously hidden secrets. If you haven't, maybe you'll find a film that speaks to you on a level you didn't imagine before.
Either way, here are a handful of familiar horror films that are actually about much more than they seem at first sight.
George A. Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead has been credited with kicking off "the transitional period between the Gothic and the modern" in horror film. "Humans were now the true monsters in horror, injected with metaphors of real life terrors."
There are those who consider Dawn of the Dead, the sequel Romero made with the help of fellow horror master Dario Argento a decade later, to be not only Romero's masterpiece, but also one of the greatest films ever made. Even those who may not be ready to make such highfalutin claims, however, agree that Dawn is "a biting (pun not intended), cynical, damning satire on the exploitation of consumerism."
The root of this satire lies in the film's primary location: the Monroeville Mall in Romero's native Pennsylvania, which was, at the time, one of the largest malls in the nation. As both the living and the living dead flock back to the mall, both groups not really knowing why, and vie for control of it, the zombies become a metaphor for mindless consumerism, even as the living humans who stand against them reflect another side of the same coin. "It's ours," one of the characters says, as they defend the mall against a crew of bikers near the end of the film. "We took it. It's ours."
- Actors: Tom Savini, Ken Foree, James A. Baffico, Howard Smith, David Early
- Released: 1978
- Directed by: George A. Romero
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
"You see, Mr. Parker and I feel that the bonus situation has never been on an equitable level," Harry Dean Stanton's Brett says in Alien, one of the many times he and Yaphet Kotto's Parker bring up pay and their working conditions. "You'll get what you're contracted for, like everybody else," the captain replies, to which Brett points out, "Everybody else gets more than us."
Later in the film, it's revealed that "the company" employing everyone on board has intentionally put them in danger in order to secure the alien life form that's steadily wiping them out. "Priority one," the company's special order reads, "ensure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable." Writing for the BFI, Charles Graham-Dixon discusses the workers' rights themes of the film, and makes a compelling case that the alien itself is a metaphor for the cold-blooded corporate interests that exploit the blue-collar workers on board the Nostromo.
Ash, who turns out to be a plant for the company, describes the creature as "the perfect organism... unclouded by conscience or remorse or delusions of morality."
- Actors: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton
- Released: 1979
- Directed by: Ridley Scott
'Freddy's Revenge' Is A Coming Out ParablePhoto: Warner Bros.
According to Mark Patton, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, the picture has been called "the gayest horror film ever made." It's a label that has caused Patton a lot of grief over the years. At the time of filming, he was not yet out, and was encouraged by his manager to remain in the closet to help his career. Yet, with the film's heavy homoerotic subtext, he felt like, "My movie was being outed and I didn’t know how I felt about that."
It didn't help that, according to Patton, the film's director and screenwriter feigned ignorance of - or outright denied - the film's gay subtext, positions they have both since reversed. Screenwriter David Chaskin wrote, "Homophobia was skyrocketing and I began to think about our core audience - adolescent boys - and how all of this stuff might be trickling down into their psyches at an age when raging hormones often produce dreams and urges that make them (if only unconsciously) begin to question their own sexuality. My thought was that tapping into that angst would give an extra edge to the horror."
Patton has since channeled his experiences on the film into the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, while the film itself has enjoyed a reappraisal as a cult classic of queer representation. According to BuzzFeed, "The heavily coded queerness that was once a mark against it has become a charmingly dated relic of another time, and a selling point for cult connoisseurs."
- Photo: New World Pictures
"If there’s any movie that made me respect cheesy exploitation movies, it’s this wonderfully cheesy slumber party slasher full of pizza, nudie magazines, and girls chopping off metaphorical penises," Emanuela Betti wrote for Bitch Media, describing the unlikely feminist slasher Slumber Party Massacre. What looks like "a straight slasher movie" was, Betti argues, "written to be a mock parody of exploitation movies, as well as a satire of masculinity in the slasher genre."
Directed by Amy Holden Jones and written by novelist and feminist activist Rita Mae Brown, Slumber Party Massacre "deconstructs the prevailing sexism and masculinity in the slasher genre, offering one of the most entertaining feminist exploitation movies ever made." It does this by using the typical "male gaze" of these movies to "directly point out how this group of girls is the target of a voyeuristic threat, and are purposely being objectified through these male character’s gazes to show that they are in fact the victims of the killer’s drill, but also of the male gaze." The film also turns that gaze on its head in the form of characters Valerie and her sister Courtney, who flip through issues of Playgirl magazine.
- Actors: Robin Stille, Michael Villella, Debra Deliso, Michele Michaels, Andree Honore
- Released: 1982
- Directed by: Amy Holden Jones