Dennis Broe discerns a renewal of energy in the tired old formulae of the horror film, as film-makers draw on the horrors of everyday life under an ever more destructive, greedier capitalism.
Any assessment of the best films of 2016, as critics around this time of the year are wont to do, has to take account of the new power of traditional genres to illuminate contemporary truths.
I’m talking particularly about the Korean horror film the Last Train To Busan, a zombie thriller whose subtext is the horror of neoliberal life and its stifling of all collective feeling; The Witch, as good a film as has ever been made about the way a particular brand of fervent Puritanism continues to inflect and infect the American psyche; and the upcoming Brimstone, a Dutch film set in the American West which uses elements of horror in its perennial battle between a woman’s desire and a stifling and violent macho culture, justified under a kind of religious and military fanaticism that predominates in the history of the Western.
This is not even to mention Don’t Breathe where the horror of the contemporary American urban nightmare of under or non-funded inner cities is metastasized into a battle in Detroit between urban raiders taking advantage of the situation and a Iraqi war vet whose sadism is the detritus of the US Middle East colonial wars, and the related reviving of the disaster genre, distant cousin to horror, in the blockbuster crossing of it with the contemporary social problem film in Deepwater Horizon, so that just when British Petroleum thought it was safe to go back into the world’s waters we have the nightmare they inflicted on Louisiana retold as a corporate disaster on the scale of Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.
It really is not surprising that in today’s world horror is a genre that draws directors. What is different is that, globally, a good number of these films are moving beyond the splatter aspect of the genre and into more sophisticated dystopian imaginings of contemporary events. Where horror in the first decade of the millennium was defined by the Hollywood splat pack epitomized by Saw where sadistic effect is piled upon sadistic effect in a reflexivity or consciousness about the genre that substituted gore for the comic sophistication of Wes Craven’s Scream, and by reactionary pieces such as Hostel where the other of the American empire, the strangeness of life outside the neo-liberal order, was villainized. The one film worth remembering from the whole lot was Cabin Fever which cast a negative light on the now no longer innocent band of privileged teens previously in the genre only victims but in this film also victimizers.
Humanity does appear to be at an impasse in a number of areas. There seems to be no real will to stop global warming as energy companies become more and more vicious in their pursuit of profit, seen currently in the unleashing of dogs on peaceful protestors in land of the Lakota. There are more and more areas of the globe simply written off as no longer profit centers and with people in those areas being offered only right-wing demagoguery or Trumpisms as an alternative. And finally, neoliberal governing mechanisms, nominally called democratic, everywhere being exposed as simply under the command of a global oligarchy with the processes incapable of producing anything like true representatives of the people. 58% of the electorate in the US viewed unfavourable the two puerile mouthpieces who recently contested the presidency.
In this increasingly catastrophic world, along comes the most important representative of the new political horror Korea with the resplendent Last Train to Busan, a zombie film for the neoliberal age. It is unlike The Walking Dead, whose subtext is simply how to manage the empire in the wake of its personal catastrophe of 9/11 – how much violence does one use to subdue the world’s population of zombies who are sleepwalking through existence? Here, the film’s virus that causes the zombie breakout throughout the world, and specifically on a single train, is tied to nuclear radiation leaks, recalling nearby Fukushima, the winds from which must have affected the neighbouring island of Korea.
The penetration of nature by these deadly manmade energy sources is forecast in a truly frightening and wondrous opening where a deer, become roadkill by a pig farmer, rises reborn as a creature of the dead, as so much of nature is now stillborn. On the train we witness the force of the zombies penetrating every strata of society, but two business types stand out.
The lead character is a financial manager, on the train with the daughter he often neglects, who is reborn as a human being in the course of helping others in combatting the outbreak. In contrast the most vicious of the zombie-battlers is a corporate CEO who sacrifices everyone in his single minded desire to stay alive, utterly devoid of all fellow feeling, as accurate a depiction of the neoliberal ethos as has been rendered on screen.
The train hurtles toward Busan, the site of one of the major battles of the Korean War, and it is here in the finale that the human survivors of the zombie attack are met with a line of soldiers recalling the primal trauma on the island of a war inflicted on it by the great powers. Though the city has been remade as a global production capital, Busan for Koreans still bears the scars of those never healed wounds.
The film is in the line of two earlier Korean horror-disaster films, The Host, concerning a seaside city menaced by a aqueous monster begot in the labs of the still occupying American army and Snowpiercer, a dystopian fable about the wages of climate change which this film acknowledges by the former film’s lead appearing on the zombie train, broken down and in tatters, muttering over and over “We’re all dead.”
Busan is contemporaneous with another Korean horror film, The Stranger, where horrible murders in a village are tied to a Japanese recluse who haunts the countryside long after the end of the brutal Japanese colonial period.
Why the mastery of these genres in contemporary Korea? For one, the Korean cinema is duplicating its role as trendsetter in Asian television by challenging Western distribution in Asia with extravagant genre films with a regional bent. But the force and vociferousness of these generic creations owes much to the horrors in Korean history – the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the South Korean dictatorship, and the current inability to reunite the island – and the willingness of Korean directors to transmute this tragedy into a form in the horror and disaster film in which it can be contemplated. This has energized genres that had atrophied, partly from becoming too shielded from the social world.
And Hollywood is following suit. Don’t Breathe utilizes the ravaging of Detroit as subtext for its intimate horror, inside the last house inhabited on a block destroyed by the city’s debt, which has been foisted on it by its banks. The film recalls Wes Craven’s resplendent People Under the Stairs of a quarter of a century ago when the devastation wrecked on the inner city of Philadelphia is seen from the inside by its black inhabitants as fueled in a horror mansion by a sado-masochistic Caucasian Mommy and Daddy who torture the neighborhoods downcast.
Craven in his social attitudes follows a line in the horror film that dates back to WW2 impresario Val Lewton whose nine horror films, including Cat People, a branding of the Serbian female other and The Leopard Man, which materializes the horror of Latino treatment in the US, together present a savage critique of American normalcy. Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow in its treatment of Haitian voodoo as desperate cry of a former colonial downcast people recalls directly Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie where the horror of a Caribbean island is tied to its history as a sugarcane plantation.
Don’t Breathe, in the Lewton/Craven line is a well-drawn, basically single set-piece where the trauma inflicted on the city is reflected in equal measure by the young housebreakers who are attempting to flee and the blind war vet who has lost his daughter, but who reenacts his pain in the most violent of ways, a reversal of Audrey Hepburn’s victimized blind woman in Wait Until Dark.
The new and important wrinkle in all of these films is the contemporary social setting that grounds the film and lets in and references directly the horrors of the modern global capitalist world. Thus in Don’t Breathe we get a montage of the deserted houses on the same block as the one the intruders are attacking. This element of social reality is even more strongly at play in Deepwater in the interpolation of an almost fetishistic recreation of life on board the Deepwater Horizon just before and after the disaster, including featuring and naming the members of the crew who will become victims of BP’s drive for profits, as a cagily evil John Malkovich, instead of his usual over-the-top villainous persona, refuses safety tests and pushes the drilling that results in the spill. Just as Don’t Breathe cuts to a variety of shots of devastated Detroit, so too Deepwater contains a series of shots which describe the awesome destruction, a true attack on nature, of deepwater drilling where the earth is pounded in ways it cannot sustain.
These films constitute a global change in renewing tired generic formulas by investing in them the horrors of daily life under an ever more destructive and ever greedier capitalism.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.