6 titles in the horror genre that offer social commentary
For some, horror means slashers, monster movies and popcorn thrills. Pure entertainment escapism is a defining element of the genre, but it runs so much deeper when you consider that Godzilla (the 2014 version is on Showmax) was originally a symbol for the nuclear decimation and fall-out following the bombing of Hiroshima.
Mining fear through metaphor, horror can help us deal with unresolved or challenging social and political issues. Get an inside look at these six horrors with timely social commentaries that are sure to get you thinking – and streaming.
While it’s set in the 1950s, Lovecraft Country has a contemporary and progressive feel, reflecting the journey of black men and women in the Jim Crow South with the here-and-now. Based on the novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country follows a man who embarks on a dangerous road trip with his childhood friend and uncle in search of his father.
Series creator Misha Green has risen through the ranks as a writer turned producer with Helix and Underground in her wake. Bringing Jurnee Smollett along for the ride and teaming up with JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele as executive producers, we now have Lovecraft Country, a period horror fantasy thriller. Leading the charge is Jonathan Majors, a bookworm turned badass, who returns to town as the heroic Atticus Freeman.
Given free rein, Green churns out an entertaining series rich in Lovecraft lore that tries to stay a step ahead of its audience. In a taste of what’s to come, it starts with a showcase of visual effects to link a love for reading with the quest and trials ahead. As a piece of social commentary, Lovecraft Country has similarities with the Oscar-winning 2018 movie Green Book, representing the inherent racism of the Deep South as part of a road trip. Using a map to identify monsters, the expedition treats difficult socio-political matters with a fantasy edge.
IMDB rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%
Great films grapple with subtext of what’s implied or unseen. Think of the classic films you know and love: taking a literal read on these invisible elements tends to make for a visually enticing, intriguing and suspenseful thrill ride. Whether it’s Chevy Chase in a cheesy comedy or Kevin Bacon in a creepy horror, these high concept visual effects hold entertainment value and impact. The Invisible Man works on both levels, as a paranoid woman tries to escape the long shadow of her abusive ex, whose death appears to have been a hoax.
The Invisible Man is from the mind of actor turned writer-director Leigh Whannell, who unearthed Insidious Chapter III and Upgrade. Taking on the difficult lead role as Cecilia is Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), who continues to impress with a string of strong live-in-the-moment performances.
An elegant, eerie and sleek horror thriller, The Invisible Man also serves as an incisive social commentary about abuse. Exploring a woman’s struggle to move on with her life, the film toys with the long-lasting effects of being in such a destructive relationship. Extending the metaphor, the relentless pursuit from an invisible attacker heightens suspense and comes to represent the physical danger as well as Cecilia’s psychological devastation.
IMDB rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 91%
Them (Amazon Prime)
Fantasy elements can help us grapple with powerful or heavy themes, opting for a more subtle approach in deconstructing socio-political issues. The horror drama thriller anthology series Them chooses to straddle the bounds of fantasy and reality to represent othering and racial tension in a 1950s neighbourhood. Moving from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles community during a period known as The Great Migration, the Emory family experience a growing malevolence as overt racism erupts and otherworldly evil seeks to destroy them.
Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas and Alison Pill headline this devastating if blunt series with stand-out performances. Going all out in a bid to soak up the terror of the Emorys’ difficult domestic situation, Them is in full flight from episode 1, as the family is immersed into their dream home only to discover they’re in Hell.
Taken from the perspective of a Pleasantville community with a squadron of Stepford Wives, this social commentary plunges headlong into the psychological torment of groupthink and extreme racism. As in Get Out, series creator Little Marvin delivers a head-on examination of racism and horror without holding back. While not as refined as Peele’s film, this a handsomely mounted, provocative and terrifying piece of entertainment.
IMDB rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 63%
Jordan Peele became an overnight success with Get Out, a razor-sharp psychological horror thriller that uses underlying racial tension to fuel unsettling horror and biting social commentary. The much-anticipated Us follows Get Out’s winning formula, using a similar genre blend to captivate, entertain and provoke. Though Peele is best known as an actor, it seems as though the his late awakening is only the start, with two directorial credits and one film in the pipeline.
Us stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss in an eerie, shadowy world of doppelgangers. Nyong’o was outstanding in 12 Years a Slave, returning to top form in telling another powerful story in Us. We start with young Adelaide’s haunting encounter at a fun house hall of mirrors, and then fast forward to her adulthood, when she and her family take a vacation at the same seaside destination.
Exploring class, race, privilege and the concept of family, Us isn’t as overt as Get Out in its examination of the American experience. While Peele’s direct social commentary of pernicious racism left no doubt in its attempt to reflect the experience of being black, Us is much more open-ended and symbolic. Hingeing on the fear of the outsider, in Us, Peele aims to entertain and spark conversations.
Us is on Showmax until 28 May 2021, and lands on Netflix the following day.
IMDB rating: 6.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93%
The Platform (Netflix)
Prison dramas are almost never as inspiring or uplifting as The Shawshank Redemption. They’re usually dark, provocative and unsettling, as a falsely accused or undercover inmate tries to survive in extreme and life-threatening conditions. The Platform takes this twisted undercurrent and turns it into a pulsating sci-fi mystery horror drama by stacking the cells to create a tower of torment. We journey with Goreng, who wakes up in a multi-level confinement facility where inmates are forced to feed off the same banquet table as it makes a slow descent.
Starring Ivan Massagué (think Paul Dano meets Dev Patel), The Platform is a gut-wrenching and nightmarish vision from Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. A brutally simple concept, this tightly wound and stylish horror ratchets up tension like Cube and Saw, as human nature and basic needs are deconstructed through the challenge of each new level and cell mate.
A metaphorical examination of the haves and have-nots, the movie’s feudal ranking system is a great launchpad for thought-provoking socio-political commentary. As we see the inmates switching levels and literally being forced to survive off scraps from a king’s banquet table, we get a damning representation of society. Those with extra show little concern for those on the lowest rungs until there’s no choice but reform, rebellion or suicide.
IMDB rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 80%
His House (Netflix)
The haunted house horror genre gets a welcome refresh in this eerie horror thriller drama. A brilliant social reinterpretation, this is a surprising feature film debut for writer-director Remi Weekes, whose confident and thoughtful choices make him seem more seasoned. The story journeys with Bol and Rial, who escape war-torn South Sudan and struggle to adjust to their new home and life in a small English town.
The horror’s co-stars Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku (who you’ll recognise from Lovecraft Country) are a revelation, carrying the character’s ghosts as custodians of much more haunting issues. While unknown, their relative anonymity heightens the suspense as we easily slip into their brave new world. Adding some weight to the ensemble and serving as an avatar is Matt Smith (Official Secrets) as the couple’s managing agent.
One of the strongest elements to this kitchen-sink drama is how it uses horror to explore heavy themes around immigration, the world’s refugee crisis and some of Africa’s real-life horrors. Hollywood tends to glamourise the continent with The Lion King and Black Panther’s regal idealisations, but if you want to reveal some of its darkest secrets, watch films like I Am Not a Witch and The Train of Salt & Sugar.
IMDB rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 100%