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Scarily obvious: why the horror genre needs to drop clumsy metaphors | Horror films

In the new Alex Garland thriller, Men, Jessie Buckley plays a woman whose holiday in the English countryside curdles into a surreal nightmare. Her tormenter is at once singular and plural: a whole village of hostile strangers, all with the face and voice of Rory Kinnear. Garland, the sci-fi novelist who wrote and directed Ex Machina and Annihilation (both likewise fixated, to some degree, on questions of gender), never explains the nature of this menacing anomaly, this apparent hive mind of identical stalkers. But anyone who’s watched a few horror movies this past decade will know what our poor heroine is up against. She’s being hunted by (gasp!) a fearsome, oversized metaphor.

Is there a more prolific monster in all of modern cinema? The ghastly metaphor prowls the multiplex and the art house alike, shapeshifting like the creature from The Thing to accommodate the allegorical needs of high-minded film-makers everywhere. It can look like mental illness. Or like some particular social ill. Its dominant shape, in dozens of morose festival favorites, is grief or trauma. In Men, the unholy beast takes the form of misogyny – specifically, a historic tendency to blame women for everything. (If the title doesn’t make the film’s aims clear enough, there’s the opening scene, where Buckley pulls an apple from a tree in a garden. Does it count as some kind of restraint on Garland’s part that he hasn’t gone right ahead and just named the character Eve?)

We are living in an age of metaphorical horror – of scary movies that strive, loudly and unsubtly, to be about something scarier than a sharp knife or sharp fangs, something real and important. The monster that’s more than a monster is nothing new, of course. Just ask any scholar of vampire or werewolf lore what these enduring folkloric icons can represent, or what they have over the centuries. And for as long as there have been horror films, there have been horror film-makers channeling our screw ups and hang ups and anxieties – trampling model cities for the sins of Oppenheimer, equating the living dead to mindless shoppers, building haunted houses from a Freudian blueprint.

Robyn Nevin and Emily Mortimer in Relic.
Robyn Nevin and Emily Mortimer in Relic. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Thing is, all that used to be subtext. Today’s class of metaphorical horror puts it right there on the surface. Think of a movie like the recent Relic, which makes zero attempt to hide the fact that its supernatural entity is a proxy for the horrors of dementia. Watching it, you don’t so much shudder in fright as nod in sad, respectful recognition. Who can scream when they’re thinking, somberly, “There but for the grace of God go I”? Other times, the metaphor can drift from frightening to just plain distasteful. Lights Out works splendidly as a jump-scare machine, less so as an exploration of crippling depression.

These are films that basically write their own academic papers aloud, doing the interpretative labor for the audience. At their worst, they can play more like equations than thrillers: solve for X to reveal the cultural or psychological issue the monster is blatantly representing. Not that every film-maker even settles on just one metaphorical function. Last year’s Antlers, a prestige studio creature feature as relentlessly dour as it is well-crafted, turns its rampaging mythological threat into a totem for just about every major problem in America: opioid addiction, child abuse, the destruction of the environment, you name it. It’s the kind of overfreighted concoction that makes one wonder if a horror movie about nothing might be preferable to one about everything.

Plenty of great horror films released over the last few years have privileged a message above cheap thrills, and deployed a metaphor without surrendering scares. But for every Babadook or Get Out or It Follows (a movie that benefits, incidentally, from the slipperiness of its metaphor – no, the “it” is not a walking STD), there’s a dozen more horror films that seem to exist only to present a simple, barely concealed idea. Watching them, you start to sympathize a little with the mob of purists waving their pitchforks at any scare fare highbrow enough to be classified, in useless buzz-word parlance, as “elevated.” For too many of these prospective critical darlings, elevating horror really just means making explicit all the meaty brain fodder that the towering classics of the 70s had the good sense to leave safely, productively submerged.

Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in Antlers
Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in Antlers Photograph: Kimberly French/AP

On the nose title aside, Men is far from the most egregious offender in this department. Garland knows how to envelop a viewer in an otherworldly atmosphere, a fairy-tale unease. And he doesn’t skimp on the shocks – especially in the climax, in which the director finds a truly grotesque, imaginative way to visualize his big #YesAllMen point. (As David Cronenberg could tell you, it’s always effective, ballasting the cerebral with the grossly visceral.) Yet the film’s blunt messaging, on point though it may be, still blunts some of its power: Garland has made a movie so thematically transparent that it can’t help but put a safe intellectual distance between itself and the viewer. It sacrifices the true dread of the unknown at the altar of an easily unpacked thesis. It’s metaphorical (a.k.a. “about something”) to a fault.

The great horror films, the truly terrifying ones, tend to operate on a more irrational level. They have a touch of madness to them, speaking to the primal fears rattling around our heads. They can’t be easily solved or explained. It’s what Stephen King meant when we wrote about the poetry of fear, and how nightmares exist outside of logic. And it’s what Tobe Hooper capitalized so diabolically upon in 1974 when he made the slaughterhouse fright machine to rule them all – another movie, like Men, about a young city slicker who strays unwisely into the boonies. Dive into his Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and you’ll find all kinds of ideas: about class warfare, about industrialization, about the cannibalistic maw of capitalism. But Hooper kept them under the skin, in the background instead of the foreground. They were secondary to his main goal, which was scaring the living piss out of people. Mission accomplished, no metaphor required.

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