Five Horror Movies for Book Snobs
‘Tis the season for horror movie binging. Hear the singing?
But for many of us here at Quirk, Halloween fare lacks a certain something. Hacked-up teens and creepy crawlers are great and all, but we book nerds need something more. Is internal conflict too much to ask of the horror genre?
Not so. Here are five horror movies especially for book snobs. Join in the holiday spirit without sacrificing cinematic and narrative quality.
To make our list, included movies needed to share certain thematic elements more common to great literary works: a dynamic protagonist, existential crises, social isolationism, familial conflicts, gender/sexuality ramifications, and forays into mental illness.
But most of all, these films share a “transgressive antagonist.” In other words, the big baddie isn’t pure-evil incarnate. No blood-thirsty killing machines, a la the big three…
Freddy, Leatherface, Jason, Mike Meyers and Chucky have their place. They’re great for getting you to the blood and guts quicker, but they don’t provide much narrative richness (the exception being the underrated early experiment in “meta,” Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
The following movies all have scary, supernatural, Halloweeny moments and monsters in them, but these characters are also a lot more human. They have souls. They have needs. They are looking for love, and all the places are wrong, wrong, wrong! Some of them find fulfillment, but never before stumbling and bumbling through a good, old-fashioned Halloween blood bath.
#5: The Babadook (2014), dir. Jennifer Kent:
One sentence synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
The Babadook: You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy.
Why it’s worth your time: Is it us, or does the Babadook book seem like something that might have been on the Quirk roster? The film is a gripping thesis on grief and despair, while examining the nuanced complexities of maternity. Kent renders a devastating portrait of isolation in examining single parenting, especially when spousal loss, mental instability and behavioral disorders muddy the mix. There is an authority in her directorial vision that makes the Babadook’s ambiguous horrors unshakably real.
For the horror purists: Beasties and ghoulies, creepy kids, graphic violence, jump scares, dead animals, sex, killer food, severed limbs, deranged moms (the most horrible of the horror movies offered here).
Essential question: Can’t a momma catch a break, anyways?
#4: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2015), dir. Ana Lily Amapour:
One sentence synopsis: In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire.
Arash: If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?
Why it’s worth your time: While not ultimately as feminist as some reviewers read the film, Amapour’s nostalgic, colorless, almost silent dreamscape (there is astoundingly little dialogue in this film) sets up a creepy, highly-stylized love story. The film captures the raw energy and ambivalent turmoil of new, young love better than a thousand rom-coms. A solid entry into the ever growing sub-genre of feminine mystique horror.
For the horror purists: Vampires, severed limbs, sex (read: boobs), drugs and blood-sucking kills (second least horror-movie-ish of the offerings).
Essential question: Can we get out of here, if we get out of here together, anyways? (Think Iranian Thunder Road)?
#3: The Witch (2016), dir. Tomas Alfredson:
One sentence synopsis: When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, a 17th Century New England family turns on one another; beyond their worst fears, a supernatural evil lurks in the nearby wood.
Memorable quote: None. You seriously won’t understand a single thing anyone says, anyway.
Why it’s worth your time: Holy Alexander Hamilton, are the 1700s having a moment?
Movies like this one only come along once in a very great while. Dark and insidious, atmospheric and mind-bendingly creepy. The film more aptly blends the universal conflicts of puberty vs. patriarchy with the specific, but profound Hawthornian conflict of 17th Century piety vs practical living. The struggle here is real (i.e. feeding a family, not freezing to death), but imagination runs amok.
For the horror purists: Witches of the crone and hot varieties (duh), severed limbs, demonic animals, graphic violence, jump scares, possessions, exorcisms, dark scary woods and so many goats.
Essential question: Why the hell did we come to this god forsaken country, anyways?
#2: Only Lovers Left Alive (2008), dir. Jim Jarmusch:
One sentence synopsis: A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance – which has already endured several centuries – is disrupted by the arrival of her uncontrollable younger sister.
Ava: [after she has drained Ian of blood] Oh, I didn't mean to, he was just so cute. And now I feel sick.
Eve: What do you expect, he's from the f*cking music industry!
Why it’s worth your time: Hip, emo vampires sitting around decaying Detroit, pondering the “point of it all.” But their “it all” has a hell of a lot more context than ours. Jarmusch is doing more than allowing his centuries-old characters to complain about the death of art and culture, he is actually predicting the end to art and culture. The arrival of Adam’s destructive kid sister, mindlessly and recklessly short-sighted, seems to pin this fate squarely at the feet of millennials. Sorry. Yet, the ending kill inspires hope in the form of romantic love.
For the horror purists: Vampires, hipsters, hipster vampires, sex, blood-drinking, cheeky comebacks, sexy blood-drinking, sarcasm, emo blood-drinking, double-entendres and nerd ponderings (the most un-horror movie of the offerings).
Essential question: What does it all mean, anyways?
#1: Let the Right One In (2008), dir. Tomas Alfredson:
One sentence synopsis: Eli is eleven-years-old. She’s been eleven-years-old for 200 years. And she just moved in next door.
Oskar: Are you a vampire?
Eli: I live off blood… Yes.
Oskar: Are you… dead?
Eli: No. Can't you tell?
Oskar: But… Are you old?
Eli: I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time.
Why it’s worth your time: The best vampire film ever, and one of the genre’s best as well. A bittersweet, strangely touching and deeply affecting tale of friendship set against the bleak Swedish winter. Exquisitely shot, lit and acted, the movie forces viewers to consider the boundaries of friendship and the ethics of redemption.
For the horror purists: Vampires, severed limbs, demonic animals, graphic violence, a vampire “turning” scene, jump scares, and one of the most memorable endings to a horror movie…ever.
Essential question: What is the price of real friendship?
Other Honorable Mentions: Cabin in the Woods, The Devil’s Backbone, It Follows, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Sixth Sense, REC & Teeth.
Joe Costal knows too much about stupid Halloween songs. His writing has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, most recently Philadelphia Stories and The Maine Review. His poetry is included in Challenges for the Delusional II by Diode Editions. An excerpt from his novel is forthcoming in Painted Bride. Joe teaches writing at Stockton University. Visit him online at joecostal.com.