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Films like “Us” prove horror can be thrilling and terrifying, while still having something meaningful to say; here are 10 of our favorite examples.

Each month, our staff picks a cinematic theme and recommends our favorite horror films related to that theme. This month, in honor of the release of one of 2019’s biggest films, Jordan Peele’s Us, our theme is Messages and Metaphors. We’ll be highlighting films that combine traditional horror elements with deeper themes about human nature and society. The following films deal with issues as diverse as political unrest to personal identity, from the dissolution of a relationship to the destruction of a civilization. Sometimes the themes are overt, while other times the deeper meaning may be harder to extrapolate — or more open to interpretation.

Check out our top ten list below and sound off in the comments if you think we missed the mark or missed highlighting your favorite message-driven horror film. 


1. A SERBIAN FILM (2010)

Recommended by Megan Hopkin

One needn’t be a hardened horror buff to be aware of Srdjan Spasojevic‘s notorious A Serbian Film. With a mammoth 49 cuts implemented by the BBFC, the flick has both been demonized and heralded as horror royalty in equal measures.

The plot, in its most basic form, is nothing new: father of young family seeks to improve the lives of said young family, father becomes embroiled in some dubious matters, father thereby spirals into situations which get worse and worse until father eventually succumbs to the Bad Thing. The father figure in this tale takes the form of Miloš, a retired pornstar down on his luck and eager to make a quick buck. Under the guise of working for an “art film”, Miloš becomes embroiled in a series of dark scenes which quickly evolve into murder, necrophilia and paedophilia.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this film does not end with a happy family skipping off into the sunset. Serbian actors Srđan Todorović and Sergej Trifunović work fantastically on screen to cultivate a growing sense of inevitability and ceaselessness amidst a blood thumping soundtrack. With the credits finally rolling across the screen, one leaves the film feeling deeply perturbed: in search of thrills and screams, am I part of the problem?

Anyone who has seen, lest read, anything about Serbian Film knows what makes it stand out from the crowd: the hideous melding of sex and violence, and their role in corrupting youth. The dichotomy between the safety of familial ties is turned on its head early in the flick: with mothers and fathers partaking it terrible deeds all in the name of pornography.

In many ways, A Serbian Film documents the visceral effects of consumerism upon human relationships. The pursuit of self-fulfillment becomes paramount in a society of instant gratification and constantly queries as to where the line may be drawn with regards to fantasy.

Director Srdjan Spasojevic insists that the film is more than shock horror for the sake of rallying collective gasps from the viewership. He vehemently asserts: “This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do”. The film serves as a sincere political allegory, with a simplistic concept articulated through the graphic scenes of brutal sex and mutilation: “the government fucks everyone”.

2. FRONTIERS (2007)

Recommended by Steven Fouchard

When the call went out for contributions to this list of ‘message movies’, I immediately thought of Frontier(s). I began to watch it for the first time in many years and was soon wondering why. The smash cut-heavy editing is reminiscent of early-‘90s MTV, meaning it looked dated even when Frontier(s) was new. There’s also too much reliance on shaky cam to create tension and, in the final moments, it makes Dead Alive look restrained – albeit without the intentional humor.

And then, slowly, I began to kind of love it again.

It’s France in the not-too-distant future – about a decade on from the George W. Bush regime. A group of youth from the Paris suburbs has pulled off a violent heist amidst the chaos of riots triggered by the election of a far-right party. They regroup at an isolated, rural inn and it’s spider/fly time as we discover they’ve fallen into the hands of a Nazi and his family who have all sorts of nastiness planned. Yeah; a literal Nazi. I guess he just sort of hung out in France after the end of the war and has managed in the interim to father a most fucked up brood.

The family is a powder keg of siblings with competing interests and resentments that play a significant part in its ultimate destruction. So, for that matter, does Yasmine (the fiery Karina Testa), a mother-to-be caught up in the horror. Papa Nazi doesn’t love her obvious ethnicity but the family desperately needs a genetic refresh, so she’ll just have to do. Yasmine’s put through the ringer to be sure but has also been literally showered in the blood of her antagonists by the end. Her battle is the cathartic heart of this movie.

Back to the Nazis though, because, without them, this is really just a Gallic Texas Chainsaw riff. As I’ve said, I don’t think writer-director Xaiver Gens had tongue in cheek when constructing the film’s climactic (and pretty hilarious despite itself) grand guignol spectacle.

I’d still argue Frontier(s) is savagely satirizing the far right.

This family of the ‘master race’ is as diseased physically as it is interpersonally. The nominal matriarch, kidnapped from another family as a child to conceive and bear scads of little Nazis, is now hunchbacked and broken. As portrayed by the sympathetic Maud Forget, Eva is fragile, doll-like, and has retained a basic humanity despite her circumstances; another innocent caught in the fascist meat grinder. And she’s produced an indeterminate number of absolute monsters – feral, almost zombie-like offspring who are mostly hidden until the end. Like so much of Frontier(s), they’re not subtle, but they do the trick: Here be dragons.

Frontier(s) defangs fascists by making them a cartoon; objects of mockery, rather than fear. It declares their ideas to be, like this family, diseased, distorted, and finally, self-defeating.

3. CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)

Recommended by Vicki Woods (LA Zombie Girl)

I love The Cabin in the Woods. There has been a lot of debate if it is an amazingly deep and allegorical film, or just an average horror comedy. When seen for the first time, it can throw you off with what you think are simply tired character tropes from hundreds of other films. But notice the control room and start watching for clues. The idea that someone was changing the outcome of the story from a control room blew my mind!

The basic plot of the film has been done many times, and the characters are as cliché as it gets. We have the stoner, the jock, the slut, the nerd and the virgin. Then they go and do the most stereotypical thing they can do, go to a cabin in the woods (homage to The Evil Dead), despite the warning from the local old guy, the harbinger, warning them that something bad is gonna happen.

But these tropes are used on purpose. Boring and predictable, they can then be manipulated to be exactly what is needed for the ritualistic ceremony that is taking place literally right underneath them.

Everything in our lives can be changed by the choices we make.