The best horror movies are always a bit political

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The best way to give a horror film a coat of respectability is to provide it with a political subtext. Jump scares are easy (tension, tension, tension, temporary relief, BOOM! Annd… repeat!), but for a scary movie to linger, it has to be about something relatable, like a distrust of those in power. Here are a few of those flicks that opened our eyes at the same time they made us close them in fear.

They Live (1988)

The epitome of the political horror movie, John Carpenter’s They Live is remarkable on many levels — and especially for being an anti-capitalist film that opened nationwide in the U.S. (during the waning years of the Reagan presidency, no less). The concept isn’t subtle, but damn is it effective. Saskatoon’s own “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (RIP, Roddy! Sigh…) is a drifter who comes across a box of sunglasses. After trying on a pair, our soon-to-be hero discovers society is controlled by aliens who broadcast messages like “Obey”, “Consume” and “Reproduce” to keep the population under control. They Live is as applicable today as it was in 1988 — which makes it shocking that, as of yet, there’s been no talk of a remake.

The Omen (1976)

Damien Thorn, the “son” of the American ambassador in London, also happens to be the child of the Antichrist — and clearly, the son of the devil will rise from within the circles of power to rule the world. The political connection doesn’t go too deep, but the film works on the strength of the gruesome, Rube Goldberg-esque deaths. According to director Richard Donner (yes, the Goonies guy) there’s a reading of the film which says that Damien is actually an innocent, the tragic events around him are coincidences and his family suffers from severe paranoia.

Every ’80s Slasher Film

You want political subtext? Well, here it is: distilled to their essence, pretty much every slasher flick featuring an unkillable psychopath has a right-wing mindset. Their victims of choice are teens engaging in recreational sex and/or drugs, kids who disobey authority (paternal or otherwise) and minorities. The killer is almost always driven by revenge, and the punishment rarely fits the crime. Only the “morally pure” come out unscathed (if severely traumatized). Hey, I didn’t say it was good political subtext.

Jaws (1975)

“Wow, Jaws on a Best of Horror list. Groundbreaking.” Yeah yeah, but hear me out — because Larry Vaughn, the mayor of Amity Island, is about as nasty as the shark. His unwillingness to close the beach because it could be bad for local business is classic profit-over-people behaviour. But the real crime is his wardrobe: those suits are a serious eyesore.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface in Roman Polanski’s classic. The title character, who’s carrying the son of the devil, is a powerful argument for the right to choose. Also, Rosemary’s husband, a struggling actor, is all too willing to rent his wife’s womb in exchange for wealth and fame. It’s the American Dream, at any cost.

The Dead Zone (1983)

This Stephen King film adaptation doesn’t even crack David Cronenberg’s top five best films, but that’s not the point here. The Dead Zone toys with the danger of trusting charismatic leaders who don’t have the electorate’s best interest at heart — in this case, a presidential candidate who’s bound to cause Armageddon. The moral question at the centre of the story is basically an updated version of, “If you could kill Hitler ahead of WWII, would you?” The film features a clever reversal of the “kissing-babies” photo op: the candidate (Martin Sheen) uses a toddler as a human shield. His aspirations are dashed in an instant — much like that Harper photo with the Fords.

Dawn, Day And Land Of The Dead

George Romero once famously stated that the formula for a good zombie movie is to pick a social issue and slap some zombies into it. In Dawn, the living dead are drawn to the mall (consumerism). In Day, Romero pits scientists against the military on how to deal with the looming threat. Lastly, Land (the most overtly political of the bunch) treats zombies as mindless masses that regain consciousness and rise against the dominant class. Pick your poison!

The Mist (2007)

Other than the fantastic The 25th Hour, The Mist is the best 9/11 movie to not deal with the attack directly. The film revolves around a devastating assault by alien forces on American soil that sends the survivors into a tailspin. Some find shelter in religion, others want to go on the offensive and a few would rather just hide until the threat goes away.The insanely bleak ending (it’s even darker than Stephen King’s novella) punctuates the risks of preventive actions.

Left Behind II And III

Has this list been too lefty for you so far? Well, here are two films starring Kirk Cameron for your amusement (and ours, really). Based on the insanely (in every sense) popular 16-book series by creationist Tim LaHaye, the movies chronicle the rise of the Antichrist following the Rapture. Stay with me here: following the vanishing of the true believers, mankind rallies around the Secretary General of the United Nations (stop laughing), who happens to be… you guessed it — that darned Antichrist. It’s up to the born-again Christians to stop him. How do you know this is fiction? The U.N. has actual power here.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

The political reading of the story depends on which version you watch. The 1978 version is more right-leaning, as the extraterrestrials replicating human bodies are, in essence, new-age hippies. (“No need for hate,” says alien Leonard Nimoy. Oh, Leonard — you so wacky. We sure miss you.) In the 1993 version (by Abel Ferrara) replicants can be identified by their sense of conformity and willingness to passively obey, and the anti-authoritarian vein is palpable.

House Of Re-Animator

Possibly the greatest political horror movie never made, House of Re-Animator places hopping-mad scientist Herbert West in the White House. His mission? To reanimate a Dick Cheney-like VP (nothing good could possibly come from that). At some point, the Re-Animator team had William H. Macy lined up for the role of President, but now a reboot of the Lovecraft-inspired saga is more likely. Boo, I say — I wanna see this one made!