UMU’s Anna Strauss has compiled a short list of films to watch alongside the more traditional classic monster movies and horror films we know and love.
It has been said, by someone far wiser than me, that we imagine horrors in order to cope with real ones. And undoubtedly, the horror genre can occasionally provide its own sort of terrifying escapism from difficult times—in some strange way, seeing these protagonists suffer and survive such gruesome spectacles can make our own personal horrors less difficult to cope with. However, not all monster movies must be straightforward horror films, following the classic linear plot structure—in fact, not all monster movies are necessarily even horror.
All art is valuable in the face of coping with real terrors and catastrophes, but it must also be considered that every individual’s method of managing such anxieties is different. Concurrently, as we are all quite aware, some media can be more enriching to different people than others. In the end, we all find the kind of stories that say something important to us, that speak to something personal and meaningful within ourselves.
Of course, no one at UMU would ever ask you to abandon those beloved, famed monsters of the Universal pantheon. Far from it—we would encourage you to enjoy them as enthusiastically as you ever have. But there are so many different kinds of stories out there, so many different voices to thrill, delight, move, and teach us. And for those who love monsters, after all, is it an utter delight to experience all the strange and wonderful tales of such creatures that cinema has to offer—no matter how unconventional they may be.
To this noble purpose, I have compiled a short list of films to watch alongside the more traditional classic monster and horror films we know and love. Some of these may have just slipped under people’s radar, as independent or foreign films are often wont to do; some may have simply not been considered in the context of being stories about monsters. Whatever the reason, these films all operate outside of the usual structure of a monster movie. They subvert the genre in various different ways, and offering new viewpoints from which to consider and appreciate the figure of the monster, in our imaginations and in our lives.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)
With a 95% score on RottenTomatoes and lofty critical acclaim on all sides, it is the unfortunate truth that Ana Lily Amirpour’s haunting and thrilling directorial debut remains somewhat little-known. Admittedly, foreign-language films always have trouble breaking into the mainstream American market. The film, however, having been described by the writer-director herself as “the first Iranian vampire Western,” and by other critics as “a sly, slinky vampire romance set in an imaginary Iranian underworld,” (Guy Lodge, Variety) and as giving “the impression that you’re witnessing something iconic and important unfold before you.” (Drew Taylor, Indiewire), remains subtly revolutionary, atmospheric, eerie, and utterly enthralling, despite its obscurity. Not quite the ordinary good-and-evil tale, the dreamlike quality of the film only serves to heighten the tension, desperation, hope, and darkness that underlie each carefully-constructed frame. The figure of the monster is complex, and in a true gothic fashion, the story centers around her and considers what monstrosity truly entails. The film is, ultimately, a work of art, and art is crucial to the human world—now, more than ever.
Released amid the height of vampire-movie popularity, this film went unseen by many, perhaps due to some level of fatigue with the humanized-vampire story. Yet the film, helmed by famed Irish director Neil Jordan (known for The Crying Game and for adapting Anne Rice’s own Interview with the Vampire) manages to stand out as a compelling, emotional piece on its own merit. The protagonists, unlike many of the vampires portrayed in mainstream film, are not wealthy or seemingly-perfect vampires, but rather poor, often homeless, and constantly pursued, only for being what they are; and are based on entirely different, Celtic vampire lore. They are incredibly different from each other, but both provide the film a deep emotional core. The tale’s message is overt, the dialogue and visuals a sort of poetry, in the spirit of many of the stories of Ireland.
PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)
With its own 95% rating on RottenTomatoes, six Academy Award nominations (including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Writing, Original Screenplay), and three Academy Awards (including Best Achievement in Art Direction and Cinematography), the critically acclaimed film from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has become a fantasy classic in and of itself. The juxtaposition of the magnificently crafted fairy-tale elements and the horrifically familiar, utterly human monstrosity of Falangist Spain makes the tale not only timely, but timeless. Besides the brilliantly woven narrative, the creature creation for which del Toro is well known is darkly beautiful in the film—which is considered by many to be his opus. Again, such art is significant for the message it communicates, as well as the thrill and emotional journey it provides. Many have said that the film is a dark fairy tale; but we at UMU would ask you: do not all monsters come to us from one sort of fairy tale or another?
THE BABADOOK (2014)
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut (nominated for countless awards and maintaining a 98% on RottenTomatoes), is a masterfully-woven horror film which strikes at the core of many collective human fears—the dark, mental illness, grief, parenthood, the unknown, the inescapability of thoughts or anxieties, subversion of innocence, and other such deep-rooted, chilling themes.. The premise of the film, revealed in quotes from an ominous children’s book, “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…” begins the sort of horror that builds tension without ever allowing release from it. A powerful tale with a surprising but perfect ending, at the center is Kent’s Babadook—not a monster for the faint of heart. The film accesses a kind of fear that must have haunted our ancestors, the fear of that which is utterly beyond our control; then challenges us to understand where the fear comes from, how we can learn to live with it… Because, as aforementioned, there is no getting rid of monsters like the Babadook.
UNDER THE SHADOW (2016)
Yet another critically-acclaimed directorial debut from a faraway land (England, in this case, though the film is set in Iran), Babak Anbari’s politically-charged horror film won the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, was nominated for countless other awards, and also sits at a 98% on RottenTomatoes. Combining the setting of post-revolution, war-torn Tehran, and all its utterly human, psychological horrors, with a terrifying, ancient monster myth, the film is not only chilling, effective, and poignant, but also extremely relevant. The deft, subtle hand of the director and the talent of the actors builds a deep-seated, raw, and realistic anxiety that slowly but surely erupts into an inescapable, terrorizing force that attempts to destroy all it touches. The characters are utterly real, and constructed with great care, making the fear all the more intense; the film’s monster, as in all great imagined monster stories, embodies all the unimagined terrors of our own reality.
THE MONSTERS AT THE END OF THE STORY
More often than not, however, the monsters we see in the classic, thrilling tales we love are the reflections of those very things we fear—whether it be isolation, pain, death, illness, oppression, failure, or any manner of external Other. Human beings have been weaving external monsters out of their innermost fears for centuries. Examples of these can be found through the pages of folklore worldwide, from the Russian rusalka to the Ashanti asanbosam. As well, we sometimes learn to see “monsters” in a different light, to understand the world is composed of shades of gray, not strictly one thing or the other. Those gothic novels and classic Universal monster movies we know and love are all examples of both these tendencies, in turn. But they are not the only tales that do so. Of course, monster movies are a source of entertainment, emotional affectation, and even delight. But we can also learn from them, as we can from all the stories we tell each other… After all, terrors can be projected onto many different templates, can take almost any form. And monsters, or monstrous figures, can be far more than just things to fear.
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)