I watched a bunch of different horror stuff this year, in part because I actually think I kind of like the genre, but also because it’s a place that does a bunch of interesting weird stuff. Horror Youtube is really bad, Horror Critical Youtube is pretty good (or maybe I just mean Nyxfears). Watching this media can be, at times, a guide, a sort of mental sabot, that encourages you to think and present your thoughts in a similar format, to make everything a five minute mention.
This impulse left me spending words on things I didn’t really care about enough to talk too long about. Particularly, though, what I found was a common thread of introducing the wrong horrors into these stories, a point at which I checked out, and knew that effectively, a content warning would just be the overwhelming character of whatever I had to say. It wasn’t that seeing worms implanted in someone’s body or the tearing of a man’s face off that bothered me, no, I was signed up for that.
Here then, four horror movies and series that I kind of wanted to talk about but which introduced something that made them suck.
Content warning for mentions of sexual assault, transphobia, incest, and pedophilia, and spoilers for American Horror Story, Don’t Breathe, Rings, and A Cure For Wellness.
1. American Horror Story
American Horror Story is an amazingly perfect title because the conception of ‘American’ storytelling is ‘it’s more of everything all at once.’ That meant that every season, it pretty much picked one location for a genre of horror stories, then did all of them at once, which created a clever puzzle of seeing which ghost hauntings overlapped with one another. This is great, because most ghost stories don’t have enough actual content to fill a pamphlet, and the conflict of a bunch of different stories trying to make themselves ‘the important one’ is a great idea.
The anthology format also meant that when you saw characters get a rotten life one round, you could enjoy a sort of sympathetic positivity in the next season where maybe they got a better life, or you got to see them as very different people. The second season went pretty badly with its introduction of a split time story, but I could hold on, at least for a bit.
Third season introduced witches and the idea of magical vaginas.
Now I want to make it clear it wasn’t sex magic that bothered me, though I tend to think that’s boring. It’s that when you open your mouth to start talking about the true power of women expressed via their vaginas, you are explicitly drawing a circle around women who have vaginas as being somehow more women than women who don’t.
I signed up for apocalyptic horror, not weirdo transphobia!
2. Don’t Breathe
The story is interesting and tense and an inversion of a common model of ‘the dumbass kids getting themselves killed by a supercompetent monster-person,’ like a typical slasher flick. In this case, the kids go into this scenario pretty sure they know what’s up, with their focus on stealing from a blind ex-soldier, who then turns the tables on them and starts hunting them through his house, while they try to escape a house that’s been set up for an unsighted man, making it much harder to hide than you’d imagine.
Honestly, the grey-on-grey morality of the movie, of the kids picking a fight then getting routed and escaping with only their lives was all I really needed out of a properly interesting version of this movie!
Anyway, then it’s revealed the old man is also imprisoning a woman to forcibly impregnate her with a turkey baster, which he insists ‘isn’t rape,’ which is pretty much what most rapists say. It’s just such a jarring moment for a movie that left it pretty ambiguous about the morality of the protagonists (after all, they have good motivations to resort to stealing, and their failings are looking out for one another for too long). Instead, the story uses the last minute to make it very clear this old man is super evil and also not mentally well, and that’s that.
It wasn’t necessary! It didn’t raise the stakes! He already thought he had to kill them! Ugh! Don’t get rapey with a turkey baster!
There’s a bunch of stuff Rings, a re-boot sequel of a series that doesn’t need it, that would be worth consideration as a sort of academic wheelie, showing off, hey, look at how this really bad movie is so dull I can do homework in it to make it more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is fantastically dull, and its dullness and weakness as a movie is worth exploring, from how the movie apologises for itself to the way it tries to fix the problems it introduces. It’s a real bad movie, really bad, and it does that nonsense at the end where a Ring movie shows that the ‘solution’ that everyone worked so hard for was wrong, or didn’t work, because people didn’t understand the ghost.
The conclusion of Rings isn’t just ‘the ghost wins,’ though, it’s ‘the ghost probably ends all human life on the planet, and this is the inevitable outcome of her containment procedure failing. That containment procedure, by the way, was letting her rapist pedophile father kill everyone who came close to discovering the secret and bring him to justice for again, the pedophilia and the rape.
Ghost stories are great when they’re about failures of perspective, but I don’t particularly want the perspective ‘what if rapist pedophile priests are, in fact, the real heroes?’
4. A Cure for Wellness
This movie, incidentally, has a record for one of the biggest drop-offs in ticket sales in history; once they stopped pushing it, nobody went to see it. It’s a medical body horror movie, about being stuck in a confusing, memory-softening sanitarium, a bit of your Shutter Island, a bit of your parasite-based horror, maybe a dash of the Are You Okay kind of psychological horror from a movie like Bug. There’s fear of being stuck out of time, of being detached from society, and despite the constant threat of it, it’s a medical horror story that doesn’t focus on blood, which is a common kind of fluid to direct, but rather on water, a focus that makes it extremely unsettling.
Now, there’s also a complaint that this movie is too long (probably) and that the movie is too boring (definitely), or that the last act is kind of snapped on after a perfectly good conclusion (very definitely) but what makes it all the more annoying is that this movie was doing something interesting, and good, with really uncomfortable horror that connected to things like medical devices, or the barbaric way we treated the unwell, or the abuse of authority a doctor can have.
Last minute, it decides to introdue incestuous sexual endangerment of a woman who up to now in the story, was basically a prop. It isn’t necessary, it comes out of nowhere, and literally all it does when they make it happen in the movie is try to give an ‘action’ ending to a movie that has moved as slow as slugs up to now.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t like these movies, but I am saying that these four movies’ sudden and sharp veer into introducing abusive sexuality made pretty much all of them much worse.
When we watch a horror movie, we are signing up for something that’ll horrify us. That’s okay. That’s expected. The thing is, these movies all, while playing within their space, set a parameter and seemed to lack the confidence in what they were doing, and had to reach outside their space to ‘fix’ a problem they perceived in their story.