Tag Archives: horror film

It Came From the Comic Book Shop

I am a self-proclaimed horror nerd but it’s not the only kind of nerd I claim to be. I’m pretty multifaceted in my nerdhood, but one particular thing that rivals my love of horror films is my love of comics. I’ve been reading them since childhood and the love has only grown deeper while working in a comic book shop. Thankfully I don’t have to choose between horror or comics because there are many, many cool horror stories in comic book form. Some big screen baddies like Freddy, Jason, and Pinhead, have all had their appearances in the funny books (including the fantastic Freddy vs Jason vs Ash), and great comics have become movies like 30 Days of Night. But this article isn’t about those. My goal for this article is to pair horror films (and TV) to horror comics, like a fine wine and cheese, to help bridge the gap for film fans to jump to the page or vice-versa, and find some horror stories they might not have heard of before.

 

Night of the Living Dead / Afterlife with Archie

Where better place to start than with the King of Zombies, George A. Romero (RIP), the birth of the modern zombie film, and Archie comics. While most people either know Archie from the squeaky clean comics or the Riverdale TV show, Afterlife with Archie is a criminally underrated comic. Not too long ago Archie Comics rebooted their brand, bringing Archie and friends to more modern settings with great creators behind them such as Mark Waid (Daredevil), Fiona Staples (Saga), and Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals). None of that would have happened without this book, which takes the idyllic town of Riverdale and turns it into a bleak, zombie apocalypse that rivals The Walking Dead. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa knocked it out of the park with this one, so much so that he became Chief Creative Officer of Archie comics. His writing along with the phenominal art of Francesco Francavilla make this a must read zombie comic. If there’s any horror comic that can hold a place next to the original zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, it’s this.

Hannibal / Nailbiter

I love Hannibal. I grew up watching the films (probably way too young), and the television show remains one of my favourites long after cancellation. I do admit that I did find the second half of the third season a little weak (the Red Dragon storyline is great but Hannibal is much less entertaining when he’s stuck in a prison cell). The first season particularly was fantastic, starting each episode with another messed up crime scene with human mushroom gardens, corpse totem poles, and man-made angels with flesh wings. If you like those episodes with their cast of creative killers, you’ll love Nailbiter. I can’t shut up about this comic and have shouted at people to read it. Nailbiter (Written by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson) takes place in Buckaroo, Oregon. Buckaroo has a unique problem, it keeps creating serial killers. Sixteen of the worst serial killers in the US. The FBI has been sent in to figure out the mystery, sometimes seeking the help of the Nailbiter, Edward Charles Warren. Warren is the Hannibal of this series and he’s just as charming. Nailbiter recently finished, so it won’t take long to consume all six graphic novels.

Teeth / Insexts

Out of all the horror films I could pair with a comic, I doubt you would have guessed I’d pair something with Teeth. The 2007 horror comedy about the girl with Vagina Dentata seems like a pretty unique premise that would not be replicated, and that’s true. Insexts from indie publisher Aftershock is also a comic with a unique premise. A lesbian romance in Victorian England, the couple have become more than human. Insectoid, fairy creatures that take on a vigilante role against both those that seek to destroy them, and a Jack The Ripper style villain stalking the streets. I’d pair these two together for their shared themes of women reborn as powerful killers, as well as weird body horror.

The Witch / Harrow County

It’s interesting to see witches coming back in vogue as horror villains, both in films and in comics. What was once just green skinned women with big noses and boils, has now become something much darker and more interesting. The Witch, the 2015 film by Robert Eggers, is definitely one that has brought the sub-genre back into the light (although some would say films like The Lords of Salem, and Blair Witch also helped), and specifically the period-set horror witch. The Witch is a moody, isolated film that for the most part focuses on the paranoia of an exiled-family, afraid they have been cursed by the witch in the woods. The film is mostly ambiguous about the reality of the witch, and for the most part it could be thought that there is no witch and this family are creating a supernatural scapegoat (sorry Black Philip) for their suffering. Harrow County is another period-set witch story, although in this case there definitely is a witch, there definitely are monsters and demons, and it all comes together for a fantastic story. Emmy is a young girl, born of the witch who once terrorised Harrow County. Her powers manifest on her 18th birthday and Emmy just wants to make things right between the town folk and the creatures that lurk in the woods. The writing by Cullen Bunn is great but it also includes the artwork of Tyler Crook, artwork that manages to be skin-crawlingly creepy and also charming. Alternatively, check out The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the horror reinvention of Sabrina the Teenage Witch from Archie comics, which also includes mind-blowing art from Robert Hack.

These are just a few comic/film combos that I recommend, although while writing this I realised there’s much more. Well I guess you’ll just have to wait for the sequel “Return of the thing from the Comic Book Shop”.

Monsters of Love

Last night I finally watched Spring, a film that I’ve heard nothing but positive ravings about. “One of the best horror films of the year so far” and I’m not here to say that I disagree, it’s a beautiful film both in plot and cinematography. However I do struggle with the idea that it is a horror film, in the sense that it is not a scary movie (Although a film doesn’t need to scare me for it to be considered a horror film) but it is a monster movie, a romantic monster movie. That in itself is not groundbreaking. Yet I feel like the response, or the response that I’m aware of, is. Why is Spring getting such praise when films like the Twilight series have been heralded as the horror-genre end of days?

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I feel like I should admit at this point that I have never watched a Twilight movie or read any of the books so any points that I make on them should be taken from the point of view that I’m not well educated on the series. What I do know is the vague plot that a teenage girl falls in love with a vampire and that there’s a werewolf who also loves the girl. There’s also something about vampire baseball but I’ll stop before I embarrass myself with my lack of knowledge. Girl loves monster. Monster loves girl. Forbidden love is abound. Spring, as much as I can say without spoilers, also features forbidden love between a human and a monster. After watching it, I must admit that I feel pretty hypocritical about any shit I gave Twilight when it first arrived on the scene. I wasn’t as bad as some but I had strong enough opinions to reject seeing those films.

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Twilight has received harsh criticism in the past due to the nature of the relationship between Edward and Bella, that it is sexist and abusive. Edward is controlling, manipulative and generally a threat to Bella’s safety. These are the sort of criticisms I can understand why people would respond negatively to the Twilight movies. Spring’s romantic elements don’t seem to have these problems, but the relationship between Evan and Louise doesn’t get to that a relationship status where that might become a problem. It’s more of the chase up to the commitment that is seen in Spring and any danger that Evan is in because of Louise, it’s his choice.

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So Spring doesn’t focus on an abusive relationship, which is a step up from Twilight. I have to ask the next question though, do the audience take Spring more seriously because it’s a man romantically involved with a monster rather than a girl? Does having Evan, a young man in his 20s, as the main protagonist rather than a teenage girl like Bella make it harder to dismiss his romantic intentions as foolish? He’s choosing to get into a potentially danger relationship with a creature who could easily kill him. Some might consider him brave and romantic, but he’s in a vulnerable state. He’s drifting in the world. He’s lost and this girl/monster is something he has chosen to love and commit to. If he was a teenage girl I’m sure there would be plenty people willing to point out there are plenty of potential partners out there who won’t accidentally monster-out and eat her. I can understand that a 20 year old has more life experience than a teenager when it comes to making romantic decisions but I don’t think that Evan is making any less risky a decision than Bella when it comes to settling down with a supernatural partner.

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Another reason that the choice of a male protagonist effects the audience response to this film is that there seems to be less of an obvious target demographic. Twilight was definitely marketed towards a female audience, mainly teenagers. I wouldn’t say I’m far off when I say that teenage girls are often stereotyped as being vapid, and that the films that marketed towards them are inconsequential and shallow. It’s an unfair generalisation that is based more on badly written characters written by men than actual teen girls. The marketing for Spring is much more focused on suspense and danger based on the tone of the trailer rather than the romantic story that dominates most of the plot. It’s like they were trying to avoid the romance in fears that it might discredit them in the eyes of a male audience.

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Lastly, I think the loudest argument I heard against Twilight, particularly after the first film came out was that it was ruining vampire movies. That the image of a vampire that sparkled was the most repulsively stupid addition to vampire mythology ever conceived. Okay the sparkling was a bit much but it was a minor thing, Sunlight still kills them (right?) but it’s just a bit of imagery that people who dislike the general idea of romantic monsters have latched onto as their major criticism of Twilight. Vampires have been seducing people forever so I don’t know why it’s such a big deal here. Sure some of those vampires seduced their prey, drank them and moved on, but it’s still part of the mythos. Spring is a lot more vague when it comes to it’s monster of choice. Louise isn’t a particular monster, she’s some kind of shape-shifter. She isn’t a reinvention of some classic movie monster. It’s her ambiguity that makes her a new kind of creature so there isn’t some backlash of monster fans screaming that her sappy romantic sentiments are ruining shape-shifters.

Overall I think that Spring is a great film, and if you haven’t seen it already you should go check it out. It’s a romantic creature feature that shows that supernatural inter-species romance isn’t dead. The monster imagery may just be metaphor for Louise’s baggage, be that emotional baggage or living with illness, and that everyone deserves love regardless of what life has thrown at them. Whether you choose to enjoy this film literally or metaphorically, I hope that you think twice about monsters in love.

Horror and Mental Illness

You don’t have to think long about the genre of horror before thinking of murdering madmen, I’m sure plenty horror fans have been accused of being one more than once just for loving the genre. The idea of a madman, a person unable to control their mental compulsions to kill, is one that has been prevalent in the genre and popularised by films like Hitchcock’s Psycho. Obviously that film didn’t set out to demonise anyone with a mental illness but it didn’t try to defend those people either. With a topic as sensitive as mental illness, how should horror films handle the subject matter.

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The film that I watched recently that inspired me to write this piece was The Taking of Deborah Logan, a found footage possession film that came out fairly recently. The film starts of as a documentary focusing on the horror of living with Alzheimer’s, but the woman they are filming becomes stranger and it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on here. And it’s that plot development that irritated me. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and for the filmmakers to come along and more-or-less say “yeah that’s pretty bad but what if it was ghosts/demons/monsters” makes it’s feel exploitative in my mind. It’s downplaying that seriousness of Alzheimer’s and I just don’t think that’s cool.

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Another film that came out recently was The Babadook, which has subtext about mental illness and the following will contain spoilers if you haven’t already seen the film. So in The Babadook a single mother is suffering while raising her problem child and his boogie-man manifests in all manner of terrible ways. However the implications of what happens to the two is that the mother has some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The film has an unusually upbeat ending in which the mother has accepted the death of her husband and she has the monster, The Babadook, locked away in the basement. She feeds the Babadook and the son asks if he’ll ever see it again, which the mother replies “when you’re older”. She’s living with mental issues. This kind of film takes the emotions that someone living with a mental illness, the terror and anxiety, and uses imagery to inflict it upon it’s viewers. It doesn’t belittle any victims, it helps us empathise.

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As I said before, horror films have always had maniacs and madmen, some of them have used mental illness in less than tasteful ways. The problem of representation comes to mind again, that perhaps if more functional people with mental illnesses were to be shown in the genre they might feel like the genre was demonising them. I’m not saying to boycott any films with negative representations in them, but encouraging anyone who’s writing or producing to give it a thought.

Season’s Shriekings

It’s that time of year where all the naughty boys and girls with an unhealthy obsession with the macabre like to settle down next to the fire and watch a festive fright flick. Black Christmas, maybe Gremlins, maybe even a little bit of Silent Night Deadly Night. However looking at the roster for Christmas horror films, it’s a bit limited. Almost entirely populated by either slashers in Santa disguises, or just straight up evil Santas, the time has come to diversify our holiday horrors. Here’s a few suggestions on how to use some of our other favourite horror sub-genres at Christmas.

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While Christmas can be a fairly torturous experience for many of us, with the family obligations, the barbarity of the general public if you work retail this time of year, and the brain-bending misery that is figuring out just what to buy Grandma this year, there’s plenty room for some more visceral torture. How about something transformative, a Christmas tree salesman who makes his own by abducting a guy and surgically attaching more limbs before decorating it with baubles pierced through skin and asphyxiating tinsel.

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Maybe you prefer something a little less medical, and a little more homely. How about a Body Horror focusing on the ultimate pushy Grandma, force-feeding her brood with gut-expanding amounts of gravy, turkey and brussel sprouts. A soundtrack of choking gasps and farts over “I wish it could be christmas everyday” by Wizard, would be enough to turn the stomach of even hardened horror fans.

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While it’s usually the jolly fat man who’s dishing out the punishments in our Christmas horrors, how about a little revenge for the retail workers. A bit of the old Death Wish as a shop assistant abused by Christmas Shoppers is pushed passed the limits of sanity and goes on a home invasion killing spree (You just had to agree to that warranty, we know where you live now…) and using their gifts against them, getting some vigilante justice. Garrotted with jewellery, maimed by electrical goods, there’s plenty room for some imaginative kills.

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Christmas time is a time for children, and while the Evil Children sub-genre could easily run rampant (as it should), my suggestion is slightly different. A bullied child visits a mall Santa and whispers into his ear their Christmas wish. This Santa is the real deal however and grants the kid’s wish. A wish to be stronger. The kid discovers powers beginning to form, telekinetic powers. Basically I’m saying to rip off Carrie. Replace the Prom scene with a school nativity play and go wild.

So those were just a couple ideas to whet your appetite for festive frights. If you want to use any of these ideas, contact me at horror365@ymail.com or through twitter @horror365. If not I might just have to get these under the tree for next year’s christmas.

Christopher Stewart

“King of Creeps”

Live by the rules, Die by the rules

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One unique thing about horror as a genre is that it’s almost always evolving. Horror cinema is so massively populated with dozens of films being released weekly supported by a huge indie scene. Tropes and clichés are often subverted to give all us hungry gore-hounds something to feast upon, something fresh and exciting. If it’s not, then there’s the other side of horror cinema, the scrutiny. More than any other genre, Horror has many meta films that show self-awareness and use that awareness to rip apart all those sub-standard films that clutter up our DVD collections. They show us The Rules of Horror. However, has the time come to break those rules?

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When you think of The Rules, first thing that usually jumps to mind is Wes Craven’s Scream. The Scream franchise was always a send-up of the Slasher genre and it gave us rules like “Never say ‘I’ll be right back’.” The other two rules in that famous scene being Don’t get wasted and Don’t have sex. Those rules are pretty forgiving. If you find yourself in a slasher film scenario I think you could follow those pretty easy. Scream’s commentary on lazy by-the-numbers horror films gave us the tools to criticise any film that wasn’t pushing the envelope.

The Cabin in the Woods

Other films that followed such as Cabin in the Woods, and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon continued to add rules for us to recognise. Particularly in the character archetypes. The Final Girl, AKA The Virgin. The Slut. The Jock. The Stoner. The Brain. This Breakfast Club cast of mashed up social groups to diversify their teen audience regardless of the reality that they’d ever really hang out. These are the standard set that you will see in even some more inventive horror films, and almost all of the bog-standard ones.

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The question I have to ask is; with all these rules that have established their place in the horror genre, are we closing our minds to the interpretation of more creative horror? Most of us know what we’re getting into when we’re getting ready to watch a horror. We know the characters we’re bound to see, what kind of creepy location their going to end up in, and in some cases who’s going to die and what order. If you’ve been to the cinema in the last year to see any horror, the majority of the time I’d be shocked if you were surprised by anything being shown. The usual trend-following has left us with all the same demon possession/haunting films for the last 5 years. Yet those little gems that pop up, that challenge the norm, do we give them the same fighting chance? Do we look at them and expect nothing more that gore, boobs, and a couple of jump-scares? As soon as we’ve decided that a character is a slut or a stoner, will we mentally register them as anything else regardless of character development?

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While I think there are plenty of horror fans out there who are open to change and growth within the genre, there’s also plenty of the other kind out there, loudly declaring their disgust either in the cinema or on their blogs. Declaring that horror ain’t what it used to be without giving a second thought that maybe they’ve missed the point. You won’t be pleasantly surprised by a film if you’re bogged down with pre-determined judgements. I remember watching Wrong Turn 2, going in thinking it was going to be terrible, the idea of setting it during a reality TV show and the usual cast of horror fodder. Turned out to be clever and more importantly different. I want more films like that (Just not necessarily more Wrong Turn films…)

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Another Man’s Shoes

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One major trend in modern horror cinema is the Found Footage sub-genre. Mimicking the style of documentary or home video style film-making, the sub-genre attempts to put the audience into the shoes of the protagonist, or at the very least try to convince us that what is occurring on screen is something that has happened in our own reality. Many horror fans however have begun to tire of this style and the question must be asked, are we done with Found Footage?

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While most people credit The Blair Witch Project (1999) with the creation of this sub-genre, generating a box office success from it’s style and being hailed for it’s ingenuity on a low budget ($22,000), it was Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that got there first (actually there were many Found Footage films before Blair Witch, including The Last Broadcast, Forgotten Silver, and Man Bites Dog.) Cannibal Holocaust was infamous in it’s use of the Found Footage style, leading to director Ruggero Deodato being arrested on Obscenity charges, claiming that he was showing a snuff film and that some of the actors had been killed. The charges were dropped when it was found out that the actors were still alive (they had agreed to lay low while the film was out to fool people into thinking it was real). Sadly few films after that have fooled their audience to that same degree. Personally I will still get on occasion people asking me if certain films are real, or try to convince me of the legitimacy of particular events that films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are based on. However the mass-majority fail to believe such tales these days.

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The intimate level of perspective offered by Found Footage films are comparable to horror in a different medium. Horror literature (or literature in general) is often written from the point of view of a narrator protagonist. We get right inside the head of the person who is experiencing all the dread, sharing in all the fear and terror. However unlike Found Footage, the narrator leads us with an internal monologue, their stream of consciousness. The closest thing to that we might experience in a Found Footage film is the occasional rambling of the person behind the camera (usually to the effect of “What was that!?”) The internal monologue also fixes one problem that dogs the sub-genre, that question that takes us out of the story, “Why are they still filming?”.

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There’s only so long you can standby and film atrocities. While some Found Footage will focus on the voyeuristic nature of the camera, the majority of them use it as a way to get around paying to make the film look professional. The main reason these films are popular among first time directors is because they are cheap. Sticking to this style for the duration of the film however often damages the plot because it becomes unbelievable that we’re still watching the footage. The [REC] franchise is one that managed to make a bold change of style away from Found Footage. While the first two instalments were notably successful Found Footage films, the third [REC] film moved away from the style (In a joke towards the style, it did start off Found Footage until they beat up the cameraman for not helping). Behind The Mask: Rise of Leslie Vernon, is another that also did this with it’s third act, choosing to drop it’s documentary style when the documentary crew decide they’ve got to stop filming and help. Both of these films fail to make us believe that they are documenting real-life cases and proceed to only entertain the audience, yet most Found Footage films fail to make us believe they’re real anyway so is the style so important?

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The Found Footage style doesn’t need to go away all together, it just needs to be thought out better. A well thought out and well written horror film will always be better regardless of style. Films like the VHS franchise make up some of the better Found Footage films out there due to the short film anthology format, the stories don’t out-stay their welcome and we never ask why they’re still filming. We could also utilize the point of view sequence more without having to use the device of characters holding cameras. The 2010 film, La Casa Muda (also known as The Silent House, which was remade in 2011) often went into POV mode for parts of the film. La Casa Muda’s simulated “Shot in one take” style often had the camera drifting around, sometimes into a character’s eye-line and then taking over as that character’s point of view. I think more films could take advantage of this in more intense moments.

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Found Footage no longer scares us into thinking that it’s real, but they do put us in the vulnerable position of the protagonist’s shoes. If they can just bring a little more of that intimacy that exists in horror literature, they could be onto something truly terrifying. Until there’s something better than maybe a clunky film-noir style narrator over the top of it, I’m not sure how to get there yet.

Sex and Death

If you’ve seen your fair share of Slasher movies, you must be aware that one of the first people to die will be someone who has snuck off to have sex. Sex gets you killed in horror movies. It’s the kind of fact that channels the genre’s origins in old cautionary tales. The kind of Little Red Riding Hood story except exchange “Don’t stray from the path” to “Don’t have sex in old crime scenes”. While it all seems common sense to the viewing audience, do these old cautionary tales in our modern horror movies promote bad sexual attitudes?

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The idea that you will die if you have sex in a horror movie is the kind of abstinence-only sex education that has become out-dated in modern society, which would be relevant if the creators of horror films had any intention of teaching their audience about sex. It’s supposed to be a reflection of the twisted authoritarian ideas of slasher film killers (often pushed onto them by an abusive parent). Also it’s an easy way for horror film makers to get in a little bit of nudity to attract an audience. Follow up that nudity with some gratuitous violence and you’ve got yourself a hit with the young, heterosexual male audience that at one point made up the majority of the horror audience.

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One of the major archetypal characters in slasher films that we can all recognise is the “Slut” character. Often she is one of the first characters to get killed off, if not the very first. She will have little to no character traits other that being horny, probably a bit dim and physically attractive. While those character traits are not in themselves problematic, it is a problem that they are the only character traits. Writing female characters this way reinforces the idea that women are nothing more than disposable sex objects. I said before how the Slut character is “one of the first characters to get killed off”, in older horror films there was another archetypal character who was often killed off before the slut which was the Token Black Character, often thrown in to appear inclusive but these days is rarely used because it appears insensitive to make someone’s race (based on ridiculous stereotypes) their sole character trait. The Slut is getting to that point, that it is insensitive and dated and should be put to bed. The fact that the archetype name is entirely derogatory is evidence enough.

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To move away from the slasher sub-genre, there are many more sub-genres of horror that are more geared to entire plots focused around sex. There are plenty horror films, such as A Serbian Film, Feed, and The Bunny Game, that centre their plot around more disturbing circles of fetish culture and pornography. The British Board of Film Certification often gives these films a hard time, demanding cuts to be made as was the case for A Serbian Film, or banned outright like The Bunny Game. You would think, maybe if it got banned it’s a film so shocking and exciting that it’s probably fantastic. The Bunny Game is terrible, little plot and heavily promotes sexualised violence. The BBFC are strongly against sexualised violence and it was due to the fact The Bunny Game has little else to offer that got it banned. These films are often extreme and disturbing but the behaviour is almost always betrayed as deplorable. By demonising sexual violence, do these horror films guide people away from acting in a similar fashion?

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The Rape Revenge sub-genre was a product of the 70s exploitation cinema era, with notable films including Last House on the Left, I Spit on your Grave, and Straw Dogs. All these films shared a common plot line, that during the course of the film a young woman would be raped (and sometimes murdered) and either the young woman or one of her loved ones would get their bloody revenge. It is often said that the rape scene is acceptable because 1) it is showing a real world horror and it’s terrible nature, and 2) that the rapists are shown getting punished for their horrendous actions. However by making a whole sub-genre of this it seems to trivialise the act of rape, reducing it to nothing more than a standard plot-point that has to be visited before we can move on to the gory retribution.

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The last sub-genre I want to mention is the female predator sub-genre. Films like Species, Jennifer’s Body, Under the Skin, and to some level, Teeth, all fall into this sub-genre. While the female characters in these kind of films are generally more fleshed out and interesting characters, they are normally shown as evil. I would say that Teeth is the biggest exception to this because the female lead, while she does use this power to inflict cruel justice, it is still justice. Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body does kill boys out of her demon blood lust, but there is a sympathetic angle because men made her that way. The sub-genre shows that these women (or creatures in the form of women) are evil creatures that exploit the weakness of a male libido to gain power over men and that these women (or women-shaped creatures) should be destroyed.

While horror is a massive genre full of compelling, subversive, and thoughtful films, there are still many that are being made that will often use old tropes and clichés that can be concerning. We don’t need to keep making films where women are nothing but powerless sex objects, and that rape is nothing but a plot-point. There’s nothing wrong with using our insecurities about sex to create new cinematic nightmares, just hopefully more progressive nightmares.