Benjamin Cunningham is a Barcelona based writer. He contributes to The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Aspen Review and is a weekly opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme.

The Economist: Super and more natural

The Economist: Super and more natural

Even the most unrealistic and absurd horror films can tap into the anxieties of their time. Back in 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” cast a knowing eye on American McCarthyism; “Hostel”, a silly slasher flick released in 2005, nodded to the fear of outsiders and foreign travel in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In recent years the genre’s reputation has a vehicle for original storytelling and serious social commentary has been restored. In “Get Out” the spectre of casual racism manifested itself not in a chainsaw-wielding fascist, but in the form of a girlfriend’s family. “A Quiet Place” featured bloodthirsty monsters, but they forced the protagonists to question how far they would go to protect their children.

At this year’s Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, a key launch pad for horror and fantasy films, similarly subtle and scary fare was on show. Whereas sudden nuclear annihilation preoccupied movie-going publics of the past—resulting in films that used equally immediate shock and awe to lure audiences—contemporary fears over Brexit, global warming or demographic change are less visceral and urgent. Angst over these issues has built up over time, and that is echoed in the lingering menace that shapes many contemporary horror films. They are low on surprises, chainsaws, screams and characters hiding in cupboards, investing instead in a sense of helplessness and events beyond the characters’ control. Tension, suspense and dread comes from disorientation and uncertainty.

“I Think We’re Alone Now”, directed by Reed Morano, is set in the near future and begins with a standard apocalyptic premise. A nondescript illness has wiped out all but two members of the human race, Del and Grace (Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning). Corpses litter an otherwise normal, if now vacant, small town that looks to have been frozen in time. When Del discovers that other humans have not only survived the plague, but are creating a techno-utopia in the American West. Initially confused and hesitant, he soon concludes that this new beginning for the human race is far from idyllic. The audience is kept on edge by a sustained feeling of foreboding and that all is not what it seems; a vague idea that whatever is coming, when it comes, is bad. By the film’s end, the prospect of synergising humans and computers amid the pastels of Palm Springs, California, feels as dystopian as extinction. In looking to technology to solve all society's problems, we may be sacrificing some of the core elements of being human.

“Animal”, an Argentine film directed by Armando Bo, opts for a suburban domestic setting to pose questions about individual and collective identities. Focus in pursuit of a goal can cross to obsession, it seems to say, with personal success causing irreparable harm to loved ones. Antonio (Guillermo Francella), a devoted father, collapses on his morning jog and discovers that he needs a kidney transplant. The official waiting list is too long, so Antonio finds a vendor on the black market. As the pair barter over the organ, Antonio is extorted for ever greater payments: eventually he is asked to turn over his home, disturbing the safety of his wife and children. For the audience, fear comes not from any supernatural occurrences, but from the logical and horrifying escalation of events.

Characters in “Suspiria”, Luca Guadagnino’s retelling of the film of the same name released in 1977, also seem resigned to the inevitable. Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, an innocent American who enrolls in a Berlin ballet school in the 1970s. Amid the dull grays of a divided city, and a melancholic score penned by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the mood at once conjures the isolation of “The Shining” (1980) and the eerily casual black magic of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). Dancers disappear with no explanation, and their friends sense something strange afoot, but are neither shocked nor curious as to its cause. It is an unsettling and confounding to watch characters so docile to what is obviously an deteriorating situation.

All told, while this new crop of horror films mimics some atmospherics of the genre, existential dread and fear for characters' longer term futures largely displace concerns about their immediate physical safety. In a communications environment where very little is shocking any more, where snapshots of real world violence are a click or two away, these films probe the slower moving, subtle fears we prefer ignore in daily life and bet -- as horror films always have -- that audiences might confront their common anxieties through metaphor instead.

https://www.economist.com/prospero/2018/10/16/at-sitges-film-festival-uncertainty-is-scary

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