It’s the scariest time of the year and, no, I’m not talking about the presidential election. When the leaves change color, the weather chills, and the debates about candy corn take over our social media feeds that means Halloween is approaching, and nothing makes for a festive (and quarantine friendly) holiday activity like a horror movie marathon.
Any movie is a movie for a leftist if you enjoy it enough. These films, however, are rich with socialist subtext that offers commentary on capitalism, gentrification, migrant stories, and so much more. Which of these have you seen, and which are you adding to your marathon this year?
Dir. by Steven Spielberg
We could consider Jaws an action thriller and not a horror movie and leave it off this list, but that means I wouldn’t have a chance to tell you that Fidel Castro once called Jaws a ‘devastating Marxist critique of American capitalism.’ And he’s right. Jaws unfolds with a shark attack threatening the safety of beach-goers. Local government, however, doesn’t seem to deem the death of a young woman as cause for concern, especially not if it risks the revenue that the summer crowd brings to the town. Now doesn’t that sound familiar? Risking the safety and lives of the general public in order to protect the economy?
But Jaws is a horror movie by formula: the pacing and tension, the sense of dread, the monster and ultimate reveal, and a bloody mess of a body count. It’s as much of a viewing necessity as the rest of the classics from its era. The lessons in Jaws are simple: maybe we should leave nature alone and maybe we should start valuing people over profits.
Dir. by Bernard Rose
Director Bernard Rose is an English filmmaker but, rather than shoot in his home country, he chose Chicago’s failed public housing project, Cabrini-Green, as the setting for his film. That decision alone is a large part of what makes Candyman such a poignant movie.
Helen Lyle is a graduate student researching urban legends while struggling with her fear of being exploitative as a white woman exploring predominantly black spaces. What is revealed to her throughout the movie, instead, is how poverty, racism, and gentrification play a part in the urban legend of the Candyman. It is more palatable to tell stories of the supernatural than to face the dire reality of how the local government failed its impoverished and marginalized communities. Even the backstory to the Candyman, a descendent of slaves whose education and respected career couldn’t prevent his lynching, represents how deadly racism is for black men in America despite doing everything “right”.
There’s also gore, jump scares, and haunting imagery to be had. Candyman was one of the first horror movies I can remember watching as a child and I still look over my shoulder in a dimly lit bathroom mirror. But as scary as this film is, it’s memorable because of its truthful and often painful telling of how segregation and gentrification villainizes and ostracizes the black communities across the country.
The Nightingale (2019)
Dir. by Jennifer Kent
(This film comes with a trigger warning for violence against women and children, sexual assault)
Jennifer Kent put herself on the map with the success of her feature directorial debut, Babadook, but her follow up with The Nightingale is somehow an even more uncomfortable and brutal watch. It’s worth noting that I normally avoid movies with graphic violence against women and children, but Jennifer Kent uses these painful scenes to convey the horrifying reality of colonization.
The Nightingale takes place in 1850’s Tasmania, Australia, after an Irish servant is violently assaulted and her family murdered by a British Lieutenant that holds her captive. Now motivated by vengeance, she sets out to hunt and kill those responsible for her traumas which leads her to meet an Aboriginal man whose family is also a victim to the British colonizers. (Kent prioritized an accurate and respectful portrayal of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, using Aboriginal actors and languages in the film, and was praised by an Aboriginal Tasmanian elder, saying “it is a film with a big impact.”) The Nightingale takes a look at two types of victims of colonization: those exploited within its system, such as women and convicts, and those exploited, pillaged, and brutalized throughout the process, in this case, the Aboriginal Tasmanian people. While not an easy film to watch and carry with you, it’s an effective example of how colonization and genocide of indigenous tribes is not a national issue, but a global one.
Dir. by Clive Barker
After being gaslit by his doctor into believing he committed a string of murders, Aaron Boone, the main character of Nightbreed, escapes to Midian, a place he’s only dreamt about, where monsters are accepted and celebrated. After he’s transformed into one of the Nightbreed, Boone’s girlfriend Lori, travels to find him, and from there we’re met with a series of events and people set on exterminating the species, including a militarized police force and a priest.
The Nightbreed are a species that are victims of othering; they are a peaceful species and have only been attacked for being “different.” As a queer person, I can’t help but draw the parallels between the Nightbreed and the LGBTQ+ community. Especially when considering that the universe was crafted by a gay man, it’s not far fetched to agree with Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s assertion that Nightbreed is “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” Nightbreed is far from a perfect movie, but it’s campy, gory, fun as hell, and tells a simple story of the pain and struggles of being faced with hate because of who you are.
They Live (1988)
Dir. by John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s name can be found on any Halloween movie marathon, usually for his instant classic, Halloween. However, after spending the last nearly three decades surviving late stage capitalism, Carpenter’s They Live, rich with subtext, climbs to the top of my list. Was John Carpenter sending us a warning we didn’t heed?
A nameless drifter, our protagonist, finds a pair of sunglasses after spying on a church that houses an underground rebellion group. These sunglasses reveal how the media and government use subliminal messages to subdue the population. Filled with outrageous scenes and quotable one-liners, (“I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of bubblegum”) it’s an easy movie to fail to take seriously. But at the time of its release, it was clear this was Carpenter’s response to Reagan-era consumerism and conservative economic policies. It remains relevant today with its commentary on greed, war, capitalism, militarized police forces, and the working class.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Dir. by Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour is a Iranian-American who credits 80’s pop culture as an important part of her assimilation after her family moved from the U.K. to the United States. Her directorial debut pays homage to that culture while also offering us a chador-wearing antihero — a gender bending background character whose existence in the film challenges the deadly homophobia in Iran — and “Bad City,” the Iranian ghost-town where the story unfolds. Amirpour’s duality in her culture and heritage is displayed through the characters speaking Farsi while the film watches like a classic black and white Western.
‘The Girl’ is no victim of the night. She’s a skateboarding, disco-loving vampire and her victims are the men of the city who prey on and take advantage of Bad City’s most vulnerable communities, particularly sex workers. Her convictions and fearlessness alone subverts from the film’s title and, despite her character remaining shrouded in mystery, her acts of vengeance will make any leftist viewer cheer. It’s as feminist as it is stylistic, and although it was released in 2014, it’ll scratch that classic horror itch while being something original and special all on its own.
Green Room (2015)
Dir. by Jeremy Saulnier
Nazis vs punks is a tale as old as time (and a fight we’re still fighting), but no one tells it quite as stylishly and unnervingly as Saulnier. In Green Room, punk band The Ain’t-Rights end up with a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. Before they’re able to get away from the bar, they witness a murder and are no longer allowed to leave. As the plot progresses, the violence and thrills are amped up by Saulnier’s expert pacing and jagged cuts. It’s not just a story about punks vs. Nazis, but the claustrophobia created when people from opposite ends of the spectrum are face-to-face. It’s a match with an unfair advantage, and a brutal one at that, but this is rewarded with an ultra-violent, inventive adrenaline rush. It’s been 5 years since this movie was released and we’re seeing white supremacists emboldened in our own environments, making the impact of this film hit even harder.
Dir. by Mati Diop
Atlantics is Matti Diop’s directorial debut, making her the first black woman to be in contention for the Palme d’Or, the highest prize to be earned at the Cannes Film Festival. Paired with Portrait of A Lady On Fire’s remarkable cinematographer, Claire Mathon, Diop directs a romantic ghost story that shows the strife of migration, women’s autonomy, the refugee crisis and the struggle of the working class.
On the Atlantic coast sits a suburb of Dakar. As a large, futuristic tower emerges, the construction workers haven’t been paid by their boss. Out of desperation, they set sail to Spain to find a better life for themselves and their families. Amongst those leaving is Souleiman who leaves behind his lover, Ada. As she mourns his absence and a wedding to a husband she doesn’t want, villagers start becoming ill and possessed by the unpaid laborers to seek vengeance on their boss. The visuals are as haunting as the socio-political commentary, but as the sordid love story unfolds so does a greater conversation about the pain of separation that migrant workers and their families face and how our humanity is centered around our labor. Every still tells its own story, and Atlantics will linger in your mind for a long time.
The Host (2006)
Dir. by Bong Joon Ho
In 2019, Bong Joon Ho dominated the news cycle after his Academy Award winning film, Parasite, became an instant cinematic masterpiece with its gut-wrenching portrayal of class struggles and inequalities. Parasite wasn’t the first time Bong Joon Ho used his platform for political commentary. His 2006 monster movie, The Host, stars another impoverished family, this time as they try to rescue their youngest one from an unknown monster after an American military scientist commands his Korean assistant to dump formaldehyde into the Han River. The families of the monster’s victims are told that the creature was created out of some unknown viral illness, instead of the careless acts on behalf of the American military. The film follows a 2000 incident in which American military stationed in Seoul were found dumping formaldehyde down a drain, furthering the antagonism South Koreans felt towards the United States.
Like Parasite, The Host is also a genre bending, imaginative, well-executed movie that was revered highly and broke box office records in South Korea. It’s intellectually satisfying, politically engaging, and by all standards, one of the greatest monster movies of our time.
Dir. by Ridley Scott
With each viewing, I find it harder to believe that Alien was released in 1979. That is to say that it’s well beyond its time in its politics, set design, performances, and the exceptional crafting of the universe of Nostromo. It’s been called a “haunted house film set in space,” which, regardless if it was intended as a good thing or not, is an accurate description of how the movie plays out.
When Alien first entered theatres, critics saw it as a response to the Vietnam War with its guerilla crew facing a predominantly unseen and foreign enemy. But, with the film firmly set as a champion of the sci-fi genre, it remains a relevant piece of feminist media to this day. Ellen Ripley is one of the first female action movie stars and defies the damsel in distress stereotypes. She’s a shining example of a Final Girl, able to outsmart the monster while her male counterparts meet their demise. Ripley wasn’t originally conceptualized as a woman but the decision to cast a man could have had detrimental consequences for how Alien is credited and memorialized. And it’s worth mentioning that as far as the science fiction genre goes, Alien is a surprisingly blue-collar film. There’s no emphasis on high end technology or magical and unexplained forces; it’s a survival story, and one where it takes a competent woman to make it out alive.
Follow the author on Twitter @localsadghoul.