Badass Women, Stunning Visuals, and Subverting Expectations: Looking Back at This Year in Horror

2018 was a year of amazing horror films. While a certain Vogue article may disagree, 2018 was a year for pushing boundaries in the genre and creating complex female characters who weren’t just vehicles for over-the-top sex scenes. It was a year where “woman” no longer meant singular sex object, with films like Revenge, What Keeps You Alive, and Cam. It was a year of experimentation, as seen in Mandy and Possum, which create unique, and psychedelic, visual experiences. While the past five years have been full of this kind of boundary-pushing, from The VVItch to Get Out, 2018 continued to showcase the diverse voices in the horror community and demonstrate how the face of horror is changing.

While this piece will primarily highlight the positives of horror in 2018, this was not a year without its failures. The Nun, Truth or Dare, Winchester and more made up this year’s big blockbuster releases, and all were met with a resounding shrug; these movies made to draw the big crowds to the box office instead kept the horny teens away. The two horror films that drew crowds this year were A Quiet Place and Hereditary, two films that strayed away from the typical horror narrative and created unique stories that perhaps wouldn’t always make their way into the mainstream. Despite the bigger name flops, indie horror filmmakers really showed up to create pieces of horrifying media that resonated both throughout the horror community, and in some cases larger audiences.

Redefining Genres

Rape-revenge films are commonly exploitative, over-the-top, and torturous to their female characters. Think of films such as I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45. But, director Coralie Fargaet wanted to change this with Revenge, a film in the vein of the French New Extremity that uses rape as more than a plot device or site of spectacle.

While on vacation with her married boyfriend, Jen (Mathilda Lutz) is raped by his skeezy friend. To keep her quiet, the boyfriend and his friends push her off a cliff, believing she won’t survive the fall. Wrong. What follows is a bloodbath at the hands of Jen who is hellbent on getting revenge on her rapist and attempted murderers. The plot is very similar to that of the typical exploitation film, but what sets it apart is its presentation of Jen. The camera is very consciously constructing her as a sex object and therefore makes the audience uncomfortably aware of how they perceive her body. Revenge is a film that spits in the face of the male gaze and attempts to reclaim acts of violence as an ambiguous site of both trauma and empowerment.

2018 was also a year of reevaluating the slasher film with Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive. It is a lesbian slasher, which seems counterintuitive since slashers usually involve punishment of heterosexual teens by a hulking male figure. Not anymore. In What Keeps You Alive, a gay woman, Jackie, is the villain who hunts her wife, Jules, in the name of insurance money. What’s refreshing about this film is that Jackie’s sexuality is not the source of her evil, which is a trope in the subgenre—subversive identities are always the reason the killer snaps. Instead, What Keeps You Alive creates a film without such an aggressive power dynamic and presents both women, despite their intentions, as powerful, intelligent characters.

Brittany Allen (left) and Hannah Anderson in ‘What Keeps You Alive’

 

Bad Ass Moms and Complicated Women

I keep saying it and I will continue to say it: 2018 was a year for horror to really showcase nuanced, complicated, and amazing women. Cam, directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by Isa Mazzei, is one of the first horror films that depict sex workers as real people, rather than nameless objects to be murdered and thrown to the side. The film takes the hustle of the cam girl and combines it with the terrors of the Internet—from algorithms to stalkers to strange AI technology— to create a poignant commentary on the nature of the Internet and those who use it to make money. Think Perfect Blue in 2018.

Then, there is Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Suspiria, a film that is dripping with blood, magic, and women. Suspiria shows how to do a remake the right way—instead of trying to go for a shot-for-shot retelling, Guadagnino uses Argento as a source of inspiration, but weaves his own tale.  It is a film about empowerment, agency, dance, and love, all of which happens by women, for women, and between women. Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton (as three characters), Mia Goth, and Chloe Grace Moretz drift and sway across the screen, weaving a tale of witchcraft and choice. Plus, Johnson declaring, “I am she,” still gives me goosebumps.

Madeline Brewer in ‘Cam’

Within this category of complicated women are the bad ass moms of Hereditary, Halloween, and A Quiet Place. Following films like The Babadook and Under the Shadow, 2018 was a year full of moms that were full of grief, trauma, fear, and love; they were more than villains or angels of the hearth. Hereditary and Halloween are prime examples of inherited trauma, its lasting effects on both survivors and their families, and how to attempt to overcome it. From Annie’s own grief in Hereditary to Laurie Strode’s struggle with PTSD in Halloween, these female characters no longer feel like victims or objects used to create a spectacle. Even Emily Blunt’s character in A Quiet Place isn’t just a pregnant mother relegated to domestic space; she can wield a shotgun, protect her children, and give birth quietly in the presence of a razor-toothed alien. These women are fleshed out people who are allowed to have emotions and depth without becoming villains.  

Psychedelic Visuals and Horrifying Puppets

While Guadagnino didn’t keep Argento’s giallo-style color palette in Suspiria, plenty of other films led the charge in the visual style of 2018 horror. At the forefront is Panos Cosmatos’ second film, Mandy, featuring Nicolas Cage at his most Nicolas Cage and a cult bent on abducting his girlfriend. Accompanied by an absolutely bonkers story and synth score by the late Johan Johansson is Cosmatos’ signature psychedelic, colorful style that washes every scene in reds and pinks. While Cosmatos’ first film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was much more style over substance, the director hit a sweet spot with Mandy, blending a strange story with his signature visuals.  It is a feast for the eyes as each scene dazzles and shocks, especially when the Hellraiser-esque biker gang peels out of the woods. Mandy was one of my top 20 films of the year and should not be missed.  

But Mandy wasn’t the only do-some-edibles-and-hit-the-theatre horror film this year; there was also Alex Garland’s Annihilation, which blends badass women with some of the craziest, and visually stunning, sequences from this year, including the Shimmer which looks like an oil-slick. Its style captures an uncanny world that isn’t so different from our own and yet still feels alien.  There’s also Possum, a British film by Matthew Holness, which follows a depressed puppeteer and his absolutely awful-looking spider puppet. While it was not one of my favorites from this year, there is no denying its bleak visual style that echoes German expressionism and nightmares. It is a film that captures the puppeteer’s own depression and unlivable conditions so well that it makes you unbearably itchy.

International Horror

While a lot of attention was given to U.S. horror releases, there were quite a few international horror films that deserve attention, such as Spain’s possession film Veronica, Japan’s horror-comedy One Cut of the Dead, Estonia’s dreamy November, Indonesia’s cursed Satan’s Slaves, and Argentina’s haunted house story, Terrified. Each of these films showcase a style and voice unlike what is seen in the U.S. or the U.K.

AMC’s horror streaming service, Shudder, can be thanked for making some of these releases, such as Revenge, November, Satan’s Slaves, and Terrified, more accessible to Western audiences. They acquired exclusive distribution rights and, through excellent marketing, were able to bring these titles to a larger audience.

 

While I know I didn’t cover every horror film released this year, there is no doubting that 2018 continued to show the merit of the horror film and the need to support more independent women filmmakers and filmmakers of color. Despite a slew of blockbuster flops, this was a year that horror flourished and continued to showcase its power, its reach, and its ability to truly reflect what society is afraid of.

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