In this very special Halloween edition of Oh, The Horror, I’ve put together a list of horror films that are both frightening and socially progressive. With diverse casts, strong women in the lead, insightful social commentary, and some very eerie twists, these films will keep you screaming in your seats without inducing any angry rants about the use of racial and gendered tropes.
1. Prince of Darkness (1987)
Not only is this film certified creepy and unsettling, but the cast is progressive and diverse. OK, so the two main lead characters are both white. But, the full cast of the movie is very diverse and each character is portrayed sans stereotypes. Not to mention, the leading lady is badass and intelligent. Prince of Darkness merges typical religious themes of horror and science in a flawless way. With an eerie score, unique and undeniably scary plot, and well-written characters, this movie gets an A+ on levels of scariness and progressiveness.
2. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
The main character of this chilling ’90s Wes Craven flick is Poindexter Williams (Brandon Adams), affectionately nicknamed “Fool” by his loving big sister. Fool is a young black boy from a low income neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Greedy elitist landlords are going to evict Fool and his family from their apartment, and this is essentially how the plot goes underwear. Brandon Adams is excellent in his role as Fool, and Wes Craven effectively satirizes this very eerie form of conservatism in the main antagonists, known only as “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
3. You’re Next (2011)
It’s difficult to explain why this movie is progressive without completely giving away the whole film. All I’m going to say is: there’s a woman in this movie who will make you cheer and scream and revel in all her intense badassery. She is, by far, one of the kick ass women in horror I have ever had the pleasure to witness. Let’s just say, this is a woman who knows the meaning of survival. The scary factor of this film? Way up there. The antagonists don creepy animal masks and paint “you’re next” on the walls in blood.
4. Night of The Living Dead (1968)
As explored in my very first Oh, The Horror post, Night of the Living Dead is not only a must-watch horror classic, but it broke barriers about race in horror films. Having a black lead in horror is rare, and having them portrayed as stereotypical caricatures often follows. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead exploded through those barriers, and Duane Jones was excellent in his role as Ben. Politics aside, you can’t appreciate horror if you haven’t watched this black and white zombie classic.
5. The Thing (prequel) (2011)
The 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic may not be able to live up to the mastery of the original, but I chose The Thing prequel because of the strong leading lady. For diehard Carpenter fans, such as myself, it’s hard to choose the prequel over the the original. But my Carpenter fandom aside, The Thing prequel is well-written and the protagonist Kate Lloyd is an intelligent and strong leading woman, which harshly contrasts the original The Thing, which is, arguably, a boys club, (Side note: You really ought to watch the original The Thing as some point though).
6. Alien (1979)
Whether you categorize this as sci-fi or horror, Alien is going to terrify you regardless. With chest-bursters and face-huggers galore, this is the kind of film that will have you jolting out of your seat. Plus, protagonist Ellen Ripley is by far one of the most badass fictional characters in the history of everything. She’s pretty much an ass-kicking space Goddess battling through slime and terror aboard a spaceship. Watch this movie on Halloween and you’ll get scared and grossed out, while simultaneously being so thrilled at how fantastic she is. It’s also the kind of movie that you can enjoy re-watching.
7. The Orphanage (2007)
This movie is chilling, undeniably creepy, and bizarrely heartwarming. The main character Laura is a loving mother and a strong, determined woman. I love how this movie is able to show that nurturing compassionate mothers are also strong badass women. There’s a tendency in horror to only show strong women has emotionally detached and devoid of any typical feminine. But The Orphanage plays on the strength and trials of motherhood. In my experience, Spanish horror films have rarely let me down. Only thing is: this film is in Spanish, so subtitles are a must.
8. Saint Ange (2004)
This French-Romanian film is one of those subtly scary movies; one’s that make you question what you’re seeing and are psychologically thrilling. Saint Ange (or House of Voices, it’s American name) is also beautifully filmed. The cinematography is delicate and dark making this an aesthetically pleasing film to watch. There are strong hints in the film that the main character Anna is a survivor of rape and other physical abuse. The film is set in 1958, and it’s clear that Anna doesn’t want the baby, but has no real options to abort it. Anna is such a complex character; she’s compassionate, loving, but not ready to be a mother. She’s afraid, prone to breakdowns of tears (and rightfully so) but motivated to uncover the secrets of Saint Ange.
9. Candyman (1992)
Candyman is a modern adaptation of an old frightening tale set against the backdrop of racialized poverty. The movie hits the spot on both scares and social critique. It shows white academics fascinated with the tale of Candyman, but ultimately removed and disconnected from the horrors of it. But deaths as a result of Candyman’s wrath are silenced and forgotten because the victims are poor black people from a dilapidated housing project that society views as ultimately disposable. What’s more Candyman’s origin story is rooted in anti-black racism and lynching crimes. This is a great film for anyone looking to get frightened and a great talking point about race politics in film.
10. They Live (1988)
Of course, another Carpenter film made it onto this list. They Live isn’t super diverse in its casting, but the plot and premise of the film is undoubtedly progressive. It’s essentially a horror satire about the one percent, where the ruling bourgeois are actually aliens brainwashing the masses into submission. The film comments on consumerism, subliminal messages of advertising, and the maintenance of the status quo. This film is perfect for progressive viewers!
And as a little treat, here are some films that, while not being special in the socially-progressive category, are still spooky and Halloween-worthy.
1. The Exorcist III (1990)
I’d recommend the first The Exorcist, but that’s a given. I watched The Exorcist III not expecting much at all, only to find that it’s surprisingly good. There’s a murder-mystery involved, plus the obvious elements of demons and hellish scares. It’s creepy and the plot does have some connections to the first film. Also, there’s a part where an old lady crawls across the ceiling. I told you it was scary.
2. The Blob (1988)
Another surprisingly awesome horror flick, The Blob sounds like such a silly concept and the 50s version is more of a comedy than a horror film, but the 1988 remake delivers. The Blob is great for gross practical special effects. It’s a fun film to watch on Halloween—not psychologically disturbing in any way, just some nasty scary blob-ish fun.
3. Audition (1999)
As cliched at this might sound, Audition is not for the faint heart. This Japanese horror flick is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Just read the reviews online and you’ll get the gist of what you’re getting yourself into. The beginnings of the film are almost like a romantic comedy and then descends into some of the weirdest stuff I’ve ever seen.
4. Rec (2007)
This is one of my all time favourite scary movies. First off, don’t watch the American version. You need to watch the Spanish Rec, which is the original. Rumour has it, the director kept the actors in the dark about one of the scary pop-up moments of the film, so the reactions are apparently genuine. Whether or not that’s true, the reactions certainly seem genuine. I highly recommend Rec for any Halloween scary movie-thon.
5. Witchboard (1986)
Anyone creeped out by Ouija boards will love this movie. This movie is all about a Ouija board session gone wrong, and the ultimate mystery: Who is the spirit talking through the board? Let’s just say this: Everyone in the house heard me scream when I watched this film in my room.
Next week I look at an unusual side of horror films: how they impact body image and self-esteem via an abundance of random sex scenes that are in almost every modern day horror film.