So, rarely do I hear anyone mention the irony that John Landis once directed an extended music video for a song called “Thriller,” that is in no way a thriller, but rather, is just horror. Zombies? Werewolves? These aren’t “thriller creatures.” Hell, there’s not even any such thing as a “thriller creature” to my knowledge. But there are creatures of horror. I never understood the discrepancy between the title “Thriller” and its subject matter, but no one really brings it up.
Last time I did a favorites article I delved into some favorite science-fiction movies that I believe are better identified as horror films than sci-fi. And for no reason other than it’s fun, I’m doing the same thing with dramas today.
It’s common for drama to go dark, but when does it transcend the genre completely and cross over into horror territory? It’s a frustrating question because there’s something of a narrative among many film elitists that horror can’t be smart or sophisticated. And if it happens to be one or both of these things, it’s no longer horror. I’m not sure where this notion came from, but it exists.
No Country For Old Men
Originally written by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is considered to be a Gothic western of sorts. The main attribute of this film that ticks the horror box is, of course, Anton Chigurh, and for essentially the same reason I consider The Terminator horror. Anton Chigurh is pretty close to being a slasher. Granted, he uses guns and an air tank instead of a machete, he’s got a lot in common with Michael Myers the way he stalks his prey and will stop at nothing to kill the people he wants to kill. He really does give off vibes of The Shape in Halloween.
Moreover, Anton Chigurh is often regarded as death himself by fans of the movie, considering his cloak-like hairstyle and unshakable determination to deliver untimely ends toward virtually everyone in the film.
The truth is that No Country for Old Men hits just about every genre there is. That’s the reason it’s so beloved and why it was considered an instant classic upon release. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s suspenseful, and action-packed. But I think more than anything, No Country for Old Men is unsettling and scary in ways many horror films aspire to be but fail.
With No Country For Old Men, I can understand why most people would give me push back on calling it a horror film. With Se7en, do I even need to defend myself? The “sloth” murder scene alone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. Each murder is uniquely gruesome and terrifying. The movie carries heavy tones of dread and futility, and despite my dislike for her as a person, I don’t actually want Gwyneth Paltrow to be decapitated and her head FedEx-ed to the middle of the desert.
And yet, people often want to lump Se7en into the same genre as something like Law & Order. I don’t understand it and I probably never will.
Interestingly, Se7en was only nominated for one Oscar—Best Film Editing—but it didn’t even win that. On the other hand, at the MTV Movie Awards, it won Best Movie (among other awards). That should tell you a lot about how different the younger generation was in 1996 vs. the younger generation in 2020. Not that there’s anything wrong with today’s youth, it’s just vastly different. Why MTV acknowledged the brilliance of Se7en and the Academy didn’t is beyond me, but that’s the reality in which we live.
The Silence of the Lambs
We’ve been having this conversation (argument) since the early ‘90s but I don’t suppose there’s any need to stop having it now. Recently, I saw a huge argument break out on Twitter about whether or not Silence of the Lambs is horror. The argument against being, if you consider Silence of the Lambs horror, you have to consider movies like Zodiac horror.
All I can say to that is, no you don’t. Those two movies have completely different tones, and also Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill are not real-life serial killers like The Zodiac Killer (granted Buffalo Bill was very loosely based on Ed Gein).
Hannibal Lecter is a horror icon and Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie. Anytime you’re making a skin suit out of recently slaughtered women, you’re operating in a horror universe. So, when people say the Academy never nominates horror movies, they’re wrong. They nominate them and even give them the win sometimes. They just all decide to stop calling it horror when they do, which is kind of a dick move.
Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive
Every David Lynch movie at least walks the line of horror, except for maybe The Straight Story. But in particular, I think Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive are the closest examples of full-on horror David Lynch has shown us. They’re both showing us nightmares but in different ways. With Mulholland Drive we see a beautiful dream and then the main character waking up to a nightmare. With Eraserhead, Henry is living a kind of perpetual nightmare.
The horrors of Eraserhead are incalculable, but this film has always struck me as pure, classic horror. Surreal, yes, and all the more horrific for it. With Mulholland Drive, we get something of a more true-to-life horror film, but we also get one of the best jump scares in cinematic history.
You could also point to other David Lynch movies like Lost Highway or Inland Empire, for that matter, at least for certain scenes. The point is, David Lynch is an artist and a near-universally celebrated filmmaker within the world of film, but he’s not exactly synonymous with horror. Strange considering his depictions of strange and horrifying things are probably what he’s most famous for.
As always, thanks for reading. What are your picks for drama films that could pass for horror movies?