The best horror movies are reflections of a society’s collective anxieties. Sure, they may feature ghosts or zombies or other imaginary creatures. But whether it’s “28 Days Later”‘s post-apocalyptic military state which draws to mind 9/11, or the timely undertones of political corruption and mistrust in 1976’s “The Omen,” great scary movies are often as much about what goes bump in the night as they are about real world threats hiding in plain sight.
In our current age of anxiety, like ones before it, rapid technological advancement has set off alarm bells in our collective consciousness. And as such, many horror movies look to tap into these fears — sometimes to astounding effect and other times… well… other times you’re stuck with “feardotcom.”
So today on Halloween, before you revel in the light of demon-fever and suffer endless internal debates about what constitutes an “age-appropriate” costume at this stage of your life, check out these 5 horror films that make humanity’s appetite for technological advancement feel more terrifying than a horde of zombies led by Freddy Krueger.
5. Pontypool (2008)
Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie film. But the contagion for spreading the outbreak isn’t a virus. In fact, it isn’t a biological pathogen of any kind. The agent that carries this disease is words.
Stephen McHattie plays Grant, a small-town radio show host who begins receiving calls from people describing riots, violence, and a vague “infection.” As outside reports continue to trickle in, the station staff slowly realize that some sort of pandemic has taken over. And eventually, after coming to the realization of how the disease spreads, they realize it’s partly their fault for broadcasting over the airwaves.
Sure, the theme of the film isn’t terribly profound — propaganda and messaging can lead to destructive mob behavior as easily as a zombie virus. But the film’s measured pace, intimate setting (90 percent of the film takes place in the control room), and magnificent — and mellifluous — performance of McHattie draws the viewer in and never lets go until the credits roll. There’s also a bit of irony in that the “technology” wreaking havoc here is humble AM radio. Because if such a primitive form of communication can cause this much trouble, imagine what the Internet is capable of.
4. Pulse (2001)
The idea of ghosts who travel through the Internet, absurd as it is, has proved to be irresistible to filmmakers ever since the disasterous “feardotcom.” But “Pulse,” a Japanese horror film directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the first and only movie to get it right. While most films of its kind merely explore the question, “Hey wouldn’t it be weird and scary if ghosts could travel over the Internet?” “Pulse” functions as an allegory for the lonely ghost-like desperation we feel when our entire lives are lived online. And having come out three years before Facebook launched to confine much of our existence within digital boundaries, “Pulse” was remarkably ahead of its time.
Note: Don’t bother with the 2006 American remake of “Pulse” starring Kristen Bell. Even Bell’s Veronica Mars charm isn’t enough to save this bland, aggressively unscary rehash.
3. Videodrome (1983)
The first of two films directed by David Cronenberg on this list, “Videodrome,” like “Pontypool,” is about the powerful and destructive effects of mass media. Max Renn (James Woods) is the head of a small Canadian television station who stumbles upon a signal broadcasting horrific scenes of torture and mutilation. In an attempt to titillate the sensationalist hungers of his viewers, Renn begins to rebroadcast the “show” over his own airwaves, assuming that they are all staged. Unfortunately, he discovers that not only are the gruesome scenes real, they also cause viewers to experience hallucinations and eventually brain tumors.
The message of “Videdrome,” which is essentially that watching garbage TV all day will kill you, may be a bit heavyhanded. But the execution of the film is shocking and powerful enough to make audiences rethink their bloodlust for vicious and violent content. And it’s a clever bit of meta-storytelling, considering that few films are as vicious and violent as “Videodrome” itself.
2. Altered States (1980)
Like “Videodrome,” the terror of Ken Russell’s “Altered States” centers on human consciousness, and the wreckage that can come from toying with it. William Hurt plays Dr. Edward Jessup, a psychologist researching mental illnesses. In an attempt to recreate the hallucinatory perceptions of schizophrenics, Jessup takes a psychedelic drug given to him by Mexican tribesmen before entering a sensory deprivation tank. The initial trials are, as you might imagine, mindblowing and terrifying, but largely harmless. Soon, however, Jessup begins to undergo strange psychological and even physical changes that linger after the drug has worn off. His colleagues naturally start to worry, but Jessup is a classic monomaniacal character type, obsessed with probing the mysteries of consciousness, at whatever cost.
Growing up, we’re told that curiosity is one of humanity’s greatest gifts — that this desire to understand the world and ourselves is what drives all human progress. But “Altered States” suggests there’s a limit to human curiosity, and that sometimes we’re better off to shut up and stop asking questions.
1. The Fly (1986)
What drives the creative spark of a technological genius? Does it come from a sincere desire to make the world a better place? To bend the limits of human achievement and inspire others and bring about new ways of living?
Or is there something far less lofty pushing these prodigies to succeed — like ego, insecurity, or a desire to prove oneself? For creators like these, who tie their success to earthly rewards like fame, money, attention, and sex, great inventions are only as important as others think they are,.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” is that kind of genius. His area of expertise is teleportation. One night, after a string of horrifying failures, he finally manages to teleport a live baboon without harming it. But his exuberance over the successful experiment soon fades after Veronica (Geena Davis), a journalist who is both reporting on his discovery and sleeping with him (Call the GamerGate police!), cancels on a date. Full of jealousy and alcohol, Brundle stubbornly and carelessly tests his telepods out on a human subject: Himself. What he doesn’t know was that a fly had entered the pod with him — a mistake that proves to be a bit… problematic.
In a series of increasingly gruesome scenes, Brundle slowly transforms into the half-man half-fly beast “Brundlefly” whose dietary habits include vomiting on people’s limbs then devouring them. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Brundle’s transformation, however, is that he enjoys it. In this way, “The Fly” is a cautionary tale about what happens when a dangerously talented scientist becomes consumed by ego. Usually, the ugliness is confined to the soul, but here, Cronenberg brings that decay and ruin outward, thus driving home the often self-destructive quality of genius.
Honorable Mention: “Demon Seed”
“Demon Seed” isn’t a great movie, but it did predict our anxieties over smart home technologies that track your every move. Of course, the computerized home in “Demon Seed,” which literally rapes one of its residents, poses a more existential threat than today’s smart homes, which are largely derided for collecting and selling intimate lifestyle data points that we’d rather not share with corporations. Nevertheless, “Demon Seed” takes our fears over privacy invasions to its logical and horrific extreme.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]