meIn Alex Garland’s thriller new movie, Men, Jesse Buckley plays a woman whose vacation in the English countryside turns into a surreal nightmare. Her executioner is both singular and plural: a village full of hostile strangers, all with the face and voice of Rory Kinnear. Garland, the science fiction novelist who wrote and directed Ex Machina and Annihilation (both of which also focus, to some extent, on questions of sex), has never explained the nature of this threatening anomaly, this apparent cellular mind of identical stalkers. But anyone who has watched some horror movies of the past decade will know what our poor heroine is up to. She is being hunted by (gasp!) an oversized scary metaphor.
Is there a prolific monster in all modern cinema? The apocalyptic metaphor has wandered into multiplexes and art house alike, shape-shifting like the creature from The Thing to accommodate the metaphorical needs of high-minded filmmakers everywhere. It can sound like mental illness. Or like some special social disease. Its dominant form, in dozens of festival favorites, is sadness or shock. In men, the unholy beast takes the form of misogyny—specifically, a historical tendency to blame women for everything. (If the title doesn’t explain the film’s goals enough, there’s the opening scene, where Buckley pulls an apple from a tree in a garden. Is it considered some kind of restraint on Garland’s part that he didn’t go ahead and just name the character Eve?)
We live in an age of metaphorical horror—from scary movies that seek, loud and witlessly, to be about something more terrifying than a sharp knife or sharp fangs, something real and important. A monster that is more than just a monster is nothing new, of course. Just ask any researcher of vampires or werewolves what these enduring folkloric symbols might represent, or what they have had over the centuries. And for as long as there have been horror films, there have been horror filmmakers who direct our mistakes and stop our fears—trampling archetypal cities for Oppenheimer’s sins, equating the neighbourhoods with stupid shoppers, and building Freudian haunted houses.
The thing is all it was before subtext. The category of metaphorical horror today puts it right there on the surface. Think of a movie like the last Relic, which makes no attempt to hide the fact that his supernatural being is an agent of dementia horrors. Watching them, don’t tremble with fear like the nod in sad appreciation and respect. Who can cry out, sadly thinking, “There but for God’s grace I go”? Other times, the metaphor can go from frightening to just plain obnoxious. Lights Out works great as a horror-jumping machine, not like a crippling depression exploration.
These are the films that write their academic papers out loud, doing the interpretive work for the audience. At their worst, they can play more equations than suspense: solve X to reveal the stark cultural or psychological problem that the monster represents. It doesn’t mean that every filmmaker settles for even one metaphorical job. Antlers of last year, a reputable studio creature as relentlessly rugged as it is elaborately crafted, turns his raging mythical threat into a totem for nearly every major problem in America: opioid addiction, child abuse, environmental destruction, you name it he-she. It’s the kind of hyper-fabrication that makes one wonder if a horror movie about nothing might be better than a movie about everything.
A lot of the great horror movies released over the past few years have had a message above cheap thrills, spreading metaphor without giving in to horror. But for every Babadook, Get Out, or It Follows movie (a movie that, by the way, capitalizes on its metaphor—no, “it” isn’t an STD), there are ten other horror movies that seem to exist only to offer a simple, barely hidden clue. . Watching them, you begin to sympathize a little with a crowd of purists brandishing a pitchfork at any frightening fare high enough to classify, in useless rhetoric, as “high.” For many of these dear potential critics, heightening the horror really means illustrating all the delicious brain fodder that the towering classics of the ’70s felt so well left safely, productively submerged.
Regardless of the title of the nose, men are far from the most egregious culprit in this department. Garland knows how to surround the viewer with an atmosphere of another world, he is worried about fairy tales. And he doesn’t skimp on shocks—especially in the climax, where the director finds a truly grotesque fictional way to visualize the big #YesAllMen point. (As David Cronenberg can tell you, it’s almost always effective, grossly overburdening the brain with visceral.) Still, the film’s blunt messages, though they may be, still erode some of their power: Garland made a see-through film in terms of subject matter to the point that he can’t help but put a safe intellectual distance between him and the viewer. It sacrifices true awe of the unknown at the altar of an easy-to-disassemble treatise. It’s figurative (aka “about something”) to be wrong.
Great horror movies, really terrifying, tend to act on an inconsequential level. They have a touch of madness, they speak to the primal fears that run around our heads. It cannot be solved or explained easily. This is what Stephen King meant when we wrote about the poetry of fear, and how nightmares exist outside of logic. And that’s what Toby Hopper devilishly capitalized on in 1974 when he made a panic machine in the slaughterhouse to rule them all—another movie, like men, about a young city unwisely swaying in blessings. Dive into the Texas Chainsaw massacre, and you’ll find all kinds of ideas: about class war, about industrialization, about cannibals in capitalism. But Hopper kept them under the skin, in the background rather than the foreground. They were secondary to his main objective, which was to frighten people who live in a drink. Mission accomplished, no borrowing needed.