mother hero
More Than A Jump Scare: 6 Haunting Social Thrillers
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The Academy

Candyman is writer, director and new Academy member Nia DaCosta’s first horror film, and with it she’s already inducted into one of the most influential franchises of the genre. Brave audiences first met the titular specter—and were dared to speak his name—in the 1992 original, and DaCosta’s long-awaited Candyman entry is a direct sequel. She’s taken its dark, unshakable myth and ominous slasher tone and—along with co-writer and producer Jordan Peele—reconfigured it for today.

Both versions have all the makings of a good horror flick (a chilling score! haunting imagery! traumatizing jump scares!), but they’re also part of a unique, elevated subgenre: the social thriller. Scares in these movies—often through allegory or symbolism—point to something bigger, truer and more terrifying than fantasy. As Peele explained during Get Out interviews a few years back, “The best and scariest monsters in the world are human beings. [Social thrillers] deal with this human monster, this societal monster. And the villain is us.”

All this makes us realize some of the most haunting horror movies are in this vein. As we brace ourselves for Candyman’s terrors, these six thrillers with something to say are on our mind.

1
Get Out
2017
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It was hard to know what to make of Peele’s debut feature at first, but that’s only because there had never been anything like it. (Peele won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) In a much darker twist on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) gradually realizes on a trip to meet his white girlfriend’s family that there’s bigotry and malice boiling under all their congeniality. As the family tries to coerce Chris into the Sunken Place and prey on his Black identity, the movie bubbles up into a deranged, surreal realm of horrors. It’s no exaggeration to say that Get Out revitalized the genre—and catapulted the term “social thriller” into popularity (so much so that Peele curated a film series on the subject for a Brooklyn performing arts venue, which included Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead and, of course, the original Candyman).

2
mother!
2017
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mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live an idyllic life in their remote, octagonal home—until very rude visitors start knocking on their door. The health of the house and of mother take a nosedive as more guests pour in, and things get so ludicrous and so dangerous so fast that it’s impossible not to recognize it all as symbolism. If you’re looking for a cheat sheet, writer-director Darren Aronofsky has said that this Vox review “gets it.” But just keep a Bible nearby and environmental themes in mind, and we’re pretty sure you’ll be able to sort this out for yourself. And don’t let the Razzie nominations scare you away: This is can’t-miss allegorical horror.

3
His House
2020
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This movie agrees with mother: You’re supposed to feel safe in your own home. But that’s not the case for refugee couple Bol (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù)​​ and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) as they try to settle into a new house, a new country and a new life. After incurring a monumental loss on their journey from war-torn South Sudan, they are in desperate need of hospitality. Instead, the house they’re assigned to by a dismissive British government is plagued with extremely unsettling paranormal activity. As the couple faces the challenges of assimilation and displacement outside the home, they face ghosts within as well.

4
Under The Shadow
2016
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In the same spirit of residential horror is Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, in which Shideh (Narges Rashidi) tries to adjust to life as a solo mom after her husband is drafted into war. Shideh soothes anxious daughter Dorsa by promising her favorite ragdoll will protect them in his absence, but that plan falls through when the doll mysteriously goes missing. It soon becomes clear that supernatural “jinn” demons have infiltrated the home, compounding the political turmoil of 1980s Tehran around them.

5
It Follows
2014
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It’s easy to see why some people think It Follows is an allegory for STDs: “Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you,” a young man tells 19-year-old college student Jay (Maika Monroe). After this sexual encounter, a deadly, shapeshifting entity stalks her—and will continue to do so unless she passes the curse onto someone else. Seems like a great reason for abstinence, right? Wrong—writer-director David Robert Mitchell disagrees. “Some people seemed to think I was trying to demonize sex, but I don’t see it that way at all. It represents something larger,” he told Den of Geek. Given how heavy, life-altering and paranoid the terrors in It Follows are, it’s more likely about the contagious nature of unresolved trauma, abuse and emotional pain.

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Perfect Blue
1997
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Perfect Blue is an animated movie that takes place in the world of J-pop—not the most predictable setting for a psychological horror film, but that’s part of what makes this one so special. After pop singer Mima (voiced by Junko Iwao) leaves the music group to pursue a career as an actress, a fan begins stalking her and a string of possibly related murders unfold. All of this causes Mima’s grip on reality to loosen, leading to a viewing experience in which it’s quite unclear what’s real and what’s imagined horror. By the climax, the movie brings Mulholland Drive and Black Swan to mind, as it explores the dizzying effects of fame.

© 2021 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences