Political Cinema: How politics and film are intertwined, and why they always should be.


There is a growing concept around the stupider corners of the internet that movies and politics shouldn't mix. You know what I'm talking about. People who get frustrated when they feel like a movie is trying to make a point. It's the kind of thinking that leads to absurd outrage over Black Panther getting an Oscar nomination, or The Hunt getting pulled from release, or Joe Bob Briggs' comments that horror movies are becoming over-politicised.

Thing is, though, this idea that there is somehow more politics in movies now than there used to be is... well, it's total nonsense. Politics and movies aren't separate entities, they are so intertwined with each other that they're almost impossible to untangle. Whether it's Christopher Nolan using contemporary threats of terrorism to imbue a sense of realism to his The Dark Knight in 2008, or Orson Welles exploring the growing tension and difficulties around the South America border in 1958's Touch of Evil, politics has always, ALWAYS, played a key part in cinema.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that without politics there wouldn't even be cinema. At least, not in the way we understand it. And no genre does it better than... you guessed it, HORROR!

Horror has always been born out of the political and social attitudes of the world in which the films were made. We can even stretch back to the Universal Classic Monsters, where Dracula comes to London the wreak havoc. The fear of the foreigner is strong with that one.

And then, of course, there are the atomic monster movies, born from a fear of the Nuclear Arms Race, and the terror of what nightmares nuclear fallout might bring upon society. Horror cinema envisioned them as anything from giant, flesh melting blobs, to a humongous, mythical lizard named Godzilla. 1964's The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, takes it even further. Not only are we subjected to the potential horror brought upon by the end of the world, but we also learn that we've been the bad guys all along... if that isn't some political subtext I'm just not sure what is.

Perhaps the most overtly obvious example of politics in horror I can think of comes in the form John Carpenter's excellent They Live. Starring Rowdy Roddy Piper, the film tells the story of a drifter who, when he discovers a pair of altered sunglasses, discovers the world is in fact under the control of an alien race, controlling society through subliminal messaging on bill boards, magazine covers and food packaging. It's an incredibly absurd and absolutely brilliant little film with quite possibly one of the best endings ever. You should definitely check it out.

Carpenter was incredibly political, with most of his films having some sort of, as Joe Bob Briggs would put it, "political axe to grind". The Thing is as much a commentary on Cold War Paranoia as it is a movie about a gloopy, shape-shifting alien. In fact, the political subtext is one of the things I enjoy most about The Thing, which remains one of my favourite movies.

Meanwhile, Tobe Hooper was busy exploring forgotten America, and the dark underbelly of a society left behind to suffer after economical downturn with the now iconic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Briggs' comments were in relation to the upcoming Blumhouse produced remake of Black Christmas, which is being positioned as a post-Me Too slasher, but the irony is that even Bob Clark's 1974 original delved into the political conversation. Particularly in the way society treats women.

It is true that the horror genre often thrives under times of social and political stress. This was true then and it's true now. With the rise of Trump and Brexit, and the right-wing nationalism that is spreading across the Western world, we see modern contemporary fears reflected in horror films.

Racism on the rise? Jordan Peele has got us covered with his darkly satirical Get Out. Generations are becoming divided and young people are feeling trapped by the decisions of their parents. Here comes Ari Aster ready to high-light that in Hereditary.

Perhaps horror is often born out of anger. I know my horror was. When writing ONUS, anger is what poured out of me and onto the page. Anger at the class system, and those who hoard their wealth while the poorest in society suffer and die needlessly in what is supposedly the fifth richest economy in the world.

The sheer suggestion that politics should stay out of cinema or that cinema should stay out of politics is laughable. Stories of any form are about making sense of and exploring the world around us, and politics is arguably the most important facet of that.

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© Alex Secker 2018