Class Act: How the exploration of class in movies evolves and changes with the times.
When I was a kid Hammer horror was the bomb. They were tacky, old and cheesy enough that they didn’t terrify me beyond belief, but they were also saucy, gory and creepy enough that I always felt like I was being allowed to watch something I probably shouldn’t.
I can remember staying up late to watch the likes of Dracula, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Curse of Frankenstein. As I grew older, I found myself moving away from the quaint charms of the studio that dripped blood and into more adult fair. It was here that I discovered John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Exorcist, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Hammer was instrumental in my cinematic journey.
I loved Hammer movies as a kid. As I already said, they were “the bomb”. Today I still love Hammer movies, albeit from a more nostalgic and ironic standpoint. There are plenty of fantastic, iconic moments embedded within their filmography that a good Hammer film is always worth a watch. If you asked me to choose my favorite of the Hammer canon, though, you might expect one of the recognizable classics.
Afterall, who doesn’t love a bit of Christopher Lee as the Count or Peter Cushing digging up the dead? But the truth is, my favorite Hammer film, the one that I find myself constantly returning to time and time again, is The Devil Rides Out.
Until relatively recently I’d never heard anyone mention The Devil Rides Out that wasn’t… well, me. It used to be that when I brought it up in conversation people were baffled, but now it appears to be getting a little more love. It’s a tight, classic film, with some decent set-pieces and a good pace. It has a stellar Christopher Lee performance at its center and offers up pretty much everything one would hope to find from a Hammer horror.
I rewatched it a couple of day ago, though, and something occurred to me. Nothing about the plot or anything like that (although it does have some problematic moments through the lens of 2020), but rather about its focus, and about the focus of similar films from the same time.
Have you ever noticed how much older movies tend to align themselves with the upper-middle and upper-class?
I’m not saying that all classic movies are pro-the wealthy elite. Of course they’re not. I mean, even Mary Poppins puts an end to a fox hunt and tells the bankers to do one. But as time has worn on, movies certainly seem to have become less pro-the wealthy elite.
In the 80s a shift happened. Wall Street yuppies became the bad guys (Greed is good and all that jazz), and we started to see the typical Establishment figures turn into our villains. Movies like Aliens, anything made by Spielberg, and of course John Carpenter’s excellent They Live, turned the tables of the wealthy. They became sniveling, villainous people. Even Die Hard, with its blue-collar cop hero and its expensive suite wearing villains.
There was a definite shift at some point to a more anti-wealth outlook. And more recently still, with the likes of Ready Or Not and Parasite, we’ve begun to see that shift move even further.
Now our rich villains aren’t just the guys doing the wrong thing, they’re the guys actively trying to kill us. They’re the baddies. Anti-elite, it would seem, has become the order of the day. And that’s not surprise when we look at our current political and social climates. I mean, why wouldn’t you hate the rich? They horde the world’s wealth and destroy the planet for profit while the rest of us (the proles) are forced to use food banks, work till we die, and generally just live off the scraps.
Class has always been an interesting topic for exploration. Whether it’s Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise or Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, class is something that impacts our lives in every single way imaginable. From the food we eat to the clothes we air to the literal air we breathe; our lives are dictated by where we fall on the social ladder.
In The Devil Rides Out, our hero is a wealthy, upper-class academic. He comes to rescue his wealthy, upper-class friend from a deadly Satanic Cult of nameless cultists. It’s suggested, although never outrightly stated, that this cult is made up of “the plebs”. And this kind of narrative isn’t unique.
In Oliver! we get the lower-class villains and the heroic upper-class family who save the day. We see a similar thing play out in Annie, too. But these films present our heroes as people from the working-class themselves. Both orphans, both without a penny to their name. Maybe this is why audiences were so ready to accept this narrative, but when we see the yoofs of Eden Lake, for example, we find audiences tend to reject them.
I’m sure, if we looked hard enough, we could find class parallels in almost every film. After all, it is so built into our daily lives it’s difficult not to see it. But as more and more films in the modern era seem to be tackling the subject head on – Ready Or Not is quite literally about a wealthy family trying to kill a working class person – I can’t help but wonder if something is shifting.
Classic films like The Devil Rides Out come from a time when society was perhaps less self-aware of its flaws. We idolized the traditionally British things that come traditionally upper-class places. Tea in the park. Academia. Big country mansions and a spot of cricket before lunch. But here in 2020 things are not the same.
I'm quite curious to see where it goes next.