‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’ In defence of trashy horrors

Illustration by Allison DiPofi

Story by Sophie Wilson

There’s no denying it: Netflix’s horror section is campy as hell.

Most horror movies are so predictable you could play bingo with their clichés. Demon child? Check. Big spooky house? Check. Cheesy ending that ruins the whole movie? Bingo! From the good (“Apostle”) to the scary (“Eli”) to the so bad they’re good (“The Babysitter”), I watched every horror on Netflix to prove that trashy horrors aren’t actually that bad. 

Every now and then we are promised “the scariest movie yet!” only for it to rehash the same tired story we’ve watched play out a hundred times before. Demon children, big houses and cheesy endings all feature in many Netflix horrors but the streaming service have also produced some of the most innovative horror movies to come out in recent years. There’s a lot of snobbery around horrors because of their repetitive tropes but for a cheap thrill there’s no better genre to go to. And if you think you’re too good for the cheap thrill of a trashy horror, you’re not. You’re just boring. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

“The Babysitter” is the perfect case in point. It divided viewers into two camps–one declaring it so stupid and poorly acted it was painful to watch and the other applauding it as the most entertaining movie they’d watched for ages. The premise of the movie is basically like “Home Alone” if the home invaders were hot high school senior Satanists. This movie knows it’s stupid. Bella Thorne gets shot in her boob. Cole, the kid, runs into his treehouse to escape the murderers instead of running to get help. A school bully passes the house shouting out, “have fun getting murdered!” But, with slick nods to camp 80’s horror and 00’s coming of age movies, “The Babysitter” is also very stylised.

If you can tolerate some spectacularly bad acting from Bella Thorne pretending to be in pain, “The Babysitter” is worth a watch. This incredible quote alone, taken from the scene where Cole finally stands up to his hot, evil babysitter, makes it worth it: “You’re like Don Draper from “Mad Men”! How he’s all cool and handsome and everyone loves him and then he goes home and you find out he has a wife the whole time. He’s such a piece of shit!”

Children take centre-stage in nearly every Netflix original horror and childhood isn’t exactly all fun and games in their world. What is it that makes children so scary? According to filmmaker Giulia Mucci, “even a kid staring at you on the underground can be quite unsettling. Adults often feel alienated from young children. They belong to a world we no longer understand or remember as our childhood memories fade away. Because of that alienation a child’s incarnation of evil is something we cannot talk to or reason with. We can understand why the spirit of a murdered woman wants her revenge. A pissed off child is harder to understand. It’s enough to see them crying in buggies to terrify me!” The line between victim and perpetrator gets confused when children, supposedly symbols of innocence, become the devil’s vehicle for inflicting terror. Sometimes children are born evil (“The Omen, “Eli”) while others become a receptacle for evil following a demonic possession (“The Exorcist,” “Insidious”).

In Netflix original “Before I Wake,” an adopted child’s nightmares come to life in a story that unfolds into more of a tragedy than a horror. A boy calls a pregnant woman and her brother into a deadly, confusing wilderness in “In The Tall Grass.” “Malevolent” casts Florence Pugh as a paranormal detective who discovers the real secret behind a horrific event involving children with their mouths sewn shut. Then there’s “Little Evil,” a so-called “comedy horror” (though it’s somehow neither funny nor scary.)

One movie, however, steps up above the rest. “Apostle” is a slow-burn with beautiful cinematography and some nifty early-20th century torture devices. It’s 1905 and a man travels to a remote island to rescue his sister from a religious cult. The cult punishes dissenting members in cruel and unusual ways. “Apostle” deserves a spot among some of the best films Netflix have released. The movie gets off to a slow start, but makes up for it later on when the pace–and gore–picks up.

Another contender for underrated Netflix classic is 2019’s “Eli. It has all the hallmarks of a good horror: haunting, mystery, medical horror, gore, psychological thrill. “Eli” tells the story of a boy with a rare autoimmune disease that means he can’t be directly exposed to air or water. He has to wear a hazmat suit when he goes outside to reduce the risk of contamination and isolate from anything that could make him sick. 

Eli’s parents take him to a specialist doctor who promises to cure him, but in the creepy house whether the doctor lives and works, things aren’t as they seem. Eli starts to see threatening figures in the dark. The doctor writes off these visions as side effects of the medication. Then one night, Eli realises the spirits aren’t trying to hurt him. They’re trying to warn him. If it weren’t for the over the top ending, “Eli” could have been a powerful comment on how people view sickness as some kind of moral failure–but horror movies love an over the top ending so what else could you expect?

Usually, when I imagine my life as a film, it’s a coming-of-age comedy drama (ideally directed by Sofia Coppola), but these days it’s starting to feel more like we’re all starring in a horror. Words like ‘pandemic,’ ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolation,’ words that belong in the horror universe have reached out of the screen into our everyday language and lives. Last week I spent my days binging Netflix’s horror selection, but switching on the evening news felt more frightening than waiting for a demon or killer to jump out on screen. As horror and the news shift ever closer together, trashy horror movies offer some much-needed lockdown escapism. Unless you’re self-isolating in a haunted house. Then you should probably call a priest and pray for the best.

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