While “horror-comedy” is a quickly identifiable popular genre, the “horror tragedy” – not so much. What is horror tragedy? (Greatest Horror Tragedy films) There’s no Wikipedia entry on it, which might make it seem like a made-up thing. But then, so is every other pop culture artifact. I have tried here to quickly put together a few ideas about what could correspond to a horror tragedy. For instance, it could be a film where there is enough narrative investment in the evildoer (or the victim). Frequently, in such films, the evildoer is a victim of sorts, so there is some level of sympathy to be had for them. A horror tragedy typically channels intense negative emotions like trauma and grief through its characters.
In some cases, it could be some overpowering passion like love or hatred that swallows up the moral side of their character. This might render them tragic through a kind of grandeur. There is no hard and fast rule to the subgenre, just like any other genre. Hopefully, this list will shed some light on the kind of themes and emotions one might be looking for when noting a movie as a horror tragedy.
1. Eyes Without A Face (1960) (Greatest Horror Tragedy films)
Georges Franju‘s 1960 horror classic caused controversy during the release for its visceral quality. Multiple critics responded with disgust and it caused many audience members to faint across different venues. With time, however, its standing has vastly improved. Now it is rightly seen as a “poetic” horror film. At first glance, the story is the stuff of pulp. A mad doctor secretly killing women to use their faces to graft over his own daughter’s mutilated face, in order to make her beautiful again after a disfiguring accident.
Deranged on the surface, the film derives its strength from the execution. With Maurice Jarre’s melancholic score, the single-minded obsession of the killer father, and the haunting look behind the daughter’s mask, the film gets a strange emotional dimension. The ending is inevitably sad, and surprisingly moving too. Eyes Without A Face brings to mind the classical idea of “tragedy” being the domain of aristocracy. Since aristocrats are greater than mere mortals, even greater is their moral corruption and fall from grace.
2. Kuroneko (1968)
In Kaneto Shindo‘s feature, the ghosts of two women wreak havoc on the samurai clan they mark as the cause of their painful end. It is somewhat less famous than Shindo’s Onibaba, but more emotionally moving. Jarring, too. The tranquil opening quickly transforms into a terrible orgy of violence as the helpless women are brutally raped and murdered by a band of soldiers. Released not long after WWII, the horrors of imperial Japan in the Far East were very much in public memory. As such, the film underlines the hypocrisy of Japan’s samurai code of honor which hid the greed and bloodlust behind nationalistic fervor.
Imperial Japan co-opted the feudal samurai code as part of a glorious national myth, hence the parallels are obvious. For example, in the scene where a samurai lord dismisses the sufferings of poor peasants at the altar of war. Furthermore, the protagonist (a peasant-warrior himself) is forced to take up arms against the ghosts of his own family, out of duty to the very ones who were responsible for their demise. The film is really atmospheric in nature, with the haunted abode in the middle of nowhere. Makes it seem both dream-like and eerie. But what really gives Kuroneko a sense of tragedy is how it humanizes the ghosts, their unfulfilled desires, and the sorrow of their loss. The horror in the film is one of human agony. The tragedy is that of a human ache. (Greatest Horror Tragedy films)
3. Don’t Look Now (1973)
There is so much more to this Nicolas Roeg classic than its notorious sex scene. Its innovative use of Venetian setting and motifs, the disorienting narration style, and the fragmented sense of reality. In this masterful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a grieving couple reeling from the loss of their young daughter. Their subsequent trip to Venice shows the city as it has never been shown, through stylistic flourishes that are highly unique and heavily disconcerting. Much has been said of this legendary horror classic, much will continue to be said. But to wrap up Don’t Look Now in a single notion, that can be perhaps best found in the director’s own comments about his film:
“Well, it’s a strange idea to make grief into the sole thrust of the film… Grief can separate people. I’ve seen it happen. Even the closest, healthiest relationship can come undone through grief. People split up. Or there is a distancing. They can’t help it. The fact is that grief doesn’t comfort grief. It’s just one of those hard facts.”Nicolas Roeg (in an interview with Sean O’Hagan)
4. Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma’s Carrie forever changed the landscape of modern horror. Yet, I have always felt sadder than horrified watching it. More horrified at the characters’ mistreatment of Carrie (Sissy Spacek) than of Carrie herself, who has by now attained iconic status as one of horror cinema’s most memorable villains. That seems a bit unfair (her mass murder of fellow students notwithstanding). What is truly unfair is that a kind, decent human being should undergo such depths of bullying and psychological torment from her peers and her own mother. Even after she finds out about her telekinetic powers, she hardly indulges them until the breaking point.
The film is really more about the horrors of teenage and the pain of being a social outcast, which is presented as a horror movie. It is impossible not to feel for Carrie seeing her sad eyes, her loneliness, and her downbeat demeanor. Just when it seems, hoping against hope, that she might yet stand a chance – she is irreversibly pulled down in a scene of dramatic terror. Tragedy ensues.
5. Martin (1978)
Like Carrie, George A. Romero‘s 1978 cult horror film is more about the degrading treatment of its titular “villain” than his own actions. Throughout the film, Martin seems to be a sensitive young man who has been brainwashed into believing himself to be something he is not. Like many of Romero’s other films, there is a satirical component beyond the pulp. There is evocative use of setting and genuine investment in the conversations between characters. As with Carrie, we expect Martin to escape the familial abuse that has trapped him, but that doesn’t really happen. The movie ties its tragic themes to the “horror.” For a revisionist “vampire film,” it is surprisingly touching and has moments of real tenderness – with a shocking finale. While not quite as famous as the director’s Living Dead trilogy, Martin has its own committed fanbase. The movie definitely deserves a bigger audience.
6. Dead Ringers (1988)
Inspired from real-life events, David Cronenberg‘s 1988 Dead Ringers delves into a pair of twin gynecologists’ (played by Jeremy Irons) psychological and professional deterioration. The film has divided critics, with its repugnant elements sometimes spoken of over its artistic vision. At the time, Rita Kempley of The Washington Post said that the film is “every woman’s nightmare turned into a creepy thriller.” Dead Ringers certainly has its fair share of gross-out moments. (The memory of viewing those grotesque medical “equipment” doesn’t help). But once you sift through the body-horror elements, you are likely to find a quietly tragic view of two doomed brothers struggling for autonomy, and failing to find one. This intertwined fate of the two siblings makes for a particularly tragic and grueling outcome. Which makes Dead Ringers one of Cronenberg’s most sensitive works, despite its gruesomeness.
7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Where David Lynch’s original series was about excavating the dark underbelly of a small town through a murder mystery, this 1992 prequel puts the victim at its center. By making the story about Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Fire Walk With Me delves into the core of her self-destructive behavior. Laura Palmer acted as a kind of “lore” in the original series. In the movie, she is a real person, with real aspirations and despair. Past all the usual Lynchian indulgence, this movie is ultimately about the pain and helplessness of a young girl who is a victim of parental sexual abuse. Delirious and feverish at times, the “horror” of the movie comes not so much from its surreal elements as the very real panic that Laura is enmeshed in. (Greatest Horror Tragedy films)
As an audience, we are drawn into that panic with her. Lynch has spoken about how the movie gave several girls who were trapped in a similar situation – an outlet to deal with their own trauma. Because this is a prequel, and because we know where it is all heading, that makes the knowledge that much more painful to bear. It also weaves a halo of tragic fate around the figure of Laura.
8. May (2002)
For all its gore. Lucky McKee’s 2002 cult indie horror is a sad little story of a lonely woman longing for human connection. May (Angela Bettis) exhibits off-putting behavioral quirks, and an unhealthy attachment to her childhood doll into which she projects sees herself. But by and large, she is more normal than abnormal. She is clumsy but funny, holding down a job, and not without friends. It’s just that she tries too hard, and lets her loneliness break down other facets of life. It is also relatable. True, not many of us would exhibit her mannerisms, but on the whole, we have all been there. Weirding out a potential romantic interest, messing things up by being too eager too soon.
Admittedly, May commits some pretty heinous stuff throughout the movie. All the murders. Plus the egregious slaughter of a cat for not responding to her when she was feeling down. Somehow, the movie weaves together all her actions and behavior into a darkly comic yet humane story. The film is mostly a “tragicomedy,” but the ending is quite heartbreaking. (Greatest Horror Tragedy films)
9. Crimson Peak (2015)
One way to look at Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak would be through Edith (Mia Wasikowska)’s narrative arc. Her trajectory corresponds to a kind of Victorian “girl-boss” tale. An ambitious writer from a good family falls in love with the wrong man, has to literally fight her way out of a murderous conspiracy. That’s one way. There’s another way to look at the film. Incestuous siblings trapped in a Gothic mansion, who are slowly losing control, will go to any lengths to maintain their status – including murder.
Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) is an immoral man who still retains a measure of decency. His sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is much further down the road of evil. Yet she has this all-consuming love for her brother, which still has a flair for the spectacle although amoral and deadly. In a key scene of the movie, she explains her motivation: “This love burns you, and maims you, and twists you inside out. It is a monstrous love, and it makes monsters of us all.” Seen from the siblings’ perspective does make the film something of a tragedy. This is not altogether misplaced, since the ‘Gothic’ does connect to both the ‘romance’ and ‘horror’ genres.
10. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017)
If Crimson Peak is Gothic in its themes, this 2017 Yorgos Lanthimos feature is archaic Greek. Most entries on this list are ‘tragic’ in the sense that they elicit some measure of sympathy from the audience for their flawed anti-heroes. However, Sacred Deer harks back to more primal themes. In this modern retelling of Euripedes’ ancient Greek play Iphigenia At Aulis, the “tragedy” is much more classical in nature. It is about paying one’s dues in blood, an eye for an eye kind of justice. It is about negotiation with the powers greater than oneself and reaching an impasse. The “tragedy” and “horror” of Sacred Deer come from a feeling of utter despair. From being at the mercy of a divine order that doesn’t err, that will have its pound of flesh. And the penalty for one’s sins in that cold, cold universe blends the feeling of “catharsis” with a taste of cruelty.