Horror movies with a conscience?

Editor’s note: If you know of other horror films with a progressive bent, be sure to let us know! Happy Holloween!

Horror films tend to espouse a pretty bleak worldview. They exist, basically, to throw our own mortality into our faces, in all its blood-gushing, maggot-eaten terror. Sometimes they can be an odd reflection of the political times, too. Recall how the AIDS-denying and “War on Drugs” of the Reagan-Bush era corresponded with the explosion of “slasher” films featuring young, sexually active, pot-smoking, white suburbanites getting massacred by anonymous killers.

There’s a rarer breed of horror film that attempts to go beyond mere shock and exploitation. These films at least take a stab at being relevant, “socially conscious,” and even “progressive.” They are fantasies based on real, immediate, contemporary threats: the “monsters” of environmental degradation, right-wing extremism, and the nightmares awakened by war. Here are five notable ones:

The Last Winter

2006. Dir. Larry Fessenden. Not rated.

This eco-horror film features the great Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Enemy at the Gates) as the global warming-denying manager of an oil company project to build an ice road through the Northern Artic Wildlife Refuge in the quest for “energy independence.” He chides government scientists accompanying the crew for their “hand-wringing” over climate change. When bodies start appearing, the scientist blame gases escaping from the melting permafrost, but they can’t explain the visions of a vengeful nature spirit. The final shot is a haunting vision of an indescribable environmental calamity.

Dead of Night (AKA Death Dream)

1972. Dir. Bob Clark. Rated PG

In this variation of “The Monkey’s Paw, ” a mother makes a wish that her young son would return from Vietnam alive. He does, but he comes back to his small town changed-he’s now a ghoul who needs fresh human blood to stay alive. At one point, the vampire vet tells a victim: “I died for you…now why shouldn’t you return the favor?” This film is an extremely dark envisioning of war “coming home” to the disintegration of a Middle American family and a terrorized community.

Frontier(s) (original title: Frontière(s))

2007. Dir. Xavier Gens. Rated NC-17

In this European “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” France of the near future is rocked when a national crisis helps an ultra right political party to sweep elections, causing widespread riots. Arab youth from the city flee to the countryside and stumble on the homestead of a bizarre family of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis. The fascists in this gory nightmare literally are butchers, and this is, perhaps, the only slasher movie that quotes Hegel. At one point an octogenarian Nazi intones: “the spirit is a bone.”

Red State

2011. Dir. Kevin Smith. Rated R

Kevin Smith merits praise for creating a horror movie version of the Westboro Baptist Church. This film envisions a right wing hate group that is also a violent, terrorist cult. Michael Parks, as the cult’s patriarch, and John Goodman, as the lawman who leads a Waco-style siege against him, turn in dynamite performances. However, the film is ultimately undone by Smith’s wordy, self-indulgent script.

The Snowtown Murders

2011. Dir. Justin Kurzel. Not rated.

This disturbing Australian film is based on the true story of Australia’s worst serial killer, John Bunting. Bunting terrorized rural small towns in the 1990’s, targeting LGBTQ people, drug addicts, and people with mental illness for kidnapping, torture, and murder. The most horrifying aspect of the story is the way Bunting is able to use hatred and violence to manipulate other marginalized people around him into helping him dispatch his victims.

Photo: Maud Forget in Frontier(s). Lions Gate Home Entertainment