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How Directors of Modern Psychological Horror Films Have Established Themselves as a Gen-Z, Cult-Favorite Genre

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

In motion pictures, oftentimes directors will entice viewers to watch their movies by creating obvious, explicit commentary on an ideological or social issue. This is evident in many genres of film, but recently, directors of thrillers and horrors have taken to calling out issues and Gen-Z is eating it up. Today’s deep dive will cover two recent horror films that attempt to call out social issues.

In Parasite (2019) directed by Bong Joon-ho and I Care A Lot (2020) directed by Jonathan (J) Blakeson, both executives give their takes on capitalism and corruption. Both films exemplify that a system like capitalism will inevitably fail when it is blind to its shortcomings. Both movies attempt to highlight how a purely capitalist economic system can cause those on the bottom to act in desperate measures, while those on the top are either oblivious, unethical or exploit their status to gain more wealth. Audiences have reacted to both these films with overwhelming interest and support of ideas. Parasite (2019) currently has an 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, a movie critic site for professions and regular fans alike. I Care A Lot (2020) is also scoring relatively high with audiences at a 89% on the same site. 

Parasite (2019) takes place in South Korea and centers around the Kim family, who dream of a better life than their dead-end jobs and basement apartment. Throughout the twists and turns of this thriller/comedy, each family member one by one swindles their way into the lives of the very wealthy Park family. Even with the Kim family’s manipulation, lies, and depravity, one can’t help but root for them. This is because the director conveys that their actions are justified, as they are just playing the system as best they can with the cards they were dealt. While the audience is presented with hints of remorse for the havoc against the Park family, you also feel slight resentment, in that they are portrayed as villains not because they are bad people, but for their obliviousness of those who are less fortunate. This is Bong Joon-ho’s way of presenting that a system will always fail when it is blind to its own faults. All of this is illuminated in Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece movie through lighting, contrasting set design and architecture, and seemingly minimal details that will be presented in the essay. 

I Care A Lot (2020) however, is essentially about a woman named Marla Grayson, who works as a court-appointed guardian. As the movie opens, the audience learns that she abuses the system to target, defraud and steal from many elderly people. She has her victims committed to nursing homes unnecessarily so that she may be in control of all their estates and assets. Marla is winning at her hustle. She knows the ins and outs of her scam and can act and play her part well. The director J Blakeson makes it very apparent that this character doesn’t care about ethical issues whatsoever because she is all about money and power. As long as this woman doesn’t get caught, she doesn’t care who she hurts. The character Marla Grayson is both the protagonist and antagonist of this film. Although she is the main character, she is aggressively unlikeable. The way that she takes advantage of helpless senior citizens makes her an irredeemable character. However, J Blakeson did this on purpose, to note that time and time again, in a system like capitalism, even those who are on top are scrambling from the dog-eat-dog nature of the system. When such a system is in place, the elites will always find a way to stay on top and exploit others for their own gain. These important statements are exhibited in J Blakeson’s controversial film through the traits and charisma of the cast, the witty and self-serving diction within the script itself, and the nihilistic tone of the movie. No one wants to talk about this problem with our current socio-economic system, but these two filmmakers ensure that audiences walk away from their movies with a conversation about how amorality and corruption persist in systems that are blind to their own shortcomings. 

Throughout Parasite, Bong Joon-ho explores the socio-economic disparities of families in different classes, and how the system of capitalism has failed many citizens. The Kims are a family of four (father Kim Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jung) living in poverty due to growing wealth disparities. The film then eventually opens the Kim’s to the lives of the Park family. Ki-woo is offered a position to tutor the Park daughter, and the interweaving of these two families’ lives evolves from that point. The Parks are another family of four, but who live on the opposite end of the wealth spectrum. 

Bong Joon-ho comments on the disparities and failures of capitalism through the family’s home itself. Through the architecture of the homes, he contrasts the Kim’s ‘lowly’ lifestyle with the lavish lifestyle of the Parks. The Kim’s lives in a dingy concrete basement apartment, surrounded by stink bugs and mold. There is one window in the home, where it is stated from Ki-woo that the family gets about one hour of sunlight per day. The short windows have heavy duty bars on the windows. This symbolizes that from the very beginning, the family is literally caged by their economic status. The antithesis of this dismal life is shown when the viewer gets their first glimpse of the Park home. The Parks own a modern, three-story home, which is attached to a beautiful garden. This house has floor-to-ceiling windows that offer them tons of sunlight and color. The architecture is evidently western, showing the influence that they can afford such lavish expenses. This leads to the view of the front yard and garden, an immediate contrast to that of the Kim’s barely-there outside view. An intricate lighting system is also featured, thus flaunting their overwhelming affluence. Bong Joon-ho is spotlighting the vast differences in the economic status of these families, therefore showing the problems and oversights in a capitalistic society. Any time the Kim family attempts to increase their economic status, everything collapses around them. Chung-Sook, the mother in the Kim family, describes two failed businesses that she and the family have been involved in. Both of these businesses quickly went under due to harsh competition and made their future attempts to move up in society even harder than before. This, combined with the Park family’s inability and unwillingness to check their economic privilege and subsequent behaviors, indicates the oversights Bong Joon-ho is depicting.

Bong Joon-ho’s distinction of the two-family homes is a superb way to substantiate his overarching commentary. The system has failed the Kim’s so terribly that they are acting on their last resort to get by. The system has failed the Parks because they are so blinded by their money and privilege that they are not bothered by the problems of others. All of this leads to the conclusion that Bong Joon-ho’s main purpose of this film was to get audiences talking about how a system such as capitalism will inevitably fail when it is blind to its shortcomings.

In J Blakeson’s film, I Care A Lot (2020), he dives into similar commentary on how the system of capitalism has failed many citizens, however, his film operates in a very different direction than Bong Joon-ho. J Blakeson’s film focuses on the corruption of capitalism, and how an elite in society can deliberately take advantage of the lower class and those who are in sensitive positions. The main character Marla Grayson is a court-appointed guardian but makes most of her fortune by embezzling money from her victims, once she unnecessarily stashes them in institutions and nursing homes. Although this movie has many twists and turns (it even goes into a subplot about the Russian Mob), J Blakeson focuses on how capitalism has an inherent deception about it. His film argues that the system is structured to turn a blind eye when something like fraud, misconduct, and/or corruption happens, therefore it will always fail the society as a whole. 

J Blakeson discusses the failure of capitalism in his movie by having his main character be a diabolical narcissist. This film was extremely controversial because many people despise the character of Marla Grayson. She is supposed to be the protagonist, the person we are rooting for in the movie. However due to her despicable behavior, and how she prays on the vulnerable, audiences were split on how to feel about her. This was an ingenious move on J Blakeson’s part. He ruffles feathers by making this character someone audiences are supposed to not like. He knows that many people have elderly parents or grandparents who have been prayed upon by scammers. While it might not be in the same way that Marla Grayson does, we all know the classic Nigerian prince scam, or more recently, scams with cryptocurrency that elderly people and those not familiar with the internet often fall for. J Blakeson takes that everyday reality and multiplies it by ten. He then asks his audience to acknowledge that this is a bad person, and yet still root for her. By giving Marla Grayson the role of good guy and bad guy, protagonist and antagonist all at the same time, he is starting a conversation about the morality of the elites in a capitalist society. Examining more character traits in Marla Grayson highlights even further what the director is getting at. Marla is very cunning and extremely calculated. She never shows any type of remorse for her actions throughout the film. The only time we even see a hint of regret is when her lover Fran is hurt because of her actions. Fran is the only piece of Marla that J Blakeson ties humanity to. Ironically enough, Fran is also her business partner, and she too is part of the corruption and dishonesty. J Blakeson’s intention with this must have been that nothing to do with Marla could be pure, therefore guaranteeing that the one ‘good thing’ in her life is still messy. This all is just the start of J Blakeson’s way of convincing the audience that a system like capitalism will come crashing down due to the fact that it does not recognize its own faults. 

J Blakeson continues to get this point across by having self-serving diction within the movie script along with the overall nihilistic tone of the movie. J Blakeson worked on both writing and directing in this movie, which brings a certain vision and sophistication to the film. As he was working on the script, his use of self-serving and egotistical diction is apparent within the first scene. The very first sentence of the film is directed at the audience, in a “breaking the fourth wall” manner, but indirectly. A voice over from Marla Grayson says “You think you’re good people. You’re not good people. Trust me, there is no such thing as good people.” Off the bat, J Blakeson establishes that Marla Grayson thinks she is better than everyone else. She believes that she is more knowledgeable and more powerful than the rest. This is J Blakeson wanting the audience to be off-put by his protagonist from the opening scene. He wants to demonstrate that he is able to convey the wickedness of a capitalistic system in the form of a human being. Later on, Marla goes on to say “Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor.” This is a very nihilistic tone J Blakeson takes on, in the sense that his character is disregarding any moral principles. Since his goal here is to reflect the evil of capitalism in Marla, he is thereby commenting that a system like capitalism disregards the morality of the people in that socio-economic system. If a system is disregarding morality, if it cannot possibly have a sense of what is ‘just’, then the system will fail. Marla’s character and way of life embody this principle perfectly. Her life is all about money and power and being better than others. She will commit crimes, dismiss others’ feelings, and step on anyone who gets in her way. With J Blakeson’s sense of irony coming out in the title of the movie, she simply does not care. Subsequently, at one point in the film Marla states “There are two types of people in this world. Those who take and those that get took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs. My name is Marla Grayson, and I’m no lamb. I am a f*cking lioness.” It is so important to acknowledge that J Blakeson continues to write his character with a coolness and charisma that is almost charming to the audience, because on the outside, Marla seems like someone we should be, prior to knowing her scams. She is confident, empowered, and a little stubborn. But once you take a closer look at her, she is destructive, self-absorbed, and manipulative. J Blakeson says a system like capitalism is super appealing on the outside, just like Marla. He is telling the viewer that capitalism seems profitable and sustainable and looks to encourage healthy competition. But once you take a closer look at the system it is clear that unjust, inequity, and selfishness are better words to describe it. In closing, it is evident that J Blakeson’s motivations with this movie were to get his audience to discuss the issues within a capitalistic system, and what happens when we turn a blind eye to its problems.

All of this to say that ultimately, while the story arcs differ in Parasite (2019) and I Care A Lot (2020), both films have explicit commentary on the ideology of capitalism and how corrupt the system can be, and audiences were living for it. Both directors, Bong Joon-ho and J Blakeson, should be immensely proud of their work, as it has led to a much needed reflection and discussion on the ethics of the systems we deal with in everyday life. To conclude, Parasite (2019) and I Care A Lot (2020) are great examples of how directors have turned their horror motion pictures into forms of art that can help our society question the status quo, as we learn from each one.

Hi all! My name is Kirsten Corrigan (she/her), and I am so excited to be a part of Her Campus! I'm a freshman at The University of Texas at Austin, but my hometown is Manhattan, NY. I'm a government/political science major and I plan on going to law school after undergrad. A few things about me; I'm an Aquarius, a huge movie buff, I play guitar and love practically any genre of music, and I have an addiction to coffee!
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