‘Coraline’ and the state of modern horror



It is increasingly rare to find a completely original film idea in this day and age, especially in the horror genre.

As we close in on October 31, AiPT! will be reviewing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

“Coraline [was] a huge risk. But these days in animation, the safest bet is to take a risk.”

-Henry Selick

It is increasingly rare to find a completely original film idea in this day and age, especially in the horror genre. Too often are we presented with movies that act and feel the exact same way and are afraid to defy the convention. Horror is a genre that hasn’t moved forward very far in recent years, only really being supported by Blumhouse Productions and A24. There is no film that Generation Z can call their Blair Witch Project, or their Scream, because the genre is in a strange comfort zone. A Quiet Place and Hereditary are two examples that felt like solid steps forward for horror, injecting new ideas and molding old ones, as well as attracting surprisingly large audiences in the process. We need more films like these to get the attention of more than just the niche market of horror fans, but also the mainstream audience. Maybe perspective is its biggest hindrance, maybe we aren’t looking in the right places.

Before we get underway, lets start with a brief synopsis:

An eleven year-old girl named Coraline moves into an apartment in the country. There she finds a small door within the walls, that leads her to a place called Other World, a parallel universe where her parents are incredibly loving and spoiling. Coraline becomes increasingly suspicious of this dream-like Other World, and finds out that it’s not all that meets the eye.

When Laika Entertainment brought out the stop motion animated film Coraline in 2009, it was a modest hit, raking in double its budget. I have no idea how it managed to because Coraline has one of the strangest demographics of any animated film. At first glance, it seems to fuse mature themes with softer ones, a big risk that could easily backfire and end up attracting neither demographic. Coraline hit a hugely unexpected sweet spot between the two, being able to feel easily accessible to younger audiences, without losing any of the creepy imagery that older viewers would appreciate. I don’t at all think this film would’ve been better off siding with a single demographic. In fact, it’s probably the thing that gives Coraline its extreme amount of charm.

‘Charm’ is a term thrown around a lot when it comes to reviewing animation, and easy to apply to most animated films. But Coraline is one film that truly deserves the critique. Stop motion, as a whole, is a very impressive medium on its own, but nevertheless, it’s still has the substance to take advantage of the amazing art form. In essence, Coraline is like reading a dark fantasy picture book, a similar feeling to that of Selick’s other well-known family masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas, except Coraline is arguably a more memorable experience. It’s the same quietly dark experience you get from reading a Goosebumps novel or Where The Wild Things Are, but it shows more similarities with Alice in Wonderland than anything else.

If you couldn’t tell by the obvious foreshadowing at the beginning of the article, I believe Coraline is the breath of fresh air that the horror genre has skipped over. With horror running out of ideas, maybe it’s time the scares aren’t put front and center, and more time is spent with the plot. Scares are becoming less and less effective as time goes on, and the only thing that seems to live on in its place is atmosphere. We define horror too much on scare factor. You can’t even have jump scares anymore because they are labeled “too cheap.”

So now we are left with two things, atmosphere and imagery. The characteristics that I feel are the only things necessary to make a good horror film. Last year’s Get Out by Jordan Peele is a perfect example of a non-scary film labelled as horror, because it favored creepiness over ineffective scares, the exact thing Coraline did eight years before. Henry Selick took a risk, and it payed off quietly, but unprecedentedly.

Coraline’s creepiness comes from many aspects of the film, from the dreary stop-motion aesthetic to the overall underlying mystery, but it mostly comes from the antagonists. The parallel land of Other World is the most memorable part of Coraline for two reasons, the brilliance of its concept, and the nightmarish villain Other Mother. Other Mother will keep you up at night, no matter the age. Her turn from the child-spoiling mother into a controlling monster, is one that constantly is built by foreshadowing and general dramatic tension, but a turn that is mostly accentuated by her appearance. The scaly, spider-like nature of Other Mother is truly creepy, and leaves a lasting mental picture in your brain. She’s a movie monster that’s effectiveness is most similar to that of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, some heavenly praise indeed. However, a terrific villain needs a terrific plot, and Coraline surely provides after all, it’s based off Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel.

Gaiman’s novel could not have ended up in better hands. Laika had already shown what the power of stop motion could do with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, a film that was visually complex and interesting, and built on the animation style of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Coraline is Laika’s second major effort since Corpse Bride, and they really pulled out all the stops in almost all departments. Free of the constrains that came with Tim Burton, Laika could truly tailor its film to the book, without being influenced by the styles of previous stop motion films. Spaced out author-filmmaker relationships in many films has led to some source faithfulness issues, but with Gaiman closely monitoring the project, it’s a film that feels incredibly authentic to the novel. Coraline absolutely will not disappoint fans of the book. Henry Selick, has created a film that not only greatly differentiates itself from others, but also cleverly fixes some potential book-to-film transfer issues, most notably with the inclusion of Wybie. Wybie was a character included to fix the novel characteristic of writing a character’s thoughts. Whilst this practice works very well on paper, on the big screen, listening to someone talk to themselves for two hours may feel unnatural. Wybie acts as someone for Coraline to talk to, in the process revealing insightful plot information. It’s the little inclusions such as Wybie that keep the magic of books in the film, and not cause it to be cut out.

“In the book, I could describe something indescribable. I could talk about walking through a fog, and the way that the trees stop being trees and just become things that look like the idea of trees, and what’s astonishing is that they’ve done it!”

-Neil Gaiman

To put it simply, Coraline is a film that every single person on the planet should experience. We need more fresh ideas like Coraline, to fix our epidemic of bad horror films, but we may also need to change our understanding of the genre to revitalize it. Go. Watch. It. Now.