This piece contains spoilers of Knives Out, Ready or not and Satanic Panic.
Reflecting upon the themes of genre films of the past decade I realised that in 2019 a “new” narrative trend has emerged in horror (and horror adjacent) films. Rich people portrayed as monsters has always been a thing. Vampire stories are a well-known example. However, vampires were feared and respected. Right now, the framing of rich people in our horror has changed. As antagonists, they can commit heinous crimes and we should fear them, but we are also expected to laugh at them when they are mocked and ridiculed for their inability to function as normal human beings. Making these narratives more politically charged than ever.
Economic inequality is becoming a huge problem in western societies. Multimillionaires are no longer a source of inspiration but a reminder of an unfair system that punishes and exploits the working class while it rewards the greed of those who already have it all. Movies are art, and art is political. Horror has always been at the vanguard of innovation. But surprisingly, this trend of portraying rich people as evil — but also incompetent — characters has taken a long time to be echoed in the horror genre.
For this piece I would like to discuss three films released this year that portray rich people as incompetent villains; Knives out, Ready or not and Satanic Panic.
Knives Out was released last week, and it is the most political of the three films. It was a pleasant surprise to watch a scene in which the main characters discussed the Trump administration treatment of immigrants at the border. It is a scene that is in the movie to highlight the true nature of the characters involved. These are people willing to justify the inhumane treatment of immigrants just because. Knives out’s marketing campaign promised a whodunit film à la Clue (1985), but what we got instead is a film about how extreme wealth emotionally cripples and corrupts people. At the heart of the film, we have the journey of a woman who is physically unable to lie and will not compromise her values even if it means that her life will be ruined as a result. In the end, her good choices make her triumphant against all odds, and she becomes rich. It is also worth mentioning how the film does a great job depicting the relation between rich people and “the help”. During the course of the film, several characters say to our protagonist Marta (played by Ana de Armas), who was the nurse of the family patriarch, that she is part of the family — until it is revealed that she is the sole beneficiary of the patriarch’s will and everyone turns against her. Marta’s relationship with the Thrombeys is marked by servitude. It is made clear to her that she is lucky to be around wealthy individuals and she gets to have an easier life than her fellow working-class Americans by symbiosis. That’s how the status quo is maintained, with the hope that one day we will be one of the lucky ones. But Marta sees the truth behind the Thrombeys’ lies while at the same time finds the compassion to be good to them.
This is a plot point also explored in Ready or not. Our protagonist, Grace (played by Samara Weaving), marries into money and she understands her life is about to change. She will become part of the Le Domas family and money will never be a problem again. However, she is not and will never be one of them. The film strongly suggests that if our protagonist was not a good person, she would have gotten a different card and she would have spent a lovely night playing chest with her new family. Instead, she ends up playing a deadly game of hide and seek. Le Domas family sold their souls to Satan, and they know other families that have done the same. This is why, Grace, who is pure of heart, was not given a real opportunity to become a Le Domas, the game is rigged. By the end of the film, Grace has seen the full extent of what her new family — including her husband – will do for the sake of maintaining their privilege. In this film, we also have different members of “the help” that benefit from the wealth of the family and are presented as enablers and active participants in the hunt for our protagonist. Presumably, the outcome of the story is that Grace, as the sole survivor of the fire, inherits all the family money.
Last but not least, in a goofier tone, we have Satanic Panic. In this movie, like in Ready or not, rich people are rich and stay rich because they made a pact with the devil. Sam is a pizza delivery driver struggling to make good tips who gets involved in a black mass held by the neighbours of a rich community. Discrepancies amongst the coven members about who should be the leader complicate the chase of our protagonist, and result in a failed attempt of bringing Baphomet into our world. Interestingly enough, the day is saved by another the demon. Samaziel is angry at the coven for worshipping Baphomet when in fact, Samaziel ranks higher in Hell hierarchy. The demon kills all the members of the coven and spares Sam. It is funny how the notion of the status quo is reinforced, even in Hell.
The similarities between these three films are obvious. In my opinion, these plots are entering the mainstream sphere because the younger generations feel disenfranchised, and making this type of art is one of the few ways we have of punching up. It’s become evident to more and more people that working hard won’t necessarily make you rich, and that nepotism and parentage are often a more decisive factor than merit, hard work or talent when it comes to achieving success. This is why the archetype of rich people being useless, stupid, unredeemable and disconnected from reality is so appealing to storytellers of our times. When discussing art, it is important to understand the historical and sociological context. What we do as a society in the next decade will be reflected in the types of movies that will get made, and I expect more rich people being the bad guys in the years to come.