We’ve all seen plenty of horror movies where a plucky band of kids has to face down some monster out of a nightmare, but “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (2017) takes that familiar set-up and plants it inside the gritty social dystopian reality of Mexican slums where thousands of kids are killed or simply “disappear” every year as victims of the drug cartels. This is new territory for most watchers of horror, where the early scenes of a movie tend to establish a bland, blissful, and often suburban setting into which the monster’s intrusion represents a terrifying and chaotic disruption. In the typical version of this story (like “It” or “Stranger Things”), the group of kids fights the monster to restore the social order and hopefully return to their tranquil normality.
But what if the setting itself is nightmarish? What if the “normal” is already horrific?
Some horror fans have found the setting and the foreign language with dubbing or subtitles to be off-putting, but I’m with Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro. I think this debut feature, written and directed by Issa Lopez, represents some of the best film making in recent years. No wonder Lopez has become the darling of the international film festival circuit. She has a fresh vision and a lot to say.
For our media studies series where we’re looking at current trends in horror, Lopez and this film are absolutely essential. One of the main things that has revitalized and elevated the horror genre during the past decade has been the shift toward greater diversity. We’re finally getting to see films by women and people of color, filmmakers who bring fresh ideas and previously neglected perspectives to the world of horror movies.
Speaking of perspectives, even though its primarily a live-action film “Tigers Are Not Afraid” does some really interesting things with animation and special effects. You’ll want to pay special attention to these elements as you start to consider what elements we are meant to understand as diegetic or part of the objective reality of this world’s fiction, and which things are meant to be seen as subjective, non-diegetic, or imaginary. The blurring of boundaries between what’s “real” and what not are part of why this film has been called a fairy tale or referred to as “magical realism.” Originally used as a description of Latin American literature (such as that written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende), magical realism indicates a type of story that mostly follows the rules of realism but that also includes magical elements. Films that employ this approach would include “Amelie” (2001) and “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992). Del Toro’s Oscar-winning “Shape of Water” (2017) could also be considered magical realism.
This film has also frequently been called a fairy tale, but I’m not entirely sure I agree. You’ll have to see what you think. For me, while the movie’s trope of being granted three wishes definitely derives from the world of fairy tales, it also suggests another literary touchstone in terms of horror. These three wishes feel more like a conscious allusion to W.W. Jacobs’s classic work of literary horror, “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902). In that short story, the person who possesses the monkey’s paw is granted three wishes, but each wish comes with a horrible price. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of messing with fate in order to get what you think you want.
Incidentally, Monkeypaw Productions is the name of Jordan Peele’s film company. We’ll be watching his movie “Us” (2019) to wrap up this series.
For now, take a look at my discussion questions for “Tigers Are Not Afraid” and go enjoy the movie. It will definitely put you under its spell.