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Why THE HATEFUL EIGHT is Secretly a Great Horror Film

My favorite movie of 2015, hands down, was Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight. I gladly sat through the longer roadshow version of the film twice that winter, and it bummed me out that it wasn’t well received, at least not nearly as much, as Tarantino’s previous two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, both masterpieces. But I think a lot of The Hateful Eight‘s reception was related to audience expectation that the film would be a western. Not so. The Hateful Eight is actually a paranoid, blood-stained horror movie.

From the very first teases of The Hateful Eight, during the Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con in July of 2015 (read my write-up of said panel here), I had an inkling this movie was a secret horror movie. The music used over the preliminary footage package we saw was unmistakable to me; it was music from Ennio Morricone’s score to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This music invokes the earlier film’s overwhelming suspicion, that someone–or everyone–could be the enemy, an alien shape-shifter and conqueror of worlds. In that footage, Kurt Russell’s John “The Hangman” Ruth, says: “One of them fellers ain’t what he says he is.”

But The Hateful Eight borrowed more from The Thing than paranoia and Morricone music (Morricone did the Oscar-winning original score for The Hateful Eight, and some unused orchestral tracks from The Thing were also used). Tarantino himself said the two biggest influences on The Hateful Eight were The Thing and his own first feature, Reservoir Dogs.

Let’s look at the ways in which The Hateful Eight creates horror, both externally and internally. The external horror indicators are more noticeable. The film opens with the apocalyptic shots of snowy Wyoming mountains while Morricone’s strings stab like frostbite. Following the title, and the film’s main theme kicking in, we get a shot of a gnarly crucifix covered in snow, carved out of a tree, as the fateful stagecoach begins approaching. If you thought anyone in the movie was liable to get out alive, these opening shots and musical notes should remove any such optimism.

The weather in the film is oppressive and most of the action takes place in a single-room shack–Minnie’s Haberdashery–with only an outhouse and a horse stable nearby. The people in Minnie’s are totally isolated, and many of the shots we see of the blizzard-battered exterior could well be shots of the Antarctic research station in The Thing. I snapped the below photo while watching The Hateful Eight again recently.

The blizzard not only isolates the characters, forcing them to be in the same room for what could be several days, but it also acts as a monster in and of itself. The entire beginning of the movie is about trying to get to shelter before the storm catches up to them, and once they reach Minnie’s, it’s a matter of staying inside as much as possible, literally boarding up the doors as though the blizzard were a ravenous monster or horde of bloodthirsty zombies. Night of the Living Dead is mainly about people who don’t have any reason to be in the same place together aside from dire circumstances, and it ends badly for everyone. In that, there’s a lot of George Romero at work across the board in The Hateful Eight.

The assertion that Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson wasted the Super 70 mm lenses and film stock on a movie that largely takes place indoors is poppycock. This is because people are thinking of the movie as a western. But it’s a horror movie, which means we need to be able to see what’s going on in Minnie’s, in all corners, at any given moment. Things are happening in the background just as much as they’re happening in the foreground, because nobody is to be trusted.

With this idea, The Hateful Eight exists beyond just the visual trappings of a horror movie. It is a horror movie in which everyone is the monster. The title is not deceiving; it’s full of the most hateful, awful, despicable people in the world. Tarantino is showing us the horror of post-Civil War America in the guise of a whodunit mystery.

Just because the war ended doesn’t mean people immediately go back to being friends, or become friends. Not by a long shot. Characters like General Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) are southerners who never left the war behind. The former is a vile, racist butcher who refused to keep black Union soldiers as prisoners, saying they were less worthy of room and board than Northern horses. Mannix is the son of a man who refused to surrender and led a band of marauders to “gallantly defend the south” by ransacking black towns and murdering people by the hundreds.

It would certainly be easy to label both of them as the film’s villains, but nobody escapes clean. Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) has spent his time since the war murdering racists, which sounds great in theory, but he’s also killed a lot of innocent people along the way. He has to contend with being “the other” even among groups of people who side with him. John Ruth spits at the racist Confederates and the law-breaking rebels, but is clueless to how actually embrace Major Warren as an equal. In many ways, Ruth is the most forthright and “good” person of the eight, but nevertheless, spends most of the run time punching a woman in the face. That the woman is the murderous Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and deserves to hang in the eyes of the law doesn’t change his personally cruel behavior.

The true horror of what’s happening in the film is that all of these prejudices, even in a post-war environment, make cohabitation impossible. They are all monsters to each other in some way or another. Major Warren is suspicious of Bob (Demian Bichir) simply because he’s Mexican; John Ruth grows to be too suspicious of Major Warren because he’s caught in a lie and forces a deadly confrontation with Smithers; everybody seems to be suspicious of Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Rationality corrodes because everyone has a reason to distrust each other.

Just like a movie with alien body-snatchers or demonic possession, the story reveals who is or is not who they say they are, and it’s just as upsetting as when someone on The Walking Dead turns into a zombie. Because in The Hateful Eight death is everywhere. There IS a monster sitting right beside you, there IS a demon hiding under the floor, and like Kurt Russell and Keith David at the end of The Thing, sometimes there’s nothing to save you. So you just sit and wait to die.

Images: The Weinstein Company

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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