Joker is making a killing at the box office, and that's no joke. The dark, ultra-bleak re-imagining of DC's most well-known super-villain, and arguably the most famous antagonist in comic book history, is a highly-controversial-but nevertheless-very-lucrative R-rated character study, and one that has found Joaquin Phoenix earning raves and potential awards consideration for his menacing, intimidating and consistently riveting take on the Clown Prince of Crime. While the gritty adaptation has been discussed almost endlessly in the weeks leading up to its release and even more extensively afterward, there is one question that has only periodically been asked. Specifically, does Joker qualify as a horror movie?
Since we're firmly planted in the Halloween movie season, this seems like a good question to ask. The film offers no shortage of chills and thrills, but it's unlikely that Joker was conceived as a horror flick — at least, not initially. Let's break things down and see if we can figure out a solution to this intriguing question. After all, if it's true that Joker falls under the horror category, it's kind of perfect that it came out during the early days of October.
Reading Joker As A Horror Movie
Throughout Joker, there is a gradually building sense of unease. In director Todd Phillips' divisive vision, there is a clear intention to see the humanity buried under the mythic psychopath, in an effort to try to understand the psyche found within the deeply disturbed and tormented character. In order to feel as though we live in the fragile headspace of this mentally ill protagonist, Phillips creates a perpetual sense of anxiety, all of which stems from what has typically been perceived as an irrational and unpredictable antagonist. In that sense, the hit blockbuster plays out like a ticking time bomb, with the audience kept in suspense as we know there are inevitable dangers set to lurk out of this deranged, demented character just waiting to ignite.
This evolving tension plays like an unsettling nightmare, one where we know that the villain will be unleashed, and the studio film's gritty '70s or early '80s look at Gotham, which will become a darker, more disturbed place once Arthur Fleck assumes the identity of The Joker. In that sense, there is a horror to the knowledge that no good will become of this character. It's not a matter of if he'll become the Clown Prince of Crime, but simply a matter of when. In that sense, there's a terror to be found in how unsettling it is to spend two whole hours inside the viewpoint of a lethally unhinged character — one who has perpetually been failed by the system, his fellow man and, yes, his "society" too (cliched as that might be to say).
With that said, Joker is intended to serve as a study into the dangers of mistreating and abusing others, which can be a common trend in horror films. If you choose to poke the bear, expect the bear to claw back. Horror movies are often made to serve as cinematic ways to explore very real, sensitive topics. Rarely are horror movies simply about a deranged killer trying to attack young people under the cover of night. There are deep subtexts that are often at play in horror movies, and Joker respects the idea of telling us a story about a man who wanted to be loved and respected, but never found his place in the world by being a decent-hearted person. That's a sad story told in an intentionally terrifying and unsettling fashion.
Only when Arthur Fleck turns to terror does he find what he ultimately considers his true calling, which is a somber and sobering call to arms for people to recognize how vital it is to look out for the less fortunate. It's not a smooth message, especially when its thematics become jumbled, but it's one Joker tells with clear vengeance and indignation. That's the catalyst for many horror films — to use larger-than-life figures and unsettling villainous personalities to touch on the terrors of everyday life.
How Joker Is Not A Horror Movie
When asked to categorize Joker, Todd Phillips often calls his latest film a "tragedy." As the filmmaker openly admits, it's a film that doesn't quite fall into any specific category. It's not a comedy, but it's not entirely dramatic, since the movie does have splashes of dark comedy laced throughout. The term "tragedy" is used as a broad umbrella through which Phillips wants Joker to be viewed as a study of a disturbed character gone wrong. In that sense, there is reason to argue that labeling Joker as a "horror movie" might simplify its intentions too much. It's never entirely one exact genre.
With that said, horror movies are rarely ever one specific category. There are many horror movies that brush into comedy territory, and there are a few that turn towards noir, drama, fantasy, romance or even sci-fi. Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that Joker might ultimately be more of a thriller than a horror movie. The way it builds up suspense, keeping the audience in a sense of dread (if not always complete fear), might make it a little easier to fit under this distinction without jumping into horror territory. Additionally, Joker only rarely follows any sort of traditional horror structure. As noted previously, the movie tries not to fit any specific distinction. So, if Joker tried to be a horror movie, it isn't necessarily one in the strictest sense.
It is worth pointing out that most of Joker's influences are not directly horror-related. The main sources of inspiration, outside of the comics, are Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, as well as Sidney Lumet's Network and Dog Day Afternoon, among others. The only credited influence that might offer credence to the movie's potential as a horror movie is Paul Leni's 1928 melodrama, The Man Who Laughs, which has tinges of horror found in its structure. This means the majority of Joker's influences rely more on the sort of character pieces which are certainly intense in their own ways, but don't quite fit the bill as horror films. The King of Comedy and Network are certainly not horror movies, and Taxi Driver isn't really one either.
So, Is Joker Actually A Horror Movie?
Ultimately, it's up to the viewer to interpret the movie as they see fit. Joker is an origin story for one of the most infamous characters in pop culture history, a chance to see inside the mind of a madman and explore the inner recesses of turmoil, grief, anger and, yes, terror that floats around inside his conscious. There's reason to believe that this description alone makes it qualified to be categorized as a horror movie. There will certainly be many others, however, who'll disagree heartily with this assessment.
For reasons that have never really been clear, there are some folks who feel the need to label horror movies as anything but what they are. Hereditary is sometimes labeled a "thriller," for instance. The same has been said about movies like The Witch, It Follows and countless others. In this case, though, there is a valid argument to be made that Joker isn't quite a horror movie, though it veers into that category. For me, though, I do believe the final moments of the movie echo the sort of unleashed terror that you'd typically find in a horror film. The burning sense of danger and the knowledge that no sense of relief will be found for its story makes it feel like a horror movie at heart — the sort of madness that would make the title character cackle with deranged glee.
In that sense, I would feel a bit comfortable distinguishing Joker as a horror movie, though I'd be curious to hear where everyone else lands on this question. Be sure to let us know whether or not you would consider Todd Phillips' latest movie a horror movie, or something else entirely, down below.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.
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