Really Scary Movies: Films About Energy, Anxiety and Disaster

As evidenced by all the October cable movie marathons, Halloween season is the time when people like to watch scary movies.

I tend to watch an inordinate amount of scary movies myself, for reasons I probably don’t want to know. It’s no secret that horror films are often reflections of cultural anxieties, and many a Ph.D. thesis has been written on aspects of the topic.

As we discussed a few weeks back, NBC’s new drama Revolution directly confronts our worries about energy, and what happens when the lights go out. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world 15 years after a mysterious worldwide blackout.

There have been dozens of sci-fi movies, horror films and thrillers over the years that address – directly or indirectly – our cultural anxieties about blackouts, energy crises and subsequent disasters. Here’s a sampling, and feel free to make your won recommendations in the comments field below. This Halloween, forget about ghosts and vampires. Go for the really scary stuff.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Probably the granddaddy of all Big Energy anxiety movies, The China Syndrome is named after a gallows-humor term describing a nuclear power plant meltdown that burns into the earth, clear through to China. In the film, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon try to prevent just such a scenario, and in a bizarre case of art anticipating life, the film was released just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred on March 28, 1979. The China Syndrome is a relatively thoughtful disaster movie that sparked a new wave of anti-nuclear hysteria when it hit theaters.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Worries about energy problems and climate change go hand-in-hand, and director Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi flick was the first blockbuster movie to confront (and commoditize) our growing fears in the new millennium. In the film, melting polar ice caps disrupt the North Atlantic current, extreme weather devastates the planet, and things generally go haywire. The science in the film may not be rigorous, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s about scaring the bejeezus out of you and upping the ante on a disaster movie template as old as cinema itself.

Blackout (2009)

This recent horror indie, starring Amber Tamblyn and Armie Hammer, takes a refreshingly direct approach to power outage fears. Three strangers get stuck in an elevator when a massive blackout hits the city. One of them is a serial killer. Things get messy. This movie isn’t for the faint of heart – it’s plenty bloody – but it does have some pretty conspicuous subtext about what happens to civilized people when the lights go out. Blackout explores an anxiety familiar to anyone who’s ever thought about the energy grid as the creepy guy walks in, and those elevator doors close. (If you like this, you might like the similarly structured 2010 film Devil, from M. Night Shyamalan.)

The Trigger Effect (1996)

This underrated thriller from director David Koepp (Mission Impossible, Jurassic Park) stars Kyle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Shue and Dermot Mulroney in the story of what happens when a massive power outage goes unresolved for several days. As chaos descends, the characters are forced to break the alarmingly fragile surface tension of civil society. The tagline in the trailer says it all: “When the lights of the city stop burning … the laws that hold us together fall apart.”

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Post-apocalyptic movies are a genre onto themselves, and they all deal on some level with the collapse of our energy infrastructure after an instigating catastrophe – comets, plagues, zombies, what-have-you. Australian director George Miller’s Mad Max movies are particularly resonant, however, in that dwindling oil supplies lead directly to World War III. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is, in my obsessively considered opinion, the best of the trilogy and among the most compelling post-apocalypse movies ever made. By making gasoline the primary currency of this future dystopia – before even food and water – the film issues a darkly comic critique of modern civilization. Defend the fuel!

Double Secret Bonus Tip: For a different kind of scary movie experience, you might want to track down the truly terrible 1979 comedy Americathon, generally considered among the worst movies ever made. The movie’s premise: The gas shortage has completely eliminated the automobile, and the U.S. citizens get around primarily via rollerskates.