Blade Runner as Horror

Not many people would describe Blade Runner as a horror film if they were asked what it was like. But even though the film does not fall strictly into the horror genre (it is not a ‘horror film’ per se), there are some elements in the film that can be labelled as horrific. As will be discussed below, the film also owes a debt to the classic horror story Frankenstein.

What is a horror film?

As with most genres, there is no absolute definition of what a horror film ‘really is’. Going into the complexity of the genre is out of the scope of this blog, and I suggest researching on the net or searching your school library if interested. But intuitively, we are all aware of the basics of horror – darkness, monsters, ghosts, zombies, blood and gore, death, and so on. The horror references may be a little more subtle in Blade Runner. Here are a couple of useful quotes:

“The horror film aims to shock, disgust repel…in the horror film, the monster is a dangerous breach of nature, a violation of our normal sense of what is possible…the monster might be an ordinary human who is transformed…or the monster might manifest a biology unknown to science, as with the creature in the Alien films…”

(Bordwell & Thompson 2004, p.120-21)

“…since fear is central to horror cinema, issues such as social upheaval, anxieties about natural and manmade disasters, conflicts and wars, crime and violence, can all contribute to the genre’s continuation. Since horror films tap into the cultural moment by encoding the anxieties of the moment into their depictions of monstrosity, there is an endless flow of material to ‘inspire’ horror filmmakers. Horror is thus a genre that is always ready to address the fears of the audience, these being fuelled by events and concerns on an international and national level.”

(Cherry 2009, Routledge Film Guides: Horror, p.11)

“Disagreements may well arise as to whether a film can be considered a horror film…Is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, a horror film, or is it perhaps a Gothic Romance with a Byronic monster who is conflicted rather than wholly evil and who is sexually appealing to female characters and female audience members alike? Can it even be classed as a horror film, when in many people’s opinions it is not a scary film…With respect to the horror genre, one factor involved in defining the genre should perhaps be the way the films work on their audiences to create particular emotional responses. Thus, any film that shocked, scared, frightened, terrified, horrified, sickened, or disgusted, or which made the viewer shiver, get the goosebumps, shudder, tremble, jump, gasp or scream in fear could be classified as horror.”

(Cherry 2009, Routledge Film Guides: Horror, p.16-17)

The above quotes basically suggest that what we can call ‘horror’ will likely encompass a very broad range of films, and what can be deemed as providing horror-type emotional responses is not always a gore-fest zombie flick.

What could make Blade Runner a horror film?

The first and perhaps the most obvious element within the film that could be classified as horror is the state of the society/city itself. We would all certainly be horrified if we were to find that our own cities in the near future were in as bad shape as Los Angeles 2019. The lack of anything natural (natural light, plants and animals), the decay and poverty in the streets, the overbearing technologies and police surveillance – Ridley Scott surely designed these elements to shock the viewer. As one of the above quotes suggests, anxieties about social trends and manmade disasters can be used to a horrific effect. We see this in Blade Runner as the problematic social trends in our current age – think inequality, corporate power, police and surveillance technologies, scientific forays into genetic modification – are amplified to the point where they may be beyond reversal. The whole aura of Blade Runner is one of anxiety and fear – are we actually heading down this path?

The replicants may also bring about a certain sense of fear and horror for the viewer. In fact, they certainly bring about those feelings in the characters within the film – we know that Deckard, Chew, Sebastian and Eldon all fear the replicants. The fear may be justified, as the replicants are superior to their makers, and have a vendetta against them. In a sense this is the classic case of the scientists creation becoming too powerful and replacing the creator! This is why Eldon put the four-year lifespan on the Nexus-6 model. He knows he is dabbling dangerously close to creating a being that has the capacity to destroy him, and he fears this. The replicants also represent a force coming in from another place (outer space colonies) to do damage. They do go on a campaign of violence against those responsible for their creation, and their violence is not restrained – consider Roy’s rather shocking skull-crush-eye-gouge maneuver on Eldon.

Blade Runner and Frankenstein

In a chapter entitled ‘The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner’ by David Esser from the collection Retrofitting Blade Runner (Kerman (ed.) 1991), the author explains that Blade Runner owes a debt to the classic horror novel ‘Frankenstein’, written by Mary Shelley and first published in 1818. In turn, Frankenstein is actually a ‘rewriting’ of poet John Milton’s work called ‘Paradise Lost’.

The very basic plot of Frankenstein is as follows:

A scientist named Victor Frankenstein discovers the secret to giving life to inanimate matter. He creates a living ‘monster’ (the exact process of doing this is not revealed) that somewhat resembles man but is much larger and more grotesque. Disgusted and afraid of his creation, Victor flees. The monster becomes afraid of humans, but after spending time observing a certain family he develops an awareness of his differences. Lonely, the monster attempts to befriend the family but they reject him, causing him to seek revenge against his creator. After a number of other encounters and events, the monster eventually comes face to face with Victor. The monster talks at length with Victor about his existential situation, and demands that Victor create a female companion for him, arguing that he has been rejected by humans but still has a right to happiness. Victor agrees, but then does not finish the project. A series of murders occur as the monster seeks revenge. Victor and the monster end up pursuing each other, vowing each to kill the other. They eventually meet again – as Victor dies, the monster states his remorse, then travels way and kills himself.

After reading this it is easy to see the parallels between it and Blade Runner. In the film, the scientist is Eldon Tryell and the monster is the Nexus-6 model replicant. The replicants are rejected by other humans, and denied basic human rights (such as the right to a full life). This breeds hostility and resentment in them to the point where some, such as Roy and his friends, may take it upon themselves to rebel and begin a hunt for those responsible for their situation, vowing to either demand an improvement in their life or destroy their creators. In both Frankenstein and Blade Runner, the ‘monster’ is both the hunter and the hunted, and the ‘hunters’ (Victor/Deckard) also become the hunted.

So if Frankenstein is classified as a horror story, it seems appropriate to label Blade Runner as (at least partially) a horror story as well, owing to its debt to Frankenstein.

But again, I would judge it inappropriate to strictly label Blade Runner as a horror film. It certainly lacks many of the stereotypical elements of horror, such as excessive violence and ‘jump-out-of-your-seat’ moments. Rather, the story of Blade Runner works on a more subtle level. It taps into cultural fears, fears about the increasing dominance of science and technology over our lives and the natural world.

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