31 Horror Films (2014) #21 Coraline 2009 Dir. Henry Selick

Coraline 2009 Dir. Henry Selick

I first heard the name Neil Gaiman in college when one of my friends told me about the "Sandman" graphic novels. It would be years before I would be able to get my hands on them, but this same friend lent me his copy of “Smoke and Mirrors”, which is still the best book of short stories I’ve ever read in my life. Gaiman is a genius at telling stories and making it look effortless. Nothing in his work ever feels forced, and the same could be said of Henry Selick. I first became aware of Selick’s work much earlier than Gaiman, when I saw A Nightmare Before Christmas. While the film industry seemed to be moving away from classic animation techniques, Selick and the folks at Aardman always seemed like the steadfasts, bringing high quality stop-motion animation into the twenty first century. Both Gaiman and Selick are brilliant storytellers, each showcasing singular talents and visions that no one else seems to have, which makes them the perfect pair for Coraline.

Coraline follows young girl, Coraline Jones, as her family moves into a new house. Of course she hates her new surroundings, but when she finds a magic door that leads to a parallel universe, her new life becomes more exciting…for a time. This parallel world seems perfect at first, her “other parents” always listen and seem to give her whatever she wants. However, more trips to the “other” world reveal a sinister plot to keep Coraline trapped forever.

Coraline has echoes of classics like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz”, never eschewing the creepy or outright terrifying for more modern and safe sensibilities. There is a real sense of danger in this film that is undeniable, but deliciously tempting. We want to see more and more of the other world, partially because it’s so beautiful and dynamic, but also because we want to know the mystery of what this world is about and what “Other” Mother really is. The character and set designs for both of the worlds are perfectly executed and actually remind me a lot of Dave McKean’s art for the book. We get good character moments in the real world in all of of its quirky, but mundane glory, making the “other” world really pop. And those button eyes…perfect.

Many people will not think of Coraline when they think of horror, which is fair. Modern horror, either wittingly or unwittingly, has cultivated a very specific aesthetic in the minds of audiences. This film doesn’t include blood or violence, but it does include some terrifying scenes and concepts. I don’t have children…yet, but I shudder a bit at the modern entertainment landscape. Family entertainment is no longer for the whole family and protagonists in children’s films are never in any real danger, there is no real risk to life and limb. To put it simply, kids never get scared, probably because parents are the ones that are terrified.

Coraline serves the story by ignoring the fears of parents. This film never talks down to its audience, dealing with issues of boredom, new surroundings and busy parents as well as monsters, ghosts and other dimensions. Coraline harkens back to the world of storytelling that includes Grimm fairy tales, stories that had real danger, real risk, and real characters. The fear is real, but so is the payoff. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.