Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s drug shocker Requiem For A Dream.

In a world where we are fuming over Jared Leto’s latest casting news (Bladerunner 2 – bleh) and swapping stories about how unbelievably terrible he was as The Joker, it’s worth remembering there was a time when he convinced us all he could do great things. A time when his performance superseded his good looks. A time when he sported a Brooklyn accent to rival that of his paramour in Suicide Squad (well, he was never perfect).

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, an adaptation of the difficult novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. (with whom the director co-wrote the screenplay) is a reminder of what Leto can do. Flatly categorised by IMDb as a ‘drama’, the flick is widely considered to be one of the 21st century’s greatest, a powerhouse of sharp, clever storytelling and editing, grounded performances and a devastatingly realistic outcome centred on four drug addicts at varying stages of their illness.

Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For A Dream

Although the movie is highly stylised, it’s not energetic in the same way something like Trainspotting is. There’s no humour, no real set up. Aronofsky throws us right in the deep end with a thrilling opening sequence that establishes not just how desperate and pathetic Leto’s Harry is, and how his poor mother’s vulnerability will likely be her undoing, but how manic, and out of control the lives of these characters are.

Requiem For A Dream’s biggest and best trick is in convincing the audience that things are already bad enough and they can’t really get any worse. The story follows the four leads as they, essentially, throw themselves down black-holes of their own creation but the horror elements are drip-fed until everything is almost wrapped up, giving a false sense of security that maybe everything will work out.

After all, this is a drug movie in which the one and only shot of somebody shooting up doesn’t even occur until the final act. It’s also the biggest shock of the movie, as Harry chooses to inject heroin into a massive open wound on his arm while his friend looks on in disgust, after queasily advising him not to do so. Aronofsky builds to it so we don’t think it’s going to happen. When it does, it’s worse than what we’re used to.

Jared Leto in Requiem For A Dream

Likewise, Marion’s exchanging sex for money and, later, drugs is hinted at until an infamous sequence at a party that sees her engaging in depraved acts for the amusement of a crowd of male onlookers. Rather than go for the obvious, Aronofsky shoots Connelly mostly face on, so we see her uncaring, almost bored, expression throughout, rather than the money shot. The gravity of the situation is felt much harder as a result.

Perhaps saddest of all is Harry’s mother, who finds herself addicted to drugs thanks to a desperate bid for weight loss. As played by Ellen Burstyn, Sara is the kind of doting mother who could never believe her no-good son is capable of even trying drugs, let alone becoming enslaved to them. Her downfall comes from loneliness, the result of a desperate attempt to be relevant, to be liked, as opposed to the other three who are just self-obsessed assholes.

Requiem For A Dream is one of those movies you really need to be in the mood to watch. But it sucks you in, in much the same way its characters get sucked in. Aronofsky’s use of kaleidoscopic breakneck montage to illustrate the breakdown of their psyches further intensifies the experience. We desperately want someone to come out of it all right (never mind ourselves). But even when things go right, we know it won’t last. The horror of it, the reality of it, is that they’re all doomed right from the outset.