How post-horror movies are taking over cinema

From It Comes at Night to A Ghost Story, a new breed of horror is creeping into the multiplex, replacing jump-scares with existential dread. We talk to the auteurs breaking all the rules

DO NOT GO SEE IT COMES AT NIGHT, ITS SO NOT WORTH WATCHING, WORST MOVIE EVER HANDS DOWN. Twitter was filled with countless such posts after the US release of It Comes at Night last month. Mainstream moviegoers went in expecting a straight-up horror; they came out unsure about what theyd seen, and they didnt like it. Critics, and a certain section of viewers, have loved the film, but its Cinemascore rating determined by moviegoers opening-night reactions is a D.

You can understand the confusion. The title alone strongly suggests It Comes at Night is a horror movie. As does the movies trailer, whose ingredients include a post-apocalyptic scenario, a cabin in the woods, gas masks, shotguns, prisoners, a stern patriarch (Joel Edgerton), and warnings never to leave doors unlocked or go out at night. Its by no means false advertising, its just that this tense, minimal movie doesnt play by accepted rules.

I didnt set out to make a horror movie per se, says Trey Edward Shults, the films 28-year-old writer-director. I just set out to make something personal and thats what it turned into. I put a lot of my own fears into it, and if fear equates with horror then, yeah, its horror. But its not a conventional horror movie.

Considering that horror is the place where we explore our mortal and societal fears, the genre is actually one of the safest spaces in cinema. More than any other genre, horror movies are governed by rules and codes: vampires dont have reflections; the final girl will prevail; the warnings of the gas station attendant/mystical Native American/creepy old woman will go unheeded; the evil will ultimately be defeated, or at least explained, but not in a way that closes off the possibility of a sequel. The rules are our flashlight as we venture into the unknown. But in some respects, theyve made horror a realm of what Donald Rumsfeld would describe as known unknowns.

Regret terrifies me Trey Edward Shults It Comes at Night. Photograph: Animal Kingdom/REX/Shutterstock

No wonder some film-makers are starting to question what happens when you switch the flashlight off. What happens when you stray beyond those cast-iron conventions and wander off into the darkness? You might find something even scarier. You might find something thats not scary at all. What could be emerging here is a new sub-genre. Lets call it post-horror.

To its fans, at least, It Comes at Night is all the scarier because you dont know exactly where the horror is going to come from. Theres a civilisation-levelling apocalypse and a contagious virus and a Blair Witchy forest, but the film is more interested in the horrors within. Edgerton and his family form a nervy alliance with another in a similar predicament, and with shotguns to hand and trust in short supply, the threat of violence is never far away. There is grief, guilt, regret and paranoia. There are family bonds, which turn from protective to constrictive. The teenage son is plagued by nightmares. And then theres simply the darkness, which the films visuals make tremendous use of. Its amazing how unsettling it can be just watching someone with a lantern wandering around in the pitch black night. Its easier to identify whats not scary.

Im aware that the title sounds like a dope monster movie or something, but it speaks to the movie thematically, not in the literal sense, says Shults. He turned off all the lights in his Texas home and wandered around with a torch to get a feel for the movie, he confesses. He also researched genocides and societal cycles of violence. But the story really stems from his personal anxieties. Shults talks of his estranged father, who had a history of addiction, and died shortly before he wrote the movie. He confessed his regret to his son on his deathbed.

Death is the unknown. We dont know, he says, And thats always terrifying. But then more so is regret. The way you led your life, the decisions you made. That terrifies me all the time. As a former business-school student who quit college against his parents advice to pursue film-making, the fear of making the wrong decision was clearly present for Shults. What emboldened him to switch careers was landing a job with local auteur Terrence Malick, working on The Tree of Life. I dont know if he knows, but he changed the course of my whole life, says Shults. What I was inspired by is just how unorthodox you can be just think outside of the box and find the right way to make a movie for you.

Low budget, mass appeal Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Photograph: Allstar/Blumhouse Productions

Thats not a sentiment horror producers really want to hear these days. Horror is the most profitable genre in the industry and its booming. This year is set to be horrors best ever, led by titles like Get Out (which has made $252m globally on a budget of $4.5m), and M Night Shyamalans Split ($277m on a $9m budget). As a result, theres a market for horrors with low budgets and mass appeal. Which basically means variations on well-established themes: supernatural possession, haunted houses, psychos, zombies.

This is the market post-horror is reacting against. Shults cites the influence of Roman Polanski, whose celebrated apartment trilogy Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemarys Baby were similar exercises in refashioning horror tropes with an auteur sensibility, as were Nicolas Roegs Dont Look Now and Stanley Kubricks The Shining. But those were in the era of well-resourced studio horror, now young film-makers like Shults must make a distinctive impression on an indie budget. (It Comes at Night has already recouped its budget many times over, incidentally.)

Refashioning tired horror tropes Nicolas Roegs Dont Look Now. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/REX

A number of other recent films could fit into the post-horror category. Last years The Witch, for example, which went into the New England woods with a devout 17th-century family. Again, the title and trailer suggested a straight horror movie, but while it was steeped in authentic satanic lore, The Witch was short on jump-scares and frantic chases, and explanations. It did, at least, have a witch in it. But again, it was marketed at mainstream audiences, who felt like theyd been conned, and took to Twitter with WORST MOVIE EVER sentiments.

Taking a different tack was Olivier Assayas Personal Shopper, which wove supernatural elements into its understated study of a Parisian fashion assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. Shes seeking a sign from her dead twin brother. She believes in ghosts, and from what we see, shes not making it up either, so when a stalker starts texting her, were not sure if theyre living or dead. Technically, its a horror movie, but nobody would confuse Personal Shopper with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. In a similar vein, so to speak, Nicholas Winding Refn brought bloodthirsty lesbian vampire supermodels to LAs fashion world in The Neon Demon a variation on a well-worn horror tropes, but in no way traditional.

The movie that could really seal post-horror is A Ghost Story, an extraordinary, exploratory film that goes on the release in the US this week (and comes to the UK in August). Again, its a title that creates certain expectations. There is a ghost, but its Casey Affleck draped in a white sheet with two eye holes cut out of it. Hes basically a human emoji of a ghost. Having been killed in a car crash, he haunts the house of his grief-stricken young widow, played by Rooney Mara, but she cant actually see him. When she moves out, hes stuck there. Forever. New tenants come and go. The building itself eventually goes. Time loops in on itself, and the story expands from personal trauma into the realms of cosmic speculation.

I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted house movies, without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film, says writer-director David Lowery, who made A Ghost Story with the proceeds of his previous movie, a remake of Disneys Petes Dragon. Look at any horror film and you can trace it back to a particular social or personal anxiety, and this film is no different in that regard: I was having a big-picture existential crisis about my place in the universe, and at the same time I was having a very personal conflict with my wife about where we were going to move to. And wrapped up in all of that was my longstanding desire to make a movie with a guy in a sheet.

Rooney Mara in the exploratory A Ghost Story Photograph: Andrew Droz Palermo/Sundance Institute

Lowery is no snob, though: I go and see most horror films that come out, but Im usually watching with my hands over my eyes. He speaks with admiration of The Conjuring 2. But Lowery also draws on a more east-Asian view of spirits and the supernatural. Tsai Ming-liangs Goodbye, Dragon Inn, for example, set in a haunted cinema where ghosts and the living sit side by side. Or the films of Thailands Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in which the ghost of a dead wife can casually turn up at the dinner table or a son can be transformed into a forest-dwelling wookiee and nobody bats an eyelid. Weerasethakuls entire career is basically post-horror.

It is telling that It Comes at Night, The Witch and A Ghost Story were all put out by A24 Films, a young company that has already found Oscar success with the likes of Moonlight and Room. If anyones pushing horror into new realms, its them, but isnt it about time? There will always be a place for movies that reacquaint us with our primal fears and frighten the bejesus out of us. But when it comes to tackling the big, metaphysical questions, the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers like a dying religion. Lurking just beyond its cordon is a vast black nothingness, waiting for us to shine a light into it.

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How Paul Robeson found his political voice in the Welsh valleys

African American star Robeson built his singing career in the teeth of racism in the early 1900s. But his radicalism was spurred on in Britain by a chance meeting with a group of Welsh miners

Paul Robeson possessed one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. He was an acclaimed stage actor. He could sing in more than 20 different languages; he held a law degree; he won prizes for oratory. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest American footballer of his generation. But he was also a political activist, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, exerted an influence comparable to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in a later era.

The son of an escaped slave, Robeson built his career despite the segregation of the Jim Crow laws basically, an American apartheid system that controlled every aspect of African American life. He came to London with his wife Eslanda known as Essie partly to escape the crushing racism of his homeland. Yet later in life he always insisted that he became a radical as much because of his experiences in Britain as in America. In particular, he developed a deep bond with the labour movement particularly with the miners of Wales. That was why, in 2016, I travelled from my home in Australia to visit the landscape that shaped Robesons politics.

Pontypridd was a village carved out of stone. Grey terraced cottages, grey cobbled streets, and an ancient grey bridge arching across the River Taff.

The sky was slate, too, a stark contrast with the surrounding hills, which were streaked with seasonal russet, teal and laurel.

I was accustomed to towns that sprawled, as white settlers stretched themselves out to occupy a newly colonised land. Pontypridd, I realised, huddled. Its pubs and churches and old-fashioned stores were clutched tightly in the valley, in a cosy snugness that left me feeling a long way from home. Id come here to see Beverley Humphreys, a singer and the host of Beverleys World of Music on BBC Wales.

I have a strong feeling that we might meet in October! shed written, when Id emailed her about the Paul Robeson exhibition she was organising. I know from personal experience that once you start delving into Paul Robesons life, he just wont leave you alone.

In that correspondence, shed described Pontypridd as the ideal place to grasp Pauls rich relationship with Wales and its people. I knew that, in the winter of 1929, Paul had been returning from a matinee performance of Show Boat [in London] when he heard male voices wafting from the street. He stopped, startled by the perfect harmonisation and then by the realisation that the singers, when they came into view, were working men, carrying protest banners as they sang.

By accident, hed encountered a party of Welsh miners from the Rhondda valley. They were stragglers from the great working-class army routed during what the poet Idris Davies called the summer of soups and speeches the general strike of 1926. Blacklisted by their employers after the unions defeat, they had walked all the way to London searching for ways to feed their families. By then, Robesons stardom and wealth were sufficient to insulate him from the immiseration facing many British workers, as the industrialised world sank into the economic downturn known as the Great Depression.

Singing with a choir in a scene from The Proud Valley. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yet he remembered his fathers dependence on charity, and he was temperamentally sympathetic to the underdog. Without hesitation, he joined the march.

Some 50 years later, [his son] Pauli Robeson visited the Talygarn Miners Rehabilitation Centre and met an elderly man whod been present on that day in 1929. The old miner talked of how stunned the marchers had been when Robeson attached himself to their procession: a huge African American stranger in formal attire incongruous next to the half-starved Welshmen in their rough-hewn clothes and mining boots.

But Robeson had a talent for friendship, and the men were grateful for his support. He had remained with the protest until they stopped outside a city building, and then he leaped on to the stone steps to sing Ol Man River and a selection of spirituals chosen to entertain his new comrades but also because sorrow songs, with their blend of pain and hope, expressed emotions that he thought desperate men far from home might be feeling.

Afterwards, he gave a donation so the miners could ride the train back to Wales, in a carriage crammed with clothing and food.

That was how it began. Before the year was out, hed contributed the proceeds of a concert to the Welsh miners relief fund; on his subsequent tour, he sang for the men and their families in Cardiff, Neath, and Aberdare, and visited the Talygarn miners rest home in Pontyclun.

From then on, his ties with Wales only grew.

Robeson remained [living] in Buckingham Street, London. He and Essie maintained a public profile as a celebrity couple, still mixing easily with polite society and the intelligentsia. But Robeson was now aware of the labour movement, and began to pay attention to its victories and defeats. His frequent visits to mining towns in Wales were part of that newfound political orientation.

You can see why hes remembered around here, Humphreys said. He was so famous when he made those connections, and the Welsh mining community was so very cowed. In the wake of the general strike, people felt pretty hopeless.

A Robeson exhibition opened in Pontypridd in October 2015 and was an echo of a much grander presentation from 2001, which Humphreys had assembled with Hywel Francis, then Labour MP for Aberavon, and Paul Robeson Jr [Robesons son died in 2014]. It was first shown at the National Museum in Cardiff and then toured the country.

Staging that event had been a revelation for Humphreys. Shed known that memories of Robeson ran deep in Wales, but shed still been astonished by the response. Every day of the exhibit, people shared their recollections, speaking with a hushed fervour about encounters with Paul that had stayed with them for ever.

Robeson at Waterloo Station in London in 1935. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Pauls interactions with Wales were shaped by the violence of mining life: the everyday hardship of long hours and low wages, but also the sudden spectacular catastrophes that decimated communities. In 1934, hed been performing in Caernarfon when news arrived of a disaster in the Gresford colliery. The mine there had caught fire, creating an inferno so intense that most of the 266 men who died underground, in darkness and smoke, were never brought to the surface for burial. At once, Robeson offered his fees for the Caernarfon concert to the fund established for the orphans and children of the dead an important donation materially, but far more meaningful as a moral and political gesture.

That was part, Humphreys said, of why Wales remembered him. He was by then among the most famous stars of the day, the recording artist whose songs many hummed, and yet he was showing an impoverished and struggling community people who felt themselves isolated and abandoned that he cared deeply about them.

And the continuing affection for Robeson was more than a recollection of generosity. The Welsh sensed the relationship was reciprocal, said Humphreys. That he was deriving something from their friendships, from seeing how people in the mining communities supported one another and cared for one another. He later said he learned more from the white working class in Wales than from anyone..

Certainly, Robeson discovered Wales and the British working class in general at just the right time. Hed signed up, with great hopes, for a film version of [Eugene ONeills play] The Emperor Jones in 1933 the first commercial film with a black man in the lead. But the process played out according to a familiar and dispiriting pattern. Robesons contract stipulated that, during his return to America, he wouldnt be asked to film in Jim Crow states. Star or not, it was impossible to be shielded from institutional racism. At the end of his stay, as he arrived at a swanky New York function, he was directed to the servants entrance rather than the elevator. One witness said he had to be dissuaded from punching out the doorman, in a manifestation of anger hed never have revealed in the past.

The Emperor Jones itself was still very much shaped by conservative sensibilities: among other humiliations, the studio darkened the skin of his co-star, lest audiences thought Robeson was kissing a white woman. Not surprisingly, while white critics loved the film and Robesons performance, he was again attacked in the African American press for presenting a demeaning stereotype.

A few years earlier, he might have found refuge in London from the impossible dilemmas confronting a black artist in America. But hed learned to see respectable England as disconcertingly similar, albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class. To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them. He was ready, both intellectually and emotionally, for the encounter with the Welsh labour movement.

There was just something, Humphreys said, that drew Welsh people and Paul Robeson together. I think it was like a love affair, in a way. And that seemed entirely right.

In the 1940 film The Proud Valley, about a Welsh community that takes in a black unemployed seaman. Photograph: Getty Images

The next morning, Humphreys and I walked down the hill, beneath a sky that warned constantly of rain. We made our way to St Davids Uniting Church on Gelliwastad Road. From the outside, it seemed like a typically stern embodiment of Victorian religiosity: a grey, rather grim legacy of the 1880s.

Inside, though, the traditional church interior the pews, the pulpit, the altar was supplemented by a huge banner from the Abercrave lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers, hanging just below the stained-glass windows. Workers of the world unite for peace and socialism, it proclaimed, with an image of a black miner holding a lamp out to his white comrade in front of a globe of the world.

The walls held huge photos of Paul Robeson: in his football helmet on the field at Rutgers [University]; on a concert stage, his mouth open in song; marching on a picket line. These were the displays extracted from the 2001 exhibition.

We chatted with parishioners, who were taking turns to keep the Robeson display open during the day for black history month.

The service itself reminded me of my morning in the Witherspoon Street church, except that, while in Princeton [where Robeson was born] Id marvelled at the worshippers command of the black vocal tradition, here I was confronted by the harmonic power of Welsh choristers: the old hymns voiced in a great wall of sound resonating and reverberating throughout the interior.

Robeson, of course, had made that comparison many times. Both the Wesleyan chapels of the Welsh miners and the churches in which hed worshipped with his father were, he said, places where a weary and oppressed people drew succour from prayer and song.

His movie The Proud Valley (released as The Tunnel in the US), which had brought him to Pontypridd in 1939, rested on precisely that conceit. In the film (the only one of his movies in which he took much pride), Robeson played David Goliath, an unemployed seaman who wanders into the Welsh valley and is embraced by the miners when the choir leader hears him sing.

Throughout the 1930s, the analogy between African Americans and workers in Britain (and especially Wales) helped reorient Robeson, both aesthetically and politically, after his disillusionment with the English establishment.

His contact with working-class communities in Britain provided him with an important reassurance. He told his friend Marie Seton about a letter he received from a cotton-spinner during one of his tours. This man said he understood my singing, for while my father was working as a slave, his own father was working as a wage slave in the mills of Manchester.

That was in northern England, but he experienced a similar commonality everywhere, and it pleased and intrigued him. If the slave songs of the US were worth celebrating, what about the music emerging from other oppressed communities? What connections might the exploration of distinctive cultural traditions forge between different peoples?

Significantly, it was in Wales where Robeson first articulated this new perspective. In 1934, he gave a concert in Wrexham, in north Wales, between the Welsh mountains and the lower Dee valley alongside the border with England. Yet again it was a charity performance, staged at the Majestic Cinema for the benefit of the St John Ambulance Association.

During the visit, Robeson was interviewed by the local paper, and he told the writer he was no longer wedded to a classical repertoire. Hed come to regard himself as a folk singer, devoted to what he called the eternal music of common humanity. To that end, he was studying languages, working his way haphazardly through Russian, German, French, Dutch, Hungarian, Turkish, Hebrew, and sundry other tongues so as to perform the songs of different cultures in the tongues in which they had been written. He had become, he said, a singer for the people.

Movie star: Robeson, right, with Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1937 film King Solomons Mines. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

The confidence of that statement reflected another lesson drawn primarily from Wales. In African American life, the black church had mattered so much because religion provided almost the only institutional stability for people buffeted by racial oppression. In particular, because Jim Crow segregated the workplace, black communities struggled to form and maintain trade unions. Wales, though, was different. The miners found consolation in religion, with every village dotted with chapels. But they believed just as fervently in trade unionism.

The Gresford disaster showed why. In an industry such as mining, you relied on your workmates both to get the job done safely and to stand up for your rights. The battle was necessarily collective. A single miner possessed no power at all; the miners as a whole, however, could shut down the entire nation, as theyd demonstrated in 1926.

In particular, the cooperation mandated by modern industry might, at least in theory, break down the prejudices that divided workers even, perhaps, the stigma attached to race. That was the point Robeson dramatised in The Proud Valley, a film in which the solidarity of the workplace overcomes the miners suspicion about a dark-skinned stranger. Arent we all black down that pit? asks one of the men.

Its from the miners in Wales, Robeson explained, [that] I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.

To understand Pauls relationship with Wales, Humphreys told me the following day, you need to understand Tiger Bay.

She introduced me to Lesley Clarke and to Harry Ernest and his son Ian. The three of them came from Tiger Bay, the centre of Waless black community. Theyd worked on the original exhibition in Cardiff, after Humphreys had insisted that the National Gallery employ black guides, and now theyd come to Pontypridd to witness the new display.

At 82, Lesley Clarke was thin but sprightly and alert. She spoke slowly and carefully. I hadnt realised there was a colour bar until I left Tiger Bay. When I went to grammar school, I realised for the first time that there were people who just didnt like coloured people. Didnt know anything about us, but didnt like us. I didnt know I was poor and I didnt know I was black: all I knew was that I was me.

Tiger Bay was forged by some of the worst racial attacks in British history. In June 1919, returning soldiers encountered a group of black men walking with white women. Outraged, the troops, led by colonials (mostly Australians), rampaged throughout Butetown, attacking people of colour, destroying houses, and leaving four dead.

For Clarke and Ernests generation, the colour bar was very real, especially in employment. Ernest was impish and bald, and his eyes crinkled as he spoke, almost as if he took a perverse humour in the recollection. Wed ask if a job was open, he said, and soon as they said yes, wed say, Can I come for an interview right now? To narrow the gap, because the minute you got there they would say, Oh, the job is gone.

The minute they saw you were black, that was it, said Clarke. You just took it for granted that it was going to happen. There were very few outlets, especially for girls. You either worked in the brush factory or you worked in Ziggys, selling rags and whatnot, or there was a place just over the bridge that did uniforms.

I worked in the brush factory for a while, Ernest said. Oh, Jesus!

He shook his head and laughed in dismay. Jesus.

Addressing the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Ebbw Vale, 1958.

Robeson had reached out to the Welsh miners when his career was at its height. They came back to him at his lowest ebb, almost two decades later, at a time when all hed achieved seemed to have been taken from him. In the midst of the cold war, the FBI prevented Robeson from performing at home. [Hed proclaimed his sympathy for the Soviet Union ever since the mid-30s. That leftism now made him a target. He became, in Pete Seegers words, the most blacklisted performer in America, effectively silenced in his home country,] Worse still, the US state department confiscated his passport, so he could not travel abroad. He was left in a kind of limbo: silenced, isolated, and increasingly despairing.

On 5 October 1957, the Porthcawl Grand Pavilion filled with perhaps 5,000 people for the miners eisteddfod. Will Painter, the union leader, took to the microphone. After welcoming the delegates, he announced that they would soon hear from Paul Robeson, whod be joining them via a transatlantic telephone line.

When Painter spoke again, he was addressing Robeson directly. We are happy that it has been possible for us to arrange that you speak and sing to us today, he said. We would be far happier if you were with us in person.

Miraculously, Robesons deep voice crackled out of the speakers in response. My warmest greetings to the people of my beloved Wales, and a special hello to the miners of south Wales at your great festival. It is a privilege to be participating in this historic festival.

He was seated in a studio in New York. Down the telephone line, he performed a selection of his songs, dedicating them to their joint struggle for what he called a world where we can live abundant and dignified lives.

The musical reply came from the mighty Treorchy Male Choir, the winners of that years eisteddfod, and a group that traces its history back to 1883. Robeson joined the choir in a performance of the Welsh national anthem, Land of My Fathers, before the entire audience all 5,000 of them serenaded him with Well Keep a Welcome. This land you knew will still be singing, they chorused. When you come home again to Wales.

This is an edited extract from No Way But This by Jeff Sparrow, published by Scribe (14.99). To order a copy for 12.74 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

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Six surveillance films to make Trump paranoid

From All the Presidents Men to the Bourne series, wiretapping is widespread in Hollywood. No wonder Trump is twitchy

The Conversation (1974)

Between the first two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola knocked out this small-scale but wide-reaching thriller about a master surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who is memorably described as the best bugger on the west coast a line that always gets an unintended laugh from British audiences. This is the sort of film that could make the most easygoing viewer feel twitchy, so imagine how it might inflame the paranoia of a blowhard like Trump; the whole picture only proves his assertion that there are a lot of bad dudes out there. Of course, Harry goes nuts by the end, and destroys his entire apartment in the search for bugging devices although Trump may see this not as cautionary but as a metaphor for draining the swamp. Whats more, there is even a little inbuilt cheat in the plot: when we first hear the secretly recorded conversation on which the entire film hinges, it sounds one way (Hed kill us if he got the chance). Played back at the end, it has an entirely different emphasis (Hed kill us if he got the chance). Creative licence or fake news? Either way, its an object lesson in the art of Trumpian spin, where truth means whatever he happens to be saying at that particular moment.

All the Presidents Men (1976)

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the Presidents Men. Photograph: Snap/Rex Features

In his tweets accusing the Obama administration of wiretapping his New York offices, Trump invoked the spectre of the USs greatest presidential scandal: This is Nixon/Watergate, he fumed. So it seems reasonable to assume he has seen the movie that repackaged those events for cinema audiences. But he will have needed to be selective about which lessons he took from it. After all, this is a film about the brilliance and cunning of two men Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) who belong to what Steve Bannon openly refers to as the opposition party. Those Washington Post reporters broke the Watergate story with the help of the unnamed source they christened Deep Throat and dont be surprised if those were the two words that made Trumps ears prick up. Though he may not have been paying quite as much attention to the scene where Woodward tells Bernstein: If youre gonna do it, do it right. If youre gonna hype it, hype it with the facts.

Sneakers (1992)

River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Dan Akroyd and Robert Redford in Sneakers. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Robert Redford again, this time in a lighter and fluffier surveillance story, but one that would be no less effective in confirming Trumps suspicions about those damn scheming, Clinton-loving liberals. Redford plays a security expert and former radical whose college days were spent diverting funds from Republican party coffers to assorted charitable causes. The plot pits him and his techno-buddies (including a blind phone-tapping genius) against an anarchist (Ben Kingsley) who is intent on destroying the system. The film shows Kingsley hacking into and outsmarting Trumps bete noire, the FBI, while it also paints the NSA (another organisation besmirched by Trump) in a sinister light, two decades before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on it. Still, he wont be happy with the ending, which shows Redford back to his old tricks and siphoning off Republican money to the United Negro College Fund, Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

It will delight Trump no end that the NSA comes in for a bruising once again in this conspiracy thriller. From the opening scene, in which an NSA operative engineers the death of a congressman who is blocking a bill that would grant greater powers of surveillance over US citizens, phone-tapping plays a major part in the story. So concerned was the NSA by the way it was portrayed in the film that there were memos flying back and forth across its various departments. I saw a preview for the new movie Enemy of the State and to my surprise found out that NSA were the bad guys in it, wrote one NSA employee in an in-house email, while the then director of the NSA, Lt Gen Michael Hayden, told CNN in 2001: I made the judgment that we couldnt survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie. As with The Conversation (which is referenced nicely in an appearance from Gene Hackman, playing Harry Caul in all but name), the impression given by the film is clear: you are being watched.

Blow Out (1981)

John Travolta in Blow Out. Photograph: Columbia/Rex/Shutterstock

A mix of Blow Up (where a photographer accidentally captures evidence of a murder) and The Conversation, Brian De Palmas masterful thriller features a sound effects designer (John Travolta) who is taping ambient noise one evening when he records the sound of a car accident that turns out to provide clues to political skullduggery. Inspired by the Chappaquiddick scandal, in which Mary Jo Kopechne died in a car that was driven off a bridge by Senator Ted Kennedy, and still haunted by the ghost of Watergate, Blow Out would be helpful in reminding Trump that someone, somewhere, is always listening. Given that the meddling hero is part of the movie industry (ie Hollywood, another of Trumps enemies), the film also confirms some of his other prejudices into the bargain.

The Bourne series (2002-present)

Joan Allen in The Bourne Ultimatum. Photograph: Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures International

These films, about a brainwashed CIA killing machine who gradually recovers his memory and goes rogue, would appeal most strongly to Trumps particular combination of short attention span and heightened paranoia. The bonanza of conspiracy theories are regularly being interrupted by wham-bam action sequences that might have been designed specifically to keep him from getting bored. Trump, dont forget, is a man who fast-forwards through Jean-Claude Van Dammes Bloodsport just to get to the fisticuffs and roundhouse kicks. But should he be listening during the talky bits, he may find one exchange from the third instalment, The Bourne Ultimatum, particularly pertinent to his style of governance. The conscientious CIA agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) takes issue with the company policy of bumping people off willy-nilly. You start down this path and where does it end? she asks her superior (David Strathairn), who gives the sort of response that Trump and his coterie could really get behind: It ends when weve won.

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