Harry Potter is the franchise of a generation. Despite the comments made by author JK Rowling in recent years, there’s no denying how the world of witchcraft and wizardry shaped young minds everywhere. I won’t deny that I cried on my 11th birthday when I didn’t get my letter that I’d be heading to Hogwarts. The world of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, Guns Akimbo), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint, Servant), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, Little Women) got even bigger when it hit movie theatres and brought magic to life. Now, that world, while fantastical, is also scary and full of dangers. But one installment in the Harry Potter films is what could be classified as horror: the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Children Of Men).
The third film follows Harry and his friends during their third year of school when he discovers a serial killer is after him. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), the man who supposedly betrayed Harry’s parents to the Dark Lord Voldemort, has escaped the wizard prison Azkaban and is on the loose. Not only is Harry stalked by a serial killer, but he must confront Dementors, werewolves, and hippogriffs, navigate the world of time travel, and travel into a haunted house.
“The Prisoner of Azkaban is undoubtedly a horror movie as Cuaron borrows so many elements from the genre to mark the series’ move from light-hearted fantasy to darker, more serious subject matter.”
The Prisoner of Azkaban is undoubtedly a horror movie as Cuaron borrows so many elements from the genre to mark the series’ move from light-hearted fantasy to darker, more serious subject matter. In fact, the entire production design of the film shifted to incorporate more gothic elements, as the castle seemed more sinister and the grounds didn’t seem so magical; they felt more dangerous.
These aspects of the film come together to mark the film as a piece of horror fiction that can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike.
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They’ll Swallow Your Soul: The Dementors
With the escape of Sirius Black comes the arrival of Dementors, the horrific guards of Azkaban. They are flying, cloaked beings that inflict despair on those near them. For Harry, they cause the sounds of his dying mother to reverberate in his mind. As if that isn’t bad enough, they can also suck your soul out of your mouth. They are supposed to be protecting the students of Hogwarts but only inflict fear. They surround the school like a dark shroud, covering the school in dread.
In the first encounter with such a creature, one enters Harry’s train car, revealing itself with a single gnarled hand of long fingers opening the door. It is a harrowing image that establishes these figures have no empathy or care for human life; they exist solely to terrify and torture. They even attack Harry during a Quidditch game, causing him to fall from his broom and hurtle towards the ground.
Howling At The Moon: The Werewolf
Perhaps the most traditional horror element of The Prisoner of Azkaban is the inclusion of a werewolf. The not-so-subtly named professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis, Wonder Woman) is new at Hogwarts and is revealed to be a creature of the night. But what is especially great about the film’s take on the werewolf is that this is not your typical wolfman covered in hair. Lupin’s werewolf is essentially hairless and has unnaturally long limbs. Think Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but as a wolf. His transformation isn’t shied away from, either, as we see his face contort and elongate into a snout, and his clothes rip as his shoulders broaden. This is body horror lite, showing the painful and disgusting transformation rather than shying away from it.
On top of a werewolf already being scary enough, the fact that it is also a professor that has gained Harry’s trust amplifies that fear. Lupin is trusted by Harry and well-liked by all his students, treating them as equals and preparing them for the ways of the Dark Arts. However, he himself harbors a dark secret that endangers himself, his students, and the rapport he has built with them. As soon as he transforms, there is nothing remaining of the human Lupin, no reminders of the human within. It is only the monster, full of bloodlust.
But Wait, There’s More: The Other Monsters
But the werewolf is not the only monster that Harry and the gang confront in the film. While magical beasts are a part of the world of witches and wizards, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, a few of them are scarier than usual. Most notably, there is the bogart, a creature that takes the form of a person’s greatest fear. For example, when Harry sees it, it turns into a Dementor. When Lupin sees it, it turns into a full moon. It is a monster that is all about confronting your greatest fear, and what are horror movies than ways to confront your fears?
The other important creature of the film is a hippogriff named Buckbeak, though he is by no means a threatening presence. Rather, he is a being that is protected by Harry and his friends. The existence of such a creature is typical in the wizarding world and is by no means as horrifying as the bogart or a werewolf. However, in placing narrative emphasis on yet another creature, Cuaron and his team show a continued desire to make this a film about the monstrous; this is a movie about the many faces that monsters can take.
There’s A Killer On The Loose: The Serial Killer
Speaking of the many faces of monstrosity, this brings me to the serial killer that haunts Harry’s every footstep: Sirius Black. The story that surrounds him is bloody and violent, involving the death of 12 people and the obliteration of one Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall, Sweeney Todd), leaving only a finger of his behind. His escape terrifies the wizarding world, putting the entire world on edge that such a killer could be running at large. Black haunts Harry’s every move, affecting even his basic ability to leave school grounds. But, it is not just fear that Harry feels; it is also vengeance. Black reportedly betrayed Harry’s parents and Harry wants to enact revenge on the villain. Not only must Harry be on his guard, but he is also blinded with rage.
While the story is much more complicated, it all comes to a head in the Shrieking Shack, supposedly the most haunted house in Britain. This abandoned house sits on the edge of every student’s mind and becomes the home to a notorious serial killer. There, Sirius Black lurks, a fitting hiding spot for someone who inspires so much fear.
Let’s Do The Time Warp: Time Travel
In the middle of these monsters, serial killers, and haunted houses comes the mind-boggling concept of time travel. Hermione is granted a time turner to help her get to classes, but it becomes a crucial tool in saving lives and confronting the monstrous. Like in many time travel narratives, as Harry and Hermione travel back in time, they realize certain occurrences were caused by future versions of themselves: stones that miraculously shattered glasses, strange howls that distracted the werewolf, and more. The Prisoner of Azkaban is already a strange film, using horror elements to depict the real terrors of growing up, hitting puberty, and realizing that the world often seems like it’s out to get you.
Adding in time travel not only elevates the fantasy, but also offers a way to somehow cope with the growing pressure on these young wizards. Unlike most time travel films, going back in time does save quite a few lives and allows both Harry and Hermione to fully tap into their bravery. Plus, in going back in time, they must face a werewolf head on, fight off hundreds of dementors, and save a serial killer. How’s that for a horror movie?
“[Harry Potter] must face a werewolf head on, fight off hundreds of dementors, and save a serial killer. How’s that for a horror movie?”
Do you think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a horror movie? Do you have a favorite Harry Potter movie? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!