Home Is Where the Horror Is
Posted June 7, 2018 6:37 p.m. EDT
In “Hereditary,” bugs crawl from decapitated heads, ghosts lurk in the shadows and an artist tries to communicate with the dead. But the most jarring moment of this terrifying new movie might be when Annie, a mother played by Toni Collette, tells her son she never wanted to have him and tried to induce a miscarriage. Then she wakes from this nightmare, unsettled by the thoughts rattling in her subconscious. Parental guilt is the real monster here.
Moving into the territory of prestige dramas, horror has never been more bankable and celebrated than it is now. While evil clowns and serial killers at sorority houses still haunt young viewers (and make tons of money), we’re in the midst of a golden age of grown-up horror. Hushed and character-driven, this mix of indie fare and blockbusters works ferociously on adult anxieties in an age of dislocation.
These movies confront liberal racism, economic worries and family dysfunction; and while horror has always reflected the social and political concerns of its day, if you had to pinpoint a unifying theme that distinguishes this renaissance, it’s the ominous danger of overwhelming grief. A character coping with the death of a loved one is the new car of teenagers heading to a cabin in the woods. It’s the starting point of “Hereditary,” “Goodnight Mommy” and “Pyewacket,” to name just a few movies from the past three years. Then there’s the subgenre of apocalyptic movies (like “It Comes at Night”), whose narratives revolve around coping with the vanishing not of one person but possibly all of them.
“A Quiet Place,” the horror blockbuster of the year, belongs to both categories. Directed by John Krasinski, it’s an end-of-the world movie about unstoppable monsters that appear to have wiped out most of humanity, but the engine of the story is a sibling’s ill-advised decision that leads to the murder of her brother, fracturing and haunting the family. “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s triumphant debut of 2017, does not begin with mourning, but the inability to process grief is a critical theme. Although liberal racism is the source of the main character’s terror, what allows him to be hypnotized, rendered helpless in “the sunken place,” is the memory of his mother’s death and his guilt over not doing more to save her.
None of these movies are sequels or remakes, and most of them come from the singular perspective of writer-directors pursuing their vision, not a studio pumping out product. They feature the usual preoccupations of horror — supernatural evil, gore, creepy basements — but they also evoke poet Anne Carson’s answer to the question: Why does tragedy exist? “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
For most of its history, horror was considered kids’ stuff. The publisher of the first major fanzine dedicated to scary movies — the influential Famous Monsters of Filmland — gave his editor one instruction at its start in 1958: I’m 11 1/2 years old. Make me laugh. The reputation of scary movies started to change in the late 1960s and ‘70s, when a new breed of ambitious filmmakers pushed to make them darker, more realistic and mature. (See “The Exorcist” or “Don’t Look Now.”) While many of the films from this era explored the tensions of the generation gap, they were typically on the side of the younger counterculture. The poster for Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” (1972) warned: “not recommended for persons over 30.”
In the following decades, the business of horror expanded and became more diverse, as the genre shed its disreputable image, gaining more respect from critics and even attention from the Academy Awards. These days, the scary movies that dominate the discussion in popular culture are more likely to try to make adults tremble than children giggle.
“Hereditary,” opening June 8, is the apotheosis of this trend, a visually ambitious and ruthlessly disturbing supernatural story that is also an intricate meditation on mourning. It begins with a family late for the funeral of its matriarch. Everyone appears dry-eyed if not indifferent about the passing, the first sign something is off. After delivering a halfhearted eulogy for her mother, Annie asks her husband (played with grave unease by Gabriel Byrne): “Should I be sadder?”
Like comedy, horror is drawn to transgression, as both a short-term shock and a cathartic outlet for repressed emotions. There’s no one right way to mourn the death of a loved one, but this movie provides a litany of wrong ways. When Annie’s son, a sulking, withdrawn teenager played with hollow eyes by Alex Wolff, witnesses an act of unspeakable violence, instead of screaming or calling the police, he freezes, silent, then heads home, sleeps, tells no one.
A quirk of most horror is that people tend to move on from violence quicker than they do in real life, in part because they need to (no time to pay your respects when a sociopath is chasing you) but also because of the mechanics of scary movies: Horror directors like to keep frights at a brisk pace. But “Hereditary” turns the teenager’s denial into the subject of the scare, making the lack of sustained response to death appear chilling, even another kind of death.
Something seems inexorable about the miseries that befall this family. Annie is an artist who creates tableaux in miniature houses, which the camera lingers on, at one point segueing seamlessly into a scene of the real house. The implication is clear: These people are minor players in a drama they have little control over. Children are familiar with this kind of helplessness, but this movie suggests that adults have just as little agency and works on the fear that has set off so many midlife crises: the sense you are turning into your parents.
“Hereditary” is an apt companion piece to “The Babadook,” the terrific debut of Australian director Jennifer Kent that more than any other film sparked the ascendance of grown-up horror. That 2014 movie presented another mother in tumult, haunted by the death of a loved one, in this case, her husband, who died in a car crash just before she was to give birth to their son. In another performance that veers from vulnerable to terrifying, Essie Davis plays a woman whose resentment of her boy manifests itself in something existentially menacing. It’s a movie that turns on the unspoken anxiety that you don’t love your own child. Terrifying parental figures have long been a boogeyman of great scary stories, from “Psycho” to “Carrie” to “The Stepfather,” but these new movies are as likely to show us the perspective of the unhinged mother as her child’s, and the dynamics of their relationship are often complex. In “Goodnight Mommy” (2015), the mother, whose head is wrapped in bandages, initially comes off as a figure of terror to her twin boys, before they switch positions. And in “Pyewacket,” a recent indie gem, the contentious mother-daughter relationship is rooted in such heartbreaking realism that it evokes “Lady Bird” plus witchcraft. The single mom in “Pyewacket” angrily tells her teenager she hates seeing her face, which is generous compared to what the mother in “The Witch” (2016) tells her daughter: “You reek of evil.”
Sexual voyeurism and exploitation have long been hallmarks of horror, but they are relatively absent in grown-up horror. “It Follows,” which centers on a world of teenagers, does play on the old formula of sex leading to death (see “Halloween,” a movie it evokes with beautifully gliding camerawork and synthesizer sound). But this movie has none of the titillation or theatrical kills of a slasher picture; it’s deliberate, melancholy and deceptively layered.
Like “Don’t Breathe,” one of the finest horror movies of recent years, “It Follows” is set in a hollowed-out Detroit, a pointed nod to our insecure era of economic and technological disruption. Horror often takes place in isolated settings like the woods or space, and the empty streets of a once bustling city work just as well, evoking a vanished world wiped out not by zombies or aliens but by globalism. Its story, about a teenage girl, Jay, stalked by killers after sleeping with the wrong person, is more of a metaphor for sexual assault than a cautionary tale. The killers are human monsters who often take the form of victims’ parents.
Like the found-footage or torture porn genres before them, grown-up horror movies frequently lean on a high concept, but they are far more likely to blur the line between scary movie and bleak drama. Not only are there few jump cuts, but the camera work is also intentionally slow. Silence often operates the way the violins do in “Jaws,” as a warning that something sinister awaits. “A Quiet Place” and “Don’t Breathe” are both movies about keeping quiet to avoid unstoppable blind killers, making anything but silence equal murder. And in a family dinner scene in “Hereditary,” all the sound cuts out except the clatter of silverware, which seems like the final blows of a bloody sword fight. Although horror often sets up scares with jokes, in these films, the mood is relentlessly grim.
There has been a backlash to such restraint among the horror faithful. On his podcast, novelist Bret Easton Ellis, a genre fan who has been critical of what he calls “indie art house horror,” argued that “The Babadook” was not really horror at all but a tidy psychological drama. In an interview with Jason Blum, the most influential producer of horror today (“Get Out,” “Split” and more), Ellis said too much logic can be ruinous, rightly grasping that ambiguity can mean more scares.
Blum pushed back, saying his films must be rooted in a coherent reality. Before finishing any project, he said, he tries an exercise: “Let’s take out all the scares. Would it work as a drama?”
This is a very different attitude from that of past horror impresarios and illustrates an aesthetic divide. No one wants to see “Halloween” or “Alien” without the scares.
Ellis hinted at a concern that many fans, including myself, have about the growing respectability of the genre. Now that horror attracts better actors, bigger budgets and meatier scripts, a sense of fun is missing in some of the tastefully scary movies. Has horror lost some of its disreputable pleasures, not to mention its single-minded determination to terrify?
But this ignores another recent trend, how radically horror has expanded and diversified. To take one example, for a genre that has been dominated by male directors, there are more female directors leading scary movies than ever before. Kent and Julia Ducournau, who directed the lurid French cannibal tale “Raw,” are two of the most exciting new voices in the field. In the first horror movie to speak to the #MeToo era, Natalia Leite’s “M.F.A.” (2017) applied a gritty realistic view to a story of sexual assault on campus, while Coralie Fargeat’s new “Revenge” has turned a stylish female gaze on the rape-revenge genre.
Part of the reason horror has long targeted young viewers is that it’s harder to scare adults. We have seen too much, including other scary movies. But that experience can be used against us. H.P. Lovecraft famously wrote that the strongest kind of fear was that of the unknown. But the older you get, the less unknown there is. Vampires, werewolves and zombies don’t frighten like they once did. But ghosts still do — when they remind us of what we have lost.