Be forewarned: there are no happy endings here.
What I like and have always liked about horror is its versatility. Being the only genre, in literature or cinema, that’s named after an emotion, intent and mood are the engines that drive it. HP Lovecraft summed it best in his essay: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown...The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life.”
It means, horror has fulfilled its duty when it has drawn you into its atmosphere and rendered you feeling what it wants you to feel. Thus, tone is the spark and the message. Story, really, is secondary, and imagination is required to complete the circuit.
Which is why it’s refreshing to see a trend of very deliberately paced and ambience-centered horror movies make waves among aficionados.
From 2014’s It Follows to this year’s gems like It Comes at Night and A Ghost Story, there’s a whole library of horror tropes that have turned away from their usual bumps-and-howls to the primacy of the emotive. What does that mean? It means that some of these movies may arguably be right on the edge of pretentious. Because they are trying to articulate what it’s like to have certain experiences that carry with them their own horrors they do take their time. So, you might argue that they are boring and you’d be right.
Yet even if they track narrow and specific metaphors for experience, like parenting a difficult child in 2014’s The Babadook or trying to make it as a fashion model in 2016’s Neon Demon, there is no denying the effect of atmosphere used as a weapon, and used right, on viewers.
To start with, let’s unpack the strengths of isolation and paranoia present in both 2015’s historical gothic tale in The Witch and 2017’s post-apocalypse drama thriller It Comes at Night. The connecting thread between the two main characters is a Sisyphean doom that overshadows their daily life and efforts to simply exist.
In The Witch, Anya Taylor-Joy as the ill-fated and beautiful teenage Thomasin is doomed almost from the start as her New England pioneer family moves to the frontier on their own and is quickly harassed by forces unseen and likely supernatural.
Through a molasses pace the entropic breakdown of Thomasin’s family makes you remember the primacy of superstition and how it ruled the lives of our ancestors. That Thomasin gets the blame for all the unlucky and then downright catastrophic stuff that happens is classic horror played in bravura style.
Who or what recruits Thomasin into the coven? Is it the Devil, who asks her “Dost thou wish to live deliciously”? Then his strategy will easily be recognized today as basic psy war tactics. Or does the breakdown prompted by the death of her family enable Thomasin to actually recruit herself into the ranks of the witches? Belief thus becomes the driving force for self-immolation and we are rendered in awe.
The themes of guilt, blame, and paranoia are the same with Joel Edgerton’s put-upon family patriarch Paul in It Comes at Night. Edgerton acquits himself spectacularly as the prepper father who is trying to keep his family alive in the twilight of man. The feared viral plague has come to pass and has wiped out the rest of the world, except for those, like his family, who’ve escaped to the fringes, into the woods.
Like The Witch this one is a morality tale of inner social turmoil bigger than any creature that comes during the dark hours. Paul learns that the evil stalking his home looks like it’s only a foreshadowing to the horrors that come from deep within.
Even as his family keeps the virus at bay through strict seclusion protocols and scheduled habits, this already tense and thin domestic order is thrown into disarray when a desperate young family comes to their door seeking refuge.
Like in the 1800s lurid supernatural folk tale of how a young witch falls into the clutches of Satan, in the equally mysterious and dismal post-apocalypse of Paul’s world we never do get to find out what was in the woods that the dog, Stanley, was furious about.
This survival drama thrives on both paranoia and despair. What does come at night? Your own fears, that niggling feeling you left that door unlocked even if you’ve checked it thrice yourself. Or, did someone else in the house deliberately unlock it? It doesn’t really matter because even if you find out the familial bonds have been broken in the process of investigation.
In 2014’s Australian movie The Babadook, the horrors of parenting are tuned up to 11. The widow Amelia can’t deal with the tantrums and outbursts of her son Samuel. Add to that how Samuel thinks there’s a monster in their house and Amelia’s daily stress levels are at an all-time high. Enter the seemingly innocuous cautionary tale and pop-up book The Babadook about avoiding the dangers of strangers.
When the boom takes a turn for the creepy, Amelia throws it out but it’s back in the house the next day and soon enough, Mister Babadook, is manifesting as a real-life monster powered by, from the looks of it, Samuel’s childhood fears. Mister Babadook here is both judge and guilt rendered flesh, as a palpable and unstoppable evil. How about that for a haunted children’s storybook? It will also make you swear off ever having kids.
Contrast the daily grind of parenthood to the halls of high fashion. In 2016’s Neon Demon, beauty is both curse and “the only currency worth having.”
The voracious, sometimes literal, appetites of the fashion industry are rendered into celluloid by fashionista cannibals. Perfect how the notion that imbibing something of beauty can indeed make you beautiful yourself. And what’s more beautiful than Elle Fanning as the youthful and Midwest-innocent aspiring model Jesse? Fanning’s virginal innocence is all anyone can see or talk about in the film.
Neon Demon has art house aspirations with very slick, magazine-worthy images contrasting with outre violent scenes, like a hotel room ransacked and brutalized by a mountain lion. “That’s exactly how it feels and is,” said my wife, who’s gone through a fashion and clothing school, about the feral nature of the industry. Should we even be surprised that body horror and gore abound? What’s under all that fine, soft, fresh meat? The bloody guts and gristle of our biology.
In both those previous films the narrow experience still dominates but the seed of the relentless and unstoppable evil is already in play. Now the next triad of movies bring that to fore in different ways.
The most brutal of them being 2014’s It Follows, where a demon is transmitted like an STD. I kid you not. This supernatural serial killer is the epitome of a terror that does not stop and nigh almost impossible to beat. It comes across as both caveat and punishment to teen promiscuity, rendering the cursed person motivated to pass it on, by of course fucking someone else, to stave off, not even completely avoid, death.
Like in It Follows, but unlike it in style and absent the heavy hand, the unsettling mood and great finesse of 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House powers through with only the thinnest of gothic ambience.
Ruth Wilson and Lucy Boynton shine in this slow moving tale about put upon women, like Lily, a young nurse who’s been hired to care for an old woman author of ghost stories. Said writer has chosen to live out her final days in her beloved country home. The layers of subtlety and meaning hold, within its folds, a classic murder ballad that is both spooky and eeriely resonant to anybody who’s ever endured domestic violence.
Lastly, the brilliant A Ghost Story (2017) is all about the realities of sustained mourning. The inventive twist here is that it’s done from the POV of the ghost with absolutely no jump scares.
What is the definition of a ghost? Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary declares it as “the outward and visible sign of an inward fear.” How true is his aim. How spot on when taken in line with this movie.
Here Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play C and M, respectively. C is a struggling musician living with his wife M in a small suburban house in the Dallas area. When C dies from a car crash, both him and M embody the stages and unpacking of grief.
Most of it is about the haunting, as C wakes up and is now just a tall figure in a hospital sheet with cutout eyes. It’s not even Affleck all the time in that flowing blanket—to be honest it looks sometimes comedic, sometimes pathetic, and sometimes utterly creepy—walking through the movie and through time looking for something.
“I’m waiting for someone” says the ghost across the house from C. “Who?” he asks. “I forget,” the other ghost replies, which pretty much encapsulates their listless wraith existence. The metaphor for paralysis rendered quite visible now and I found myself remembering the separate incidents of how I Iost each of my parents, each keening with a different edge and evocative note.
The point of taking your time with these movies is clear. You could lay out most of the genre’s cliché signifiers but as long as you keep the viewer off balance with tone and suspense they can suspend their disbelief and accept a less than cathartic ending.
The engine of this machine is a trance state. If you watch these with the lights on and the kids screaming for ice cream downstairs or with half your attention while ironing clothes, then you’ve ruined them for yourself.
Put these on in the still hours. Let them in with all your attention and the magic will happen. You will, I trust, find their ambition to entertaining and downright sensual. You will remember how these movies made you feel. You may shake your head afterwards and laugh, wondering what the fuss was all about? The story was average, at best, and the SFX weren’t anything to write a nice social media post over.
Even if most of them don’t offer any catharsis, or any triumph over evil, open yourself to the time and involvement it takes to watch these movies and you will be rewarded.