Dark Thoughts: How Horror is Leading The Conversation on Our Most Difficult Issues
Whether it’s during our darkest times, psychologically speaking, or keeping us awake at night, our deepest fears and insecurities seem to manifest themselves in the dark. So it seems fitting that a new and fresh crop of thoughtful horror movies are leading the way and tackling some of society’s biggest issues.
In Rose Glass’s debut feature – Saint Maud – a confident former dancer has terminal cancer, and a devout young nurse, Maud, is tasked with her care. Although their relationship is one of mutual intrigue, the chasm between their beliefs proves too big to bridge. Close to death, Amanda continues to lead a sexually fluid, bohemian lifestyle, one at odds with Maud’s fevered religious fundamentalism. But at times Amanda is drawn to the comfort that Christianity can offer, especially as she begins to recognise that her illness makes those around her uncomfortable; it is a sudden mortality that threatens their carefree existence.
Maud finds herself pulled in the opposite direction, unable at times to suppress her own desires and increasingly confused when her emotions go against conservative thought. Lonely and isolated, she buries herself deeper in her religious fanaticism losing touch with reality in the process. Her extremism an extension of our natural self.
At its heart, Saint Maud is an exploration of the fundamental battle between liberalism and conservatism, secularism and religion, left and right, and the way in which we are tugged across this spectrum of thought. It asks difficult questions that force us to recognise that we are being constantly pulled toward one side, even though the majority of us may be closer to the middle than we think.
There are similar questions asked of us in Jordan Peele’s stand-out, satirical horror Get Out, a film that takes aim at the “post-racial lie” of the Obama era, confronting white, middle-class liberals with uncomfortable truths and hypocrisies evident within the liberal mindset.
Visiting his girlfriend’s family for the first time, Chris finds himself surrounded by apparently ‘well-meaning’ white liberals, only to be taken to a sinister ‘sunken place’ during a hypnosis session under the pretense of helping him quit smoking. As has been the case for so many black men and women, a supposed character flaw, a minor indiscretion, is something that can prove fatal. In Chris’s case, it is his habit. As Chris drifts helplessly into the abyss, Peele shows us the everyday risk for black men and women navigating a white world where anti-black racism still grips the mass consciousness.
In Peele’s follow up feature Us, we see the physical manifestation of the ‘sunken place’ – a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels hidden below the surface that house a sinister army of ‘Others’. It’s no accident that this (very real) underground system of tunnels are presented as school corridors and prison cells, acting as a representation of America’s structural inequality and systemic racism. And while its inhabitants seem intent on violently dismantling the systems above, they are also ‘tethered’ to their real-world counterparts, connected with a version of themselves that is complicit in erecting the very system that keeps them down. Rather tellingly, the others have no voice.
Though Peele is keen to explore the nature of complicity, it’s clear that the real target is still the Nationalism of post-Obama/Trump-era America. But this rampant tribalism is not exclusive to the USA.
In the small Swedish community of Hårga, the fear and abuse of the ‘outsider’ is disturbingly at play. Ari Aster’s Midsommar takes us into the world of an imagined Scandinavian cult where, amongst never-ending daylight and starched white clothes, their obsession with purity is rooted in classic antiquated European ideals. But under the bright lights its supremacist nature comes into view more clearly. From the anti-immigrant banner on the way into Hårga, to the use of ancient runes, there are nods to the neo-Nazi obsession and “perversion” of Nordic religion and culture.
Though Aster was deliberate in these themes, the film has been read in numerous different ways, but it is primarily a movie about relationships, connections, family and trauma. As Dani’s relationship with her entitled and insensitive boyfriend Christian slowly disintegrates after the tragic death of her family, she finds a level of catharsis in her Swedish surrogate family. By sharing her pain and trauma, Dani unburdens herself, enabling her to take part in the euphoric rituals of the Hårga. The family is a community, one of co-dependence. As she continues to let go of her grief, Dani blossoms.
But Aster’s first film is a very different type of family drama. Hereditary is a heavy, unflinching study of the ways in which we damage our children. Annie, a miniatures artist, has recently lost her own mother – a woman she describes as having “private anxieties” – and struggles to maintain her work and creativity in balance with her own motherly ‘duties’. She seems unable to sympathise with her own children and, when tragedy strikes the household, Annie’s grief is multiplied, marking the start of her unravelling. Toni Collette is phenomenal as a struggling mother (and daughter) simmering with resentment, bitterness, guilt and rage. And when she boils over, her words have devastating results. To some degree, it’s Hereditary’s truth that is most frightening.
Further putting motherhood under the microscope, Natalie Erika James’s directorial debut Relic tests the strengths of our bonds and whether they can withstand the inevitable gaps in communication that occur over a life lived.
With her mother Edna missing, Kay admits it’s “been a few weeks” since she last spoke to her. Returning to her family home, the rooms are cluttered and busy with memories. Joining Kay is her own daughter, Sam who calls Kay by her name, but refers to Edna affectionately as ‘gran’. When Edna mysteriously reappears, her behaviour prompts concern, but Sam and Kay’s differing approaches demonstrate how far they’ve drifted. But where Relic really sets itself apart is in its depiction of dementia. As Edna’s mind crumbles so too does the rotting house around her, becoming an ever-contracting series of corridors and rooms that choke the senses. Edna’s deterioration threatens to consume them all, and Kay’s sense of duty leads us to a powerful and moving ending.
Natalie Erika James deftly balances a genuine and continuous feeling of dread with a richly thematic piece of cinema asking us; do we naturally drift away from our parents? or do we see so much of ourselves in them, that we instinctively turn away? And what is it that brings us back? Is it a sense of duty? An illness? Relic digs deep.
This is where horror is at its best: investing in its characters and creating worlds only to mercilessly tear them down in front of our horrified eyes. Whilst the genre goes through periods of stagnation, with remakes and sequels offering quick returns on investment, there will always be new filmmakers and fresh ideas ready to push the genre into uncharted territories. When these filmmakers have something honest, provocative, and enlightening to say, then it can imbue these new titles with a level of sophistication and thoughtfulness that sets them apart from the pack.
The last few years may go down as a new golden age for a genre in need of constant reinvention.