*Contains spoilers for: The Babadook, The Descent, The Orphanage and Don’t Look Now. (Also, we talk about the original UK cut of The Descent. Not the US one with the bullshit happy ending).
Horror movies receive a lot of criticism for doing a lot of gratuitously terrible things to women – objectification, sexism, violence, sexual violence, fetishised mutilation and Eli Roth being a few of them – but it’s a genre I often find myself feeling most at home with. The very best horror won’t just rest easy with a couple of cheap jump scares or a petrifying villain. When horror is done at it’s very best it leaves the grasp of it’s genre and becomes wildly unpredictable – it might become a comedy or a satire, it might slip in a strong political statement or it might even leave you completely moved, maybe even in tears. When horror movies achieve their full potential they push outside of their own boundaries and simply recognise the basic horror of being human. It should be cathartic and thoughtful, or at the very least have you roaring with laughter like all the greatest, darkest moments of life wind up becoming when you don’t know how else to cope (think Sally Hardesty – manic in the back of a pick up truck, covered in blood, howling majestically at a dancing leatherface).
Watching The Babadook recently reminded me of all of that. Balancing a tense eeriness alongside genuine pathos, the movie was scary but also heartbreaking. It was horrifying because it felt real. Whilst the metaphors were certainly anything but subtle (whoa there grief monster! You stay down in the basement where I keep my dead husbands belongings, you hear me!?), when the subtleties were delivered, they were devastating.
The toothache the mother (Essie) experiences throughout the movie? Certainly another way of making an unseen emotional agony physical (especially when she eventually rips the rotten tooth out by the root and throws it on the floor), but it’s also a way of re-establishing how much she’s financially struggling – that she’s living with excruciating pain so that she can take care of her kid.
Or the hints that Essie was a writer of children’s books before her husband’s tragic accident. How peculiar then that her abuse manifests itself in a children’s book, also. Mister Babadook – the children’s book – appears on a book shelf from nowhere, like many the morose and mysterious manifestations of a creative mind can do following a trauma or a heartbreak. The unconscious mind shrieking at you from a sleepless or drunken chamber like a house alarm that goes off long after the burglary. The Babadook is that battle cry of the mournful mind gone rogue – the more you fight it, the louder it howls.
It’s a tragic movie about the pressures of motherhood with it’s true horror showing the cruelty of our unsympathetic shake-it-off-and-move-on society, the financial pressures of existence and the agonising desolation of an intimate loss. It provides a crushing portrait of a vulnerable, female experience – of striving for normality, presenting as normal when everything feels like hell underneath and of failing: failing your family, failing your loved ones, failing your children and failing yourself.
There are moments in The Babadook where you’re made to wonder: Is the Babadook real or has she created it? Is the monster just a surrogate for her mental health problems? Her mind’s way of providing her with a physical entity with which she can physically fight through her grief? Or is the Babadook simply the monstrous personification of all maternal and childhood fear – fear of dying, fear of death, fear of loss and fear of darkness. The unseen and unstoppable spaces where we entrust our loved ones with the rest of the World beyond our capability to protect them.
Much like Mister Babadook himself, some of the greatest horror movies have fed off despair and grief. The Descent – to my mind, at least – remains one of the most terrifying horror films of the past 20 years. In it a pack of female friends decide to go sperlunking (which is basically spending an entire day crawling through a pitch black potential grave), and accidentally enter a set of unexplored caves off the map before encountering a pack of creatures with broken Stella bottles for teeth who appear to have made themselves an entire spa resort from Hell with human bones for furniture and rivers of blood to cool off in.
Whilst the creatures themselves are beyond nightmarish, the real horror of the story stems from our lead protagonist Sarah – a woman who lost both her daughter and husband in a car accident a year previous. To make matters worse Sarah discovers, whilst in mourning, that her best friend had been having an affair with said husband. The film is as dark and claustrophobic as Sarah’s bereavement must have been, as chilling and as relentless. She’s essentially trapped in a place with a pack of women she needs to trust, but won’t, in order to survive.
There is no survival in The Descent. The women simply keep moving. They get caught. They get slaughtered. They trust each other and die for it. They betray each other to survive. In the end it’s Sarah who lives but it also becomes clear that Sarah has begun to think that there is no way out, no happy ending and no way of surviving the ordeal. She might outlive the pack, but she realises it’s not really living. She’s a realist with nothing left to her but fight. And after that? More darkness.
The film ends with her hallucinating in a dark corner that she’s cradling her dead daughter, content in her delusion. Making peace with mortality and with grief.
Then we have a horror movie like The Orphanage, which to this day stands as being one of the few horror films which have made me actually cry in a cinema. In fact, not just cry, but make complete mince meat out of my heart. Whilst the film has it’s share of old school, spooky as hell ambience and a pace which amps up tension and terror with every scene, it’s real horror lies in the art of it’s deceptions.
As an audience we’re following the same leads as the matriarch (Laura) of the story – when we hear a strange noise we suspect it to be supernatural, when Laura’s son disappears we suspect it has something to do with a suggested haunting or the building. Our assumptions follow the genre of the movie, and the lead narrative – Laura believes any theory in the World regarding her son’s whereabouts and well being if it means distracting her from the most believable theory, including possibly inventing ghosts with her own imagination to cope with the truth of where he is (as the psychic woman mentions to her – ‘Believe and you will see’).
At the films finale Laura is forced to discover and accept the truth (one which Laura is perhaps unconsciously aware of the whole time) that her son has been in the house the entire time and that she unknowingly locked him in its ‘secret room’. In doing so, her son struggles for her attention to get out and dies after the worn staircase he’s stood on gives way and kills him.
Many of the disturbing noises in the film are of her son banging away on that door, and subsequently many of the scariest moments can be simply seen as being manifestations of Laura’s suppressed suspicions that the very worst has happened to her son, and that she might have figured that out already but is unwilling to accept it.
The film reaches a similar morose denouement as both The Babadook and The Descent – of acceptance: Acceptance of truth, acceptance of loss and the acceptance of tragedy and of horror. In all of these films, the more that the women try to fight their own grief or deny certain truths, the worse the horror gets.
Don’t Look Now – one of the most disturbing explorations of grief, loss and mourning in Western cinema – delved into the recesses of human obsession, guilt and distress following an intimate tragedy (the death of a daughter) pursuing the struggle with acceptance from a dramatic narrative framed by horror.
The visual repetitions in Don’t Look Now are relentless. Donald Sutherland spends most of the movie trying to convince himself that his daughter is still alive and chases a likeness of her – dressed in the death cloak of her little red raincoat which she was wearing when she drowned – around the streets of Venice, refusing to fully come to terms with the truth.
The culmination of his denial, heartbreak and mental fatigue manifests itself in those shocking, horrific final moments of the movie in which he finally thinks he catches up with his daughter, only to be met by something else entirely – a wizened killer dwarf brandishing a knife who does away with the mourning patriarch with one swift swipe of a blade.
It’s a physical expression of the turmoil and ruin that anyone experiences following the loss of any loved one, where we cling onto a spectre of the person. A memory mutated by grief. One which stops at nothing to drag down anyone vulnerable enough to allow themselves to be buried by the dead themselves.