It's finally October! That means it's time to sit down and let your darker thoughts run away with you, enjoying the thrill of being scared and the relief in being alive. Pull out your favorite spooky classic--maybe Stephen King's The Shining or Bram Stoker's Dracula, something by Ray Bradbury--or perhaps sit down with your favorite horror movie.
I'm a hesitant horror film fan. For the most part, I tend not to like big budget Hollywood horror movies. I don't enjoy gore, and I'm not a fan of jump scares. Instead, in movies I prefer, as I do in books, slow-burning terror that creeps up on you and grabs you from behind...then stays with you for days afterward, picking away at your inner thoughts like a vulture pecking through its dinner.
This year I'd like to share some of my favorite horror films with you. Many of these are available on streaming services and I promise, they'll all give you a good scare!
A note before the films. When I started cataloging these favorites, I simply brainstormed my top picks and listed them out, thinking they were just good movies but assuming there was no rhyme or reason behind why I chose them. Upon having written this blog, I see that I was very wrong. There is a theme that ties these films together, and it boils down to what I personally find most haunting in my own life--my fears and insecurities as a woman in this society, as a wife, and as a mother. To me, those things are more terrifying than any bogeyman ever could be.
Jennifer Kent’s phenomenally scary Australian chiller The Babadook has quickly become one of my favorite new horror films. Without giving too much away, let me tell you why.
Because it's not a horror story about a monster. It's a story about a mother.
The film centers on a widowed mother, her fragile and somewhat disturbed seven-year-old son, and a twisted bedtime story—a black-and-white figure that arrives in the thumping presence of a black-and-white pop-up book, Mister Babadook (which itself is a word puzzle, Babadook being a jumble of A Bad Book). The monster itself isn't all too scary. In fact, he's rather generic. He's more or less a thing of shadows dressed in a black undertaker’s coat and a top hat, with a pasty face and elongated fingers. But, once the Babadook comes, you can't get rid of him. In fact, denying him only makes him stronger. Like an impulse or a craving you just can't quit.
The Babadook isn't a monster, though, at least not in the traditional sense. He's a manifestation of grief. Specifically, a mother's grief. Amelia is dealing with the sudden, tragic death of her husband and a son who she, at least subconsciously, blames for his death (the incident that took her husband's life happened en route to the hospital to give birth). The Babadook, then, is Amelia's psyche in crisis, her son's fragile state a result of her careless mothering, and the more she tries to deny her pain, the stronger and more violent it becomes. Her world is getting smaller and more isolated every day, and her unwilling role as mother is eating her alive. It bangs around in her chest, and the drumming of her heart is the ba-ba-dook.
This film is not splashy. It'a actually rather rough around the edges and somewhat droll. But it's real. The best horror movies aren't demons from hell or monsters that lurk in the dark, it's our very own inner darkness, and what we'll do when they come for us.
Hush is a simple, intimate film--a silent thriller you might say, and you'd be totally accurate.
The film is not ambitious, and there are zero frills, but the concept is novel and chilling. It centers on a woman home alone in her writing retreat of a wooded cabin, and a masked home invader. The gimmick is that she's deaf and mute--she can't hear her assailer, nor can she call out for help. His motives and identity are secretive, but unimportant. At first, it's the more or less the banal type of cat-and-mouse scenario you'd expect. There's some spooky glimpses of a masked man out of a window, and the appropriate amount of vulnerability and silly mistakes one might make in a moment of panic.
Until it isn't. What makes this film compelling is that Maggie, the deaf-mute victim, doesn't run away hiding and hoping she can escape, at least not for long. She fights back. She fights like hell. She turns the tables, until she's no longer the hunted, but the hunter. Ultimately it's the villain that's leaves the audience wanting here, and we're rooting for the victim in a totally new way, because, well, she may be weak and pitted against a much stronger foe, but she is no victim.
A thrilling movie, yes. But more than that Hush is mirror for every woman in society. It provides a lens to see our perceived weaknesses, and shows us exactly what might happen if we give in to fear and doubt--and that's scary as hell. But, like a mirror, it's an opportunity for clarity, and a chance to see beyond our superficial reflection and into what's waiting inside of us.
A movie about the deterioration of marital bliss, Honeymoon is a shoestring budget horror film that's less horrifying and more shivery, but still effectively chilling.
The film centers on lusty newlywed couple Paul and Bea who honeymoon at Bea's family cabin that edges against an idyllic lake. Early on Paul and Bea exhibit the classic, if not very compelling, young couple bliss. It's not deep because it doesn't need to be--just two people in love doing what young kids in love do. Before long, something shifts in their relationship and things begin to deteriorate, although it's somewhat impossible to say what changed, why, or what's changing. It carries the feeling that you might get when your SO is upset with you....and you're not sure what you did, and they're not telling. Ugh.
Classic relationship problems arise--the kind that happen after the figurative honeymoon period wears off. Jealousy. Loss of sexual appetite. In a vein similar to storylines a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Bea undergoes a series of bizarre and unexplainable changes--naked sleepwalking, memory loss, and other unoriginal but nonetheless creepy changes. What is tropey in classic sci-fi horror films becomes tangible in this gritty, home-camera plot line. It never becomes clear why Bea has been targeted, or what exactly has taken over her, but is has Paul knocking on every closed door to try to sort it out, yielding zero answers and some silly albeit expected events along the way.
Critics fuss the flaws in the film, namely that Paul takes too long to flee the isolated area, that he gives Bea the opportunity to hide his keys, and so on and so forth. Frankly, our male victim gets criticized for doing all the things that women victims always do in horror films, flail about in totally unbelievable ways that if they didn't do there would be no scary story. Ultimately, the swamp or alien or Bea or whatever she now is wins...though things get a little fishy in the end (pun intended!).
It's hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked so much about this film. I think it lies in my interpretation of the events, and perspective that may be a little deeper than anyone intended. I see Bea not as a hapless honeymoon honey, but as an undeniable element of the natural world reclaimed by nature. The allegory between women in nature is solid, and Bea's return to the wild, so to speak, could explain her bizarre behavior and departure from what is "expected" of her as a bride, as a woman, as a civilized person. Meanwhile, Paul makes for a suitable tables-turned trope so he can bumble about for a while, still displaying his manly chivalry as he tries to save his bride, rather than let her be reclaimed. He's society, masculinity, civilized order all in one.
It's also really nice to see women as powerful creatures win once in a while. Sorry, Paul.
I will admit a shameful secret here: I often don't like film adaptions of Stephen King stories. There are several exceptions, and there are several examples. But I really enjoyed Netflix's version of Gerald's Game. (I'm also a huge Carla Gugino fan, but I promise I didn't let that bias me.)
On the surface, Gerald's Game is a sex-gone-wrong scenario between a woman with a bit of a troubled past and a husband who...is an unfortunate prototype of the rationale that victims gravitate to spouses similar to their abusers. Desperate to rekindle the dying flame of their sexless marriage, Jessie, and her husband, Gerald, vacation to a remote lakeside house for essentially what equates to a sex-capade. His (pitiful) attempt at a rape fantasy--wherein Maggie is tied to the bed, because "rape fantasy"--quickly sours. An argument ensues and Gerald drops dead, leaving Maggie bound and trapped....and with zero on help on the horizon.
Basically left for dead, Jessie has to find a way to free herself, or end up joining Gerald. Along the way, her trauma and dehydration manifest as madness, and Jessie relives a childhood not-so-fantasy involving her father, which intertwines interestingly (and disturbingly) with what is happening to adult-Jessie in the bedroom. At one point she even sees a man lurking in the room, but we're left to assume he's a figment of Jessie's insanity, and not a real person. He is made of moonlight, after all.
If Jessie is to survive her situation, and overcome her madness, she'll have to both literally free herself of the handcuffs--something which terminates in a powerful albeit bloody moment--and shed the binds of her past in the process. It's an incredible moment of empowerment and resolve both figuratively and literally. A psychological thriller, this is really a survival story in every sense of the word.
There is, as in all King stories, a moment when this one becomes all too real. I didn't initially like this twist, as it seemed to water down what Jessie accomplished. But, upon reflection I came to realize the twist may have been the most empowering part of this creepy tale. That figment moonlight man? Not a figment. A criminal and a necrophiliac, we later discover that this disfigured man-creature was really in Jessie's bedroom. She may have been his next victim, but because she speaks to him and gives him her wedding ring (a symbolic shedding of her not-so literal handcuffs), he leaves. Later, Jessie is able to exert her newfound freedom and power--from her husband, her past, and herself--and use it to protect others from this new aggressor.
Before I Wake
I have been wanting to watch Before I Wake for a while, but we had been saving it until October, when my husband and I glut ourselves on scary movies.
It was worth waiting for. I'm still not over it. Not because it scared me, but because it horrified me.
Another in Netflix's horror canon, Before I Wake provides a perfect bookend for the movies in this list as it also centers around a grieving mother and her child, or children you might say. This film encapsulates the worst fears of both parents and children, following simultaneously both a pair of foster parents trying to move on after the tragic loss of their own son and a young orphan seeking a home and struggling to let go the loss of his own mother to illness. There's an interesting pivot here hidden in the exposition as the parents prepare for the arrival of the foster child--Cody--that show what parents do to protect their children may make them seemed conspiratorial and secretive, possibly even sinister. Good intentions, right?
The gimmick in this tale is unique, even with many scary-stuff-while-you-sleep stories circling the ether. While Cody sleeps, his dreams manifest in reality, as do his nightmares. This supernatural power is dangerous in more than one way--even the "beautiful" dreams are just as deadly as the all-too-real nightmares. For example, while the grieving parents are able to see and interact with a strange, surreal version of their dead son, this only feeds the growing wedge between the pair and exploits the mother, Jessie's, unyielding grief, pitting her in an antihero role as the mother--a saving grace--and a woman on the edge of losing it, who abusively tries to harness Cody's "gift," including things like drugging him to sleep so she can stare at the hologram-like image of her lost son. It's relatable, even if we don't want to admit it. Who wouldn't go to extremes to see their lost loved ones again? I am not sure any of us could see through that temptation clearly.
Of course, there's a monster. Cody's nightmares manifest as a ghoulish creature he calls the Canker Man, and the Canker Man is very real--if he eats you, you disappear although it's unclear whether you actually die or not. Dramatic tension grows as Jessie tries to get to the bottom of this mystery, and save Cody--her new son--along with whatever is eating him inside his dreams.
There's a twist here, and one I fear I will give away if I narrate further on the plot of this story, so I'll end here on this note: sometimes it's not our dreams that are the most beautiful, but our nightmares.