Wednesday, October 3, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 3: Hereditary & Sharp Objects

31 days of Halloween day 3: Hereditary & Sharp Objects
As human beings, we fear a seemingly infinite number of things, and yet horror movies tend to focus on just two of these fears- the fear of death and the fear of losing control of one’s own body.  These preoccupations make sense, they’re two of the big ones, most everybody faces them in some form or another, and they’re both pretty hard to bounce back from.
Still, I often wish there were horror movies that dealt with our other fears, fears of loneliness or abandonment or mediocrity.  One of my favorite novels is a Hungarian book called Metropol, by Ferenc Karinthy.  It’s not a horror story, at least stylistically, it’s more of a darkly absurdist comedy in the vein of Franz Kafka, and yet its scenario- a traveling linguist falls asleep on the wrong plane and finds himself in a country where he does not speak the language, and cannot figure it out- is among the most horrifying I can imagine.  Death, at the very least, promises an ending, even if its an unhappy one, while the torment of loss, of misunderstanding, can haunt and hurt for decades.
So many of us have anxiety about money, and yet the number of money-related horror films is relatively small.  The Australian film Wake in Fright is one of the only movies I can think of that’s explicitly about money (its protagonist finds himself broke in a unknown town, at the mercy of the locals for just about everything), and the Purge movies are among the few that deal explicitly with class warfare, while many haunted house or home invasion movies have money lurking in the background, whether its James Brolin desperately searching for a lost wad of cash in The Amityville Horror, or Bill Paxton finding his yuppie lifestyle upended by a literal specter of poverty in The Vagrant.

A film and a TV show released in the past year both invoked another fear many of us face, and many others have to live with- parental ambivalence.  Although my parents have never been anything but loving and caring towards me, for years I had reoccurring nightmares where they told me they hated me.  The need for parental love of some kind of another runs so deep in so many of us, the fear that it’s not there is the ultimate rejection, and yet horror films tend to present ambivalent parents in the same light it does other monsters, though in reality the terror they promise is not that of death but of a life lived incompletely, an unfulfilled longing, an empty and unfillable space.
The first of the films that brought this to mind was Hereditary, which is of course a more-or-less conventional, albeit above-average, horror movie.  In a film full of startling and unnerving moments, a film driven by a pervasive sense of loss and dread, perhaps the most startling moment comes when the film’s protagonist, grieving mother Annie (played by Toni Collette) admits to her surviving child, Peter (played by Nat Wolff), “I never wanted to be your mother.”  Although all the characters in the film have more gruesome fates awaiting them, death seems almost merciful compared to a long life lived with that knowledge, both for the son and for the mother, a broken bond that could likely never be repaired.
A similar moment comes in the TV mini-series Sharp Objects.  Like Hereditary is grounded in some of the generic standards of the horror film, Sharp Objects is very much a conventional mystery, in which a newspaper reporter, played by Amy Adams, returns to her hometown to cover a series of child murders and in doing so must also confront some of her own personal demons, especially familial ones, and especially especially her mother, played by Patricia Clarkson.  
Again, the pivotal moment in Sharp Objects comes during a mother-child exchange.  The relationship between the two has been mercurial, bordering at times on hostile, and though we see moments that suggest tenderness or at least concern, the edges that separate the two are so jagged as to make reconciliation seem impossible- and yet, this being a fiction, we still hope for the possibility of a happy ending.
The moment comes about 3/4 of the way through the story and for a moment, it seems like this is going to be the big reconciliation between the two.  Both characters play their emotions very close to the vest, but it seems, briefly, like maybe they can open up to one another and bridge the divide.  The moment is broken, however, when the mother admits, almost offhandedly, and even more bluntly than Annie in Hereditary, “I never loved you.”
That the statement is not meant to wound makes it perhaps even worst that if it were said in anger.  Clearly the mother has struggled with this, and lost the battle.  Sharp Objects continues with more revelations and a number of shocking moments, but none has quite the impact of this confession, and it hangs over the rest of the story like a dark cloud.
I’m not really building up to anything here, mostly I just wanted to express a desire for a horror cinema that goes beyond what we traditionally think of as the elements of horror, and to cite these examples of horror that goes a little deeper into our fears.  After all, what most killers and creatures in movies threaten is a relatively quick death, but an unfulfilling life can torment someone on and on and on etc.

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