Based solely on what this late 20-something (maybe) future father is willing to admit, even the slightest thought of entering parenthood is certifiably “scary.” Fulfilling? Rewarding? Life-altering? Undoubtedly. Some take to the challenge without doubt or pause like suburban superheroes. Yet with great power comes great responsibility, and with responsibility comes existential fearfulness and/or monolithic pressure. It’s normal. How normal? In 2018, the horror genre is building its strongest films around this achingly human anxiety. Depictions of developing kin in need of protection, or maybe concerns of lingering damage suffered long after children have been left to fend for themselves. How does one shelter their offspring from our big bad world but also not damage their lives once parental roles are completed? Don’t look at me.
A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Cargo, Satan’s Slaves, and Pyewacket – these are the breakthrough nightmares defining this very year of horror cinema (theatrical releases or festival touring). Each one about family and the terrors of caring for someone else’s life above your own. But why now? Because it’s an easily manipulated story structure? Possibly. Or is it that parents are more worrisome than ever given recent local current affairs (coming from a US resident)? Societal unrest, educational debt, endless school shooting reports – you tell me.
“Ugh, can’t you keep politics out of my entertainment?” No, because that’s impossible. It’s the very nature of art to hold a mirror to society, and ignorance of such influences would be uninformed at best. That said, this isn’t going to be some right-wing takedown or lib-bashing rant. Merely just a jumping point to help explore why and how 2018’s cinematic slate is bursting with horror inside family units. Outward threats bashing down your door or an inability to feel confident in a cub’s own resilience once it’s time to leave the proverbial den.
2018. The year we all told our parents we love them a hell of a lot more than usual – and maybe locked a few more bedroom doors, too. Is no safe place sacred these days?
You can peg A Quiet Place or Cargo as a martyr’s love letter from parents unto youths without much debate, while Satan’s Slaves and Hereditary alternatively represent beyond-the-grave paranoia in broken households. Blinders to this phenomena are more than wearable, yet that doesn’t mean others can’t ponder why these stories are so currently prevalent – and a damn cut above. We’re talking about some of 2018 horror’s pristine beauties as of this publishing date. All in the name of bloodline bastardization and brutality.
It’s by no means a unique trend. To list similar films might take a millennium (if I’m being less than dramatic). Even in the last few months, you have titles like Marrowbone that capitalizes on lesser achievements of orphaned survival. Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket plucks the heartstrings of widowed motherhood and significant loss. Look at Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Dust off Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. You could teach a syllabus of college lectures on family dynamics throughout horror and you’d be busy for an entire semester. But again, my focus turns to a current circumstantial logjam of *so many* caustically realized odes to sons or daughters facing off against great unknowns. Right now, more prevalent than…ever?
Honing in on A Quiet Place and Cargo, these are the simplest – and no less thoughtful – manipulations of protective defensiveness. As Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) shelter their children from berserker invaders drawn to sound, Martin Freeman’s Australian journeyman father Andy fights zombies away from his plump toddler. Nothing hidden, metaphors straightforward. Maternal and paternal fears are that of losing a child and failing unspoken duties that come along with creating life. Aliens and zombies could be just that – horror genre monsters – but more richly represent the world we face. Adult characters must succumb and trust that they’ve done everything possible to leave this life without a doubt in their successor’s ability to thrive, and accept that they won’t always be there to clean up, correct or guide. The ultimate coming to terms.
A Quiet Place absolutely nails this motif, with scruffy mountain “daddy” John Krasinski steering the film’s tone as director and patriarch of the Abbott clan – Emily Blunt no less tuned to the ferocity of doomsday times or tension caused by adolescent mood swings. Just more…motherly. Ready to pop-and-lock a shotgun when it comes to safeguarding her babies.
Remember, the Abbotts witness one child get savagely whisked into the treeline early on after his toy spaceship signals sonic demise. They’ve already experienced loss in its most tragic form. Horror and sound design emphatically assure A Quiet Place is a most anxious and volatile scare-per-minute masterclass in leather choker tension, but even better is the Abbotts’ sensationally genuine behavioral connection. Regan’s (Millicent Simmonds) ongoing battle with Lee over feeling empowered clashes a young girl’s stifled frustration against Lee’s overprotective survivalist alpha bear. Lee plays the “bad guy” in Regan’s misinterpretation, just as Lee remains caught in a mindset where he’ll always be there to save his daughter (and living son Marcus, played by Noah Jupe). Which, of course, is not realistic. He must eventually let go. Trust that he’s done his job. This is what makes Lee’s sacrificial exit from the film so refreshingly and fittingly gutting, as Krasinski’s final freeing scream pays off a Logan-level demise.
In Cargo, the same presentation of selflessness is enacted with gruesome results by Andy. One man’s ultimate sacrifice ends with his eye-caked zombie form shambling towards native saviors. Very-much-alive daughter Rosie rides saddleback, ritual face paint powdering her chubby cheeks. Meat on a stick keeps Andy’s corpse lurching forward while a mouthguard clamps his chompers shut. Andy’s soul has fled, but his physical vessel *still* completes the duties of a father beyond Earthly realms. Adolescent accomplice Thoomi (Simone Landers) puffs one last recognizable scent from better times into the air, Andy’s zombie shows a final sign of being at peace, and a spear lays the no-longer-a-man to rest. Payoff achieved, but only because Freeman plays “Father Of The Year” with such tremendous operatics throughout Netflix’s better riff off The Walking Dead. Drama that perseveres, performances that drive relationship bonds like vibranium railroad spikes.
Now, we must turn the tables.
I first want to highlight fellow Bloody Disgusting writer Rafael Motamayor, because his editorial about Hereditary, grief and how it’s materialized in horror films this year makes some fantastic points that (hopefully) won’t be repeated here. Grief manifests in many ways, and movies like Pyewacket shy not from the ghastly effects. With that in mind, let’s go a step further.
In grouping Hereditary, Satan’s Slaves and Pyewacket (to some degree), it’s about choices made. Trajectories set in motion. Mothers and fathers dooming their lineage and the crucibles that play out. Deals with unspeakable devils make for horrors that sway back-and-forth in generational tugs of war. Hereditary sinisterly “clucks” its way through second comings, Satan’s Slaves about a singer’s soul-selling reprise, and Pyewacket an angsty girl’s binding with black sorcery aka the malevolent presence she unearths as a means of “revenge.” Tainted family units, cursed pasts reaching out like vines that ensnare all. This is where parental fears turn nerve-shredding dark.
What Hereditary achieves in terms of atmosphere is monstrously due to a family unit deconstructing and crumbling in front of our eyes. Toni Collette – 2018’s ever-talented performer of the year winner in my opinion – portrays a mother who must hold onto shreds of sanity while accepting loss and channeling her pain into miniature dioramas of car-wreck decapitations. Alex Wolff, the brother who must live with his bloody conscious and mother’s constant midnight confessions. Gabriel Byrne, who sits “idly” by while not fully acting on mental health cues that wave a reddest flag. Milly Shapiro – Milly, you innocent and manipulative angel of the macabre – so much more than just an unsettling vocal tic. To watch any “cultist” undertaking play out achieves a certain level of horror, but filmmaker Ari Aster’s multiple stomach-slicing depths of unimaginable dinner table condemnation serve up course after course of five-star dread. Exquisite based on standards defined by household realities and how Hereditary ignites them all.
Ruination comes knocking and all these pawns can do is watch. Bystanders to their own undoing, not by their own hand. Helplessness – the last thing any parent wants to feel.
Satan’s Slaves beckons the same kind of inner condemnation, only this Indonesian James-Wan-borrower gambles on the underworld trade of a barren mother’s body to reverse her diagnosis (and form an unholy pact). When we meet Mawarni’s (Ayu Laksmi) family she’s already bedridden and mute, cognizant of her deal inked in blood. Father (Bront Palarae) depletes family funds as a means of feeding medical bills, but death eventually snatches away his crippled ex-musician wife – until she comes back for her children. Joko Anwar’s paranormal pulverizer might be an 80s remake, but what he retains in the abandonment of parental figures is any mother or father’s nightmare. Lifegivers just *trying* to do right – be it poverty or accessibility or opportunity – and instead of paving a golden path, spelling misfortune for future generations. In a creaky house where faint voices can be heard and forms manifest in hellish ways.
The common crux in both these above examples – Pyewacket an honorable mention because grief features more than single parent trappings (but still a formidable part of the “parental horror” landscape) – boils down to themes experienced through daily practices. Hereditary and Satan’s Slaves pit their horror in a generation’s long game of playing chicken with Hell’s salesmen, as to cover the more char-burned degrees of family terror outside heartbreaking (or warming) immolation (Cargo, A Quiet Place). Fears of inability. Fears of not providing. Fears of unfit handling that can loom far longer than one man or woman’s own mortal life, here personified – demonified(?) – in occult or underworld means.
It’s these frequented familial notes that add next-level oomph and link the above-mentioned projects together. Watching Byrne (Hereditary) try and grasp some rung of normality while his family collapses around him is so dutifully underplayed next to spider-on-the-ceiling Collette – yet rings so loudly from a father’s point of view. Mother against son, son against self, daughter traumatically slain – it’s enough to send audiences into fits of hugs 365 days a year. And of course, this is just *one* example. Same can be said about Collette who must weigh grief and blame against the undying adoration she feels for her still breathing Peter (er, when not “sleep possessed”). The year is 2018, and parental horrors are very much ALIVE AND UNWELL.
Don’t think this “fad” is going anywhere, either. In David Gordon Green’s upcoming Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis returns once again as Laurie Strode – mother to Judy Greer’s Karen Strode. In Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg, it looks like Li Bingbing’s character also has her daughter staying at the underwater research facility under megalodon attack. It’s not that these are *new* themes by any means, but worth noting is how pronounced plotlines of this nature have become by way of importance to overall plotting. How can we forget Christina Hendricks’ and Martin Henderson’s last stands in The Strangers: Prey At Night, released only a few months ago? Each one a passing of the torch as stabs drain their last gasps of teary-eyed reassurance. Sure, why not keep throwing logs onto the inferno-cyclone at this point.
In regular cinematic doses, elder-and-successor mapping can be a trope or an expectancy. When acted on through authentic investment and seething devotion, these “expectancies” become defining traits of knockout horror fare. Mechanical fundamentalism morphs into a core competency whether the filmmaker is a parent themselves or just fluid in humanist character development. Be it a byproduct of unstable times or a perfect storm of greenlit projects finally reaching audiences, 2018’s best and brightest appear to be defined by this one heightened concept. Will that still ring true when the year is over? Judging by the 4/5 and 4.5/5 ratings I’m handing out like Kit Kats on October 31st, it wouldn’t be a shock. If not, at least target viewers can rest easier knowing their flop-sweatiest nightmares are not suffered alone. Horror as an art form of relatable conveyance…quite possibly the genre’s most decadently distressing allure.