Dark Visionaries

I found myself somewhat incapacitated with a back injury the other day. Normally, when I am at home, I find it hard to sit and do nothing—I’m usually puttering about cooking, cleaning, or working in my office.  But, confined to bed, I decided to indulge in four somewhat controversial horror films that I had missed over the past few years.  I say controversial meaning that people either loved or hated them based upon extremely high or low ratings—not a lot of middle ground here. I enjoyed all for the most part and I have some theories as to why some folks did not…

The first was a film called The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers. I had heard a lot of negative stuff about this movie, primarily about a goat named Black Phillip and the ending. Now, I’ve been watching horror movies for more decades than I care to admit, and the only thing I can say about this film is that it is an old-school classic. The horrors are real and psychological, and any of you American literature readers will recognize that they’re torn right out of the pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller. The film is set in the 17th century. There are no jump-scares, no shaky-cams, no ridiculous plot contrivances, and no in-your-face viscera. It’s a moody, beautifully shot period piece that layers the dread on with each passing frame. It’s absolutely terrifying and, if you don’t think so, then you’re more than welcome to return to the latest edition of Annabelle or Paranormal Activity. You don’t belong here.

The second movie was Hereditary, written directed by Ari Aster. This film has some old-school elements as well and some familiar tropes (spoiler here) that were established long ago with Rosemary’s Baby. It is downright shocking and horrifying at times, with both surprising twists and heart-wrenching drama. The cast is strong which adds even more to its credibility. I have read that it can be interpreted solely as a drama, like Ordinary People or The Ice Storm… but whoever believes this is insane. This is balls-out horror from start to finish. And if it’s not jump-scary enough for you then, by all means, go watch the latest episode of American Horror Story or some other trite, abuser of tropes past. This one is for folks that like their horror rich and deep… not too unlike Netflix’s recent The Haunting of Hill House series.

Next on my list was an indie called The Battery, written and directed by Jeremy Gardner. This is a semi-comic road-movie about two guys surviving during a zombie apocalypse. It’s not very scary at all, however, I am a zombie film connoisseur and I appreciated it for focusing completely on the characters. Those of you that are familiar with our podcast have heard me say more than once that good zombie stories are about the people, not the monsters… and Mr. Gardner’s efforts in this department are admirable. It’s not a great film—its budget is minuscule and it’s ludicrous at times—but there is obvious talent behind its making and it held my interest despite its budgetary restraints, guerilla filmmaking, and cheap makeup and effects.

Last on my list was a big-budget picture that slipped by me a few years back called A Quiet Place, written by partners Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and directed by John Krasinski. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fare and, though not my usual favorite zombie-territory theme, this one delivers on another level. (think M. Knight Shyamalan’s Signs). Like The Battery, it is not a perfect film… logic is often fleeting and small things annoyed me (like that nail in the step)… but overall it was fine for summer popcorn fun, and the creature design was really unique. I also give it large kudos for being almost entirely without dialogue and taking the post-apocalyptic genre elsewhere in origins, similar in ways to Birdbox. Originality goes a long way with me.

Left to right: Noah Jupe plays Marcus Abbott, Millicent Simmonds plays Regan Abbott and John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott in A QUIET PLACE, from Paramount Pictures.

If you haven’t guessed yet, these movies are presented to you in descending order beginning with my favorite. Also, if you have been paying close attention, you will notice that the first three were all written by the director. This means you are getting double the vision of the creator. I think this is what lifts these films above average fare. The first two, Eggers and Aster, have already followed up with more lauded and controversial movies—The Lighthouse and Midsomer. The writers of the latter two also came from and are continuing in the horror genre with future projects. All know and respect the tropes, yet all are striving for new and original concepts… not plots, mind you, but settings, perspective, technique, and mood.

The reason some do not like these films is that they are not the spoon-fed, cookie-cutter schlock they have grown accustomed to in the era of media saturation. These movies make you think. You cannot watch these movies while scrolling Facebook on your phone—you must pay attention and invest. The first two are slow creepers, filled with mounting dread. The third is a character study. The fourth—probably most forgiven by the masses—has a known cast with big-budget monsters and effects… but hardly any dialogue at all.

The writers behind these stories are what interest me most: Eggers, Aster, Gardner, and Beck & Woods.  All were attempting to take you to worlds either unexplored or observed from a different perspective. This kind of creativity not only excites but inspires me. Art creates art… and, for me, visionaries like these will always trump the latest conventional retread.