horror

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

spoilers for We Need to Talk About Kevin

 

It’s always interesting to see how storytellers strip down their pieces to deliver a precise, focused message. Distilled narratives have always been far more fascinating to me than labyrinthine thickets of intersecting plotlines and heaps of deep characters. Perhaps my attention span is just sorely lacking, but I like to believe there’s something special about these barebones pieces. They capture the fundamental essence of a feeling and nothing more. It’s why I’m so fascinated by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who strip down their films until there’s nothing left but unadulterated audiovisual stimuli.

 

I recently watched We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and it does something novel to simplify its message down to the core. It’s a story about the relationship between a mother and a son, the latter of which turns out to be a misanthropic, hateful outcast. The film primarily concerns itself with the intersection between mother and son and the seemingly inevitable hatred present in some people, but there’s a moment when it could easily veer into the political. The film builds up to the son, Kevin, going on a killing spree at his high school. However, the filmmakers had no intention of making a film about gun control, so they made a simple narrative change: they had Kevin do his killing with a bow. 

 

It’s a simple change, but it radically changes how the piece is read. If he had used a firearm, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that people would take the film as justification for stricter gun laws. But that’s not what the film is about. It was never intended to have a political message. It tells a story about evil and interdependency, nothing more and nothing less. Including a gun would muddle this message and greatly lessen the raw emotional impact that Kevin’s unstoppable decline has on the audience. We Need to Talk About Kevin shows the importance of focus in storytelling. A piece that tries to do too much can end up doing nothing at all.

Green Room and Unrestrained Brutality

The strength of the horror genre lies in its ability to build up layers of tension and dread, to pile the audience’s fears into a fragile tower until it finally knocks out the foundations and allows the whole thing to come crashing down in a crescendo of terror. A good horror film repeats this throughout its runtime, creating mountains and valleys that work the viewer into an inescapable stupor of fright. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, but it’s a formula that has appealed to the masochistic side of countless fans throughout cinema’s history. Green Room is a masterwork in pacing. Anxiety is generated skillfully and without respite, and when it erupts into violence it doesn’t hold back.

It’s not a film for everyone. I still haven’t decided whether it’s a film for me. I’m more apologetic towards violence in cinema than some (see my piece of Refn’s Only God Forgives), but Green Room toes the line between hard-hitting gore and nauseating snuff. I’m not criticizing the film for it, but the violence certainly makes it a difficult piece to digest. I’m not comfortable saying I liked the film, but it’s hard to deny that it provides a visceral, unapologetic look at the depths of human depravityand that’s exactly what it sets out to do.

They Look Like People

Although mainstream horror has faltered in recent years, terror junkies have enjoyed a string of rock-solid films from independent studios. Check out my posts about The Invitation and Hush for a few examples. Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People is another hard-hitting entry in this dynasty of independent horror, but it brings some fascinating dynamics to the table.

Rest assured that, like most of the great horror pieces that have been cropping up, They Look Like People generates terror by slowly building tension and dread rather than through cheap jump scares. Blackshear pulls off some interesting moves in order to achieve this. (minor spoilers ahead) For instance, as a result of some repeated sequences that occur when the protagonist goes to sleep, I found myself dreading a terror lurking in the dark every time the day’s light began to fail. The film relegates its fear to certain times, warning the viewer through stylistic moves when a frightful crescendo is about to build. The effect is that viewers aren’t surprised when the horror culminates, but the built-up dread is just as effective at making the audience want to cower in terror.

The film also gives a compelling, cathartic look into the relationship between two friends. Without spoiling anything, it’s a beautiful story about one man who notices too much in the world and another who tries to block it out. The way these two men interact and how their priorities and affectations clash forms the backbone of the film’s emotional effect.

If you’re a fan of modern independent horror, or if you’re looking for a good place to dive into the psychological terror Renaissance, They Look Like People is worth your time.

Only God Forgives

Criticized for its graphic violence and scarce plot, Only God Forgives is among Nicolas Winding Refn’s most negatively received films. Coming off the heels of its lauded predecessor, Drive, many consider the film to be a disappointing attempt at recreating magic. It may not have the same charm as its older brother, but Only God Forgives crafts a world just as immersive and perhaps even more beautiful.

 
It’s a different kind of beautiful, though. Both films reek of sultry atmosphere with their heavily stylized visuals and carefully crafted soundtracks, but Only God Forgives portrays a setting far less inviting. It’s a destitute, brutal, and disgusting world filled with unlikable characters. It moves at a glacial pace, forcing its viewers through every last brooding minute. It’s far less fun to watch than Drive, but that’s not what matters. It’s an unforgiving window into an ugly piece of life, but it’s effective nonetheless thanks to its slow-burning emotional impact, stifling atmosphere, and back-alley texture. A good film is not necessarily fun. A good film uses the cinematic medium to distill a facet of the human experience down to its essential form. Some of these facets are bound to be unpleasant, as the film demonstrates, but it’s difficult to deny that Refn’s showcase of human squalor does exactly what it sets out to do.

Mike Flanagan’s Hush, and What Makes a Good Thriller

The best thrillers are stories of limitation; their protagonists have certain disabilities or weaknesses that cause them to struggle with overwhelming circumstances. This can be seen in the broken-legged window sleuth portrayed in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the forgetful avenger in Nolan’s Memento, and the insomniac factory worker in Anderson’s The Machinist. Joining the ranks of these films is Hush, a superb thriller by Mike Flanagan that tells the story of a deaf and mute writer, Maddie, fighting off a murderous home invader.

Portraying disabilities effectively can be difficult to achieve in the cinematic medium. However, when done right, it can generate emotions in viewers that allow them to fully integrate themselves into the film and associate with the characters. Nolan achieved this in Memento by using an unorthodox narrative structure, disorienting viewers and making them struggle to find their place in the film’s world, just like the protagonist is forced to do as a result of his defective memory. Flanagan, on the other hand, achieves a similar effect through clever sound design. Sometimes the sound becomes muffled, as if the microphone is underwater, in order to show viewers Maddie’s limited sensory perspective. At other times the sound is completely normal; this is used to great effect when Flanagan shows the murderer toying with Maddie, talking or tapping on her window so that only the viewer can hear. This does a great job of instilling helplessness, so much so that I found myself wanting to reach out and warn Maddie. At one point I found myself thinking that it would be an interesting portrayal of deafness if the entire movie was silent, but this would limit its ability to generate the helplessness that I found to be so engaging. The sound design Flanagan chose to implement is versatile and effective, and I’m happy he chose it. This is the main reason I enjoyed this piece so much; using techniques exclusive to cinema to generate an emotional response within viewers is the hallmark not only of an exciting thriller, but of any quality film.

Clever sound design that plays off of Maddie’s disability isn’t all that the film has going for it, though. With a mute protagonist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of cheesy one-sided dialogue to establish the world; Hush is not a victim of this. Flanagan does a great job of including small tidbits that are subtle and don’t rely on dialogue, but are still emotionally impactful. My favorite of these (minor spoiler ahead) is when it is revealed that the antagonist is a mass murderer. Rather than showing this through cheesy dialogue, Maddie turns over his crossbow and sees a series of carved notches. I also appreciated the fact that the film relies on slow-burning tension rather than cheap jump scares in order to generate anxiety in viewers. Small things like this add up to create an immersive and convincing thriller, the kind of film that other directors should aspire to create.