“Now something so sad has hold of us that the breath leaves and we can’t even cry.”
-Charles Bukowski, You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense
Grief incites people to all sorts of mischief.
People in films kill for a boatload of reasons. They kill for money, love, sex, power, a black bird, a tanker full of gasoline, a witch’s broom, Cornel Wilde, and even a penmanship medal. If you watch horror films, you’re used to watching people, and dogs (please stop) die in creative and horrifying ways. What you’re not used to seeing is the aftermath. Sure, horror sequels often begin with the hero or heroine recovering in a mental ward after an ordeal, but seldom do the filmmakers dwell on the survivor’s feelings. Generally, the protagonist must hot foot it out of the hospital to avoid ending the franchise prematurely. A handful of terrific new horror films and filmmakers break that mold. These artists focus on grief as both a reason to kill, and an actual entity.
The films in this piece portray grief in terms of horror. That makes sense because it’s something scary that no one wants to talk about. Grief gets buried, not unlike a victim in a premature grave, who pops out at the most inopportune times. You think you dug the hole deep enough, but the little bastard manages to crawl out and invade your Christmas by wiping his muddy feet on your carpet, or ruin a perfectly nice dinner party by playing that tune you’re trying so hard to forget. Grief is also something everyone expresses differently, but is supposed to express the same. Friends study your affect and project their own feelings there. “How can he laugh at a time like this?” Police observe the spouses of murder victims and decide whether they’re reacting correctly. “She’s not even crying. We’d better investigate.” You can also overreact. In the 1946 drama, The Razor’s Edge, Gene Tierney comments on Anne Baxter’s character, Sophie, who’s sunk into despair and drunkenness after the loss of her husband and child in an accident. “Of course, it was a shock and everyone felt sorry for her, but a normal person recovers. If she went to pieces it was because she was always unbalanced.” With the weight of so much emotion on your shoulders, it’s easy to lose your footing and fall into that newly-opened grave. The best choice is conversation. When the beast is out in the open, he’s easier to fight—or embrace. The players in these films choose different paths and it’s enlightening to see how those choices affect them.
In The Babadook (2014), writer/director Jennifer Kent creates a frighteningly claustrophobic world for her heroine. Amelia (Essie Davis), a lonely widow with a troubled young son, struggles to get through each day. Once, a vivacious writer in love with her musician husband, Amelia now simply goes through the motions of living. She works as an attendant at a nursing home and tries to care for her incredibly high-maintenance son. Aside from his behavior issues, her boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has terrible nightmares so, of course, his mom gets no sleep. Samuel is such a handful, no one else will watch him, so Amelia is on the hook 24/7. Everything is a chore and she gets no peace. As if loneliness, drudgery, and lack of sleep weren’t enough, Amelia also battles depression and a sort of delayed grief. Her husband died on the day their son was born so she’s been too busy to grieve properly. After six years of this, her embattled psyche has had enough. A scary pop-up book, The Babadook, appears mysteriously in her house and the book’s protagonist, a combination of Dr. Caligari and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, begins to haunt Amelia and Samuel’s dreams and maybe even their reality.
The Invitation (2015) begins when Will (Logan Marshall-Green) accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband in Will’s old house. Soooo many red flags there. Anyway, he and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), along with the estranged couple’s old friends get together for a party complete with a gourmet supper, vintage wine, and weird oversharing. Throughout the course of the evening, we discover that Will and his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), lost their young son a year or so ago. Eden tried to come to grips with her grief at a questionable retreat in Mexico where she met her present husband, David (Michael Huisman), who was there to deal with a loss of his own. The strange, incredibly tense vibe of the film is punctuated by the cringe-worthy stories the guests tell and Will’s occasional outburst questioning the goal of the evening. Director, Karyn Kusama does a phenomenal job of keeping you on the edge of your seat as Will vacillates between enjoying the lamb and suspecting the rest of the party-goers. The cast of lesser-known character actors works together well and includes the fabulously creepy John Carroll Lynch (Twisty!) as the guy you who you wish had RSVP’d in the negative. Despite the Jonathan Swift-levels of overcompensating for grief Eden and David learned at their slice of Spahn Ranch in the Mexican desert, The Invitation is a subtle, taut film that builds steadily toward a frightening end and dramatizes the lengths to which some people will go to avoid feeling that horrible ache.
Prevenge (2016) stars the most excellent Alice Lowe as Ruth, a very pregnant widow whose anger and grief mixed with a dash of hormones and a smidge of her already manic nature allow her to hear the voice of her unborn daughter. That sounds lovely. There’s just one thing; Ruth’s daughter is a sociopath who orders her to kill the people both blame for the death of Ruth’s husband. Like Look Who’s Talking meets Kind Hearts and Coronets, Prevenge follows Ruth as she assumes different identities to get close to her victims. At first, she’s energized by her mission, but later comes to question its value when she realizes all her efforts won’t change anything. Her husband is still gone. That sad fact looms in the background all through this darkly funny film. That Lowe manages to make her character funny, vulnerable, and a bit mad is evidence of her talent as an actress and a writer and a director. Yes, she did all three—while pregnant. Like in The Babadook, Ruth’s longing for her husband and her inability to cope with those strong, soul-crushing emotions create an autonomous life form. In Prevenge, that being’s sole purpose is revenge.
The Void (2016) mixes a story of grief with the supernatural, a weird death cult, and a siege, to create an original and referential horror film. Made by the same Astron-6 group that brought us The Editor and Manborg, The Void mixes Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, The Devil Rides Out, and Don’t Look Now and sprinkles it with a bit of The Mist. The fact that The Void pulls from all these films doesn’t lessen its impact in the slightest. It’s a terrific, edge-of-your-seat horror full of practical effects, characters you care about, and great scares. A small group of people defend a rural hospital against forces, both inside and out, they don’t understand. At the heart of the film is an estranged couple, played by Aaron Poole and Kathleen Munroe, who broke up after the loss of their baby. The ideas of loss and regret run through the film and it’s a testament to the filmmakers, Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, that they could make a poignant character study within their cracking good horror film.
Sometimes making it through a crisis is the easy part. All that fighting and strategizing and looking for weapons fills your brain so there’s no room for dread. There’s a famous phrase, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Perhaps it should read, “Dying is easy, Surviving is hard.” It is hard, but it’s good. You just have to keep telling yourself that.