In four weeks I have seen four horror films at the cinema (five, if you include Fifty Shades of Black). They are, in viewing order: The Forest, The Other Side of the Door, The Witch and The Boy.
For all but The Witch, hopes were not high; mainly because contemporary horror just doesn’t seem to be doing anything interesting, with a small number of exceptions. Although, regardless of genre, I was not looking forward to any film carried by The Walking Dead’s Lori. Quiet… Quiet… Bang! is the formula for jump scares, which are the essence of nearly all modern horror movies e.g Unfriended, the Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity franchises and basically everything else. Half of the films watched over the last four weeks follow this trend.
The Forest and The Other Side of the Door are strikingly similar. Their protagonists are American women in foreign countries, both trying to move on from some family-related tragedy in their pasts. Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead, Prison Break) is Maria in The Other Side of the Door; living in India, she attempts to get over the guilt and grief of her sons death. When Maria’s car swerved into a lake, he drowned as she chose to save her daughter. When a local tells Maria about an abandoned temple that serves as gateway between the living and the dead, she can not resist the chance to give her little boy one last goodbye. On visiting her dead son she accidentally frees him from the other side and he does not come alone, he is followed by other malicious ghosts and the gatekeeper of the dead herself. The Forest is director Jason Zada’s debut feature film and stars Natalie Dormer in a dual role as twin sisters, Sara and Jess. Jess is supposed to be the punky damaged one and Sara is supposed to be the clean cut, well rounded one, although, aside from having different hairdos the characters are basically the same. When Jess goes missing in Japan, Sara heads over to find her. It turns out that she has entered ‘Suicide Forest’, a real place near the base of Mount Fuji, known locally as Aokigahara or The Sea of Trees. Alongside the Golden Gate Bridge and the Prince Edward Viaduct, Aokigahara forest is one of the worlds most frequented suicide hotspots. Using her ‘twintuition’, Sara assumes Jess hasn’t left the forest and decides to look for her alongside an Australian man with questionable motives.
Both The Forest and The Other Side of the Door pluck a pretty white girl out of her comfort zone and drop her in a foreign environment. The fears and folklores of these environments are then used to terrorise the women. This could be punishment for their naivety and disrespect. Neither Sara nor Maria heed any of the several warnings issued by locals. These harbinger characters come in the form of western ideas of the local stereotypes e.g. the crazy old Chinese lady or the quirky spiritual Hindu maid. These harbingers are dismissed and ridiculed by both Sara and Maria until the spirits make themselves apparent. Both films show ghostly apparitions or monstrous dream sequences in their opening scenes. Leaving no time for tension to be built or empathy for the characters to be established, the plots and the characters are simply vessels for the jump scares.
The Boy could have easily been just like The Forest and The Other Side of the Door. This time a pretty American girl goes to England, as opposed to Japan or India. She is, again, escaping tragedy, this time in the form of an abusive ex boyfriend. And very nearly, is tormented by a spirit that encapsulates American stereotypes of the foreign land our protagonist finds herself in, like the other two. Brahms and his parents are upper class, posh Brits, extremely quirky, Victorian and creepy. Fortunately, The Boy subverts the other two ghost films. It was marketed as a ghost story, yet it is when it drops this pretence that it comes into it’s own and becomes genuinely creepy and memorable.
Lauren Cohan plays Greta, who leaves her home in Montana to take a babysitting job for a rich English family, the Heelshires. Greta takes the job in the hope of putting distance between her and her abusive boyfriend after finally breaking up with him. When the Heelshire’s introduce Greta to the child she’ll be looking after, she (and the audience) can’t help but laugh. Greta is presented with a strict list of rules to follow along with a porcelain doll, named Brahms. The eccentric Heelshires leave Greta with Brahms and she immediately gets to breaking his rules. The more she does so the more Brahms seems to be more than meets the eye. It is heavily implied to the audience, and assumed by Greta, that there is some kind of spirit in the house or inhabiting the Brahms doll and in fairness, possessed dolls and dummies are universally creepy, epitomising the effect of the uncanny. This is a ruse though, presumably to convince the average viewer, happy with current trends, to purchase a ticket. At the end of the second act it is revealed that Brahms is in fact very much alive. Not a ghost or spirit but the real life Brahms, he’s all grown up and has been living in the Heelshire’s attic. The fire that allegedly killed eight year old Brahms was set by his parents in order to fake his death after Brahms murdered a local girl. We also find out that the Heelshires aren’t actually on holiday but have chosen Greta to take their place. Hulking and unkempt, Brahms is effectively scary. Having never grown up, his face is covered by a doll-like mask and his voice is high pitched and vulnerable, he is entitled and confused as to why Greta spurns him.
Once it is established what Brahms is, The Boy gets quite good. The crazed little boy in a mans body reeks with the sexual repression of other classic icons such as Leatherface and Michael Myers. He steals cuts of Greta’s hair to add to his replica of her and is increasingly violent to her potential love interest and to her ex. Icons are what are missing from horror these days. Aside from maybe Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, iconic, memorable villains are either absent or laughable. Nobody remembers the ghosts from Paranormal Activity or Ouija because there is nothing to remember, aside from the calculated jump-scares. There have been some recent attempts at creating icons: the Bagul from the Sinister franchise, the ‘Lipstick’ Demon from Insidious but does anyone care about their motivation? No, because it isn’t explained, their looks and imagery take priority over depth and character. Compare these to: Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, etc; often tragic characters, who we borderline root for, the modern equivalents are one-dimensional, they exist to be angry and have always been that way. In the past these characters have reasons behind their actions and are more than just vessels for jump scares. I am sure that with some fleshing out and a sequel or two, Brahms has the potential to be a part of the pantheon of great, iconic horror characters.
The Witch, interestingly, goes the opposite way. Someone I spoke to was disappointed that the actual witch wasn’t featured enough and when she was on screen she wasn’t scary enough. In the film she is, for the most part, just a naked old lady. The witches in The Witch are not the source of horror, though. This film does not need to rely on a gimmick or on jump scares because it arguably does horror the right way; through atmosphere, cinematography and characterisation. The Witch looks like it was a harsh shoot. Natural light, punishing elements and weather are constants; similar to The Revenant in style, although preferable as unlike The Revenant, The Witch didn’t rely on it’s production methods as a gimmick or marketing ploy nor did it offer it as an alternative to plot. Witchcraft turns out to be a source of liberation for young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) from the trappings of Puritan religion and Original Sin. As her family rapidly descends into madness due to fear of her being a witch, their treatment of Thomasin is where the true horror emerges. Fear of God provokes her mother and father to do unspeakable things to their child. It is with the coven of witches and through a deal with the devil that Thomasin eventually finds happiness and escapes misery. I can’t say that The Witch is the scariest as horror is subjective, although it definitely got under my skin more than the others. It is, however, the best film, it looks and sounds incredible. Stark, bleak landscapes and shrill orchestral music make the atmosphere unpleasant and it’s pacing is traumatising, progressively ramping up the tension, each scene is more intense than the one before it. Performances from Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie anchor this disturbing tale in erratic dread. The Witch distinguishes itself from the other films mentioned here in more ways than one, for example, in contrast to the other three films in this quartet; the family in The Witch are settlers in America, as opposed to the women in the other three, who are all Americans settling elsewhere. The Forest and The Other Side of the Door seem to be about tourists being punished by foreign lands for their disrespect and ignorance towards its culture. Whilst The Witch presents a family arriving in America, trying to adapt to and conquer an unforgiving new terrain.
An honourable mention goes to The Boy’s soundtrack, subtlety incorporating Brahms’ lullaby into Bear McCreary’s (The Walking Dead: music) score throughout creates some genuinely creepy moments. Not so honourable, but worth a mention, are the scenes in The Other Side of the Door that are set in the Indian slums and shantytowns, the sounds of traffic and commotion paired with the tight, labyrinth of narrow passageways create an unsettling, claustrophobic environment. Unfortunately, these are very limited and most of the film takes place in a big, characterless, boring house.
In summary, The Forest is cringe-worthy, with dialogue on a par with a Tommy Wiseau script. Dormer is doubly bad as both sisters, neither make decisions that are anything close to anything a reasonable human being would make, even for a horror film their actions are unfathomable, however, at least it is bad enough to discuss. The Other Side of the Door is just forgettable, neither good nor bad enough to be noteworthy. All I can say for The Boy is; well played. I had to admit, about half way through, that I was enjoying myself. Admittedly, I had low expectations therefore put back a decent amount of rum beforehand. As for The Witch, it was sickly and horrid but I couldn’t look away. Robert Egger’ style is a shot to the heart of a flatlining genre, surpassing other murmurs of life such as It Follows and The Babadook. I look forward to his upcoming Nosferatu remake.