Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Halloween List: A Quiet Place, Emelie, and Hereditary

I'm kicking off The Halloween List this year with one of my favorite hidden gems, and two of the biggest Horror movies of 2018. 2018 has been so long that it's easy to forget A Quiet Place even came out back in April, right?

All three of these films attack the family in very different ways. A Quiet Place is about family surviving in a country that's destroyed; Emelie is about a family that thinks it's safe until they hire the wrong babysitter; and Hereditary is about a family haunting itself. Each is powerful, but which kind of conflict is the most effective on you?

A Quiet Place (2018)

I have been waiting a damned long time for A Quiet Place. Horror has a troubling history of relegating disabled characters to the roles of villains. I wrote about that phenomenon for Fireside Magazine last year. You can take solace in the well-meaning portrayals of Wait Until Dark and Silver Bullet, but those are moves with abled actors cripping it up, and screenplays that pander. They could never get beneath the surface.

Millicent Simmonds is a deaf actor, and she’s the emotional core of this movie. She plays Regan, the oldest child in one of the few families to survive an invasion of monsters. The monsters hunt on sound; they can hear a toy space ship from miles away, and be there in seconds. Regan has saved the family, because since they all know ASL, they know how to communicate and live without speaking. They walk into town to scavenge on paths of sand to quiet their footsteps. They have adapted.

What’s even more rewarding about this disability rep is that Regan isn’t defined by her disability. If a monster is coming, she can’t hear it behind her, but that’s a peril of a moment, not a constant agony. Regan is defined by her grief that she thinks she was responsible for the loss of a younger sibling, and she has some very creative ways of expressing that. It’s not grief about being disabled, or grief that makes her curse it. This is a relief in contrast to a hundred movies about disabled people who curse being trapped in wheelchairs, or wish they could see the sunrise. Disabled people are going to live lives, and regret openly, not narrowly. A Quiet Place gets this.

The movie is strongly constructed, naturally never giving us an exposition dump on where the monsters came from, or how life has been. We can tell what their lives are like by what they keep around the house, and what chores we see them do. It’s at its best when there’s minimal music, letting us sit in the same terrified silence as the family. They have a baby on the way that won’t be easy to deliver in this world, and the kids are restless to live bigger lives. We see them pushing against the boundaries forced on them with a healthy naturalism.

At under 90 minutes, the movie is tight and knows what it wants to do at all times. Its big set pieces, like the kids falling into a corn silo and the threat of drowning in it, all click. The moment you see a nail sticking out of a step in the stairs of their the basement, you know what’s coming. What comes is harrowing. It’s all worth it, too. It yields one of the most cathartic endings in modern Horror.

Emelie (2015)

Emelie is a movie good enough to kill your career. It is so unsettling that it might have been more commercially successful if it had been worse. I can see some studios not wanting to work with the people involved because they were willing to make this thing.

Emelie is also a great response to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Halloween is a babysitter’s worst fear: that someone will come in the night when no one older is around to help and attack them and the children. But that isn’t the fear of children. Children’s deepest fear is that the babysitter will hurt them. Emelie is about that fear.

Following a disturbingly casual opening sequence in which a babysitter is kidnapped in broad daylight, we meet a small and intensely believable family. There are three kids, the youngest of which is so naturalistically sweet and excitable that he might just be a six year old that the director gave some sugar to and let roam through the set. Here we have a brooding pre-teen older brother who doesn’t want to spend time with his siblings, and a controlling middle-sister who constantly comes up with costume ideas and games for the youngest and most impressionable of the kids. Their parents are going out for a special dinner. They’ll be gone late. At the last minute their sitter has been replaced, but surely she’ll be fine. What could happen?

From there, Emelie would be a much more comfortable movie if the babysitter (guess her name) whipped out a steak knife and chased these kids. But it’s not a conventional Horror movie. She has the kids pose for photos that seem like a game to them, but are inappropriately morbid to the audience. There’s a scene where she invites the oldest boy into the bathroom with her that isn’t explicitly sexual or violent, but is palpably uncomfortable because even the boy knows this isn’t normal. Scene by scene, the movie pushes you to guess what she’s planning to do to them. The suspense is almost Hitchcockian, except she’s more of a black box than most of Hitchcock’s villains.

The older brother has to pull it together and find ways to call for help when the sitter hasn’t technically done anything explicable yet. It’s surprisingly effective character growth for the kid, who begins the movie as a pouting brat, and who wouldn’t be equipped to stand up to an adult no matter what his attitude was. He’s the only line of protection and he’s intensely vulnerable – perhaps the most vulnerable because Emelie reads him like a book from the minute she steps into the house.

I can’t recommend this to most parents. Many of my friends are having kids now, and for most of them, the natural fear for their children is going to make the tension of this movie too much. Again, it’s not a movie that has them eaten alive or smashed by a hammer. It’s the slow menace that will be too much. It’s easier and more escapist to fear that a werewolf, vampire, or even a serial killer will come in from outside your neighborhood and go after your family. Emelie is a movie about someone you think you can trust.

I spent so much of the ending of this movie yelling at the TV. No movie has sunk its teeth into me like this in years.

Hereditary (2018)

This is Ari Aster’s debut film. You know you’ve done well when critics argue whether the first movie you’ve ever made is a masterpiece. The guy has an entire career to turn in his masterpiece, but sure, let’s work ourselves into a froth now.

Anything Hereditary does well at all, it does masterfully. If it had a different ending, it’d probably be my favorite movie of the year because of how powerful the rest of it is. Instead it’s one of the best movies that I don’t feel like rewatching.

There are few pieces of art in any medium about an abusive family member dying before anyone gets catharsis from them. You probably have someone in your family who died before someone else got closure with them, and if you’re lucky enough not to, you definitely know somebody whose family has that kind of suffering. Hereditary wallows in the discomforting legacy of a grandmother who traumatized both her daughter and granddaughter. She’s dead, and her shadow is still longer than that of any living member of the family. She haunts them figuratively, and eventually we’ll wonder if she’s doing it literally.

Toni Collette deserves all the praise for her performance that she’s gotten. Nominate her for stuff, and write her fan mail. She lays bare this damaged mother who knows she can’t let go, who hates her mother for always interfering in her parenting, and demeaned her daughter for not being a boy. At the same time this life has made her so uptight and repressed that she can’t talk to her kids honestly without exploding. It took one scene to sell me on this movie, when Collette’s character went to a grief support group and her hatred of her own insecurities flowed out of her. This is not a stock Horror character with stock Horror angst. This is something real and festering, that makes you wish exorcisms worked on trauma.

And suspense? The clucking of a tongue here is scarier than the rev of a chainsaw in another movie.

It’s to Hereditary’s credit that act one pivoted the film somewhere entirely different than I’d expected. This isn’t a “and there are also ghosts!” pivot. This is a demolition of the family’s status quo mid-grieving process, which is the sort of curveball I could only expect A24 films to support. Suffice to say that this family goes through a Hell that, even without the eerie and horrific elements, you can’t expect any family to be equipped to deal with.

If this movie had come out in the 1980s, it would be a part of the canon right next to The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby.

It’s 2018 now, and I’m not surprised that mainstream audiences hated it.

It is an unpleasant movie with an unpleasant view of both family and the supernatural. The characters lack agency because the themes of powerlessness before death and grief are so important, and that builds to an ending that is both tricky to understand and, once you understand it, doesn’t feel worth sitting through an entire movie to get to. It has more to say about who we are as people than the average Horror movie, but the actual payoff of its climax is just another example of an overwhelming trend that I’m sick of. No matter how well executed the rest of your story is, the ending needs to satisfy. Hopelessness is not its own answer.

Come back Friday for Slice, Summer of '84, and the new hotness that is Nicholas Cage's Mandy!


  1. I put two of these on my watch list. Interesting comments about "Heredity." Critics seemed to love it when it came out, but the public? Not so much.

  2. A Quiet Place was brilliant. It could have gone wrong in so many places, but Krasinski directed it perfectly. He's going to have a long career with all of his talents.
    I'll note the other two although I will definitely need to be in the mood to watch them.
    Still need to watch Mandy...

  3. Not a genre I am comfortable with - and your reviews tempt me. I KNOW I would regret it though.

  4. I loved A Quiet Place for its technicality, but disliked it at the same time for its poor dialogue and an ending I could not suspend enough disbelief for.

    I loved Hereditary foe similar reasons. What these two movies do with sound design alone could be an entire class. Although I know a lot of people didnt like the turn at the end, I found it satisfying, as though I'd been waiting for the reveal the entire movie. And every now and then a movie where no one gets out, is okay by me.


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