SPOILER WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for the following films: Insidious: The Last Key, Goodnight Mommy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes at Night, and Lights Out. Read at your own discretion.
Which scenario is more horrifying?
A blonde cheerleader sprints through the corridors of her house, a frantic expression drifting across her face. She hides inside the closet, covering her mouth, careful not to utter a single sound. Outside the closet, she can make out faint footsteps coming her way. As she spies through the door, she sees a masked figure holding an axe. When everything seems quiet, she opens the door. As she turns around, the axe wielding maniac slices into her neck.
A man reads a 5-year-old girl a bed time story about a knight rescuing a princess from a vengeful dragon. The walls within the confines of her room emanate a tone of bright pink, creating the illusion of a breathing fairy tale. Once he finishes the book and his daughter is fast asleep, he turns off the lights. You can hear somebody moan as the lamb’s blood pours into the white cushion. As the man clutches onto his zipper, he says “Give daddy a good night kiss.”
I will make it clear that both of these examples are hypothetical scenarios. Having said that, how many movies have a scene where an attractive girl is chased by some masked murderer and ends up dead? That is essentially the opening scene of the movie Scream, hailed as one of the most famous films in the horror genre. The movie concerns itself with stereotypes of students being killed off by a masked killer. How many times have we seen that trope? Furthermore, why are we still entertained by it? Why do we find it scary? In today’s society, people gravitate towards accepting horror as a masked maniac decapitating an objectified blonde cheerleader. To the mainstream audience, horror is a mere jump scare, designed to physically spark a reaction through the use of a startling sound. If one were to mute mainstream horror movies, there would be nothing startling. To people who appreciate film as an art, true horror summons a psychological response instead of a physical one, thus making it more effective in telling a story.
The Insidious franchise is notorious for using jump scares to evoke some sort of emotional reaction from the audience. Unlike the first three films in the franchise, Insidious: The Last Key trades character development for lackluster storytelling. Insidious: The Last Key’s starts off promisingly by taking viewers into Elyse Rainer’s past and providing a back story dealing with how she was physically abused by her alcoholic father due to her supposed psychic abilities. Instead of delving into this back story and fleshing her out as a three-dimensional character, director Adam Robitel does the opposite. He refuses to accept that abuse is something many people face and blames Elyse’s abuse on a third act contrived plot twist that her father was possessed by a demon. If this was a story driven by the manifestation of a demon representing the way Elyse sees her father, it would have been a much more provocative film. Instead, Robitel decides to riddle the film with predictable jump scares, unnecessary plot twists, startling noises, and cringe worthy borderline pedophilic comic relief. Yet what surprised me the most after walking out was the reaction people had to this film. Some were calling it scary to utterly terrifying. I question myself exactly why people consider monsters popping out of the dark “horrifying.” Yes, the sound is startling, but at the end of the day, no monster is scarier than the ones we hide within ourselves.
The most horrifying movies in the world are those which provoke and make people ask questions rather than simply providing easy answers. These are the types of film that fester inside one’s mind long after leaving the movie theatre. They become part of the soul, something reminiscent of a parasite. A film is horror when it is grounded within the reality of everyday life and depicts the human condition as something dark and constantly deteriorating. The Austrian masterpiece, Goodnight Mommy, revolves around the story of twins named Elias and Lukas. Their mother has undergone the procedure of reconstructive plastic surgery and they do not believe that the person who came back is their real mother. This is a film deprived of jump scares, overt gore, and startling sounds. Instead, this is a very human story about dealing with grief by refusing to let go of the past. While the movie does involve a harrowing graphic torture sequence towards the end, the final revelation puts everything into context. In short, this is the story of a boy who refuses to accept that his twin brother is no longer alive. He ends up burning his mother alive and killing himself in the process, creating the only utopic reality where two brothers and their mother live together. The final image of Elias reuniting with Lukas and their mother amidst a cornfield is one which inspires both dread and awe.
While Insidious: The Last Key generates “horror” through demons popping out of the dark, making audiences quite literally jump from their seats, Goodnight Mommy takes an alternative approach. It deals with something humans go through and must eventually face throughout the course of life: grief. Elias takes grief to the extreme by murdering his mother in cold blood and killing himself in the process because he is unable to accept that this is a reality where the three of them will no longer be together. This may seem like an extreme measure to take, but its essence is one which we all can relate to on some level. The horror within Goodnight Mommy is created through being able to sympathize with a child’s confusion and desperation after losing his twin brother to an unexpected accident. Although there are no ghosts or serial killers throughout the course of the movie, Elias’ inner demons are ones which we will all eventually carry inside ourselves: loss. Loss is a demon scarier than any masked murderer. Loss is a reality where our loved one no longer exists. Loss is an unfathomable personal dystopia created by tears, a scar that will never fully heal.
While Goodnight Mommy was a straight to VOD release, the most recent psychological horror film is one most people unfortunately never got to see. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a master lesson in filmmaking and remarkable storytelling. In regard to the box office results, Insidious; The Last Key made a domestic total of $66,768,075, while The Killing of a Sacred Deer generated only $2,291,901 (Box Office Mojo). Essentially, the former made 33x more money than the latter. This is concerning because while Insidious relies solely on jump scares to startle the audience, Lanthimos’ film is one which disturbs the psychological through immaculate filmmaking. It revolves around the story of a wealthy cardiovascular surgeon named Stephen Murphy, whose life is shattered when a close family friend forces him to make a life changing decision. The so-called decision is to murder one of the members in his immediate family (either his wife, daughter, or son) before all of them slowly die. Specifically, their death will occur in three stages. First, they become paralyzed, next they will refuse to eat, and finally their eyes will bleed. The imagery of Murphy’s children crawling around the house, playing daddy’s favorite to avoid being killed is shocking and brilliant. The cinematography throughout, reminiscent of Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining, creates a dystopian world filled with sorrow and isolation.
There are no jump scares throughout The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Instead, Lanthimos creates horror through the constant tension of not knowing what will happen. One of the most harrowing sequences I have ever experienced in a movie takes place during the third act of this film. Murphy does not have much of a choice, either he kills one person or the three of them will die. The penultimate scene of this movie can only be described as psychological torture. Murphy ties his family members to chairs in the living room, covers their heads, and pulls a mask over his face. He loads a shotgun, spins in a circle, and the camera pans along with him. In this instance of filmmaking, it is almost as if the audience becomes Murphy, unsure of who will die. Somebody dies, I will not spoil who. What matters is that Lanthimos manages to take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. People were latching onto their seats, psychologically affected by what was taking place on screen. When Murphy finally shoots someone, there is a moment of audible relief. This scene is the definition of horror. People are relieved when it is over because of the constant amount of tension drawn throughout. Everybody has an ounce of hope that this curse was a mere series of coincidences, yet deep down, they know someone must be sacrificed. Lanthimos makes the audience question what they would do if they were Murphy. By creating a slow burn filled with dread and constant suffering, Lanthimos redefines what the horror genre is capable of.
A movie which creates dread through atmosphere and showing instead of telling is It Comes at Night. This movie centers around a man who will do anything in his power to protect his son and wife from being exposed to the unidentified plague within this post-apocalyptic wasteland. When a couple harboring a child seek refuge, relationships are put to the test. The mainstream audience absolutely hated it because the film’s marketing hinted at how “It” would be a monster. When I left the movie theatre, people were screaming for refunds. The thing about this particular film is that the “It” is never revealed. Director Trey Edward Shults is a master at building atmosphere through the use of claustrophobic cinematography and arresting visuals. This film is raw art. An old man is burned during the opening scene, a man kills a child with a shotgun, black vomit oozes from the mouth of an innocent teenager. There is nothing happy about it. Everybody dies in the end. It Comes at Night is designed to provoke, shock, and disgust. This is a hopeless world, a bleak movie, a storytelling gem. The movie refuses to provide any answers. The “It” is largely open to interpretation. It can be fear, death, nightmares, grief, or even love. The scary element in the story consists of immersing the audience into this world and forcing them to ask thought provoking questions dealing with who they are as a person.
I can say that this is the best horror movie I have ever seen because it made me empathize with someone I would normally see as a monster. During the third act, patriarchal leader Paul murders Will and his family in cold blood because he thinks they have been infected by the plague. This might make him seem like a homicidal maniac, yet it makes one question how far they would go to protect those they love. Would someone commit murder in the name of love? Would you kill an innocent child if you had proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she was infected? Would you destroy a family to save your own? This movie disturbed me on an emotional level because all my answers to those questions are a resounding “yes.” These are not questions I ask myself every day, but I deeply appreciate a film that forces me to ask questions I may not want to hear the answers to. It Comes at Night creates a string of empathy between the “homicidal” patriarchal leader and the audience members. The final scene shows Paul and his wife holding hands, infected by the plague after their son’s passing, acknowledging their own death, coming to terms with the inevitable. This film transcends the art of cinema and functions as a metaphor for death. No matter how hard we try to prevent it, death will eventually knock at our door.
Lastly, I will make the distinction that I am not arguing a film cannot have any jump scares in order to be considered a psychologically effective horror movie. The film Lights Out directed by David Sandberg, was marketed as a movie about a demon who appears once someone turns off the lights. The film has its fair share of jump scares; however, they serve to enhance the plot and connect directly to the major themes being talked about throughout. The film centers around the story of Rebecca, a girl who leaves her mother and childhood home behind after being haunted by some sort of demonic supernatural presence named Diana. While this could have easily been a film about a demon haunting some random house for no apparent reason, Sandberg makes the decision to use the demons as a means of providing social commentary about depression. Rebecca’s mother has always been depressed, revealed through the medication she takes to erase the existence of Diana.
The film ends on a tragic note, which angered many people because it implies that the only way out of depression is through suicide. Rebecca’s mother kills herself, thus ridding her children of Diana. While some found this harrowing, an argument could be made for the truth behind what Sandberg is saying. Unfortunately, for some people, the only way to win the battle against this particular demon is through killing yourself. The jump scares throughout this film serve as a physical manifestation that depression will always be there, even when you might not want to acknowledge its existence. By doing this, Sandberg creates a powerful movie about a mother willing to sacrifice herself in order to stop depression from plaguing her daughter and son. If jump scares serve a purpose to the structure of the narrative rather than simply being used to startle the audience, a psychological horror movie can still be effective.
These movies have become part of who I am as a person, thus engraving themselves into my identity. Pure horror is born once a film carves a nefarious image into the human brain, transforming into a relentless memory that evokes both misery and eternal beauty.