Grief is among the most punishing emotions. That may be why mainstream films handle it so poorly. But horror? Horror filmmakers don’t shy away from what hurts, which may be why grief is such a ripe subject for the genre.
Filmmaker and author Samantha Kolesnik joins us to discuss some of the best grief-stricken films in horror.
6. The Nightingale (2018)
A mother’s grief is something many filmmakers see as the pinnacle in pain, the one emotion almost unimaginable in scope and depth and anguish. That’s why brilliant filmmaker Jennifer Kent begins here, using this one moment of ultimate agony to punctuate an almost unwatchable scene of brutality, to tell a tale not of this mother and her grief, but of a nation—a world—crippled by the brutality and grief of a ruling white male culture.
What happens to Clare (Aisling Franciosi) at the hands of Leftenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British officer to whom she is in service, is as brutal and horrifying as anything you’re likely to see onscreen. It’s the catalyst for a revenge picture, but The Nightingale is far more than just that.
Kent’s fury fuels her film, but does not overtake it. She never stoops to sentimentality or sloppy caricature. She doesn’t need to. Her clear-eyed take on this especially ugly slice of history finds more power in authenticity than in drama.
5. A Dark Song (2016)
Writer/director Liam Gavin also begins his story by dropping us breathless and drowning in a mother’s grief. Sophia (Catherine Walker) will do anything at all just to hear her 6-year-old son’s voice again. She will readily commit to whatever pain, discomfort or horror required of her by the occultist (Steve Oram) who will perform the ritual to make it happen.
Anything except the forgiveness ritual.
What Gavin and his small but committed cast create is a shattering but wonderful character study. Walker never stoops to sentimentality, which is likely what makes the climax of the film so heartbreaking and wonderful.
4. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Perhaps what makes Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror the most perfect pick for this list is that the film, which deals exclusively in grief, is most interested in how it impacts a father.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie deliver unerring authenticity as the parents trying to recover from the death of their daughter. Roeg plays with imagery and timelines to induce an almost tear-stained blurriness on the events as they transpire.
The heartbreak in the film lies in the guilt, fear of culpability, and inability to change what has happened or what will happen. Though the film’s twist may have been what made a splash in 1973, it’s the honesty in depicting grief that’s helped it remain relevant for nearly 50 years.
3. Hereditary (2018)
Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.
With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.
Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.
2. Midsommar (2019)
In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds.
Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.
Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.
Lars von Trier’s foray into horror follows a couple down a deep and dark rabbit hole of grief. Von Trier’s films have often fixated on punishing viewers and female protagonists alike, but in this film the nameless woman (played fearlessly by Charlotte Gainsbourg) wields most of the punishment – whether upon her mate (Willem Dafoe) or herself.
Consumed by grief, a mother allows her husband—also grieving—to become her psychotherapist as they retreat to their isolated cabin deep in the woods where they will try to overcome the horror of losing their only child.
They won’t succeed.
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
by Hope Madden
“It was intended to play as homophobic rather than homoerotic.”
So says David Chaskin, writer of 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge—a film many consider to be the gayest horror movie ever made. Chaskin has long shared the belief that it was the casting of Mark Patton in the lead role, the “final boy,” that pushed the envelope from homophobic to homoerotic.
Chaskin is right.
Thank God for casting.
The mid-Eighties hardly needed another homophobic movie, or another AIDS-terrified horror flick. Did it need the story of an adolescent boy whose homosexual nature emerges as some monstrous id, only to be cured by the love of a good woman? No, but if you just don’t watch the last ten minutes of the film, Nightmare 2 is a bizarre and glorious B-movie coming out party.
Again, thanks to Mark Patton.
Patton is the center of the Shudder documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. He also produces, which means he gives the footage his OK, leading to a film that comes off as self-congratulatory and self-indulgent more often than it should. But there is no denying Patton’s life has been fascinating.
Patton’s a charming, charismatic vehicle for the doc and the insight he offers into burgeoning stardom, closeted Hollywood and the Eighties is riveting. He’d lived quite a life before his first feature lead likely ended his career—but what he survived outside Elm Street was certainly tougher.
So much so that Patton’s particular anxiety about how this film affected him and his career sometimes feels misplaced. But watching how his perception of the “gay controversy” has evolved and what that evolution has allowed him to do within the gay community is delightful.
Of course, equally fascinating for horror fans is the debate as to who did and did not realize how profoundly gay Nightmare 2 was. Patton’s co-stars—Robert Englund (Freddy himself) comes off especially well—each add to the conversation in entertaining ways, though director Jack Sholder should maybe stop talking.
First time filmmakers Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen seem unsure of their real aim: to tell Mark’s story, to help Mark find closure, to deconstruct the film’s subtext, to explore its lasting meaning for the LGBTQ community. Because of their meandering focus, Scream, Queen feels longer than it needs to be.
Lucky for the filmmakers, every one of those topics makes for an intriguing investigation, and watching Patton triumphantly recreate his iconic (and likely career-ending) dance scene is sheer joy.
We are beyond delighted to have been allowed to screen Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie classic The Dead Don’t Die two days in advance of its national opening. To honor this remarkable film and its amazing cast, we look at the best other horror movies that star these actors.
5. Zombieland (2009) – Bill Murray
Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had created the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zom-rom-com. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions.
And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.
That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!
Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing dork characterization. But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun-toting, Twinkie-loving, Willie Nelson-singing, Dale Earnhart-number-wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.
I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Tilda Swinton
The Dead Don’t Die is not Jim Jarmusch’s first foray into horror. In 2013, the visionary writer/director concocted a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.
Great lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop of…Detroit.
Not since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached, underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in uniquely contrasting ways.
There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.
3. Suspiria (2018) – Tilda Swinton
It is 1977 in “a divided Berlin,” when American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, nicely moving the character from naivete to complexity) arrives for an audition with a world-renowned dance company run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, mesmerizing).
This “cover version” (The Tilda’s phrase, and valid) of Argento’s original lifts the veil on the academy elders early, via the diaries of Patricia (Chloe Moretz), a dancer who tells psychotherapist Dr. Josef Kiemperer (also The Tilda, under impressive makeup) wild tales of witches and their shocking plans.
Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth.
But even when this new Suspiria is tipping its hat to Argento, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. Women move in strong solidarity both onstage and off, dancing with a hypnotic power capable of deadly results. In fact, most of the male characters here are mere playthings under the spell of powerful women, which takes a deliciously ironic swipe at witch lore.
2. American Psycho (2000) – Chloe Sevigny
A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.
There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.
Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as Bateman’s smitten secretary or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost call out to them: Look behind you!
As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.
1. Get Out (2017) – Caleb Landry Jones
Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” writer/director Jordan Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
When white Rose (Alison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet the fam, she assures him race will not be a problem. How can she be sure? Because her Dad (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama’s third term “if he could.” It’s the first of many B.S. alerts for Peele, and they only get more satisfying.
Rose’s family is overly polite at first, but then mom Missy (Catherine Keener) starts acting evasive and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets a bit threatening, while the gardener and the maid (both black – whaaat?) appear straight outta Stepford.
Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.
Get Out is an audacious first feature for Jordan Peele, a film that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.
by Hope Madden
A quick scan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s work emphasizes his particular capacity for creepiness. His success likely lies partly in his visual flair and partly in his patient storytelling, but it’s his own mad genius that pulls these elements together in sometimes utterly brilliant efforts, like Pan’s Labyrinth.
That’s a high water mark he may never reach again, but his latest, Crimson Peak, can’t even see that high, let alone touch it.
Del Toro has pulled together the genuine talents of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska – as well as the questionable competence of Charlie Hunnam – to populate this diabolical love story.
Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is wooed away from home and childhood beau (Hunnam) by dreamy new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), regardless of his sister’s unpleasantness or her own father’s disdain. But the siblings may have dastardly motives, not to mention some rather vocal skeletons in their closet.
All four actors struggle. Hunnam has little chance with his underwritten sweetheart role, while Hiddleston is wasted as a spineless yet dreamy baronet. There is no chemistry between Wasikowska and anyone, and while Chastain is often fun to watch as a malevolent force, the cast can’t congeal as a group, so much of her bubbling evil is wasted.
Characteristic of a del Toro effort, however, the film looks fantastic. Gorgeous period pieces drip with symbolism and menace, creating an environment ideal for the old fashioned ghost story unspooling.
But where certain monstrous images blended nicely into the drama of Labyrinth, here they look and feel a part of another film entirely. The garish colors of a Dario Argento horror bleed into the somber gothic mystery. Edith’s ghastly, yet utterly modern, visions not only break the bygone feel the film develops, they awkwardly punctuate Peak’s tensely deliberate pace.
Tonal shifts between lurid and subtle only compound a problem with weak writing, and del Toro struggles to develop the twisted love story required to make the murky depths of the villainy believable.
In the end, Crimson Peak is the sad story of great resources but wasted effort.