THE MONSTER (AND THE METAPHORICAL ISSUES WE’RE FORCED TO CONFRONT IN HORROR)
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by: Jerry Smith
We all have monsters in our lives. The ones which haunt us and influence our actions, the way we interact with people and the things we’re into/not into. To say that using “monsters” as metaphors in filmmaking wouldn’t be a new observation but with 2016 in our rear view mirrors, this writer thought it would be an interesting ride to look back at a few films which did an excellent job of taking real life problems and using monsters, ghosts and other entities, supernatural or downright demonic, to illustrate and help tell game-changing genre stories. Enjoy.
Back in 1984, a good girl next door type of young woman named Nancy Thompson was unfortunately faced with the challenge of facing her fears and nightmares and losing her friends in the process in the late Wes Craven’s masterpiece, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. While a lot of horror fans and audience members gravitated towards being enthralled by the film’s antagonist, Fred Krueger, as a young child, what stood out to me the most is how the film really wasn’t about nightmares or a burned up slasher, but that it was truly about coming to terms with one’s mortality and not giving power to the dark forces that plague us in life. Don’t get me wrong, Fred (this was before we all started calling him Freddy)was scary, a tad bit funny in that first film and pretty iconic, but it was Nancy and her will to survive in spite of the nightmarish (pun intended) villain taking her friends from her and attempting to win her will. I loved the later films in that series for their camp approaches, but as stated above, it was always Nancy and her bravery, her will, and power that left an impressional young boy with a glimpse of the power of genre cinema.
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, THE BABADOOK, was another powerful film, albeit one which left viewers in very black or white areas (nobody thought it was “eh, ok”, you either loved it or hated it). Taking the loss of a loved one and how a young boy didn’t know how to deal with the loss of his father, the film did an excellent job of showcasing how hard it can be for a family when their patriarch is lost, leaving the son to deal with anger, acting out and sadness all while hoping for understanding and love from his mother, a woman who hasn’t come to terms with the loss herself. She sits in her chair at night, lost, hopeless and unsure of how to deal with the obvious pain that her son is going through. A lot of the film’s viewers expressed their desire to strangle the kid, but if you’ve ever lost anyone close to you, especially as a child, your emotions are all over the place and acting out is actually very common. When the mother and son are beginning to reach their lowest moment in the grieving process, they find a book which inadvertently lets loose a malevolent creature know only as ‘Mister Babdook’. Adding a dark influence over the mother and son, the creature begins to slowly turn the matriarch against her offspring, taking her anger and sadness even to the point of considering murdering the child. The Georges Méliès-like design of the creature made the film surreal and its themes of being forced to deal with death and realizing that some losses will simply never go away and that the trick is just to learn how to deal with them day to day is an outlook and approach which is very real and true to life. We all have sadness and loss in our lives and the film’s handling of depression is one that should be commended even more than it already has been. We’re always given pills to remove sadness and depression but in my case, they’ve never worked, instead, I’ve found sadness and depression as something to work at every day in the same way one might go to a gym to work on their physique. In the words of my good friend and artist Kevin Spencer, “The best thing to do is to realize that the depression will and is going to come, but it’s how you deal with it and come to terms with it that helps you be victorious.”
While A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE BABADOOK are two good examples of using creatures and monsters as metaphors and symbols of real life problems and statements, no better film has approached using that device as a way to shine a light at something serious as effective and powerful as Bryan Bertino’s 2016 film THE MONSTER. A film so intense, so well written and so effective that it could very easily just come off like a nail-biter of a genre film, but its themes and utilizing of a physical monster to help signify a metaphorical one is, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the best-written films in a good four or five-year when it comes to using terror and horror to supplement a relation drama-based story.
Following Zoe Kazan’s Kathy, an alcoholic, sailor-mouthed mother who has a complete disconnect from her fragile and frustrated daughter Lizzy (a year-best performance from actress Ella Ballentine). Split from her screwed-up boyfriend (Scott Speedman, who returns from Bertino’s already cult-status film THE STRANGERS), Kathy is an angry, impatient woman who spends a lot of her time deep in the bottle, neglecting her daughter’s needs and even cursing the young girl out before Lizzy’s school performance, culminating in the poor young girl quite literally getting left, standing in the middle of the garage. Following a visit with Kathy, Lizzy just wants to go home to her dad and it's in the middle of a rain-soaked night of driving the young girl back to her dad’s house, that the film’s monster comes in. Hitting an animal in the middle of the rain-soaked street, the mother and daughter get in a wreck, keeping them stranded inside of their car without very little help anywhere around them. As tensions mount and we’re forced to see the fractured relationship at its lowest, a terrifying monster (magnificent work by Alec Gillis & Tom Woodruff, Jr.’s StudioADI), appears outside their car, forcing them to be stuck together, in a heavy rain-soaked night, while they’re lives are in danger.
What makes Bertino as a director so talented, is how he’s able to tell a powerfully dramatic story while injecting said story into a genre-heavy setting. A broken relationship put to the test in THE STRANGERS added to that film’s charm and dread and the monster in this film makes us as an audience see a fully formed character and relationship arc play out in front of us in ways that we just don’t get to see very often these days. By the point in the film in which the monster is attacking the car with Kathy and Lizzy in it, we’ve seen Kathy at her worst, Lizzy at her most fragile, so we then begin to see a transformation of Kathy doing what she up until this point HASN’T done: put her daughter first, above herself. The true motherly instincts appear and we see the danger in front of them begin to force the two to confront the relationship issues which had until this moment, led to the deterioration of what relationship a girl needs the most: her mother. It’s a sad and somewhat tragic film, one which genuinely affects your heartstrings in many ways, but seeing the threat of the monster force the two to finally come to terms with their mistakes and how to work together and in some ways let that baggage and the ties we hold to someone be let go of is the real power of the film. It shows that even with how much flack the horror genre gets from other genres, that our beloved horror genre is the best at using monsters, creatures, and metaphorical entities as ways for all of us to live vicariously through those horrific moments we live through. I don’t know about you, but that’s the best kind of therapy around.