The horror film is notoriously white, which is why I’m writing this in great anticipation of the release on Friday February 24 of Jordan Peele’s Get Out–a serious horror film that directly confronts racial difference and division. Peele has said that the idea for his film initially came to him during the 2008 Democratic primary and that, over the years, he became more and more convinced that “especially after Obama’s election . . . the U.S. was ‘living in this postracial lie.’” Peele’s target in Get Out, he says, is “the liberal elite,” who tend to believe they are above—past—racism.[i]
The release of Peele’s film, which takes aim at the idea that we are “postracial,” joins the recent publication of Michael Tesler’s book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, about the increasing racialization of the US during the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. Tesler points out that before Obama’s election in 2008, “race-based and race-evoking issues” were “largely receding from the national political scene.” Obama’s two terms as president, however, have ushered in what Tesler calls “a ‘most-racial’ political era” in which Americans are more divided “over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times.”[ii]
If America has become still more profoundly divided by race over the course of the last nine years, it’s worth asking, where is the evidence of that divide in the horror film, a genre that has long been (rightly) declared to be adept at representing the social and cultural conflicts of its historical moment?
XX, from XYZ Films and Magnet Releasing, features four short films all directed and written by women: indeed, it is the first ever all-female horror anthology. “The Box” is written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Captured Bird”) and based on the enigmatic short story by Jack Ketchum. “The Birthday Party” is co-written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark and directed by Clark (in her directorial debut). “Don’t Fall” is written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, V/H/S, and V/H/S/2). And “Her Only Living Son” is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation).
Since the quality of the films in anthologies are typically uneven, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of all four of the short films in XX: they are all well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and all four of them offer something—some enigma—to think about after the film ends. In fact, that’s how I’d sum up what ties the films together, which is perhaps indicated in the title: each film introduces a mystery that remains a mystery—a kind of gap or hole in the story that doesn’t get filled in. X, as it were, marks the spot. X marks this central and provocative absence.
The two best entries, the two richest and most thought-provoking, are those that frame the anthology—Vuckovic’s “The Box” and Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son.”
The tortured artist, in which an artist or performer seems willing to sacrifice almost anything to achieve perfection, is a common trope in film. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, and The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, are two films of the past decade that capture the horrors of attempting to achieve perfection in a culture obsessed with beauty.
Check out the trailer for The Neon Demon.
The Neon Demon (2016) brings the viewer into the modeling world of LA through our fish-out-of-water character, Jesse, played by Elle Fanning. She harnesses true, natural beauty and allure—the “it factor”—which could rocket her to modelling stardom. Upon her arrival in this new world, Jesse is confronted by three women who embody different types of beauty: Ruby, a make-up artist who bestows beauty; Gigi, the manufactured beauty who flaunts her plastic surgeries as accomplishments; and Sarah, the aging beauty who recognizes her time in the spotlight will soon end. Almost inevitably, Jesse falls down the rabbit hole of modeling and becomes the titular neon demon, the self-obsessed model: she embraces her own allure in a striking scene that echoes Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection.
The Interstate Highways Act of 1956 may not automatically sound like the most fascinating topic in the world, but the unprecedented act of road building that followed its passage actually had a much bigger impact upon the American horror film than one might think. What I’ve called the “Highway Horror” tradition encompasses a range of films that critique the ostensibly positive benefits of the culture of mass automobility that the Interstate Highway System helped inaugurate. In the Highway Horror film, journeys made via the highway inevitably lead to uncanny, murderous, and horribly transformative experiences. The American landscape, though supposedly “tamed” by the highway, is by dint of its very accessibility, rendered hostile, and encounters with other travellers (and with individuals whose roadside businesses depend upon highway traffic) almost always have sinister outcomes.
2016 R UK Caradog W. James 95 mins.
Don’t Knock Twice is an interesting film that is lifted up by its exceptional performances and cinematography and by the way it taps into what I think is an intriguing new trend in horror film: the horror of motherhood.
Directed by talented Welsh filmmaker Caradog W. James (best known for the 2013 sci-fi film The Machine), Don’t Knock Twice centers on the relationship of Jess (Katee Sackhoff, of Battlestar Galactica) and the teenage daughter she abandoned nine years ago, Chloe (Lucy Boynton). The film opens with Chloe and her boyfriend Danny (Jordan Bolger) being inexplicably drawn to a house nearby where a woman named Mary Aminov used to live. Convinced that, years ago, she kidnapped and killed a boy who lived in their group home, Chloe and Danny harassed her long after the police decided they had no case. They drove her, it seems, to suicide, and now a legend has flourished that something demonic lives in her house. If you knock twice on the door, it will come to get you. Danny, of course, knocks twice. And then the demonic witch comes to get him. In terror, Chloe flees to her mother’s home—even though she had earlier brutally refused Jess’s plea that Chloe come live with her. But the witch pursues Chloe even to her mother’s house—and so Jess ends up fighting for her daughter’s life.