The Ritual just arrived on Netflix US on February 9, 2018, after general release in the UK and Ireland last October. It’s directed by David Bruckner (The Signal, 2007, and the “Amateur Night” segment in V/H/S, 2012) and co-written by Joe Barton and Adam Nevill. Nevill wrote the fantastic novel of the same name (2011). (Aside: go and read the novel.) Since I loved the novel, I’ve been following the film with anticipation, and so part of me expected disappointment as I began it as soon as it was humanly possible for me to do so on the day it arrived on Netflix. I was not disappointed. Far from it. In fact, The Ritual is my favorite horror film of 2018 so far.
Sleep is becoming one of the crisis points of late modernity, as the steady encroachment of the “24/7” plugged-in world only intensifies sleep’s already uncanny nature.[i] To sleep is to slip into a realm of darkness, irrationality, and the supernatural, a realm that is not only profoundly opposed to the contemporary illuminated world but that has always lain uncomfortably close to death. Indeed, the Western way of sleeping has been described as a “lie down and die” model.[ii] To walk or talk while sleeping, in particular, is to act in ways divorced from the world of light and reason, to act without volition and the consent of the mind. The body that acts becomes something other than the person it appears to be, producing uncanny doubles and evoking the profoundly uncanny uncertainty as to whether, as philosopher Dylan Trigg puts it, “‘I’ am truly identifiable with my body itself.”[iii] Horror films in the twenty-first century in particular have turned to sleep to exploit its inherent uncanniness and the way it suggests that we are not always in control of who we are and what we do.
I have heard myself say that a house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who have stayed behind.
I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House begins with the anticipation of certain death. In this 2016 Netflix original, directed by Osgood Perkins, Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson) enters the house of the dying author, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), to serve as her live-in nurse. Lily spends solitary months caring for Ms. Blum, and the film follows her at a sometimes excruciating pace. Ms. Blum refuses to call her anything but Polly, whom Lily learns is the lead character in one of Blum’s books: a character who suffered a horrible murder but whose ending was never fully told. The ghost of this character (Lucy Boynton) begins following Lily about the house, unbeknownst to her. The death that the house has been waiting for becomes three as Polly’s end is briefly shown, Lily never reaches her 29th year (as she predicts in the first few minutes of the film), and Ms. Blum dies without her caregiver. The film slowly unravels the theme of three different relationships in regards to these deaths: 1) that of the dying and a caregiver, 2) 1) that of an artist with her work, and 3) that of the living with the dead. Ultimately, these relationships grow so neatly and subtly tangled that they become inseparable
Directed by Craig Anderson, Red Christmas premiered in Australia in the summer of 2016 and became widely available in the US (on DVD and streaming) in October 2017. When I say that Red Christmas is disturbing—even unpleasant—I’m in no way saying you shouldn’t watch this film; indeed, it seems poised to become a holiday classic. It’s disturbing and unpleasant in the way horror films should be, and it joins a pantheon of similarly disturbing holiday films, not least Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier, Jr., 1984). To the extent that horror films make manifest what we repress and deny, the holidays (which demand extra helpings of repression and denial if mass mayhem is to be avoided) are undeniably ripe for the most disturbing of horror films. Enter, Red Christmas.
Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (2017) is, shot for shot, one of the most loyal Stephen King adaptations to hit the screen. The premise of the film and the novel (1992) is, for Stephen King, very simple. Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) travel to their secluded lake house in an attempt to save their failing marriage. Gerald’s solution to their sexual stagnation is a pair of handcuffs. Jessie plays along with his game, witnesses her husband’s fatal heart attack, and finds herself alone. The terror of the story, like its protagonist, is confined. The book and the film are compelling, however, because the terror is not in the house or the ravenous dog feasting on Gerald’s decaying body. For Jessie, the fear is spawned by being bound and alone, with only the repressed terror of her past.
In Gerald’s Game, Stephen King crafts one of his most feminist novels. His original intention was to pair the story with Dolores Claiborne (1992) as they both take place at (the fictional) Dark Score Lake during a full solar eclipse. Unfortunately, the pairing never happened, but we did end up with two separate books that work well in establishing a purely feminine viewpoint within the Stephen King universe. In Gerald’s Game, Jessie Burlingame becomes our window into a world that has been darkened by broken trust and a darkened sun.