Domestic dramas with a terrifying edge are putting horror firmly back in the Hollywood spotlight
Creepy supernatural chiller Lights Out, released in US cinemas this week, is the latest modern horror film to make waves with critics.
Directed by David F Sandberg in his feature debut, the movie has received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Perhaps that may seem surprising given it’s a ghostly nail-biter about a creature that can only appear in the dark, and is banished by light. But early responses have roundly praised the movie’s compelling character development and dysfunctional family drama.
Essentially, this is a film that builds both empathy and discomfort by exploring the strained relationship between a seemingly tormented mother and her children. That in itself builds unease, before you even throw the ghastly apparition into the equation.
A different emphasis
Responding in a Reddit Q&A yesterday, Lights Out writer Eric Heisserer gave some telling insights into how he prioritised the domestic drama aspect first, and the scares second.
“My approach to horror is not to write that element first. With Lights Out, I first wrote a family drama with no scares.
“The script clocked in at around 70 pages, and I could track the emotional arcs and choices of the characters. Once I had that locked in, I went back and found every instance where family friction was intense, and knew the monster had to make an appearance within the next few pages.”
Heisserer’s comments underline a long-standing truth of the horror genre. Ground it in relatable reality first, make us care about the characters and engage with their situation, and THEN unleash the outlandish scares.
All great horror movies understand that.
But interestingly, many of the most celebrated horrors of recent years have taken a very specific approach to this. Namely, they have been stories which stand on their own two feet as powerful, hard-hitting domestic family dramas, and then just happen to also feature things that go bump in the night.
Home is where the fear is
From breakout indie sensations, to studio hits like the recent Conjuring 2, the past two years have seen an emergence of smart, successful and multi-layered spookfests that immerse the viewer in the complex lives of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons.
And their excellence lies in giving centre-stage attention to the damage that families do to one another when domestic tensions rise. It’s an uncomfortable, decidedly human aspect we can all connect to.
Robert Eggers’ disturbing masterpiece The Witch is so rooted in the simmering turmoil of its resentful, repressed frontier brood that it even sparked debate over whether it should be considered a horror movie at all.
Sub-titled ‘A New England Folk Tale’, I’ve heard it described as a historical parable, period drama, and even “Ken Loach in the 1600s”.
Witch or no witch, this is a family who are truly on the edge.
As actress Kate Dickie, who plays Katherine, explained in a recent interview with us, the attraction of working on the movie was completely related to the character elements at its core.
“The drama of a family completely cut off from the rest of the world was something that really appealed to me.
“I tend to gravitate towards characters who have struggles in their lives. I like to explore what goes on under the skin, and the things people don’t talk about.”
That’s rich pickings for modern horror it seems.
Much like Lights Out, Jennifer Kent’s brilliant Australian creation The Babadook mined a huge amount of unsettling atmosphere from the day to day horrors of depression, for instance.
Even more so than the titular creature stalking the mother and her young son, you recoiled at the sheer trauma of their torturous relationship – and Essie Davis’ astonishing portrayal of a struggling parent, slipping further and further into possibly violent insanity, was more skin-crawling than a dozen unsettling supernatural visits.
Reviving a winning formula
It’s not as if horror movies have never explored familial tensions for their fear factor. But it is certainly surprising that few films had done so successfully before this recent spate of gripping (and occasionally harrowing) exercises in domestic dread.
It’s notable that two of the iconic giants of cinema once created famous horror films that were firmly rooted in the mundane everyday lives of ordinary families.
Poltergeist, produced, co-written (and some say co-directed) by Steven Spielberg, is so effective precisely because it spends time immersing us in the suburban world of the Freelings, gradually building anxiety as their seemingly normal existence begins to crumble and implode.
They feel real. They feel like us. And we can therefore relate to and be greatly troubled by their trials and tribulations, in a way that the recent remake spectacularly fails to emulate.
Likewise, Kubrick’s classic spine-tingler The Shining would be no way near as enduring if it didn’t have the unsettling backbone of domestic violence and familial dysfunction running all the way through it.
Stephen King once said the story was about “a father who wants to eat his child up”, and Jack Torrance’s psychosis, alcoholism and slide into infanticidal madness disturbs us on a deep, personal level that no mere phantom could reach.
Lights Out is the latest film to understand that you can make a decent spooky movie with a creepy monster and some effective suspense, but if you want to make a truly great horror film, you keep its drama firmly in the family.
Lights Out is due to hit UK cinemas on August 19.