Of Cults, Clans & Cages: Modern Horror and Internal Battles
Bubbling under the surface of the studio system, independent film companies are (contrary to popular belief) putting out original content. Away from the studio restrictions of enforced family friendliness, these filmmakers are exploring cinema in their own way, building on the influences taken from a childhood of constant input from various media sources. Filmmakers now were raised with the internet, with VHS, DVDs, and the ability to watch and re-watch their favourite films to their hearts content.
They were raised on films that were influenced by the classic stories. They aren’t influenced by Lovecraft, they are influenced by film, music, games, and by the world around them. A renaissance of storytelling that builds on the concepts laid out in classic fiction, without always knowing how it does so. While the wave of 80s nostalgia that defines the last ten years has been based on mimicry, these films are stripped back; there are no fluorescent lights and neon tracksuits here. These films are built on multiple layers of beige and grey. That’s not to undersell them, they are fantastic pieces of work, but they need some investment from the viewer. There is much to see and find in those layers. As you dig through, they sometimes circle back to their origins, three or four generations of storytelling back from where we are now.
The internet allows exposure to more and more concepts, individual struggles are brought home and explored compassionately, given space to be open with emotional struggles and troubled times. Every Facebook page is its own drama film, its own news story, laid out for public scrutiny and comparison. This idea is explored in the current trend of horror films, taking these classic concepts, be they creatures, cults, killers or mysterious ancient beings and applying closet monsters to internal battles.
While Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s Spring (2014) and Resolution (2012) were regularly suggested to be Lovecraftian, they admit freely that at that point they hadn’t read any of his work and didn’t even really know who he was. They were working on their own influences, later films which were all a progression from Lovecraftian to what we see now. This circular progression of storytelling is again reflected in the plot itself and the loops the characters find themselves trapped in. The Endless (2018) opens with a Lovecraft quote, acknowledging their predecessor and this circularity.
Moorhead and Benson’s first film, Resolution, sees two men locked in a struggle with addiction. Mike (Peter Cilella) is holding Chris (Vinny Curran) hostage as Chris detoxes from crystal meth, following receipt of a video (a trope repeated in The Endless), that concerns him enough to travel to the remote woodland where Chris is living and attempts to rescue his friend from himself. They are forced to explore their friendship, how they have grown as people and apart, as their struggles are played back to them via recordings sent from an unknown entity. Similarly, Aaron and Justin (played by Moorhead and Benson) in The Endless are called to the same area by a mysterious video tape. Interestingly, the recordings are all hard copies, a mixture of analogue and digital technology but all of it is solid. There is no internet here, no apparent risk of other hands in the pie manipulating or spying them. It is simply these two men and this entity in a battle of negotiation, first with each other and then the monster at the door.
The Endless, Moorhead and Benson’s companion film to Resolution, has a continual focus on repetition, looping stories and the ability to watch and re-watch what we say and do. Much like watching short videos on the internet. Each loop is a recording that can’t be changed and so it is to our lives. We don’t really get a do-over, the characters are trapped in this loop with the illusion of immortality but the price of that is not being able to go anywhere. They develop skills, they can present them, and share them, but can’t really use them. Aaron and Justin have different views of their childhood in Camp Arcadia due to their ages when they left. Much like memories distorted over time, the younger you are when something happens the more nostalgia and rose tint you are likely to add to it.
This focus on nostalgia is seen in the multiple formats of visual media sent to the characters as reminders that they are being watched. While many long for nostalgia and view the past with rose tinted glasses, these two films strip back the distortion and show that memories can be manipulated as easily as editing a film. The truth of the place and nostalgia felt towards it can’t be found again, you can only look at the images left behind and try to muster it in your mind. Each recording shows a point of view, it is not pure truth. Their entire lives in Camp Arcadia are like the image we present to the world through social media. It is selective; this is what we can do, it is the things we have done, but it is not who we really are.
Aaron and his distorted memory leads to a displeasure with his life as an adult, he needs to go back and see it for himself to really move on from his childhood and progress, in a way that those who remain in Camp Arcadia can’t. The same entity as in Resolution overlooks all this, like a black dog at the door manipulating their perception.
Jeremy Gardner’s After Midnight (2019) takes this ‘black dog’ concept and literally translates it to a monster banging at Hank’s (played by Gardner) door. As he struggles with alcoholism, insomnia and paranoia, the monster comes back, nightly while the rest of the world sleeps. He is locked in a struggle with his own psyche and it is not until he addresses his real-world strife that he can defeat it. For the final act this film almost forgets it’s a monster movie - as does the audience - as the drama between the cast plays out. The final battle is not really with the monster but with his choices. He can’t fight the monster until he addresses and begins to repair his relationships.
Ari Aster’s two films, Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), both explore and expand on mental health problems within the confines of a family unit. Both feature people who must lean on others who are perhaps not equipped or willing to deal with what they have been handed. Other hands interfere and manipulate proceedings, pulling these people away from their current support system for their own ends. Hereditary takes a bleak view on this, comparing the family history to Sophocles’ Greek tragedies (a quote from the ancient play, Antigone is used in one scene), where fate has already decided what direction they will go. They are like puppets or dolls, demonstrated by the models built by Toni Collette’s Annie. Where Midsommar has Dani (Florence Pugh) on a path of rediscovery, finding a new family and support system, Hereditary plays out as a downward spiral.
Both films are catalysed in the first act by a dramatic death, Hereditary has Annie's daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) killed in an ‘accident’. Though of course there are those pulling the strings and casting the spells that caused it, they pull on the cracks that are already there. The catalyst at the beginning of Midsommar does more to stall progress than anything, as the murder-suicide of Dani’s parents and sister causes her relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) to enter a strange limbo where neither can really escape from it. As raw emotion is expressed in a way usually unseen in film, this strains the bonds between the original support networks of the characters. She can’t leave because of fear, he’s all she has. As she leans on him more, he feels that strain and resentment weakening their bond as a couple.
Without that catalyst their relationship would have already come to a natural close, but their problems are pulled starkly into the light as they stand under the never-ending daylight of the summer solstice in Sweden. The bright sunshine shows Christian for what he really is, and in the ‘Hårga’ Dani finds a new support system. Dani's pain is shared by the other women in the community, and as such she is finally able to fully express it. Their barbaric customs being part of a complicated system of reliance and family, the likes of which she hasn’t known before. In Hereditary the strings pull the family further and further apart, manipulating their closeness and trust to the point where they seem to barely know each other. At the end, the last remaining family member is a marionette king for the cult. Not held so much as strung up.
Aster’s cinematic influences are clear, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in particular, play into both these films, but he takes the original films and deepens the theme. Adding more gore yes, but also more drama, more subtext and more weirdness.
David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) based on the 2011 Adam Nevill book of the same name, also starts with a dramatic death. As one of a group of friends is killed in a robbery, the others go on a camping trip to Kungsleden, a hiking trail in northern Sweden, in his memory. As they all wrestle with the blame and survivors guilt they gained on that night, Luke (Rafe Spall) is held at arm’s length from the rest of the group as the survivor of the robbery. His friends are unsure whether to blame him or how they would have acted in the same situation. They are all haunted by it and it deepens the cracks in their relationship, as the things they have in common get few and far between as they age away from who they were at university.
Taking influence from Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), particularly in the dynamics of the friendship, there are also the echoes of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005). The characters deprecate and communicate in the way only British people do. The Descent especially shows an earlier example of characters coming together after a tragedy when normally they should or would have grown apart. As Stephen King briefly moved away from horror to write Stand by Me, it is horror where its influence is felt now, providing the blueprint for ongoing relationships and friendships manipulated and changed by extreme circumstances.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) in The Descent and Luke in The Ritual, are both caught up in PTSD which manifests and mirrors itself in the monsters they face. Memories mix with reality and tragedy is pulled into the wilderness with them, another monster to face alongside the real one.
As these characters fight monsters of folklore, they are really fighting themselves, adulthood, change, progress and trauma. The monsters are not accurate to their history beyond what you might find going down an internet rabbit-hole, they are modernist manifestations of eternal and internal struggles. As mental health is brought into the forefront of public consciousness, and there is an ongoing rhetoric of non-shaming and supporting those who struggle with it, it makes sense that these stories become more literal.
While H. P. Lovecraft wrote about paranoia and monsters in a way that belied and hid his own struggles, today's writers run into them face on. What used to be the subtext is now the text itself. As friendships extend beyond their natural conclusion thanks to social media, so too is this expressed in these films. The boys in Stand by Me grew up and grew apart, now they continue and become a burden on those stuck with them. While the wave of nostalgia for the 80s wanes, those who grew up with ready access to media (and much more depressing 90s music) look back with grainy videos to go with their grainy memories.