SPOILER WARNING: Most of the movies that we talk about here are more than 25 years old, so I never worry about spoiling their plot. This movie has been in theaters a day or so and depends on surprises so much that I feel that discussing them, much less how I feel about them, will ruin the movie for anyone that hasn’t already seen it.
When I was a kid, my parents often discussed a movie that they had seen when they first started dating: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. People had been talking about how amazing the film was and when they went, they sat there confused and upset in the theater. For years, any time they rated a movie as boring, too strange or overly hyped, they would reference Argento’s film. I always wondered if it upsets them that I grew up loving horror and giallo films so much.
One day, I explained what I thought that movie was about to my parents. There’s gender reversal, as well as being a foreigner and the isolation of modern life, filtered through the lens of an auteur. Maybe it didn’t all make sense to mom and dad, but I think my explanation made them get a little more of why I liked it so much.
My wife and I are planning on having kids someday. If one of them ever sits me down and explains why this movie is good to me, I’m going to fucking disown them.
This is yet another in the wave of important modern horror films, movies that people are all too eager to proclaim the next Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist for this generation. Think The Babadook or It Follows. If you liked those movies and found that they were important films packed with “something to say,” then you’ll love this movie and feel that everything I have to say from here on out is basically the words of someone who “just doesn’t get it.”
Director Ari Aster claims that he grew up on horror movies, saying things like “I just exhausted the horror section of every video store I could find.” There’s no denying the talent that he has. But after 127 minutes of film that felt like 127 months, I wanted to be an editor more than I ever have before.
If you thought movies like The Witch moved slowly, the glacial pace of this film makes that film seem like a slam-bang Honk Kong action pic. It takes forever to decide on what the movie is even about, smashing our expectations and killing off a major character — again, let me reinforce that spoiler warning — when Charlie goes to a party, has an allergic reaction and is beheaded while her brother races to get her to the hospital.
That was the one true surprise of the film, one that made me think that it was getting ready to gear up and deliver on its promise to be the scariest movie of our generation.
Look — I’m not going to deny the talent of the people involved in the film. Toni Collette is an amazing actress and she imbues the mother of this film with true emotion. It’s as if her parts of this film seem to be a drama about dealing with loss and never truly understanding our parents and the gnarled roots of our family tree.
Up until now, you’ve been led to believe that this movie is all about Charlie seeing her grandmother, being basically raised by her and even wondering what is meant by the line that she wished that she had been born a boy. But when she’s taken from the film, it becomes all about the family coming apart at the seams.
No matter how far from a traditional horror film this movie wants to be, it comes back the traditions of what not to do in horror film situations. Do not go to a teen sex and drug party. Do not take leave your weird sibling along to said party. Do not engage in magic rituals or you will unleash something you cannot control.
In these new and important takes on horror, these old tropes still remain. Did people feel like this when Argento, Polanski and Romero reinvented horror? Were their films seen as endless parables that meander and go nowhere when people were only used to B movies and classic monsters?
I worry that when it comes to a movie like this — and the aforementioned other modern horror films — that I simply do not have great taste. That my love of pure junk like the films of Mattei and Fulci has made it impossible for me to recognize a true piece of art when it makes its presence known.
I’ve read post after post from people talking about how this film stuck with them for days, how they can’t shake it, how truly horrifying it was. And I sat there, in the theater with an audience that was as confused as me. I’ve seen comments like, “how dare people laugh at this movie” or “how do these non-horror loving people dare to ruin this movie by saying they don’t get it.”
Well, I got it. And I didn’t really like it. I think it’s because you can boil down so many of these films as simply being bad people or bad parents and if we solved that issue, we wouldn’t have these horrors. The mother in The Babadook is a shitty mom. Toni Collette’s mom was shitty — well, she was also a cult leader at best and the conduit to a legit King of Hell at worst — and Annie was a shitty mom too when you get right down to it. Nobody can communicate and pays the price for it. And then there always comes a moment where these horror movies, where people proclaim “it’s more than just a horror movie” yet they still succumb to the conventions and tropes of the genre and appear to be absurd. And then people don’t know how to react. And then people just laugh at the movie and further upset the folks who want these important movies to be sacrosanct.
While I was watching this film, a man snored loudly to my left and I wondered what magical dreams that he was having and how I could experience them instead of what was on the screen. I was jealous of the fact that his girlfriend allowed him the pleasures of dreamland while my wife continually poked me in the ribs to keep me awake during the slow opening of this film before it ground its gears and moved even slower, like a doom band that never gets past playing 19 minute long songs about how shitty life is, but has never listened to anything of Black Sabbath past the first album and learned that they can get quite funky at times and change it up.
So how do I reconcile all that with reviews like this one from Pete Travers from Rolling Stone, who said that the film and its performances “for sure will keep you up nights. But first you’ll scream your bloody head off.” Again, I saw this with a packed house that only reacted with laughter.
At no point did I find myself enjoying this. Instead, I was concentrating on the technical aspects, appreciating the artistry on screen from a very how is that shot framed perspective. That’s when a movie stops working. Then, I was trying to think of movies I could compare this to, like Don’t Look Now and The Haunting of Julia, movies that take the loss of a child and convert it into horror. Why do those movies work so well and this just feels like claptrap to me?
Look — movies can really be about anything you want them to be. You can love the art — like The Holy Mountain — while embracing the lowbrow — like City of the Living Dead. You can react to a film however you wish, whether you want to laugh at it or be afraid or love it or hate it.
But let’s be perfectly frank. I hated this movie. It doesn’t matter to me how many people love it or proclaim it as high art or say that it’s the scariest movie they’ve seen and how much it haunts them. That’s great — I’m happy that they had such a reaction to it. My reaction differs and I’m willing to sit down and ponder for nearly three times the length of this film exactly what I have to say about it. And that, I guess, is something of a success for this movie. Films should make you think and consider and examine. And this movie certainly did that. It also made me wonder exactly what I’d chose to watch when I got home to exorcise its stink from consciousness.
It commits the most cardinal sin of all movies: it is boring. Somehow, a movie where a woman saws her own head off is exceptionally boring. That’s quite a feat.
This movie is style over substance, an effort that tries to tell a story that has no character to root for or care about. We have no idea what they are battling against so we have no way to figure out how they can avoid the outcome. I feel like I wasted money on this film, which is rough yet I can get it back, but I also wasted so much time caring about it and watching it, which is something that I can never get back. It needs an editor that could have trimmed its various narratives into a better collective whole. It’s like steak on steak on steak, covered with 19 kinds of steak sauce, all eaten slowly through a straw after someone else has methodically chewed it for you. And after all that, it tastes like shit.
The trouble is, that I know that the next time there’s a big important horror movie, we’ll be there on opening night, eager to see something that exceeds our expectations. We’ll buy into the hype all over again, because we want something to do exactly what it promises. But again — that’s the power of film and why we love it.
You may have a different viewpoint. And that’s great, too. I’ll be happy to read yours, think about it and discuss it. Feel free to share it below.