Alright, so we’ve already seen how people who are supposed to be benevolent, pure, and unthreatening—like women and children—are the fertile ground from which springs some of the best horror, or at least the horror that messes with our preconceptions and taboos in the most interesting ways. But what about family? How does the genre deal with a social space that is, at least in theory, supposed to offer comfort, safety, and unqualified love? Let’s look at a few examples of what happens when the people who know us best, and are meant to protect us, are the source of the horror, when ostensibly unshakeable biological bonds get twisted, perverted, and subverted.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Kim Jee-woon, 2003
The story: Su-mi is institutionalized and being treated for shock, but quickly returns to her father’s home with her sister Su-yeon. The house is secluded, and tensions run high between Su-mi and her stepmother. In the meantime Su-yeon has visions, and develops bruises on her arms. Strange things keep happening, and the father blames Su-mi’s return. But nothing is at it seems, and the mystery surrounding the girls’ deceased mother might play a part in the strange occurrences that haunt the family.
Why you should watch it: If you like mind-benders that stay mysterious right up until the end, you’ll love this (it is actually very hard to write a summary without giving everything away). You’re never sure exactly what’s happening, who’s at fault, or where the threatening sense of foreboding is coming from. There’s a touch of body horror and teenaged sexuality is briefly used to make everything that much creepier. The film is lush and full of rich, saturated colours, and there’s a lot of fun visual symbolism to explore.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1990
The story: Fenix is a young boy growing up in a circus. His father runs it and performs as a knife thrower, while his mother Concha uses the flying trapeze when she’s not running her new religion, the Santa Sangre Church (devotees of which worship a girl whose arms were cut off by her rapists). When Concha finds out that her husband is cheating on her with the circus’s tattooed woman, a violent altercation ensues that scars Fenix so badly he has to be institutionalized. Years later, he escapes.
Why you should watch it: If you’re at all familiar with cult-favourite Jodorowsky, you know what you’re getting yourself into. This crazy, fascinating mess of stunted emotions, fear of sexuality, trauma, murder, and mommy and daddy issues is complex, uncomfortable, and very, very compelling. The circus setting lends some really interesting visuals to the movie, and like A Tale of Two Sisters, mixing parents, death, and abuse all together is a sure-fire way of creating a sinister as shit story.
John Fawcett, 2000
The story: Sisters Ginger and Brigitte are social outcasts who look down on everyone at school, have only each other as friends, and spend their time putting together morbid photo shoots, with themselves as the grisly murder victims. They’re incredibly close until one night when Ginger gets bitten by a strange animal in the woods. Soon after, her moods and body begin changing. The adults are dismissive, believing that Ginger is just becoming an adult, but Brigitte knows better.
Why you should watch it: There’s no way in hell I’m not going to recommend a movie that uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for female puberty, and you know this by now. Ginger Snaps is campy, and low-budget, and so much fun. The interplay between the sisters is super compelling, regardless of whether they’re loyal best friends or pitted against each other. This film, for all its silliness, is an amazing portrayal of the risks of growing up into a woman and dealing with the fraught topics of desire, adulthood, sex, and abandonment.
Henry Selick, 2009
The story: Only child Coraline moves with her parents to the Pink Palace Apartments, an old house divided into three dwellings. With her parents occupied with the move and working to make ends meet, Coraline begins to feel neglected. While exploring, she finds a small door that leads into the Other World, where she finds her Other Mother and Other Father. They present her with an idealized version of her life and she begins to like it more than her own reality. Things take a dark turn, however, when she refuses to stay there forever.
Why you should watch it: Hey look, it’s our first kid movie! Don’t let that put you off, though, Coraline is plenty unsettling. You see, the reason Coraline doesn’t want to stay in Other World is that she has to agree to have buttons sewn into her eyes. Yeah, you read that right, this is based on a Neil Gaiman book after all. The film is made using beautiful stop motion, and the character design, colours, and subtle differences between reality and Other World are all great.