Can horror be ‘progressive’? Actor and now director Romola Garai talks about ‘changing the narrative’ of horror with her first film but I’m not sure that she’s managed it (what is this ‘narrative’ anyway?) though she might have thrown a few spokes in its wheels.
Which is to say that Amulet doesn’t quite work, although it is inventive and ambitious. Too ambitious perhaps – Garai has some good ideas and some firm opinions as to how they should be implemented, as revealed in the Q&A following this BFI preview and Garai’s Evening Standard article appearing the same day, but the film’s mixture of traditional horror, cosmic weirdness and rape revenge fantasy doesn’t gel.
Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is an Eastern European immigrant with a guilty secret, scraping a living in London. He is introduced into the benighted household of Magda (Carla Juri) by an apparently kindly nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) – Magda is struggling, in a rambling old house with no electricity, to care for her elderly mother up in the attic.
That Mum is a bit of a handful is attested to by alarming noises from above and teeth marks on Magda’s arm – it’s a protective, and possibly romantic, impulse towards Magda that convinces Tomas to stay in this curious household. But it comes as no surprise to the viewer to discover that things are not what they seem: that isn’t her mother up there and Staunton is no nun.
The first concrete indication that something isn’t quite right is the appearance of a hairless skeletal batlike creature in a blocked toilet. At the end we find out where these things come from – they are the spawn of the old woman upstairs.
Although the old woman is really a man, being punished for a murderous past by the mysterious cult Magda and ‘Sister’ Claire belong to by being forced to ‘give birth’ to these things (which are then destroyed by Magda in what is a sort of ritual working out of the destructive forces lurking inside men). I think.
Tomas, whose guilty secret is that he raped Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a woman he was supposed to be protecting back in the old country, is scheduled to become the next vessel, thus giving him a chance to experience (something analagous to) the pain of childbirth, with none of the rewards, and ensuring that Miriam is avenged.
It’s an interesting idea, and Staunton is excellent, her intermittent appearances – gradually scaling down from nun to whatever the hell she really is – representing the film’s best effort at establishing a coherent tone.
It’s understandable that it never quite commits to its ‘hero’, whose secret we aren’t privy to until later on, but had Garai made him more of a scuzzbag the ending – which takes a blackly comic, even sadistic, pleasure in his fate – would have worked better. As it is it feels bemusingly excessive.
Tomaz never quite emerges as a fully-formed character. He’s not a monster, or a hero. He’s not quite a victim (like the male protagonists of numerous 70’s gialli) and he’s not quite the man-in-control who finally realises that he’s the victim (like Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man). And he isn’t exactly the kind of character where your uncertainty about him is part of the draw.
The rape feels oddly tacked-on, Garai’s – understandable – unwillingness to linger on it leaving it with little emotional weight. It’s an illustration of an idea that even a man who worships and protects women may rape them but this never feels like more than an idea – in terms of Tomaz’s character it seems more of a blip than the eruption of some inner beast.
Because of the refusal to give the rape its due dramatic weight the ‘revenge’ aspect of the scenario doesn’t play. It’s possible that it isn’t meant to – after all, the revenge is achieved obliquely, in a different country, without the victim’s participation or even knowledge.
This could be a way of suggesting the numbness of the traumatized and an idea of the victim accepting the assault as her lot. The ‘revenge’ then moves on to a more abstract plane. If so, it clashes with the gleeful tone of the ending. Garai talks in the Q&A about wanting to linger on Tomaz’s screaming face as the end credits rolled and in the Standard article about a ‘delight in vengeance’.
Where does the ‘furious anger’ that Garai says inspired the film come from? It doesn’t seem to come from within the film itself: the Standard article suggests that Garai is reacting to horror’s history of misogyny, and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty there to react to, but the film doesn’t plunge into this feeling and generate a catharsis – until the ending it keeps its distance.
Garai talks in the article about horror representing ‘a lot about being born female’ and tells us that her film is ‘a way of taking control of those experiences and changing that narrative.’ Maybe that’s the problem here – too much emphasis on control, when horror is really about losing control, or the fear of it.
I saw this on a rainy night at a cinema in the Courthouse Hotel, Great Marlborough Street, a free screening courtesy of Frightfest. I hadn’t realised that it would have hard-of-hearing subtitles.
In some ways these are quite useful, even for those whose hearing is reasonably good – not all the dialogue in films is easily audible. But mostly I find them to be an annoying distraction. When someone is described as ‘chuckling softly’ I find myself wondering – is that really the best way to put it?
It could be that my (mostly adverse) reaction to Mariama Diallo’s film is entirely and unfairly down to these subtitles; or it could be that the subtitles coincidentally point up the film’s biggest weakness – that it’s ‘message’ is overstated.
Of course we should remember that my opinions are not to be trusted anyway, whatever the circumstances.
There used to be a thing called subtext, Stephen King went on about it in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre. Text and subtext, a basic approach to criticism that happens to suit horror very nicely – text as ordinary above-ground daylight existence, subtext as the thing that’s buried underneath but wriggling its way to the surface. Text as conscious, subtext as unconscious.
Now as we have grown more sophisticated it often seems that what used to be ‘subtext’ is on the surface, a conscious aim of the film. Master is a case in point: we know exactly what it’s ‘about’ from the very beginning.
Gail (Regina Hall) is the new black ‘master’ at an ancient, traditional New England university and Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is one of the very few black students – the film explores their (overwhelmingly paranoid) experience of the place.
Institutionalized racism is the bogeyman here, evoked in an early scene very simply by the shot of a veiled marble bust in Gail’s new quarters. Almost, we don’t need anything else, though of course there is more. A lot more.
And yet, in a way, not much more. It always sets off alarm bells in a horror film when too many creepy scenes end in the protagonist waking up in fright: the nightmares here are well done, but increasingly suggest that the film is treading water.
Jasmine’s experience is initially handled with some cleverness as she finds herself in a grade dispute with a black tutor, Liv (Amber Gray) who has marked her down for not being able to uncover the racialist themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Jasmine insists that this is because there aren’t any, yet her posh white friend Cressida is able to rattle off an essay on the subject without much thought.
Subsequently, Jasmine is subjected to a barrage of microaggressions from her peers, bad dreams, possible visitations by a witch, and outright acts of racism (a burning cross on the lawn) and becomes obsessed with the diary of a former student who killed herself. Eventually, she follows in her footsteps.
There is a sense of a lot going on – too much – but it feels too scattered to make a substantial impact. Where is the threat coming from here? A witch? Racists? Or a deranged tutor?
Because later on it is revealed – or strongly suggested – that Liv has been hounding Jasmine to self-destruction. Now that the girl is dead, and that awkward grade dispute therefore resolved, Liv is granted tenure.
You might wonder whether the suicide of a student you were in dispute with is really likely to count as a point in your favour careerwise, but by now there are bigger questions around Liv, such as: is she even black?
Gail has discovered that she is the offspring of a white woman living in a nearby community of people who have adopted a 17th century lifestyle (another overly obvious demonstration of the past’s stranglehold on the present). She confronts Liv with her findings at a faculty party but only makes a spectacle of herself. This whole plot strand feels melodramatic.
Far more effective is the earlier scene where Jasmine, in hospital, encounters an old white woman in the next bed who seems, in what we must presume is a state of dementia, to mistake her for her maid, or at any rate some figure from her past, and tells her to ‘take your Black hand off me.’* This works because it is disconcertingly plausible – although it riffs on Suspiria, it has the virtue of not turning out to be just another dream.
For the most part, overstatement is the order of the day, as in the laboured irony of the title (and Gail’s job title). When Gail finally concludes that, rather than a ‘master’, she was ‘just the maid’ – there to make the place look presentably diverse – she is only reiterating a point has already been made by a sound that has been haunting her: the tinkling of a bell.
Horror is often thought of as ‘subversive’; also, as fundamentally conservative (see, again, Danse Macabre). But horror is both – it needs to be as invested in the status quo as it is in the threat to it.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is one of the most conservative horror films I can think of, insisting absolutely that only the Catholic Church can save us; it is also a film which partly relies for its ‘appeal’ on Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix, and obviously the Catholic Church wanted to ban it.
Master conforms to this paradox in its way – it suggests from the very beginning a ‘subversive’ critique of tradition but its fatalistic attitude to institutionalized racism renders it oddly conservative. In the end Gail is seeing people from earlier centuries mingling with the guests at the faculty party and concluding that ‘nothing will ever change’ (though there are surely more women on the staff than would have been the case in previous eras).
She walks away, perhaps to set up her own university, or at least find a more modern institution to work in. The notion that ‘nothing will ever change’ doesn’t carry a lasting chill here; by this stage it has been done to death. It is the film itself that hasn’t changed.
Both Amulet and Master emerge from a pre-established point of disenchantment with the status quo and miss the basic ambivalence of horror, which leaves us endlessly torn between the dissatisfactions (and comforts) of daily existence and the nightmare (and relief) of its disruption.
So can horror be ‘progressive’? If – for example – it chooses to work through the legacies of past trauma in a thoroughgoing way, perhaps it can emerge at the end with the hope of something different ahead (though any depiction of that will be vague). But it needs to explore the trauma, not just accept it as an established fact.
Obviously it must move with the times, like anything else, but, like humour, it’s essentially unstable and will not readily serve as a platform: it’s about questions, not answers. Amulet and Master, though not bad films, don’t quite understand that.
*Here is the only point where the subtitles proved interesting: note that the fashionable capitalization of ‘Black’, intended as a mark of respect or solidarity, applied to an expression of racial disgust, now seems to emphasise the racism, carrying a strong suggestion of black as ‘Other’.
All of which seems perfectly in keeping with the mischievous ‘double’ nature of horror; more so, perhaps, than anything else here.