Ava: “You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. If you ignore it, you end up hurting people.”
All horror is about more than just the ghost or the demon or the slasher serial killer, and some of the most intricate and masterful examples of the genre are those that deal with a feeling that’s stalked us just as long as fear of the unfathomable, or of an unsafe family, or a callous society. We’ve always, always lived with grief. And we’ve always, always struggled to reckon with the seemingly impossible truth that on a day we can never predict, we’ll see a loved one for the last time.
An Unquiet Grave’s incredibly simple setup is another perfect examination of the lingering sorrow that follows a dearly beloved person’s loss. With just two characters, it sets up a thriller about two people who are struggling with losing the same person, even as each is experiencing a different loss and failing to cope with it: As grieving husband Jamie and his sister-in-law Ava (who is a twin to his deceased wife, Jules). Jacob Ware and Christine Nyland pull off the incredible feat of making an extremely limited setup captivating. It’s the rare horror movie that could almost be a stage play, the drama is so tight and elemental.
Jamie and Ava both want Jules back, and both have committed themselves to a truly unnatural act to accomplish this. But, it quickly becomes clear, Jamie has not told Ava the true extent to which she’ll be part of this ritual. He certainly hasn’t told her that it requires blood. By the end, it’s very clear that what she told him about failing to cope with loss is completely literal. Ignore it, pretend it isn’t there, and somebody is going to get hurt.
In honor of a wider release in the United States for the film as it hits Shudder this week, here’s a look at 10 other unsettling horror entries that are also rooted in grief.
1. A Quiet Place
A lot of entries here will focus on a grieving father in particular. A Quiet Place makes the choice, right from the beginning, to be a family affair. In a world where super-strong, super-fast, thoroughly implausible monsters attack anything that makes more than a few decibels of noise, the Abbott family scrapes by in the post-apocalypse. We get the impression they have such an easy time communicating because their daughter is deaf, and the whole family therefore already knew how to sign when the shit hit the fan. Unfortunately, in the opening scene, the family is reduced by one when the youngest child makes a noise at the wrong moment and gets snatched. The film is just as much about John Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s guilt at the momentary lapse that gets their child eaten by a sound-monster as it is about their surviving daughter and son’s coping with living in a world where constant crisis and deprivation literally silences their ability to talk about the trauma. As we know they must, what remains of the family only comes through once they’ve united … and Blunt has racked a shotgun.
There are times when, hate yourself for it though you may, you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for a family member’s passing. That is another kind of trauma entirely, and in the case of Hereditary’s Annie (Toni Collette), it causes her to question everything about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her deceased mother, and that she has apparently failed to keep from passing on to her own children. In the days following her mother’s death, Annie loses her daughter to what appears to be a freak accident. Implicated in the gruesome death is her son, and herself. As the family hurls recriminations and retreats into their personal guilt, it becomes clear they’re being stalked by an insidious cult conspiracy. Director Ari Aster has made his mark with two movies where cults are the boogeymen following an unfathomable grief. Both Midsommar and Hereditary grapple with how grieving makes us vulnerable, but it’s Hereditary that evokes a feeling of being trapped in the cycles of abuse long after the abuser has left.
3. We Are Still Here
It’s been said that while a spouse who loses a spouse is a widow or widower, a child who loses a parent is an orphan, but that there is no word for a parent who loses a child, as it is just that unthinkable. It’s no surprise that so many of our entries deal with the specific loss of children, and use it as a catalyst to send their grieving parent protagonist to any length to try to assuage the feeling. We Are Still Here tells the story of two parents (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) who have retreated to an old house in the New England hinterlands in the wake of their son Bobby’s death. It’s not long before the grieving mother claims she’s seeing her son’s ghost and demanding things like seances. We Are Still Here is about an inability to let go when a loss is so great and so unfair that it defies belief. Bobby’s parents are ultimately willing to go to any length to see him again, even if it means filling the bellies of the monster in the basement with the souls of an entire town.
4. Pet Sematary
The 1989 and 2019 adaptations of Stephen King’s novel are both serviceable retellings of what was a deeply disturbing book. King has always been an empathetic and sympathetic writer. Even when rendering his bestial villains and his flawed heroes, there’s rarely a moment in his story when you don’t understand why a character is doing what he or she is doing, even when doing it is clearly madness. So, when Louis (Jason Clarke in the newer version) discovers that a patch of soil not far from his new house revives any dead creature buried within it, we understand why he has no choice but to put his slain child beneath the dirt— even after we’ve seen what it did to the family cat. “Sometimes dead is better,” goes the tagline of the film, and it really is King’s whole thesis. In his semi-autobiographical work On Writing, King talked about his own struggles with addiction, which reared its head particularly strongly when his mother died. How we cope with loss can vary, but we must actually do it, or the failure to do so will literally destroy us.
5. Koko-di Koko-da
A young mother survives a near-fatal allergic reaction, only to wake up the next morning with her husband to discover that their daughter died of the same food-poisoning in the night while they were unable to help. Three years later, bitter and quarrelsome, the two make camp for the night. They’re assaulted by a group of leering psychos and killed … only to repeat the same night over and over again. Koko-di Koko-da is a line from an old folk song, sung in many parts of the world, called “The Rooster is Dead” or something similar. It’s a constant refrain throughout the movie, the theme of the grinning, well-dressed man in white, the woman with the pronounced pigtails and the pistol, and the lumbering man carrying the ruined body of a dead dog—the tormentors who time after time kill Tobias and Elin in violent and humiliating fashion. The movie plays like a recurring nightmare, never fully elucidating its bizarre symbols, and it ends in a way that is imperfect and inconclusive. We get the impression that both of our doomed protagonists have just part of the solution that will free them from their torment, if only they would tell each other about it. Koko-di Koko-da is short, haunting and utterly fascinating in a way that will stay with the viewer long, long after the rooster, an eerie shadow puppet, makes its last appearance.
6. The Orphanage
A couple of married doctors, Laura and Carlos (Belén Rueda and Fernando Cayo), and their son, Simón (Roger Príncep), move into the very same orphanage Laura grew up in. Simón, a lonely child, has taken to playing with imaginary friends, but one of them actually seems to be the vengeful spirit of Tomás, a malformed child who died at the hands of his fellow orphans. When Simón goes missing, Laura is convinced that to find him again, she’ll need to play Tomás’ game. The Orphanage features one of the absolute most heart-wrenching reveals, a cruel betrayal of audience expectations and an absolute gut-punch for Laura. It reframes the movie entirely as an examination of a woman who can’t reckon with her guilt, or let go of a hope that is simply completely misplaced.
7. Don’t Look Now (1973)
John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in an accident, and while grieving, accept a new job situation in Venice. While there, two elderly sisters approach them claiming to be psychics and offering all sorts of ways to contact their dead daughter. John doesn’t know whether they mean to help him and his wife, or take advantage of them. But some of their dire warnings appear to be very real. Don’t Look Now had its share of controversy (over a sex scene), but has eventually been regarded as a notable entry in British horror. While the ending is telegraphed a little, the sheer wildness of it is sure to shock. All the while leading up to it, though, are two parents utterly unmoored by their loss.
“It’s easier to embrace a nightmare than to accept how stupid, how simple reality is sometimes,” says Tricia (Courtney Bell) as she tries to work through the absurd tragedy of the husband who has been missing for seven years (Morgan Peter Brown) reappearing the very night she finally succeeds in declaring him dead in absentia—and then disappearing again. He’s sallow and unresponsive in the few hours he is back in Tricia’s care, and Tricia’s sister, Callie (Katie Parker), believes he may have been dragged back into an eerie tunnel near the house by some foul creature that can live inside walls. It’s unfathomable to even think about having to cope not with a clear-cut death, but a complete disappearance. Absentia features more than one scene of characters talking about their wild speculations and imaginings of where a missing person might really be—working for the CIA, or running off with drugs and money. In a tightly budgeted little film with some good naturalistic performances from its intimate cast of actors, the argument director Mike Flanagan makes is that a phase-shifting insect beast from prehistoric times slurping our loved ones into the walls is somehow more acceptable to us than the maddening mysteries behind most missing persons.
Shot in just five days and getting its story out of the way in one fleet little hour, Lyle calls back to Rosemary’s Baby in its eerie fixation on the machinations surrounding a couple’s next child. The couple in this film are two women: the main character, stay-at-home mother Leah (Gabby Hoffmann) and her wife, June (Ingrid Jungermann), who spends a lot of time away working as a music producer. When their child Lyle dies, Leah slowly starts going off the deep end, becoming more and more convinced that the new building they’ve just moved into is the source of the evils in her life. And as the movie goes on, it becomes clear it’s not just her paranoia at play. The movie gets by on Hoffmann’s completely committed performance of a woman in the midst of mourning at the same time she’s on the cusp of new motherhood. It’s a feverish, paranoid debut for director Stewart Thorndike.
10. The Changeling
George C. Scott’s wife and daughter are mowed down in a roadway accident while he’s powerless in a nearby highway phone booth. Snowed under by his grief, he can’t turn down a new faculty position at a prestigious university, nor room and board provided at a rambling old mansion held by the local historical society. Unfortunately, the house comes with its own bumps in the night and disturbing spiritual intrusions, and before long, Scott is poring over historical records and trying to figure out what connection it could all have with an elderly U.S. senator. The rare one of these that has something approaching a happy (or at least a conclusive) ending, The Changeling is in many ways a by-the-numbers appease-the-ghost haunted house story, but the additional layer to it is really Scott’s grief. When somebody is taken from us unexpectedly, it feels like an injustice, a wrong done to us personally when, in reality, it’s often just horrible happenstance. Scott commits himself fully to solving the murder that lies at the heart of The Changeling. Unlike many people who have no monster to track down after such a loss, he wins in the end.
Kenneth Lowe is haunted by the echo of your last goodbye. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.