Remi Weekes’s (2020) film His House is a daunting masterpiece of cinematic horror. And Ari Aster’s (2018) horror film Hereditary does its job; it scares the hell out of its audience. These two films have commonalities; both of them revolve around an outside force that manifests itself through the death of a child. There are, of course, deeper layers that separate the two deaths: the uniqueness of each child’s history and the disparate socioeconomic and racial systems leading to each of the children’s deaths. Both deaths have an eerie, yet distant relation to the other. In His House, Bol (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) escape war-torn South Sudan, yet in order to get out alive Bol commits an unspeakable act. Later their daughter, Nyagak drowns in the Mediterranean crossing.
In a repeated series of poignant and evocative scenes, Bol has horrible flashbacks to the night when Nyagak, and many others, drown at sea. After arriving in England, Bol and Rial receive temporary asylum, their case finally accepted for processing, by a malignantly apathetic bureaucracy, they are remanded released from the detention center on bail (criminalization of refugees is common in the UK). Most likely as result of a terrible decision he made to escape South Sudan, Bol is confronted with an apeth, or “night witch,” which fills Bol and Rials’ new house with ghosts of the drowned, including Nyagak. Bol tries to avoid these ghosts as he moves to assimilate himself and Rial into “English culture;” using a fork and knife to eat a meal Rial cooked, traditionally eaten with hands (“All I can taste is the metal” she remarks when he earlier implores her to eat with utensils), at the small dining room table, the camera pans away, and we see a man possessed with a passion to be safe, to fit in, to be accepted. He forcefully clinks his utensils into the bowl of food, only to become slowly aware that past is still present. The sea is all around him, distant clouds mark out an orange and red sunset. His House is a necessary altermodern, Black neo-mumbleglore (or realist) horror film. Likewise, it is necessary because it reveals – to the non-refugee audience – the compromises, risks and terrors people move through in order to escape genocide, war and ethnic cleansing. A realistic portrait of the banal evil of the British “asylum” process, British xenophobia, forced assimilation, and the horror that is the Mediterranean crossing, Weekes is at the top of his game (he deserves an Oscar-nomination, however, given the Academy’s general reluctance towards Netflix productions this may be difficult).
“Be one of the good ones” is a phrase often repeated by the immigration officers, as well as other ridiculous tropes: Bol and Rial are allocated a complete dump, £74 a week to live on, and are prohibited from seeking employment. Yet the snarky white immigration officers remark that Bol and Rials’ house is “bigger than mine,” and the locals are hostile. The horror here operates on multiple levels: economic, social, psychological and supernatural. The cinematography is excellent, with chiaroscuro lighting, long-shots and slow-pans employed (kudos to Jo Willems). Ultimately, this Black African couple succeed in overcoming and transcending their curse; powerfully, Bol says at end of the film to his case worker Mark (Matt Smith) “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you. It is when I let them in, I could start to face myself.”
This transcendence and resilience is not true of the (fragile) upper-middle class, white US of A family in Hereditary. Ari Aster’s directorial debut is a visual masterpiece; cinematograph Pawel Pogorzelski and editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnson make the move from the micro to the life-size with consummate expertise; the protagonist Annie Graham (played masterfully by Toni Collette) makes miniature recreations of houses, landscapes, people and – as the film moves slowly into the macabre – even a car crash. Aster’s film is arguably too long, and the pacing feels off at times. However, the horror shines through with exceptional performances: Milly Shapiro as Annie and Steve Grahams’ bizarre daughter, Charlie; Ann Dowd as the friendly and creepy “helper;” and Alex Wolff is brilliant as the Grahams’ teenage son, Peter. He is destined for things best left unsaid (watch these films!). Again, realism blends with horror, as Annie reveals her recently deceased mother had a series of mental health issues, including dissociative identity disorder; Annie’s brother had a psychotic episode, or so she thinks, and killed himself. Whilst Annie kept her first child away from her mother, she couldn’t protect Charlie. And something is passing through the family, echoing through the walls. Near the main home, Charlie’s tree-house is built on birch trees; she spends hours twisting various bits of metal into strange figures, cutting off the head of a dead pigeon (which hits the window of her school-room at the exact moment she becomes angry with her teacher), and hating her mother. She wants her grandmother; there are many reasons for this: perhaps its because Annie doused Charlie and Peter with paint thinner and nearly lit them on fire, sleep-walking, some years back; but the reason is actually more sinister.
The Grahams have a lovely, large mansion-sized log home in the woods; some place near or in the Rocky Mountains. They have luxury cars, furniture and plenty of ennui. Peter is an avid weed smoker, and pills of various sorts are in no short supply for the adults. As with many an upper-middle class white family in the American West, at least the ones I have encountered, they are separated from each other and the world by the comfort of time, space and boredom. There is no pressing or exigent narrative here; unlike His House, the struggle is purely insular and almost hermetic. And this is perhaps where the two films diverge the most; the white horror of Hereditary is ultimately about white people seeking a form of Absolute Knowledge & Power. A kind of mystical Hegelian desire to know all, to consume all, to be almost all powerful (giving deference to a deity). Although this critique is not, cannot, constitute a complete or even full accounting of race in horror; however, from a purely filmic perspective a few inferences can be made. Bol and Rial find transcendence out of their situation; this is true in the case of Jordan Peele’s (2017) Get Out and his fulgent second film (2019) Us – along with other BIPOC-centered horror-films and series; for example, in the top-notch but underrated Netflix horror, Chambers, a Native American teenage girl overcomes an all white, elite cult seeking to harness Absolute Knowledge and Power – like in Hereditary – through her body (watch it, seriously). However, given the paucity of BIPOC-centered horror films in comparison to the overall genre, especially realist horror, as with Natalie Erika James’s (2020) (all white) masterpiece about dementia, Relic, Weekes, Peele, Leah Rachel, Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown constitute a much needed New Wave. I am sure there are more films in this wave from the last decade and the beginning of this one, and any omission here is purely out of my own ignorance and/or need for a degree of brevity.
A last few words on Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Browns’ (2018) Edge of the Knife: the film is made with the Haida language, which has only 24 native speakers, and is a tour de force on every level: narration, acting, cinematography, etc. In point of fact, I would put this film in the top five of my all-time list of best features of all time. Beyond being an essential film for the supernatural and horror canon, it is a resistance to colonialism; as Gwaai Edenshaw said of the larger social, economic and epistemological reverberations surrounding the making of Edge of the Knife, “The secrets of who we are are wrapped up in our language. It’s how we think. How we label our world around us. It’s also a resistance to what was imposed on us.” What is equally interesting here is that unlike the white Relic or Hereditary, Edge of the Knife is not about gaining some Hegelian, or western occult power, but about a much more engrossing, embedded and ecological/topological figuring out. In a sense, this typology of horror, BIPOC-New Wave is harder to do and produces better overall filmic results. The protagonists, as with His House, Us, and Get Out, are mainly about adapting and surviving, not dominating in insular cults. The notable intersection between these binaries with the supernatural/horror genre (white/domination, BIPOC/adapation) is Chambers. More hybridization, more diversity and more imagination could make the successors to Hereditary and Relic more interesting, stimulating and, well, reflective of the worlds that birth them.
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Featured Image, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) in Hereditary, Image Courtesy: Bloody Disgusting
Visit No Film School, where you can read an interview with Ari Aster on their website.