The Lucky 13: Week Seven: Psychological Horror
by Brutal As Hell Staff
Intro by Marc Patterson
Psychological Horror… What a tough category. Tough because how do you define it? Generally speaking I think it’s safe to assume that the psychological horror film is one that sets a brooding tone and emphasizes style and psychologically terrifying elements to create scares over the presence of violence or gore. I think this is probably the most broad and general definition of this type of film. Hell, it borders on stating the obvious. Personally speaking, the psychological horror film is one of my favorite sub-genres because I love films that set out to disturb and truly scare the hell out of me, rather than shoving viscera in my face as a cheap shock tactic. Psychological horror films are the films that get inside of you and stick with you for years after you’ve seen them. They are the truly unforgettable films of horror.
This week we take a look at our personal favorites in the psychological horror genre, and as a first in this ongoing series you’ll see we have one film that two of us picked, which became interesting as it goes to show how subjective the influence of these films can be, proving that no one watches movies quite the same way.
For more great picks, make sure to visit our “brother” site – The Vault of Horror, who has been in cahoots with us on this fun summer long series.
Marc Patterson and Dustin Hall on Eraserhead:
Marc: In my late teens I started discovering a lot of crazy films. I used to call them “D Films”, as they defied genre or categorization. They also fell into the bucket of three main adjectives: dark, depressing, disturbing. There are a lot of other “D” adjectives for these films, but that’s neither here nor there. At this point in my life I didn’t consider myself a horror film fan. I liked horror films, but I was just a plain old movie geek. I spent a lot of times in the local video shop, digging through the shelves looking for all sorts of twisted treasures that existed off the beaten path. Back then (in the 90’s) we didn’t have the Blockbuster video stores. It was independently owned shops and I was lucky enough to live in a college town, which meant a strong emphasis on indie film and alternative cinema. Thus was my discovery of David Lynch and Eraserhead.
Simply put, Eraserhead changed my life. At this point my education in the world of alternative cinema was well underway. I had seen A Clockwork Orange a few times. I was reading stuff by William Burroughs like it was a drug in and of itself. Eraserhead was the logical next step for the boys at Matt & Dave’s Video Venture to throw my way in my education of “D Cinema”. And what a twisted and fucked up surrealistic vision this was. I thought whoever made this had some serious mental issues. In spite of my repulsion, it was the kind of film that I just couldn’t look away from.
The best way to describe the film to those who haven’t seen it is that Eraserhead is like being tossed into a surrealistic nightmare filled with disturbing post-expressionist symbolism. You are injected straight into the psyche of Henry, a quiet factory worker, and it’s a rough place to exist. In the first five minutes he gives birth to this sperm/worm looking creature, who I’m assuming is symbolic of the birth of his baby. But in the film his baby is also this same bizarre creature. There’s a woman with grotesque swollen cheeks who lives inside a radiator. You’ll never shake the song she sings from your head “In Heaven, everything is fine…” She sings this to Henry lulling him towards death. Shit gets really fucked up when Henry’s head gets lopped off and is replaced by an eraser, which then takes the form of his baby’s head. Eraserhead is also filled with a lot of dark sexual themes that quite honestly go so deep that it would take a whole team of psychotherapists to tackle. That said, the film isn’t sexually explicit, which only compounds how bizarre this film is.
The difficulty in talking about this film is that I could talk about it forever. Eraserhead will change the way you watch films and broaden your appreciation for the cinematic arts. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s one that I’ve now seen a handful of times, and was happy to watch again. It’s a tough film to just categorize as this, as is also the case with much of Lynch’s work, is hardly worthy of being attributed to a singular genre. I certainly wouldn’t simply dub this horror, but it most assuredly is psychologically terrifying stuff. Eraserhead digs into your brain like a worm and embeds itself deep into your psyche and will never, ever leave. You will never forget watching this film. You will never forget the feelings it created inside of you.
Dustin: Is this really a horror movie? I dunno, but it scares the hell out of me. Eraserhead, one of David Lynch’s first and, in my opinion, still his finest film (wait… maybe Elephant Man?).
While the meaning behind the surreal visuals of Eraserhead seems impenetrable at moments, the plot is very simple. In a heavily industrialized world, a boy knocks up a girl. Their baby, perhaps because of the world around them – perhaps not – is terribly deformed. While the movie is primarily the two youngsters dealing with their shotgun marriage and the horrific baby, there’s enough weird shit crammed in as trimmings to make most audiences scratch their head in confusion.
Everyone has their own interpretation of Lynch’s films. For me, all of the surreal elements still boil down to the core themes of the movie: sex and parenthood. In the middle of dinner with the in-laws, the little game-hens they’ve served up start bleeding. Bizarre, but it also looks kind of like a vagina – yep, that’s a very unpleasant reminder of menstruation. At one point, our protagonist’s head falls off, and the deformed face of their son emerges from his body. Fear of being replaced by one’s own (inept) progeny? That’s what I took out of it.
Really this film is a series of provocative visuals that are expertly crafted to let you apply your own fears upon them. For myself, I’ll fess up to a fear of parenthood, of replacement, of obsolescence. It’s a credit to Lynch’s warped imagination that he can make a movie that seems to simply babble, yet says things that can chill a viewer to the core.
Of course, Lynch claims it’s a “spiritual film”, so maybe it’s about God as an imperfect being, creating man accidentally, and man is a horribly deformed baby that seeks to destroy and replace its creator. Ah, the beauty of art. Give us something disgusting to watch and we can apply the worst parts of our minds to it.
Even if you aren’t a fan of strange, enigmatic art films, Eraserhead is worth checking out for the puppet that makes up the deformed baby. What the hell is that thing? Prevailing rumor is that it was made from an embalmed calf, but it looks strangely bird-like. To this day, no one knows exactly what it was or how it worked. Pretty gross. Pretty cool.
Britt Hayes on Grace:
Every once in a while you see a film that gets into your head and takes up permanent residence. That film for me is Grace. It’s the story of Madeline, a well-meaning suburban hippie with a baby on the way. She’s decided to go the natural route and give birth in a giant tub of water. Tragically, Madeline and her husband Michael get in a car accident one night, leaving Michael dead and her baby without a heart beat. She’s rushed to the holistic birthing center, and is told she will still have to give birth to her dead infant. But something strange happens after she gives birth: she holds her baby to her breast and begs for life to return…and it does. Her baby is alive, and Madeline names her Grace.
Grace isn’t like normal babies. She has an awful, curious smell, she’s literally allergic to baths, flies crawl around her crib, and she doesn’t want milk – she wants blood. Typically, this sort of set-up would induce groans and laughter, but there’s something so hypnotic and chilling about the way Paul Solet intimately films Madeline and Grace. Jordan Ladd also deserves massive credit for elevating Madeline beyond a caricature.
While the bloody moments are stomach-turning and play on our feelings of feeding and being fed upon, it’s the relationship between Madeline and Grace that is the most effective, serving as a meditation on the fears of parenthood and a parasitic child. Personally, I don’t want children, and Grace only served to cement that feeling for me. Babies start as internal parasites, become external parasites, then grow into children and young adults who attach to their parents’ wallets to continue their siphoning and draining their forebears of the will to live. Babies take your life, your body, your money, and your mind. Grace is horrific because it takes these exact fears and makes them literal on the screen. Grace is always hungry, and always needs to feed. How far will Madeline go to take care of and protect her baby? How much will she sacrifice of herself for Grace? In a sick sense, Madeline is a protagonist, only doing what she feels is right for her child; her baby is the antagonist, pushing the protagonist over the edge of sanity.
Grace is a film that will crawl into your brain and press all the wrong buttons, forcing you to confront a universal subconscious fear. You don’t need to be a woman to be disturbed and rattled by this film, and I solemnly promise it will linger with you for days.
Annie Riordan on Session 9:
Man, I love a good, hard psychological screwing. Just slip the stiff dick of insanity right the hell into my head and fuck my brains out, literally! The complex possibilities of the disturbed mind are as plentiful as multi-orgasmic tantric sex; it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And – unlike my real life sexual encounters – I’m more than likely to say “Honey, that was GREAT!” after a particularly violent and satisfyingly jiggy mindfuck.
So, how can a psychological horror/thriller with more twists and turns than a cerebral cortex possibly get any darker or more dangerous? Well, what if it took place inside of an actual insane asylum where actual lobotomies were performed on actual crazy people?
Sadly, the gothic magnificence of the Danvers State Insane Asylum is no more. Demolished in 2006 to make way for luxury condos, only photographs remain of the sinister building which served as a model for Lovecraft’s (and, later, Batman’s) Arkham Asylum. Oh, and in 2001, the critically acclaimed but woefully overlooked psychological horror movie Session 9 was filmed there. Director Brad Anderson captured as much of the gorgeously rotting structure on celluloid as possible and, in turn, Danvers Asylum turns in a performance every bit as powerful as the rest of the seasoned cast, which includes the intensely hangdog Peter Mullan and the ever assholish David Caruso.
On its surface, Session 9 seems to be a simple tale of a stressed-to-the-max man and his subsequent breakdown. But which man? Everyone in this movie is stressed out, fucked up, and grappling with their own personal demons. Danvers is simply the catalyst their damaged psyches needed to implode. Is it the imprinted memories of horror left behind by the former residents? Is it a genius loci? A demonic possession? Ultimately, the film lets you decide. That’s not to say you’re in for an ambiguous ending: Session 9 wraps everything up quite neatly in the end. But that final, aerial shot of Danvers, sprawling like a monster across the serene autumn landscape – a monster who has just swallowed the entire cast whole and is now digesting them slowly within its belly – is chilling to say the least and lingers long afterwards, like a particularly nasty nightmare that stays with you all the following day.
Mental illness, nervous breakdowns, paranoia, lobotomies, violence…Session 9 has it all, and more besides. I dare you to watch it alone in a pitch dark room.
Ben Bussey on May
As far as I can tell, there are very few films that truly get inside the mind of a psychopath. Untold numbers have claimed to do so, of course, from Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho, to Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs, to Rob Zombie’s disasterpiece Halloween. But regardless of whether the resulting movies were good or bad, they still treated the homicidal madman as the other, the alien, the one to whom we must not relate, offering us instead a source of identification in the generally far less interesting victim/s. The only movie I can think of off-hand that really shows us everything from the perspective of the “crazy” killer from start to finish, really getting us under their skin and into their mindset, is Lucky McKee’s May. And it just so happens that said movie, in my humble opinion, is easily one of the very best horror films – indeed, one of the very best films – of the past twenty years.
I feel like I’ve voiced my love for this film a great deal already: it was the subject of one of my most favourable reviews (review here), and Angela Bettis topped my list of the most Oscar-worthy horror performances of the decade. Is there much I can say that I haven’t said before? I don’t know. All I can do is reiterate what an amazing experience it is to watch this film; to see the world through the maladjusted eyes of May; to feel her loneliness and insecurity, her desperation to be loved, accepted, “seen”; to share in her anxiety as she struggles to understand the behaviour of those around her, and slowly comes to realise that none of them accept her; to be right there with her when she finally snaps. It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking, and terrifying.
Who among us has never been made to feel a freak? Who among us has never failed to grasp the “rules” of social conduct, never misjudged where the boundaries lie? Who among us has never found someone they thought to be a kindred spirit, only to find them shallow, judgmental and unkind? And who among us has not – just a little bit, on some level – longed to bring down the pain on those that have done us wrong? That’s the story of May. That’s what makes it such a powerful and unsettling film; because, even when she does the unthinkable, it’s impossible not to empathise with her. That’s why it’s usually the first film I mention whenever anyone asks me to recommend a horror movie they’ve never seen. So it should pretty much go without saying that, if you haven’t seen May, I urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you…
Bryce Holland on Audition:
While there are many sub-genres in the realm of horror that may be more graphic and visceral, I think that there’s a strong argument that none is truly as scary as psychological horror.
I mean, sure, gore movies pack in the blood and guts and violence, and monster movies may give you glimpse of creature that could only be spawned in your nightmares, but psychological horror touches you on a very base level. A good psychological horror film actually manages to crawl under your skin and bury itself in the dark recesses of your mind. They make you rethink your outlook on things, and they can force terrifying questions into your subconscious, questions with possibly horrifying answers.
A good psychological horror film lingers with you, and personally I think the most frightening psychological horror film of all time is none other than Takashi Miike’s cerebral mind-fuck, Audition.