This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
The pace of high-quality, frighteningly effective indie horror movies really seems to be accelerating here, and has rarely slowed for the rest of this decade. We are fortunate enough to still be in what has been more or less a golden era for the horror genre, largely driven by indie releases, and 2014 looks a bit like a template for many of the best films of the era. In particular, supernatural horror and psychological, mind-bending thrillers are thriving, with a steady undercurrent of top-notch horror comedy to leaven things up when the tone gets too dour.
At the top of the hierarchy, this year is headlined by a number of intense horror dramas, including #1 pick The Babadook. Goodnight Mommy is another such example, a film with a deceptively simple premise that allows psychologically scarring horror to play out in an intimate setting. The Austrian film is told from the perspective of two young boys, whose mother has recently returned from cosmetic surgery with her entire face hidden by bandages. Sensing that something in the familial dynamic has changed, the boys become convinced that the woman in their home is not their real mother, barreling forward onto a path toward hysteria and tragedy. With elements that seem to reference Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters in particular, Goodnight Mommy is just one reason this is a particularly rough year for depictions of motherhood in horror films.
Under the Skin, on the other hand, is likewise an intensely psychological (and objectively beautiful) cinematic experience, although its emotions are much more obtuse—only fitting, given that Scarlett Johansson is playing an alien intelligence who walks among us. To quote Paste contributor Chad Betz: “The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do.”
So too do Starry Eyes and Honeymoon make this a particularly harrowing year for horror—the former as a devastatingly bleak examination of how the Hollywood system abuses and breaks emerging talents, removing everything that was pure or good about them in the process, and the latter as a metaphorical warning for how we can never truly know another person, even when we’ve sworn to spend our lives with them.
With that said, 2014 isn’t entirely dire, as the year is also host to one of the decade’s best horror comedies in the form of Taika Waititi’s instant classic of a vampire parody What We Do in the Shadows, which presents a coven of prissy and ineffectual vampires living the slacker life in New Zealand. Likewise, it’s a strong year for more straightforwardly entertaining genre fare, including Mike Flanagan’s strongly written (and very twisty) haunted mirror movie Oculus and Adam Wingard’s rock-solid 1980s throwback The Guest, which gives Dan Stevens one of his very best roles.
All in all, this is a pretty spectacular year for horror, and one of the better arguments for why the 2010s have been such an excellent horror decade.
2014 Honorable Mentions:
Goodnight Mommy, Under the Skin, Oculus, Starry Eyes, What We Do in the Shadows, Honeymoon, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Guest, The Canal, Housebound, As Above, So Below
The Film: The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
If you went polling audience members for an adjective they’d attach to an abstract concept such as “a mother’s love,” one can only imagine that the most universal reply might be “unconditional.” That would be thanks to the deeply ingrained, cross-cultural assumption that a mother must possess an innate, obstacle-trumping love for her children that can survive any catastrophe or challenge. The thought that the struggle to raise a child, especially a young child, could somehow challenge that foundational love is a taboo few filmmakers are willing to touch, which is one of the things that made Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook such an unnerving revelation in 2014. It’s the rare film that confronts the possibility of a mother coming to terms with the fact that she just might hate her own, supremely challenging son, and the intense anxiety and isolation she feels when confronted with the knowledge that no one in her life could ever be hoped to understand where she’s coming from. After all … she’s a mom! Moms are infallible sources of love and affection, right?
The Babadook, of course, is many other things as well; most notably an extremely effective metaphor on living with a mental disorder such as depression. It’s the story of Amelia, a thoroughly drained single mother who is raising precocious (and very irritating) son Sam, some handful of years after her husband was killed in an accident while taking Amelia to the hospital to give birth. Naturally, this has given rise to a deeply buried resentment against her troublesome son, which seems to manifest in the form of a mysterious picture book that shows up at the household called Mister Babadook. The book tells the story of the titular creature, which stalks victims of a household after they become aware of its presence, eventually driving the parents to murder. As the presence of The Babadook becomes more overt, Amelia begins to lose her grip on reality, suffering horrific visions that she will one day become a pawn of The Babadook and murder Sam. Her son, meanwhile, spends his time acting out at school, alienating extended family and gradually pushing his mother closer to the edge. He essentially has to be a uniquely challenging little boy, or the story wouldn’t work, as we need to feel the walls closing in around Amelia and her utter lack of recourse.
The Babadook himself, meanwhile, is essentially the stuff of fairy tales gone wrong, a cloaked and top-hatted, vaguely humanoid presence with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. There was something oddly familiar about the image from the get-go, tapping in as it did to some aspect of childhood urban legend long forgotten, even if the monster largely stands in as an outward manifestation of Amelia’s grief and depression. This makes him no less frightening; nor can we pigeonhole The Babadook solely into the realm of “psychological thriller” by saying that nothing supernatural actually happened in the household. It’s more a matter of crumbling mental faculties creating some kind of supernatural projection.
Ultimately, it’s also the way the story is concluded that makes The Babadook such an effective and true-to-life parable for parents. Like a genuine mental disorder, the antagonist is never truly “defeated” or in some way destroyed, allowing the protagonists to merrily move on into a carefree, idyllic existence. Rather, Amelia and Sam instead come to an understanding of sorts with the Babadook—an outcome that they can live with, even if it’s not perfect. Sam quotes the picture book, solemnly intoning that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” but the audience is meant to understand that this is not so much an outcome of tragedy as it is of maturation and acceptance of the realities of life. A mental disorder, depression or otherwise, isn’t a problem to be solved in a linear way, crushed and left behind—instead, it’s a struggle one engages in every day, acknowledging the way it makes you feel in the hope of improving things incrementally. The Babadook probes our deepest insecurities as parents and guardians over the most vulnerable among us, but it also illustrates the possibility of recovery and healing, if we’re brave enough to look our monsters in the eye.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.