By Vince D’Amato
An online film critic who had been praising the performance of genre-film legend Barbara Crampton for her part in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next contextualized Crampton’s role in the 2011 horror film as the matriarch of the victimized family.
Honestly, up until that point, I had not really thought about the considerable weight of the matriarchal role within the horror film.
Cramton herself had played the role before, in her younger years, working with Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs in 1996’s Castle Freak, and has since re-defined this type of character in the cult-ish We Are Still Here (2015) and in the more recent existential-horror of 2016’s Sun Choke – but looking back at the last couple of years in horror, it seems that the role of the matriarch in the neo-gothic take on the horror genre has gone from the caring mother played by Ellen Burstyn in 1974’s The Exorcist to the mothers that have become fully integrated into the actual horror of these cinematic stories, at times as the victims and others as contributors to the perpetrators of the films’ violence and bloodshed.
Indeed, the idea of the matriarchal character within the cinematic (and literary) horror genre has been integrated within their usually gothic designs.
To forget Nicole Kidman’s turn as the matriarch in Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 gothic horror/ thriller The Others is to forget that 2018’s celebrated film Hereditary is essentially a re-imagining of a cinematic story that existed 17 years before its release. However, the writer of Hereditary brings its neo-gothic leanings, with Toni Collette as the matriarch this time around, into a far move violently convoluted situation where Ari Aster (the writer and the director) very nearly out-clevers himself in trying to one-up the classic gothicness of The Others and various types of Shirley Jackson-inspired horrors that came before that. While Hereditary is admittedly scary and makes way more sense than the similar and testosterone-led The Kill List (2011), it also suffers from some of the same mistakes Ben Wheatley made with The Kill List (which had also been a very celebrated modern gothic- horror film of its time), where the obsession to be clever very nearly drowns all conceivable logic of the film’s own plot.
In regards to this, sometimes these over-reaching horror films that are aggressively vying to outdo their predecessors instead make me yearn for films like The Others, Castle Freak, and The Exorcist.
However, while Hereditary very nearly reached the points of all-out, logic-defying plot-jumps that The Kill List unintentionally and unfortunately achieved, thankfully this celebrated 2018 horror entry stopped itself short of that, and also weaved itself into enough other-worldly nightmarish “logic” to keep itself precariously grounded. Added to this, we have Toni Collette’s finely matched performance as the film’s leading protagonist and family matriarch, and to his credit, Aster’s direction (and misdirection) of his horror tale that at lease keeps viewers involved with a high-strung and emotionally visceral cinematic connection.
Kudos to that!
Ideas of the gothic matriarch were also re-twisted in 2018’s less successful Winchester (Helen Mirren) and completely re-modernized to existentially challenge the entire idea of family roles and emotional loyalty in 2016’s The Girl on the Train (Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett), but intriguingly, the classical idea of the influence of the matriarch in the horror genre seems to have not gone out of style, as evidenced by the popularity of the television series Bates Motel and actress Vera Farmiga who plays Norma Bates, Psycho’s Norman Bates’ mother; while Stephen King saw fit to completely subvert the idea of the traditional matriarch as far back as 1987 in his tense novel Misery with the character Annie Wilkes, nurse to many, mother to none... until Paul Sheldon is delivered to her, injured, and in need of care...
In 2015, Trick ‘R Treat director Michael Dougherty brought us his take on Christmas horror by popularizing the Krampus legend for North American audiences in his seasonal horror film (aptly titled) Krampus. Here he also cast Toni Collette as the family matriarch, although in a very different turn than 2018’s Hereditary takes. Here, Collette holds her family together with fraying wires as her character overcomes her familial anxieties with heroic bravery in full-on-motherhood, trying to protect her cubs and her clan form the forces of Christmas Evil.
While Gremlins may have been the satirical dark holiday entry of its time period, Krampus is far darker in both humour and horror than Joe Dante’s 1984 Christmas-horror romp.
In Joe Dante’s cult classic, Frances Lee McCain plays the matriarch who tries (somewhat triumphantly) to hold down the fort while little green monsters multiply and violently tear up the Norman Rockwell-esque neighborhood – but motherhood in the sub-genre of Christmas horror is not as naturally ingrained as one would assume, with Christmas being a traditionally family-filled time of the year – in fact, most Christmas horror films would fall far more easily into the slasher sub-genre, like Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, the groundbreaking Black Christmas, and even the insanely satirical and over- the-top Jack Frost (no, not the Micheal Douglas movie).
However, let’s not forget that the idea of Christmas and all of its religiously celebratory background is fertile grounds for the most gothic of horror stories, where the matriarchs can shine in the atmosphere and genre of terror. Aside from Krampus and the winter-bound We Are Still Here, Pascal Lauger, famous for directing Martyrs, brought us his own winter-bound tale focusing directly on motherhood, in his Canadian-produced 2012 film The Tall Man, which features as a young mother whose small son appears to have been kidnapped. Walking the line between snowbound gothic thriller and classic horror film, The Tall Man utilizes suspense and intensity to warp the genre and engage the audience to impressive affect. By far, The Tall Man has to be the most underrated of the films mentioned here, I have yet to converse with a horror fan who has even heard of this film, yet Lauger’s previous film Martyrs rode on its its own praise for years, making it a modern cult classic.
Whether Christmas-themed or not, let’s not forget the utter psychological depths of the matriarch’s role in these goth horror tales – whether she’s good or evil, all boys and girls are looking to their mommy to save them from the monsters.
Only sometimes, the monster is mommy.
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