photograph by Nina Levy | http://ninalevy.net/home.html
Children arrive on this earth as tiny sponges–mewling and new–completely dependent upon the adults who care for them. Sometimes this works out just fine, but sometimes it does not. Unfortunately, it is during a child’s most formative and developmental years they are the most vulnerable. In their early childhood, the actions, words, and teachings of their caregivers might be confusing and painful, but they have no choice but to hide their pain and confusion, for it must be wrong. This is really the only defense mechanism they have: to turn that blame and shame inward, because they are completely powerless at that point to do anything else. It must be their fault, the adults must be right, because the alternative is utterly overwhelming. They begin to grow up, and absorb information about what is “normal” outside of their family, but this might only further alienate them, for their identity is intrinsically locked into that of their family and now they must hide it. By the time they realize that they have been doing something wrong in the eyes of the world outside their home, they might already feel as guilty as their parents. So they are faced with the choice to either accept that the people who they have trusted, loved, and emulated are monstrous deviants–and thus, they themselves are monstrous deviants–or cling tighter still to the idea that that their parents (and themselves)are persecuted heroes pitted against an ignorant and cruel world.
This is one of the many human conflicts that only the horror genre can adequately reach: childhood vulnerability against the monstrous power of their adult caregivers. We need the nightmarish imagery, the absurd misuse of parental tyranny, the blood and gore, the monsters made flesh, and even the cannibalism in these allegorical films in order to reach the depth of the emotional trauma and childhood bravery that so many children experience. I’m sorry, but no matter how much Meryl Streep you throw in, a human drama flick just can’t get there. Sometimes symbolism is the quickest way to truth.
There are so many horror films that examine the countless doomed facets of the child/parent relationship, but this three-part series, I will focus on just three. First up:
A heavy rain dumps upon a small town, where a thin and sickly woman with hand tremors leaves a general store and begins to cough up blood and flail about. She collapses into a flooding ditch and drowns. We are shown the objects that have spilled out of her shopping bag and wonder: what did she plan to do with all that twine?
This haunting film from director Jim Mickle is shot in a wash of gray and rust, and is a delicately different re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau’s 2010 film of the same name.
In perusing the interwebs for reviews and insights on this film, I found many comments drawing a parallel between this film and the horrors of fundamentalist religion. Sure, I see it. However, I found the secret, bizarre fundamentalist religion of the Parkers to also reveal a ripe commentary on the secret and bizarre dynamics of family.
Upon the death of their mother, the children in this family are in varying stages of this secret-home-life quandary. The oldest attempts to accept and adopt, the youngest is still blissfully unaware, and the one in the middle is overcome with the burgeoning awareness of exactly how wrong her family is. With one parent gone, the barrier between the outside and inside world is cracking. The father is strict and demands of his children full allegiance to his macabre doctrine, but like so many flawed and complex parents in real life, he is both terrible and wonderful. He loves them. He takes care of them. He believes he knows and does what is best for them.
A very brief synopsis:
- Patriarch Frank grieves terribly for his wife, yet persists in dominating his three children with religious fervor and a devotion to maintaining a macabre family tradition: ritual sacrifice and cannibalism.
- Her mother dead, the burden of killing and prepping the main course for the family’s “Lamb’s Day” dinner passes to eldest daughter Iris, who bravely steps into the role of family matriarch, but her younger sister Rose, struggles between loyalty to her family and knowledge that her family is not only abnormal, but hurting people.
- The two sisters struggle with their relationships to their family and the outside world. The father clings tighter to his bloody tradition while mentally unraveling. The outside world begins to invade and erode the family’s secret world.
- Upon exposure and the looming threat of loss, the father decides to kill himself and his remaining family. The sisters kill him instead and leave town with their little brother.
Being forced to kill and prep the family’s meal using their mother’s handy-dandy cannibal cookbook forces the two sisters to come to terms with just what their family really is. While younger brother Rory seems totally ignorant of the family’s ritual of sacrifice as anything other than a holiday (I imagine most real-life parents watching call bullshit on that; he’s at least preschool-age), their mother’s death forces the girls to face who they really are and what their family history and mythology requires of them.
Further complicating matters is the torrential downpour causing flooding in and around the town, consequently eroding the ground and unearthing bits and pieces of the family’s secret. The town doctor and medical examiner, Doc Barrow, whose own young daughter has been missing for some years, uncovers evidence in a creek bed that makes him suspect what may have happened to her, and cross-cutting between the scenes of Lamb’s Day prep and the good doctor getting ever closer to learning the truth builds tension as the film progresses. Meanwhile, deputy Anders keeps poking around to see Iris and finds himself drawn into the doctor’s hunt for more evidence, and kind-hearted but nosy neighbor Marge can’t seem to stop snooping around at inopportune times. With the family’s long-held secret on the verge of undoing everything, Frank, who’s own mental condition isn’t on what you might call solid ground, starts to unravel even more.
I think that if you were to take out the cannibalism and instead insert a more common family secret (incest, mental illness, alcoholism), you might find the plot is not so different from the sort of events you’d read in a newspaper:
A family has a closely guarded secret of _______. One parent dies, leaving the rest of the family grieving and struggling even further with maintaining the illusion that _______ is okay. People in the community begin to see that the family is not okay, and either show concern or disgust. Authorities are notified, and begin to close in. With the threat of exposure and loss near, the parent decides to “protect” the family by killing everyone in it (including themselves).
But here is where the cannibalism allegory makes itself a vital component in the redemption of our heroes in this film. The children (the two sisters) do not allow this to happen. As the family sits around the dinner table, dangerously close to eating what they know is poisoned food meant to kill them (yes, the sisters know their father has poisoned the food and yet they almost remain compliant), the sisters kill their father instead. Then they eat him. Then they take their little brother and their mother’s cannibal cookbook and leave town.
Sound harsh? Maybe. But I found the symbolism emotional and compelling. They deny their father’s assumed authority and right to their existence. While he (and their mother) brought them into the world, their lives are their own. They take (in the manner that was taught to them) the sustenance their father has left to give, as well as the legacy of their family secret (the cookbook), and take ownership of their lives. Perhaps they will overcome that family legacy, or perhaps they will perpetuate it–probably a little of both–but it is now theirs.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series where I will look at that 1989 black comedy/horror suburban classic: “Parents” (yes, more cannibalism).