In recent years genre films have been exploring “polite horror”: people being trapped in social conventions that prize civility over safety. Alex Kronenburg puts his manners to one side and asks some awkward questions…
Predator and prey: two opposing forms that are constantly at odds. A predator is tireless in its pursuit of a kill, whilst a prey relies on its innate, subconscious sense to somehow foresee the actions of its adversary: a fine balance that, if triumphant, ensures its preservation and that of subsequent generations.
Like every other creature cohabiting this planet, human beings have persevered thanks to that instinctual drive. Whether it’s escaping the jaws of a stone age carnivore or narrowly avoiding a pileup on the motorway, it’s that primitive predisposition for survival that has kept us out of harm’s way. However as humans hurtle towards a digital consciousness, are our primeval resources becoming blunted to the point that individuals are completely unable to defend themselves or their loved ones?
This appears to be an emergent theme in horror films, with several recent features exploring a polite paralysis that grips its victims. Unable to rebuke unwanted guests, challenge ambiguous denigrations or becoming uncharacteristically malleable are all symptoms of a condition which render a person helpless to resist the oncoming terror. In short, it turns people into prey.
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! torments audiences – and the titular parent (Jennifer Lawrence) – by gradually (and then not so gradually) increasing the number of invaders into the her painstakingly renovated property. As the number of people bloats, the vacant space becomes minimal and Mother loses control of her home, husband and family. And although the scene of strangers bouncing on her newly fitted antique sink is in itself monstrous, it’s the suppression of Mother’s voice that is most unbearable. Javier Bardem’s Him seems to exist only to suffocate, bind and repress Mother: he speaks in platitudes and riddles, purposefully opaque. Whilst Mother devotes herself to Him, he is eternally distracted and when forced to engage he mutes her attempts to express herself and the impending danger she senses.
Whilst the male counterparts in Mother! are more concerned with their individualistic preoccupations, Mother herself is bound by societal expectation. The role of the “good wife” is a weapon that she is continually bludgeoned with: from the moment that an unexpected visitor arrives she is relegated to the periphery, forced to watch as they first impose, then degrade and finally destroy her home all whilst serving tea. As much as Mother is trapped in the cyclical structure, she’s restricted by a suffocating, patriarchal marriage: a theme also important in Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil (2022).
In the early stages of forming bonds with others it’s easy – and completely understandable – to forget the finer details: their occupation, children’s names or dietary preference for example. And yet there is a something overwhelmingly distasteful about an early interaction between holiday companions Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch).
Danish couple Louise and Bjørn, along with their daughter Agnes, have not long arrived for a weekend away in Holland at Patrick’s familial home when the host offers a sample of the meal ahead. After praising his slow cooked boar Patrick skewers a piece of oozing, sinewy flesh and presents it to Louise, having apparently forgotten she is vegetarian: only to Louise, this conversation seems poignant. Is this a provocation? An insult? A challenge to their subservience? If so, Louise’s husband Bjørn (Morten Burian) quickly bends the knee. Louise hesitates; Bjørn speaks covertly to her in their native tongue and encourages her to eat the meat. The fact that Bjørn is so quick to violate Louise’s beliefs rather than stand up for her speaks volumes about his state of mind here.
In that moment Bjørn’s priority is to ingratiate himself with his host and be a man that Patrick would want to align himself with – to laugh over modern contrivances and bond over unspoken truths. These desires do not coincide with the principles of his wife. In fact, Louise personifies the existence that Bjørn actively resents: a life of contemporary comfort. She revels in the everyday – whether meticulously selecting their daughter’s winter coat or preparing dinner for friends. Domestic mundanity threatens to suffocate the rogue maverick that (in his mind at least) lies dormant within. In Patrick, Bjørn recognises a counterpart who has embraced that side of masculinity – he exists in the civilised societal structure (having claimed to be a doctor) whilst simultaneously connecting with more primitive male urges. He speaks eloquently and confidently, he’s vociferous and thoughtful in his interactions and courageous in the expression of his emotions. In his pursuit of male enlightenment, Bjørn is willing to forgive Patrick a few incidental violations of courtesy.
As the Danish family navigate the onslaught of quirks and peculiarities, a sense of foreboding becomes too potent for even Bjørn to ignore. When a naked Patrick comforts Agnes back to sleep in his own bed, it is time for a comatose Bjørn to awaken from his slumber. The family are well on the road back to Denmark when a painful twist of fate leads them to return to the home where Patrick once again scratches Bjørn’s restless itch. In hindsight, it’s a moment that lingers: one of horror’s great ‘what if?’ sequences. Will it be this turn of events that Bjørn contemplates in his final moments, or perhaps will he think lovingly of the life he once despised so much: a life of domesticity that he will never have again.
If in Speak No Evil a family enters the space of a predator, in Duncan Birmingham’s Who Invited Them (2022) two unexpected guests make themselves comfortable in our protagonists’ home. During a schmoozy, middle class house warming expensive alcohol and forced conversation flow, but when the guests inevitably make their pre-11pm excuses Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) think they’re alone only to discover a couple, who neither of them invited, have stayed for an after party.
Margo’s initial response is to insist that the mysterious Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) leave but her husband hesitates, drawn in by their charisma and the potential to elevate his own social status. You see Adam is completely insecure, terrified by his lack of significance and influence in the world: the sort of person who uses the term “hashtag” and “crib” when having an adult conversation. So when interactions become unconventional with the couple he embraces it against his better judgement: shortly after Adam has shared the contents of his liquor cabinet with Tom he’s considering sharing his wife as well, without her consent or knowledge. The fragility of his male ego ensures that nothing is beyond relinquishing in order to ensure a more superior external projection.
What makes Adam’s passive nature more concerning is the fact that it’s in response to repressed marital insecurities. We learn through uncomfortably frank conversations that Margo was once half of a successful rock duo, the other being someone she also shared an intimate relationship with. Without trying Margo has established herself as superior, and all the rare vinyls in the world won’t elevate Adam beyond her. As Dr Darcia F. Narvaez states in her article on male entitlement:
“The script for an entitled male is to make sure their head is higher than that of women or unqualified men. If there is a threat to that script, they must fight like the devil to make the world right again. They feel righteously angry for the threats to their place in the world.”
Ultimately – and somewhat inevitably – this insecurity manifests in an act of violence against his wife. Tom and Sasha encourage the couple to express themselves physically: at first Adam rejects this idea but soon succumbs and seizes the opportunity to establish himself as the dominant force (which he tellingly also fails to accomplish). It’s only when Adam comes to realise that his quest for improved status is putting his marriage at risk does he relinquish his male entitlement and become active in ousting the two invaders.
As the saying goes, home is certainly where the heart is. But – as illustrated in Mother!, Speak No Evil and Who Invited Them – home is also where the ego resides. Social niceties assist families in preserving projections of ideal selves and as functional units: polite horror works in traumatically revealing the nightmares that can form when these norms dictate primitive impulses, and lays to rest once and for all that old adage that ‘Good manners never hurt anyone’.
© Alex Kronenburg