SINGAPORE - When a movie comes out of Sundance drenched in hype, I feel bad for its producers. The film is now a tall poppy that some critics feel needs cutting down, or a fluke that somehow got past the real tastemakers, i.e, me.
That is what happened to the horror film Hereditary, now showing in cinemas. Everywhere one looked, someone was gushing about it. I tried to put that out of my mind when I reviewed it, even though I know it is impossible, but one has to try.
This is a beautifully shot and acted movie, and actress Toni Collette gives it wings. It has a couple of scares, but they are mild.
Horror that explicitly invokes the supernatural is very hard to get right. Hereditary is too much on the nose about its spooky antagonists. It explains too much.
Much better then to be vague about the source of the blood-curdling craziness, and let the audience fill in the blanks. That is what French cannibal carnage film Raw (2016) does. It was my pick for not just a great horror work, but also one of the best movies of 2017, when it opened here.
It is a bit of a cliche to say that the best horror films work on current anxieties - zombies represent our fear of sickness, werewolves our unbridled lust and so on. Raw is seen through the eyes of a shy teenage girl dealing with her first year at university. She is coping with loneliness, her first crush and a family legacy that compels her to eat human flesh. Talk about being the weird one in school. Raw deals with the usual coming-of-age issues in a novel and disgusting way, in the best sense of the word.
One film that I did not expect to have me cringing in fear is Australian serial killer drama Killing Ground (2016). It was screened here earlier this year as part of the film festival that celebrates B-grade and niche cinema, the Singapore Cult and Underground Film Festival, SCUM.
Killing Ground does that very hard thing for screenwriters: write from the point of view of the bad guys in a realistic, grounded way. So we follow two killers as they go about their day - running errands, chatting with passers-by while sizing them up as one would meat on a hook.
The scariest part of the film is how casually the pair chat about their human prey, and gin each other up to go further and further. They look to the world like two normal blokes - as all serial killers do after they are caught.
They execute and torture men, women and children under bright, sunny skies and take pride in their work. The death scenes are frightening to watch, yes, but afterwards, there is a lingering queasiness. This is a movie that sticks in one's mind, unlike Hereditary.
Killing Ground exists in an amoral universe; there is nothing those hikers and campers had done to cause their murders. The best horror films exist in that space in which very bad things can happen to good people. No one is safe.
Hereditary takes the conventional route. Someone in the past did something, and now the chickens have come to roost. This is a standard storytelling format and it feels patronising.
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017), my final pick of a good horror film, plays with the idea of a debt repaid; it in fact calls into question what it means to settle a score. A surgeon (played by Colin Farrell) and a boy (Barry Keoghan) are entered in a pact, one that the doctor wants out of desperately before it destroys his family.
Sacred Deer is unsettling and enigmatic. It is not as pretty to look at as Hereditary. But if you want to have your head warped for a day, it is the one to pick.