We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s soul-chilling 2011 indie starring Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, is one of the best horror films of the decade. Some don't even consider it horror, because the subject matter is not about ghosts, demons, or rampaging maniacs. It is a quietly intense examination of the complete destruction of a happy family in the most tragic way possible.
Horror movies are a staple of world cinema. People are always intrigued with death and the dark side of life, so horror is big business. Many Hollywood horror films have lodged like thorns in public consciousness, from the demons of The Conjuring and Insidious franchises to enduring novel adaptations like The Shining and The Exorcist, the latter of which nearly every single demonic possession movie rips off.
But many of the best horror films require no special effects. You don't need shaking houses or elaborate torture traps to evoke deep dread. The independent film scene uses small budgets to make its horror, and those movies are often scarier and more upsetting than the multiplex hits, because they get at you with human psychology instead of CG demons; instead of destroying cities, indie horror monsters attack the most basic building block of society, the family, from outside and within.
Destroying a Family From the Inside
We've all seen families corrupted and falling apart because of people within that unit. Fear of that destruction is common, because the reality is also common. Great independent horror films take this fear and run with it, creating images realistic enough that these symbols, even if they suggest unlikely events, reach deep beyond our conscious observation of the film. They hit us where it hurts.
The stunning and stunningly beautiful Stoker excels in this regard. This Nicole Kidman psychosexual thriller was directed by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, best known for the original Oldboy. Stoker, his first English-language film, premiered at Sundance to great attention in 2013.
The premise of the film is not scary. Teenager India is devastated when her father dies in a car accident, after which her unstable mom, Evelyn, has trouble keeping things together. India's uncle Charlie moves in with them, ostensibly to help the family out. The uncle ends up not being very helpful.
These characters are very different from those in a stock "new step-parent" drama. Evelyn becomes increasingly unstable with Charlie around, and as India delves into Charlie's life and motivations, her reaction is... unexpected. The movie doubles down on common fears of finding a replacement father and subjecting your kids to bad role models, all visualized in an opulent, almost juicy style.
Over in Germany, where depressing and rough-edged films are more common, Goodnight Mommy, named by the National Board of Review as one of the top foreign films of 2015, emerged as a shocking family thriller. Two boys, Elias and Lukas, welcome their mother home following her facial cosmetic surgery. Mom immediately starts acting strange, however -- not at all like the mother that Elias and Lukas knew before she left. Compounded by the fact that her head is completely covered with a bandage, the two boys begin to suspect the woman in their house is not their real mother.
This is a dark and dreadful movie. It is quite violent; some may find it difficult to watch. As the boys reach a breaking point, becoming determined to make the woman admit she is an impostor, the movie expertly exploits fears that a loving parent might be transformed or replaced, and they now are at the mercy of an authority figure that does not mean them well. Family cohesiveness is a frail thing, and easily exploited by filmmakers who know what they are doing.
Speaking of weakened families, no article on the topic is complete without mentioning Frailty. Made in 2001, this is one of the best American horror movies that nobody has seen. Frailty follows a single father (known only as Dad) raising his two young sons, Adam and Fenton. One day Dad tells his sons that he had a vision from God. He now has the gift to see demons that look like people; his job is to kill them. Since it is a mission from God, Dad enlists the help of his sons. Adam believes in his father and readily helps. Fenton, however, suspects that his father has become a psychopath, and is murdering innocent people. He does not want to help Dad, which causes some problems.
Thematically, the film is similar to Goodnight Mommy, especially in the transformation of a kind parent into something else. It is also dark and upsetting, especially considering that the boys, not even teenagers, are commanded by Dad to assist with murder. Fenton's journey through the situation is hard to watch, as he struggles with authority, morality, and even his faith in God. Depending on your interpretation of the movie, the demons may or may not be real, but that's not the point. We watch the slow and extreme implosion of a family sparked by a religious conviction that not everybody shares.
Destroying a Family From the Outside
Even more common than fears of damage from within is the idea that a family could be destroyed by external forces over which they have little to no control. This is why the "home invasion" sub-genre of horror is perennially popular. There are a few indie films that take this common fear to its limits.
The first example of this issue that comes to the minds of many horror hounds is Inside. This 2007 French film is often considered one of the gems of that country's new wave of horror. It's about a pregnant woman, Sarah, trying to enjoy a relaxing Christmas Eve alone before she goes into delivery the next day. But her evening is interrupted in the worst possible way when a strange woman arrives, determined on taking Sarah's entire future away.
Inside is a fearlessly brutal movie. It has a heart of pure black. The fear of a parent losing one's kid is writ large and bloody on the screen, and there's no respite from the tension and the horror. Sensitive audiences may want to stay away from this one.
Austria has made its own noteworthy contribution to this horror genre. Funny Games is another unique and horrifying vision of home invaders. It was directed by Michael Haneke in 1997, and remade by Haneke shot for shot ten years later, this second time using English-speaking actors. It doesn't much matter which version you see - it's basically the same movie. You just choose whether you want to watch it with subtitles, or in English.
Funny Games is about a wealthy husband and wife, with their loving son and a dog. Their home is invaded by oh-so-polite young men who put the family through torturous psychological and physical games. The power of this film comes from just how calm and mundane the whole situation is; a thin veneer of upper-class respectability cracks to show incredible depravity. In an extra twist of the knife, there are moments when one of the psycho young men breaks the fourth wall and interacts with the audience, implicitly stating that we, as the viewers, are willing co-conspirators in the sadism - or are at least willing to watch the destruction of the family for our own perverse entertainment.
Taking a step back in time, we can find yet another memorable example of families under assault. Straw Dogs is the 1971 Sam Peckinpah classic about a young married couple forced to confront men intent on invading a home. The set-up makes this movie great. Dustin Hoffman plays David, a mathematician. Susan George plays his wife Amy. They have moved into a cabin outside a small town so David can do some quiet work. Some local men are attracted to Amy, and there is a complicated rape scene in which consent appears to be partly given, at least at first. This event leads to a confrontation between the couple and the townsmen.
What strikes a nerve in audiences is the character of David. He is not a macho protector. He's a mild, non-violent intellectual who is thrust into a situation in which his normal demeanor will get him killed. People can relate to David because let's face it: very few of us are the type of people that can turn into action heroes when needed, able to bravely save the day and the woman in distress. Most of us are totally unsuited to realistically handle a concerted attack on the home. So we can put ourselves into David's shoes much easier than we can put ourselves into Captain America's shoes. By watching David struggle with his weaker nature in an environment where only relentless strength will win, it's easy - and scary - for us to relate.
We Need to Talk About 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'
That brings us back to We Need to Talk About Kevin, an independent horror masterpiece that explores dual visions of familial destruction, from within and without, in one potent package. A mystery as much as it is a horror story, it opens with the aftermath of some unnamed tragedy, with Tilda Swinton’s character trying to forge a new life.
Soon the film jumps back and forth in time, slowly blooming like a poisonous flower. As the story opens up, we see that the family is unraveling as their son, Kevin, grows into someone very unlike the kindly loving son the parents hoped for. They’re powerless to do anything about his development, and against external pressures that complicate his emerging sociopathy. By the time you fully understand what happened, you are too committed to the story to pull away. It hammers your brain and soul; you can almost physically feel it.
Such visceral immediacy is not exclusive to independent horror. Without the “scares by committee” process that turns studio efforts into vanilla horror to be consumed on a Saturday night, however, the risky choices and perspectives of any given filmmaker are preserved, leading to films that explore tough topics in serious - and scary - detail.