The horror of isolation

“Relic,” an intimate portrait of an older, declining woman whose daughter wants to put her in a long-term care home, takes on additional charge given how many people have died of Covid-19 in such facilities.Credit...Jackson Finter/IFC Midnight
The first essential of a good horror film is an isolated place. Any desolate locale will do: cabin in the woods, empty motel, middle of the ocean, Detroit, just somewhere no one can hear you scream. Populate it with potential victims, add a monster and you’ve got everything you need to make things go bump in the night.

This is why horror is the cinematic genre best suited to the COVID-19 era, when isolation has become not just a way of life, but necessary to avoid deaths. Social distancing has quarantined us in our homes, increasingly alienated and lonely, eyeing strangers a little more warily. The frustration that Jack Torrance feels toward his family in “The Shining” doesn’t seem quite as foreign after a few months of remote learning. And the masks of so many serial killers in slasher movies suddenly seem fashion-forward.

Even though they were made before the pandemic, three new bold and chilling horror movies, all directed by women, have a new kind of topical resonance.

“She Dies Tomorrow,” which premieres Friday, comes off as the most prescient since it’s actually about a contagion, a peculiar one where a woman’s sudden premonition that she will die the next day spreads, from one person to another sharing the same space. The first great shock in “Amulet” occurs when a scaly bat emerges from a toilet, a terrifying image that cannot help but remind one of the wet markets in Wuhan. And even an intimate portrait of an older, declining woman whose daughter wants to put her in a home, like “Relic,” takes on additional charge considering that more than 50,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 in such facilities.

And yet, the sturdiest connective tissue among these dread-filled movies is a sensitivity to the punishing nature of loneliness and the sinister aspects of solitude.

“She Dies Tomorrow” is very different from the virus movies like “Contagion” and “Outbreak” that have suddenly become popular again with scientists racing against the clock to save the world. Amy Seimetz, who starred in the recent remake of “Pet Sematary” and helped create the TV series “The Girlfriend Experience,” has made a more eccentric, startlingly assured mood piece with the whispering vibe of a moody indie record. Its first 15 minutes portrays a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) in her house alone, starting with a shot of her eye and then often lingering in close-ups. She is convinced of her impending doom, but seems oddly resigned to it.

In dreamy visuals Seimetz films her listening to music, dancing, online shopping, gazing into the distance, trying to cry but failing. When she tells her friend Jane (played with exquisite fragility by Jane Adams), she is met by disbelief. No one connects in this movie. Everyone appears in their own world, staring past the person they are talking to, if they are looking at them at all.

Jane retreats to her empty home, putters about the basement, and is suddenly struck by a terrible realization: She knows she will also die tomorrow. Then this sense of doom keeps spreading.

There’s something unsettling (and creepily familiar) about the lack of panic. What if the apocalypse came and everyone sadly shrugged? Or maybe more to the point: What if no one tried to stave it off?

One woman regrets she stuck in a relationship too long. Another starts kissing a guy and while neither seems particularly passionate, what little interest they have petered out. But everyone seems depressed and haunted by the sense that they will ultimately die alone, an old theme with new urgency in a time when the pandemic limits loved ones from mourning together at a funeral. The real monster of this movie is not a virus, but loneliness itself. This pandemic hasn’t created what the former surgeon general Vivek Murthy calls a “loneliness epidemic,” so much as laid it bare. More Americans live alone than ever before and those who tell pollsters they are lonely have doubled since the 1980s. Research has shown that lack of social support does not just increase depression and mental health problems, but also has a physical impact, particularly for older adults.

Two of these horror movies, which portray the tense relationship between an older woman and her caregiver, speak to this situation.

“Relic” is a nuanced character study, a portrait of a disordered mind that hints, at supernatural terror. In her debut film, director Natalie Erika James shows us a family whose ties have frayed. The grandmother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has vanished and her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) search for her. Kay has grown distant from her mother, and argues with her daughter about putting her in a home. In between these mundane family scenes are flashbacks to a cabin in the woods housing a solitary figure. The house begins to work as a metaphor both for the shaky foundations of their relationships as well as the mind of Edna.

James uses the tools of scary movies (ominous strings, titled camerawork, buzzing flies) but roots them in realism. The result is one of the most emotionally draining movies in memory, the rare scary movie that evokes Kenneth Lonergan’s sensitive play “The Waverly Gallery,” another portrait of a family dealing with the declining mind of a matriarch suffering from Alzheimer’s.

With wild white hair, dirty bare feet and glassy eyes, Nevin looks like an ageing Ophelia. Like so many great horror characters, Edna is both frightening and frightened, lashing out at her relatives, before wailing in tears: “Where’s everyone?” When her granddaughter asks her if she ever gets lonely, she doesn’t even answer. This is a movie about an isolation worse than solitude: that of being separated from your mind.

While there are enough grotesque images to satisfy most horror fans, the most terrifying shots of this movie are Post-it notes Edna places throughout the house, reminders that say “take pills” or “flush.” As the tension escalates, these notes become more heartbreaking, signposts that signal growing tension. The viscerally gross and emotionally complex climax is kicked off when her daughter finds the final one that hits her with a devastating impact: “I am loved.”

If “She Dies Tomorrow” imagines the uncanny despair of knowing you’re going to die quickly, “Relic” shows the pain of dying slowly, how the gradual deterioration of one mind can scar an entire family.

Despite a large female audience, the horror genre has historically and shamefully ignored female directors. Only two years ago, Jason Blum, the most powerful producer in the genre, laid the blame on the lack of women wanting to direct horror films. (After blowback, he apologized.)

These three movies demonstrate how much is lost by showing only male perspectives. Whereas all these movies focus on complex relationships between women, “Amulet” digs the deepest into gender dynamics.

Like the other films, it portrays several figures in solitude, starting with long scenes of a lonely soldier, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, standing guard in the woods. Then the action fast-forwards to after the war when he signs up to help a reclusive young woman, Magda (Carla Juri), take care of her invalid mother, who lives in the attic.

No one is exactly who he or she appears to be. And neither is the movie. There are many twists, but what begins as a story about a man’s tortured past pivots ferociously into a supernatural revenge tale. It explores the question of forgiving men who did bad things. It’s not didactic, but if you want to find #metoo themes, they are there.

Actor Romola Garai makes an audacious directing debut, staging scenes of ugly horror with subtlety and misdirection, before setting you up for the full-on assault, generating memorable set pieces, including one that makes overt what the creators of the chest-burster scene in “Alien” only tried to imply. She also teases out some stellar performances, from an inscrutably tender Juri to a raucously entertaining one from Imelda Staunton, who plays a nun who introduces Tomaz to Magda and her mother. She’s having a ball playing in gothic melodramatic style. Not since Darth Vader has anyone said: “It is your destiny” with as much gravitas.

I’ve always been sceptical of the idea that bad times make for good horror. The best scary movies work on fears more primal than those you find in the headlines. But clearly, horror articulates buried cultural anxieties, and right now, while the escalating case numbers and death tolls are the most important measures of the current crisis, there are other, less obvious, disasters going on, ones that will linger. Human beings are social animals, and pushing against those instincts will have consequences, some of which are the stuff of horror.

These movies dredge up those hidden monsters. And it’s fitting that they all had their premieres at drive-in theatres, since there’s something about watching images of isolation separated by glass and metal that only adds to their chill.


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