The Supernatural On Film Part 1


Last night I saw ‘Hereditary’ in a cinema with broken-down air-conditioning, such was my desperation to catch it. I’m addicted to good supernatural films, ie. not the bump-and-jump scare tactics of anything that says ‘From the producers of ‘The Conjuring’. But there’s a paradox at the heart of every supernatural film. To truly work it needs a psychological underpinning, which buffets against the thrill-ride many expect from the genre. Although it’s not true to say that such films never win Oscars (both ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist’ did) they rarely offer good actors a chance to behave with realism.

This isn’t true of ‘Hereditary’, which gains much of its momentum from Toni Collette’s powerful, honest performance as a mother with some serious family issues. The film’s first-time director borrows liberally from supernatural cinema, notably from ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and like ‘Get Out’ before it, succeeds right up until the last ten minutes undermines it.

The problem, as ever, is that supernatural events require the one thing that let them down – explanations. Ideally, the perfect supernatural film would be one without closure or explanation, but it would be unsatisfying. What works on the page (ie. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’) can’t work on film. We don’t just want an ending, we want a fully fleshed-out resolution. But turning the lights on in a darkened room releases us from fear.

‘Hereditary’ works for the most part on an original idea; that a family can never escape its past. It’s shot like a European film – disturbing events often happen in silence or from a distance – and is filled (probably too much) with neat editorial tricks. But it’s frightening not because of what we see, but because of how we learn about terrible events. The information comes to us secondhand from people who are over-familiar with what happened, as it would in real life. So Toni Colette tells a story about something that occurred recently and makes it sound quite casual, whereas we viewers, coming new to something she has long since adjusted to, are appalled.

It’s an intriguing notion, that we eventually adjust to the most terrible circumstances, and one that has been proven throughout history. That’s all we need to believe in ghosts. Unfortunately the film then goes on to flesh out those psychological monsters with effects we’ve seen before – but for a while it feels like the most powerful supernatural tale in years.

Clearly, this isn’t the first film to explore the power of the supernatural by looking through the prism of human behaviour. But searching out such films takes us off the beaten track of hit movies, looking in nooks and crannies. I’ll be looking at some tomorrow.

54 comments on “The Supernatural On Film Part 1”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – The Century 21 Organization was so interested in backstory, that they had a vast toy and book line for something that only existed in print or battery-operated plastic: ‘Project S.W.O.R.D.’ We’re going niche here. There was an annual as stories appeared in ‘TV21’ Comic. This annual contains biographies of all ‘Project S.W.O.R.D.’ characters, with photographs of real people, including, apparently, a West Indian bus conductor, who they ‘borrowed’ for the shots.

  2. Jan says:

    Here I am back commenting. I have very little willpower as my own vital statistics reveal only too clearly.

    That’s probably what i have got against them angels. It’s envy. In which I have turned my own envious thoughts on their hair, body shape and perfect make up into some pseudo women’s lib rant! As you both say they were all captains and (I had considered this before and kept my gob shut) fighter pilots. They led great lives really.

    That’s interesting thought though Snowy the idea that Captain Scarlet was a Golem. Of course that’s exactly what he was really. They set that scenario up and only half played with it as you say. Suppose because of the constraints of kiddie TV.

    Its always troubled me in the back of my head as to why the location of Tracey Island was kept such a secret? I could see that the World Aquanaut Security Patrol the W.A.S.P.s base (nest) needed to be secret but not Tracey Island.

    Wot was that all about really? I did that without a Google net “W.A.S.P” by the way

    Anderson certainly planted the seeds of this present obsession with words being created out of first letters of the aims of an organization ( I can’t remember the specific term for this but know one exists) 50 years back. He certainly influenced the world in that!!

    Suppose the 1960s worldwide, but particularly Brirish, obsession with James Bond could be the answer as to the secrets and assassins.

    Must go – :off to Slimming World.

  3. Jan says:

    Thinking about that Century 21 stuff Ian very interesting.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – Gerry and Sylvia Anderson loved abbreviations and acronyms, including:

    STINGRAY: W.A.S.P. – World Aquanaut Security Patrol. The radio response: P.W.O.R. – Proceeding With Orders Received.
    THUNDERBIRDS: Contrary to popular belief, ‘F.A.B.’ doesn’t stand for anything. ‘Fab’ was a popular word in the 1960’s.
    CAPTAIN SCARLET: ‘SPECTRUM’ has no meaning, but ‘S.I.G.’ and the lesser used ‘S.I.R., meaning ‘Spectrum Is Green’, and ‘Spectrum Is Red’, are the usual radio call signs. Then there are ‘S.P.C./S.P.V./M.S.V./S.P.J.’, For ‘Spectrum Patrol Car’ ‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ ‘Maximum Security Vehicle’ ‘Spectrum Passenger Jet’.
    JOE 90: ‘W.I.N.’, ‘World Intelligence Network’. ‘B.I.G. R.A.T.’ (deep breath) ‘Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer’.
    THE SECRET SERVICE: ‘B.I.S.H.O.P.’ ‘British Intelligence Secret Headquarters Operation Priest’.
    JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN: ‘EUROSEC’ ‘EUROpean Space Expedition Council’.
    UFO: ‘S.H.A.D.O.’ ‘Secret Headquarters Alien Defence Organization’ ‘I.A.C.’ ‘International Astronomical Commission’.

    And that’s your lot.

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