Rich people are the new monsters

This piece contains spoilers of Knives Out, Ready or not and Satanic Panic.

Reflecting upon the themes of genre films of the past decade I realised that in 2019 a “new” narrative trend has emerged in horror (and horror adjacent) films. Rich people portrayed as monsters has always been a thing. Vampire stories are a well-known example. However, vampires were feared and respected. Right now, the framing of rich people in our horror has changed. As antagonists, they can commit heinous crimes and we should fear them, but we are also expected to laugh at them when they are mocked and ridiculed for their inability to function as normal human beings. Making these narratives more politically charged than ever.

Economic inequality is becoming a huge problem in western societies. Multimillionaires are no longer a source of inspiration but a reminder of an unfair system that punishes and exploits the working class while it rewards the greed of those who already have it all. Movies are art, and art is political. Horror has always been at the vanguard of innovation. But surprisingly, this trend of portraying rich people as evil — but also incompetent — characters has taken a long time to be echoed in the horror genre.

For this piece I would like to discuss three films released this year that portray rich people as incompetent villains; Knives out, Ready or not and Satanic Panic.

Knives Out was released last week, and it is the most political of the three films. It was a pleasant surprise to watch a scene in which the main characters discussed the Trump administration treatment of immigrants at the border. It is a scene that is in the movie to highlight the true nature of the characters involved. These are people willing to justify the inhumane treatment of immigrants just because. Knives out’s marketing campaign promised a whodunit film à la Clue (1985), but what we got instead is a film about how extreme wealth emotionally cripples and corrupts people. At the heart of the film, we have the journey of a woman who is physically unable to lie and will not compromise her values even if it means that her life will be ruined as a result. In the end, her good choices make her triumphant against all odds, and she becomes rich. It is also worth mentioning how the film does a great job depicting the relation between rich people and “the help”. During the course of the film, several characters say to our protagonist Marta (played by Ana de Armas), who was the nurse of the family patriarch, that she is part of the family — until it is revealed that she is the sole beneficiary of the patriarch’s will and everyone turns against her. Marta’s relationship with the Thrombeys is marked by servitude. It is made clear to her that she is lucky to be around wealthy individuals and she gets to have an easier life than her fellow working-class Americans by symbiosis. That’s how the status quo is maintained, with the hope that one day we will be one of the lucky ones. But Marta sees the truth behind the Thrombeys’ lies while at the same time finds the compassion to be good to them.

This is a plot point also explored in Ready or not. Our protagonist, Grace (played by Samara Weaving), marries into money and she understands her life is about to change. She will become part of the Le Domas family and money will never be a problem again. However, she is not and will never be one of them. The film strongly suggests that if our protagonist was not a good person, she would have gotten a different card and she would have spent a lovely night playing chest with her new family. Instead, she ends up playing a deadly game of hide and seek. Le Domas family sold their souls to Satan, and they know other families that have done the same. This is why, Grace, who is pure of heart, was not given a real opportunity to become a Le Domas, the game is rigged. By the end of the film, Grace has seen the full extent of what her new family — including her husband – will do for the sake of maintaining their privilege. In this film, we also have different members of “the help” that benefit from the wealth of the family and are presented as enablers and active participants in the hunt for our protagonist. Presumably, the outcome of the story is that Grace, as the sole survivor of the fire, inherits all the family money.

Last but not least, in a goofier tone, we have Satanic Panic. In this movie, like in Ready or not, rich people are rich and stay rich because they made a pact with the devil. Sam is a pizza delivery driver struggling to make good tips who gets involved in a black mass held by the neighbours of a rich community. Discrepancies amongst the coven members about who should be the leader complicate the chase of our protagonist, and result in a failed attempt of bringing Baphomet into our world. Interestingly enough, the day is saved by another the demon. Samaziel is angry at the coven for worshipping Baphomet when in fact, Samaziel ranks higher in Hell hierarchy. The demon kills all the members of the coven and spares Sam. It is funny how the notion of the status quo is reinforced, even in Hell.

The similarities between these three films are obvious. In my opinion, these plots are entering the mainstream sphere because the younger generations feel disenfranchised, and making this type of art is one of the few ways we have of punching up. It’s become evident to more and more people that working hard won’t necessarily make you rich, and that nepotism and parentage are often a more decisive factor than merit, hard work or talent when it comes to achieving success. This is why the archetype of rich people being useless, stupid, unredeemable and disconnected from reality is so appealing to storytellers of our times. When discussing art, it is important to understand the historical and sociological context. What we do as a society in the next decade will be reflected in the types of movies that will get made, and I expect more rich people being the bad guys in the years to come.

The resurgence of Psycho-biddy in 2019

Psycho-biddy is back. A resurgence in the sub-genre that originated almost 60 years ago is offering horror fans enjoyable movies driven by performances of high-profile female leads.

It is no secret that Hollywood is not kind to actresses of a certain age. Often relegated to secondary roles as mothers and grandmothers, older actresses struggle to find challenging roles that allow them to showcase their acting skills, and that’s if they are lucky to land roles at all.

In the past few months, we had two Oscar-nominated actresses starring in two very different psycho-biddy/hagsploitation films. But the sub-genre that originated with “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962 and its core thematic elements have shifted drastically in the new psycho-biddy resurgence. The first bunch of psycho-biddy films released in the ‘60s revolved around family conflict, abuse and gaslighting. The success of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” popularised a formula that studios were quick to exploit until the public grew tired of cheap unoriginal knock offs. “Greta” (2018), starring Isabelle Huppert, and “Ma” (2019), starring Octavia Spencer, move away from the formula and centre the story around intergenerational conflict and Hollywood’s new favourite mental health disorder: Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy — also seen in recent tv shows like “Sharp Objects” and “The Act“. The main characteristic of the sub-genre is no longer two blood-related characters that despise each other but murderous older women determined to ruin the lives of other younger women.

Another interesting difference in the new psycho-biddy formula is the shift of the target audience. The popularity of films like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), “Strait-Jacket” (1964) or “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964) was in part due to the fact that cinema goers at the time had a history with the leading actresses of these films, who once were big names in the industry but at the time didn’t enjoy the same level of success. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were well-known respected actresses. The public was familiar with their Hollywood personas and glamorous lifestyles. But now audiences were able to watch them perform on their tv screens in the comfort of their own homes. Horror fans have a problematic relationship with female characters. We find pleasure in watching the characters persevere through terrible hardships. It was — and still is — exciting to watch well-established actresses be put through the wringer while delivering high calibre performances — and also portraying a character that is not consistent with their brand. It isn’t surprising that mature audiences who grew up watching Crawford and Davis’ films rushed to the theatre to watch these actresses play two characters so far removed from everything they have played before.

In the new psycho-biddy resurgence, however, the target audience is much younger. Greta and Ma have two main protagonists in their late teens and early twenties — played by Chloë Grace Moretz and newcomer Diana Silvers respectively — who are purposely framed as the heroines of the story. The unbalanced power dynamic between the two main characters so distinctive of this sub-genre is no longer determined by familial bonds, but by age. Our naïve heroines make the mistake of trusting a stranger. This trust is established based on the nurturing image that our villainess projects to the outside world, with the sole intention of preying on vulnerable people. There is a predatory element at play. As we know, audiences don’t seek these types of films for the protagonist but for the antagonist. The main attractions here are Huppert and Spencer’s performances, and that is what is shown on the trailers. The sub-genre has been revamped and the marketing strategy relies almost exclusively on who is cast as the villainess (which is why I think Greta flopped, Huppert is not as big as Spencer in North America). Whereas the psycho-biddy films from the ‘60s relied on having a well-known actress suffering terrible abuse by another well-known actress — both characters being selfish and flawed.

“Ma” is the latest entry in the sub-genre, and it tries hard to push the envelope, taking psycho-biddy to what could be argued as almost rape-revenge film territory. The $5M budget film is a huge financial success for Blumhouse, so who knows what the future holds for the psycho-biddy genre?

As society evolves so does cinema, and in consequence, the stories and characters portrayed on screen. We can only hope that more actresses join the psycho-biddy hall of fame and that we get to see more representation of people of colour in horror films.

The reasons why Suspiria (2018) was set to fail

This past year, two of the best horror films in modern history were released: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Both films are extremely polarizing, and both films have gained an instantaneous cult following right after their release.

Despite great performances and high-quality filmmaking, the Academy has, yet again, failed to recognize the art and value of films labeled as “horror”. The only horror film to ever win the best picture Oscar is The Silence of the Lambs, back in 1992.

While we had strong hopes of seeing Toni Collette nominated for best actress for her performance in Hereditary — A24 has experience in Oscar campaigns —, deep down we all knew this would be unlikely, thanks to the conservative members of the Academy. On the other hand, Amazon Studios seemed to be willing to give it a shot and make Suspiria an award season contender. In this text, I want to discuss the strange and messy decisions surrounding the film’s theatrical run, the lawsuit that followed the first official trailer, the weird and all over the place release schedule and how it affected the final box office gross. So buckle up, you are in for a ride.

Suspiria premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival — like other Oscar-nominated movies such as The Favourite or Roma —, where it received an eight-minute standing ovation but also mixed reviews. The movie was then screened in other film festivals and got a limited release in Los Angeles and New York on October 26, followed by a limited release on Halloween in selected U.S. cities, before its “wide” release on November 2. The term “wide” must be used loosely. Box Office Mojo reports the movie only opened in 311 theatres (as an example, Hereditary opened in
2,998). In consequence, many horror fans did not get to see it in theatres.

The limited release of Suspiria looked suspicious. Was Amazon planning to cover the mandatory theatrical release to qualify for best picture at the Academy Awards? Probably. Would they release the movie on Amazon Prime Video after a hypothetical nomination? We will never know.

In any case, the Oscars always play it safe, and Suspiria is not a film meant for everyone. The film’s polarized reviews killed the chances of an Oscar nomination. Is more than likely that this made some Amazon executives panic. After the mixed reviews coming from the festival circuit, it is likely that the studio had to re-think how they wanted to market the film. It would no longer be an art house film with the Academy’s seal of approval. So, what could they do?

In Europe, the film got released across mid and late November with almost no promotion. Streaming company MUBI secured the distribution rights in the UK, which again made me think the film will be available to stream after a short theatrical release, but this wasn’t the case. MUBI released the film in over 100 theatres on November 16. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and see it at the only cinema in my city that played the film — it only played for a week, with one screening per day around 10pm. In Italy, the home country of director Luca Guadagnino, the film’s release was delayed to January 1. 14 days later the movie was all over the internet.

In the U.S., Suspiria was released on VOD and Blu-ray on January 15 and January 29, respectively. To this date, the film has not been released on VOD nor Blu-ray in the UK and other European countries. I did some digging and found that the Blu-ray release in France is scheduled for April 3 — hopefully, it will be released in other countries on the same date, too.

This messy release strategy is probably the reason why, according to Box Office Mojo, the film has only grossed over $7,5 million worldwide (on a reported $20 million budget), making the project a commercial failure. Now, to add insult to injury, let’s talk about Ana Mendieta.

Ana Mendieta was a Cuban American artist. She died, at the age of 36, after falling from a window in her New York apartment. Her death is surrounded by controversy. Mendieta’s husband, artist Carl Andre, was accused of pushing her out of the window. Neighbors heard the couple screaming and he later admitted they were having an argument prior to Ana’s death. He was tried and acquitted. Mendieta’s works, according to Wikipedia, “focused on themes including feminism, violence, life, death, identity, place and belonging”. If you have watched Suspiria, you know these are central elements of the film. Therefore, paying homage to Mendieta’s art seems fitting. But there’s a thin line separating inspiration and copyright infringement.

Ana Mendieta’s works and images from Suspiria (2018)

Prior to the film’s release, Variety reported that Amazon Studios was being sued by the Estate of Ana Mendieta. The first official trailer for Suspiria included scenes that bored a resemblance to the defunct artist’s most famous works.

The estate sent a cease and desist letter to Amazon in July. In late August, Amazon dropped a second trailer that did not contain the images. The studio screened the film for the estate’s agent in early September, after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
According to the suit, the two images had been removed from the film, but the agent flagged eight others that also bore similarities to Mendieta’s work.

Gene Maddaus for Variety

Do you have any response to the estate of Ana Mendieta’s allegations that you appropriated her work?
None at all?

Luca Guadagnino interviewed by Rich Juzwiak for The Muse.

You can see a copy of the copyright infringement lawsuit in Variety’s article. The case was settled out of court, which means that the film was already losing money prior to its release.

Suspiria is not the only flop Amazon Studios had to deal with during this award season. Beautiful Boy, starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell has grossed over $14,5 million worldwide on a budget of $25 million. But, unlike Suspiria, this film has been released on Amazon Prime, and Chalamet has earned nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance. Ultimately, Amazon can afford to lose money on films that are going to help build the studio’s reputation and prestige. However, it is up to you to decide if Suspiria achieved this, or if the film was treated with respect by the studio.

In my opinion, Suspiria would have benefitted from a wider release and marketing campaign. It should have followed the same route as Hereditary. Instead, Amazon managed to make all the wrong decisions and the film was quickly forgotten by the mainstream public. It didn’t help that those who were willing to spend their money and support the film were denied the chance to see it on the big screen — or buy the Blu-ray.

I think it’s fair to say that Suspiria was set to fail from the very beginning. The lawsuit was not a good start, and the mixed reviews after the festival circuit probably killed the film’s chances of becoming an award season contender. The limited releases were a good way to build hype, but they are totally unnecessary if a real wide release doesn’t follow. This commercial flop could have been avoided with a good marketing strategy and salvaged, perhaps, with a quick Amazon Prime Video release. With that being said, I believe, with time, Suspiria will receive the love it deserves. In the meantime, let’s find comfort in the fact that Suspiria won two Independent Spirit Awards and this is the only image we will have that slightly resembles an Oscar win.