*Content warning for a graphic depiction of violence*
The Witch, Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut film, tells the story of a Puritan family exiled from the Massachusetts Bay colonies for patriarch William’s (Ralph Ineson) unorthodox beliefs. While the haunted house story is the traditional model of American familial horror—The Shining’s domestic terror growing like a goldfish to fit its massive new tank, the alienating and all-consuming vastness of the titular building in The Orphanage—The Witch instead treats the house as a fragile membrane between love and ruin, the family’s rough homestead on the edge of a vast wilderness a visual metaphor for the precarity of their bond.
Sometimes it feels like Deadwood never happened. With shows like Maniac and Bojack Horseman dominating conversations about mental illness in TV, it’s easy to forget that back in 2004 David Milch’s bloody, profane gold rush period piece broke trail on some of the most daring and empathetic portrayals of mentally ill characters in television history. It’s not my intent to look down my nose at people who enjoy Bojack Horseman’s therapy-session style of discussing depression and anxiety, but I’ve never found it particularly interesting. As my friend and fellow critic Sean T. Collins put it in a review of Netflix’s Maniac: “When I think of lines from films and television shows about mental illness and suffering that have really moved me, it’s not stuff I’ve heard before cutting a check to my psychiatrist for my co-pay, it’s stuff I’d never thought of before at all, but rang true the moment I heard it.”
When the titular mythical creature in Rankin and Bass’s The Last Unicorn is transformed by magic into a human woman, her first reaction is despair. “I can feel this body dying all around me,” she sobs. It’s a gut punch of a line. The way she delivers it, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about your own body rotting where you sit, the sag of your flesh as it inexorably loosens and thins, your bones as they grow brittle, your eyes as they cloud and fail. To the unicorn, untouched by time, the experience is as shocking and transformative as a child’s first brush with death.
“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) cautions the nuns under her care near the opening of Ken Russell’s The Devils. Released in 1971 to an immediate public backlash, extensive censoring, and outright bans for obscenity and blasphemy, almost 50 years later The Devils remains one of the most extreme and contentious films ever made. But bound up in the strident horns and Day-Glo blood, the gonzo all-white sets and bondage-collared nuns, there’s a raw, unflinching exploration of how we react to and judge ourselves and our desires.
In December of 2003, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ Return of the King—the third and final film in their trilogy adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy epic Lord of the Rings—premiered to a gigantic opening weekend and critical acclaim. I half-remember its sweep at the Oscars the following year, the tides of fanfiction that flooded the internet, the memes, the sudden swelling of fantasy’s cachet. I wasn’t yet Online enough, so to speak, for that vast boom in the world of internet fandom to register for me.
When Ridley Scott’s 1979 sleeper hit Alien arrived in theaters, it revolutionized special effects and kicked the wheezing horror genre into high gear. While Alien is without question Scott’s best movie, tightly paced and claustrophobic, Swiss painter H. R. Giger’s legendary creature design is what sets it apart from everything that followed it. Aliens, its 1986 James Cameron-helmed—yes, he used to make good movies—sequel, builds on and exaggerates Giger’s work so effectively you’d be hard-pressed to find modern sci-fi unmarked by its slimy fingerprints.