Religious horror is a film genre in its own right, and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are among my all-time favorites. But even horror movies that aren’t explicitly religious stoke my religious imagination, exploring questions of who suffers and why and to what end. The best aren’t the goriest but rather those that articulate or give shape to our deepest unseen fears.
The Babadook embodies grief as a monster in a top hat that torments a bereaved mother and son. The Shining is a story of marriage and family life thwarting creativity—to the point of murderous insanity. It Follows explores the connections between eros and thanatos through the lives of teens who sexually transmit a deadly plague—the only cure for which is to pass it on. Much has been made of that connection between sex and death in teenage slasher flicks like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, but even highbrow art-house offerings communicate a deep cultural anxiety about monogamy, pregnancy, and motherhood.
In Mother! Darren Aronofsky (director of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and Noah) pushes these tropes well past absurdity. Critics have made much of the film’s biblical and ecological allegory, which Aronofsky takes to laughable extremes. The film’s frenetic climax plays Catholic imagery like a Jack Chick tract brought to life—crazed masses of cannibalistic lemmings eating sacrificed human flesh in a trance-like state of desperation to commune with the transcendent. Their hunger is real and almost innocent, and they press in like mindless zombies. It’s beyond gross, but it’s not scary.
Mother! might be more effectively described as pitch-black comedy rather than horror. (Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott notes that if Aronofsky “didn’t take himself so seriously, he could be a great comic filmmaker.”) But I found it even more compelling as a domestic drama, the story of a marriage that devolves into a live-action Hieronymus Bosch painting, the devastated wife standing in the ruins of all she’s created before she finally finds a Zippo and torches the place.