For some, the horror genre exists to remove us from harsh reality. We sit down in front of supernatural entities and exaggerated violence as a way of brushing aside the actual phobias of our lives, because those fears feel so punishing that brutal stabbings – perhaps bizarrely – are an effective respite.
And yet, horror has never actually shied away from the disturbing realities of our existence. If anything, a confrontational attitude about our anxieties is the fundamental connective tissue of the genre. What is FRANKENSTEIN if not a saga of our obsession with death, our horrible fear of shuffling off this mortal coil and the obscene lengths to which we will go to avoid the inevitable? What are the SAW movies, for all their death traps and disgusting gore, but a series about the all-powerful urge to survive, and the petty psychology that forces each of us (on our worst days) to choose comfort and denial over our survival, and on a daily basis?
We go to horror movies to confront our subconscious. Our nightmares are the personification of our guilt, our fear, and our shame. So when a film like A MONSTER CALLS comes out – a film that many are eager to place inside the more family-friendly “coming of age” genre – it’s important to acknowledge that it belongs firmly in the horror aisle at your local video store. (Or at least, that it would if you still had a local video store.) And no, it’s not just because there’s a giant tree monster in it who looks like he’s fueled by the fires of Hell.
A MONSTER CALLS is the tale of a young boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall). His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. She tells him everything will be alright and that there’s still hope she will survive, and he believes her, but every night he has a horrifying dream of losing her in a sinkhole of terror. So when a giant tree uproots itself, lumbers across the field to Conor’s house, and announces (in the voice of Liam Neeson) that he will tell Conor three stories – and that, in the end, Conor will tell the monster his nightmare – the child isn’t exactly gung ho about it. He’s keeping something hidden, from himself and the rest of the world, for a very good reason.
Over the course of J.A. Bayona’s film, based on the illustrated novel by Patrick Ness, the monster repeatedly appears to Conor and tells him tales about evil witches and cruel apothecaries. They are fancifully animated fairy tales, as dark and twisted as anything out of GRIMM’S, and at first they seem to be of no use whatsoever. The morals of the creature’s stories are completely askew. Conor is a child who draws monsters in his spare time, and who watches King Kong’s fall from the Empire State Building with his ailing mother, and yet he has a lot to learn about the capacity of the horror genre to explore and heal our wounded souls.
Perhaps it’s that focus that makes so many people wonder if A MONSTER CALLS even qualifies as a horror movie. (I myself have waffled on the topic for a while, since watching this film for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival.) J.A. Bayona’s film evokes the horror of death and dying but doesn’t just leave it on the table like a cadaver. He’s a filmmaker who likes to reveal the findings of his autopsy. His elegant haunted house story THE ORPHANAGE wasn’t just about the search for a missing child, it was about the coming to terms with harsh reality, and our inability to accept something horrible. His disaster drama THE IMPOSSIBLE features the most frightening tidal wave in motion picture history but then it keeps going, not content to merely illustrate a family’s tragedy but also concerned with watching how they react and how they pull themselves together afterwards.
A MONSTER CALLS is an atypical horror movie not because it’s about a young child, or because nobody is murdered in it (unless you want to think of the cruel whims of fate as a sadistic killer, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong). It’s an atypical horror movie because it looks beyond death and focuses on the consequences. Think about how many horror movies there are about people dying, and how few of them seriously consider the mourning process of the people those victim’s leave behind. Not as a plot point, not as a motivation for revenge, but as a deeply terrifying psychological state that robs us of our drive, that confuses our senses, and forces us to look inward at all the guilt and shame and loneliness we find there.
Conor is in many respects a typical child. He’s bright and creative but he’s just a little kid and he’s going through an unthinkable event, surrounded by adults who care deeply about him but don’t know how to communicate very well. He’s being tended to but everybody is so concerned about their own feelings – which they have every right to feel – that they aren’t really exploring how hellish this must be for a young boy who has no experience with those emotions whatsoever. So when a monster comes along and offers him an eerie form of therapy, that becomes his safety net. He retreats into fantasy and comes to some harsh realizations about what’s really going on in his brain, and in particular the sticky and unpopular catharsis that comes with acknowledging the balance between selflessness and selfishness that even the best of us feel when dealing with all-consuming grief.
In other words, there’s not a lot that Conor learns from the monster in A MONSTER CALLS that he couldn’t also have gleaned from reading Poe or Lovecraft or Blackwood, or from watching the films of Whale or Coscarelli or Del Toro. A MONSTER CALLS may arguably be more fantastical than horrifying, if you want to look at it that way, but it’s so deeply rooted in the genre of nightmares that to deny that connection is to deny the film entirely. GODS AND MONSTERS isn’t a “scary movie” but it’s a movie about the relationship between a filmmaker’s stories about mortality and his own, fragile death. It’s an important film to include in a discussion about the value of horror, and A MONSTER CALLS warrants that distinction too.
A MONSTER CALLS is many things. It’s a “three hanky” movie, certainly, one whose frank depiction of death and dying is specifically designed to remove tears from your ducts by the bucketload. But they are honest tears, because A MONSTER CALLS – for all its fancifulness – is an honest movie about what goes on inside our brains when somebody we love is dying. I hope you’ve never had to go through those emotions (and wouldn’t it be lovely if you never had to?), but those of us who have watched our dear depart us will probably recognize the painful realizations that J.A. Bayona’s film illustrates, and how elegantly it comes to conclusions that might otherwise elude us in that thick fog of guilt and denial which, sadly, can linger for months and years afterwards.