Some of our fears are unfounded; these should be faced and dismissed–ideally with laughter. Other fears demand greater attention; these can prompt useful action, or at least reflection. Halloween is a good time for sorting this out. Below are three movies and a book we recommend for this spooky season.
A Dark Song
The occult isn’t what it used to be. We’d need the firewood from a thousand Burning Mans to dispatch every witch casting spells on TikTok, but their “magick” tends to focus on self-realization and wellness, like yoga for people with purple hair and face piercings. Child sacrifice in the form of abortion persists, but many of its practitioners are only dimly aware of the death cult they serve. Even the pants-smilingly grueling ayahuasca trips now in vogue don’t seem to pose any eternal risk; all spirits encountered are assumed to have our best interests at heart.
Current popular entertainment tends to reflect this shallow and naïve understanding of the supernatural. This is why the sickening dread evoked by the 2016 movie “A Dark Song” is so unfamiliar. Two people meet in a remote farmhouse in rural Wales: a desperate, grieving mother, and the bitter, alcoholic occultist she’s hired to help her contact her recently murdered young son. They begin an arduous, months-long ritual, which writer-director Liam Gavin depicts with painstaking realism. By taking transcendent evil seriously, “A Dark Song” makes us ponder our own demons and the disturbing possibility that we’re not as in control of them as we’d like to think.
In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie “Straw Dogs,” Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, an American academic who moves with his wife to a farm in her small English hometown. Any soft-handed keyboard jockey (this writer included) will recognize the special sort of emasculating helplessness Sumner feels when contracting local workers to do a roof repair that he himself would find impossibly daunting. It doesn’t help matters that one of these particular workers happens to be his wife’s old boyfriend.
Work slows and resentment builds until violence erupts, forcing the timid and cerebral Sumner into a life-or-death physical confrontation. Controversial when released, “Straw Dogs” still packs a wallop 50 years later. The especially squeamish may wish to ease into it with a viewing of the more family-friendly but no less sadistic “Home Alone,” which took inspiration from Peckinpah’s exquisitely-staged bloodbath.
Watching Steven Soderbergh’s eerily prescient Contagion in the early days of Covid, as many of us did, was disconcerting. But it was also oddly soothing in its depiction of determined, selfless experts working together to address a grave crisis.
The recent low-budget Canadian movie Tin Can offers no such reassurance. Director Seth A. Smith uses his limited resources wisely, creating a kind of locked-room mystery cum medical thriller that is appropriately claustrophobic without feeling stage-bound. Here the harbinger of the apocalypse is coral, a slimy skin parasite that slowly takes over its host’s body and mind; those trying to stop it or simply avoid it ultimately face an equally disturbing loss of humanity. Like Contagion, Tin Can was completed before the pandemic, but the latter’s unflinching look at how a mortal threat exacerbates human fallibility may prove more resonant than Soderbergh’s slick Hollywood version.
The only rule of survival in Drew Magary’s 2017 novel The Hike is “don’t leave the path.” We’re never quite sure what that means, though, and neither is our hero, Ben. He’s an “everyman,” but of a type we don’t often see these days: a regular, untroubled, office-working stiff with a wife and young kids.
When a wrong turn on a work trip suddenly thrusts Ben into some kind of alternate dimension, his exasperation with the absurd fairy tale/video game quest he must undertake is very funny. Magary, himself a father of three and the author of the rare “dad memoir” to transcend Does-this-minivan-make-me-look-uncool? humor, doesn’t sentimentalize Ben’s “old” life. What we see of his job is clearly kind of mundane, and a phone conversation with his wife is affectionate but realistically brusque. But neither does Magary present Ben’s lot as something to be escaped for a more exciting and “fulfilling” destiny. Like any guy at this stage of life, Ben simply doesn’t have the time or energy for this crap. Even so, he heroically puts in the hours for the sake of the people waiting for him at home.
Although Magary’s comedic skills are on display throughout the novel, the world in which he traps Ben is vividly constructed and genuinely eerie. Page-turning genre stories that are also written with skill, style, and wit are hard to come by. Books like “The Hike” should be stockpiled for the day Amazon becomes sentient and the Kindles turn on their masters.