Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Sofia Coppola’s dreamy The Beguiled.
The word “saw” has taken on a certain significance in horror thanks, in large part, to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And, more recently, the seemingly unstoppable Saw franchise, set to be rebooted again later this year (though anyone who finds the moniker ‘Jigsaw’ to be frightening deserves to have their Halloween “taken back” by the dastardly fellow). With Sofia Coppola’s woozy nightmare concoction The Beguiled, a saw is once again charged with intent.
It’s a throwaway line, “get me the saw now!”, uttered by Nicole Kidman’s prim Miss Martha that in any other movie, any other setting, would likely be passed over without much further thought. Here, however, with Colin Farrell’s fatally wounded Union soldier lying on the table, his life hanging in the balance, the line, and the choice of tool/weapon, is deliciously dark. We don’t even need to see the act to know its intention.
Naturally, Miss Martha isn’t swinging it over her head, Leatherface-style, and the quick cut to Farrell’s John Mc Burney, recuperating in bed only to discover what’s happened to him in a moment of blind panic and fury, reiterates that we’re not in straight horror territory here. Rather, The Beguiled, and Coppola herself, is more interested in suggestion, in a gradually darkening mood and a tense tone that suggests something is off without full on telling us.
The movie, a remake of sorts that turns the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle on its head, giving it a female slant (and gaze) to update the story for a modern audience, is being marketed primarily with a trailer espousing Mc Burney’s wailed line “you vengeful bitches!” This is, as most trailers are these days, a misleading advertisement for the contents contained within. There is violence in The Beguiled, but it’s mostly implied (even when saws are involved).
Much like her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s unflinching, unrepentant female touch dominates everything. Her cast of “vengeful bitches”, from Kidman’s no-nonsense matriarch to Elle Fanning’s horny teenager and Kirsten Dunst’s repressed, sadly well-meaning teacher, are beautifully well-drawn and three-dimensional, each keeping her true intentions to herself right up until the final reel.
Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) isn’t afraid to portray these women as selfish, or narcissistic, or even just plain rude. After being cooped up together in a big house for who knows how long, they descend on Mc Burney like he’s a particularly delectable apple pie (an argument quietly seethes about who baked the actual apple pie they eat for dessert one night). And, when they start to lose control, events unravel like a strand of pearls.
As The Beguiled moves elegantly into full-bore horror territory (something Coppola also flirted with in The Virgin Suicides), the walls of the house–a character in itself–almost seem to contract inwards too, constricting around Mc Burney like a snake. The women conspiring against him turn darker also, their previously bright eyes clouded by a collective anger and bitterness at being duped and turned against each other.
The dark delights of this most female of films won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say horror fans will be cackling at the signs of what’s to come before their mainstream movie-going counterparts cop anything us up. That saw is just a symbol (we don’t even see it) but the true danger within wouldn’t reveal itself in something as obvious as a sharpened blade anyway. It’s more insidious than that, which somehow makes the eventual denouement even more delectable.