I know this is not unique to me, but sometimes I really have no idea what movie other people just saw. I watched The Haunting of Molly Hartley yesterday, and thought it was a damn fine film of its sort. I go and look it up on Rotten Tomatoes this afternoon, and see that it has a 3% score, with thirty-four Rotten reviews and one Fresh. Wow. What movie did they see, that I did not?
A glance at the reviews reveals the first and largest problem other people had with the film. It’s not “scary.” “I’ve read fortune cookies that are scarier,” said Eric Snider of Cinematical. And it’s true — the movie has few-to-no jump scenes, it has no gore. Now, I am too old to be the target demographic for horror films. More than half my life too old. And I was never interested in the gore-fest horror films. I tend to wince and look away until the wet, gasping, sticky sounds of mayhem subside. The Haunting of Molly Hartley has one — just one — special effect of a corpse. But this is why I liked the movie.
There’s a special kind of helplessness to being under the age of eighteen. Do you remember it? Do you remember knowing that you had no rights? Do you remember that feeling of knowing that the adults around you, however well-meaning they were, could disrupt and destroy your life? Do you remember the things the adults with authority told you to do, because it was in your best interest and they cared about you? Most people come to their adulthood with a few neurosis and no major psychological damage. Some are more harmed by the care of the people who purport to love them. But one thing we all share is that helplessness — the fact of being nearly an adult, yet being controlled by those who say they love us. This, then, is the core of the horror in The Haunting of Molly Hartley. Not gore, not the splattering of fake blood. The horror in this film is best represented by Molly’s incredibly well-intentioned father, who keeps telling her that everything is going to be fine. The horror is in her mother, who keeps trying to kill her.
But let me back up a little bit, and cover a known problem in horror films. I’m going to talk about identification.
Horror films have a bit of a problem when it comes to audience identification. The audience doesn’t want to identify with people who are stupid, or venal, or cowardly. Or, you know, dismembered. And most people do not easily identify with monsters and killers. (Some of the more powerful horror franchises have obviously overcome this hurdle.) Yet this is a genre in which any character might well end up dead. Being the lead is no guarantee of surviving the film. This leads to a certain amount of distance, on the part of the audience. The audience watches the characters carefully, condemning their stupidity, watching for bad decisions, while also simultaneously identifying with and empathizing with the characters’ positions. The better the movie — the better the acting — the more effective this is. The death of Drew Barrymore’s character in Scream is one of the best examples of this, ever. (And it’s why Wes Craven is a master of the art.)
This identification is built up through the actor’s ability to sell the part, and through the details of the film. Through the mundane settings, the reality of the part of the world we share with the world of the film. The movie 5ive Girls (which I happen to find incredibly entertaining, despite the fact that it’s not very good) fails at this — the film opens with the lead character entering the portion of the story where the bad things happen. We never get to see her in a situation to which we can relate. (Unless more of you reading this have been sent to satanic-reform-boarding-schools-for-girls than I know of. And, if so, can you tell me where they are?) This selling of the reality is the part that makes or breaks a movie for me. If I can believe in the character and her world, then the stakes are high enough and I don’t want to see her lose.
I say “her,” and I mean “her.” Most horror movies feature female leads. And there is a specific sub-genre that features female leads almost exclusively. THoMH is in this sub-genre, which I call “is she possessed, going crazy, or is everyone lying to her?” (The movies similar to this that feature male leads are subtly but powerfully different. In those, the question is frequently resolved by showing us that the male narrative lead is dying or dead, and the entire movie is a metaphor or a deathbed hallucination.) Now, many types of horror genres involve a thread of “and no-one will believe me.” Everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Faculty. But the Possessed or Crazy sub-genre of horror is composed of this kind of fear. It doesn’t need gore or special effects — all it needs is for the protagonist’s loved ones to want to help her.
I think it’s not a coincidence that an entire sub-genre of horror films has grown up around the question of whether the girl is crazy or not. The nightmare in these films comes not from the special effects and gore, but from the betrayal and silencing. It’s the moment Rosemary tries to tell her husband her suspicions about Dr. Sapirstein. It’s Michaela afraid for her sanity. It’s the way Dr. Markway and the others condescend to Eleanor. It’s in the conversation between Needy and her boyfriend about Jennifer. It’s the entire story of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In this genre, the moment where the protagonist finds out that the demons are real is terrifying, certainly. It’s frequently punctuated by death. But there’s sometimes a current of relief in the scenes after that one — relief that the evil is real and external. When women in horror movies are seen as crazy they are either possessed or . . . or they are just crazy. So their choices are to have the demons be real, or to have all their autonomy stripped from them as they are committed or drugged. In this context, having the demon or creature be real is the *better* choice — Satan can possibly be defeated; your most beloved relatives and friends cannot.
In the Possessed or Crazy sub-genre, identification with the protagonist is built as she hides her fears and concerns from the people around her. Now, most of the audience has not been demonically possessed. But I think almost everyone has had occasion to hide some private fear or worry from one’s friends and family. Did you ever worry you were going to get fired? Kicked out of school? Did you worry that your parents would find out that you drove home from that party drunk? Did you pray to an unanswering God that you not be pregnant? Did you worry you might be crazy? Did you know that no-one had ever felt the way you felt, no-one understood the things you thought, did you know that no-one could understand the violent impulses in your head, the anxiety, the depression, the guilt, the panic?
That’s the fear-engine of The Haunting of Molly Hartley. And it’s why the movie is effective and scary. Molly knows she’s going crazy. At the start of the film she is trying to hide this from her new schoolmates. As the story progresses, though, Molly stops trying to hide it and starts asking for help. Her angry and frightened requests for assistance from her father are met with his placating assurances that everything is fine — which gives us the “being ignored” portion of the formula. The only person who takes Molly seriously is the slightly intense Alexis, whose offers to save Molly’s soul are ill-timed and worrisome.
What makes this movie work is the performance of Hayley Bennett. As Molly Hartley she is guarded and angry, frightened and composed. Molly’s smart and pretty and would fit right in at her new school if she weren’t going insane. Ms. Bennett shows us this in ways the script doesn’t really supply. A less adroit actor wouldn’t have much to work with, but Ms. Bennett sells Molly’s fear and repression of said fear with skill. Kudos also to Jake Weber (who many will recognize from the tv show Medium.) As Molly’s father, he manages to be ineffectual and useless without coming across as either stupid or malicious. He’s just a father whose need for normalcy is deafening him to Molly’s pleas. The rest of the cast is solid, too, with kudos to Shannon Woodward for doing well with a part that seemed truncated, possibly cut during editing, and to Marin Hinkle for not chewing the scenery as Molly’s mother.
I skimmed the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’m still a little mystified as to what those reviewers were seeing, or what they were expecting to see. More gore, certainly. More jump-scenes, more horrific effects. But that’s not the point of Molly Hartley’s story. Her story is about slow betrayal. About finding that the people one most trusts and depends on have betrayed you from the start. About slowly understanding that one’s mind is not one’s own, that one’s body and soul belong to someone — or something — else. That strikes me as a pretty damn scary story.