Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Spoilers ahead for both films, and also I’d like to add a content/trigger warning due to themes of sexual assault.
In the pantheon of horror films, Eduardo Sanchez will likely be remembered best (and not entirely unjustly) for his 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. It took the horror world by storm and kicked off a craze of “found footage” style films that featured luckless protagonists breathlessly looking into a handheld camera and telling whomever was filming DON’T STOP FILMING NO MATTER WHAT. Some were good, a few were great, but most were at best watchable and at worst fucking horrible.
But it’s not Sanchez’s debut film and subsequent launching of a thousand films featuring brainless white people filming themselves being chased by aliens or ghosts or zombies or whatever that I want to talk about it. BWP, for all the silly imitators, was at it’s a core a story about a past trauma that people unsuccessfully tried to cover up. According to the series’ lore, the town of Blair, in colonial times, exiled a woman who may or may not have been a witch. The town then experienced a series of inexplicable and horrifying events that led to them abandoning the land. Two hundred years later, three dipshit film students decide it’s a good idea to make a documentary on “The Blair Witch” and you know the rest. Instead I want to talk about Altered and Lovely Molly, two of Sanchez’s films that I think are painfully underrated.
I’ve written before on the theme of the past returning to haunt characters in the films of Mike Flanagan. But his concept of the past is one that is actively destroying the present, whereas Sanchez has more of a “let the past be the past” concept. Sanchez’s past is perfectly content to simply be the past until someone actively seeks to explore it and then three film students go missing, or some shit happens with aliens, or a horse demon abducts your sister after she murders your brother in law.
A brief recap of the Altered is as follows: fifteen or so years before the film starts, a group of five good ol’ boys were abducted by aliens, but only four of them returned. The fifth died horribly as a result of the experiments, and the rest of them are largely fucked by this experience. At the film’s onset, three of the remaining four capture one of the aliens with plans of vengeance and shit quickly spirals out of control. Sanchez’s depiction of abductees is strikingly brutal. None of these men are even close to well adjusted. One of them, the brother of the unfortunate soul who didn’t make it back, isn’t on speaking terms with his family because they think he caused his death. The de-facto leader of the clan is a high-strung recluse who lives in a fortified compound filled with weapons like a backwoods Robert Neville. Their shared trauma has marked all of them.
None of them are dealing with that trauma in a healthy way. Three of them exist in a Paul Kersey-esque haze of manic vigilantism, complete with insane homemade harpoon guns and punji stick pits. These are the three who are actively out there in the night hoping these aliens come back so they can even the score. The fourth is the previously mentioned leader, who for all his preparedness actively avoids dealing with the past at all. In the film, he justifies his neutrality by (rightfully) pointing out that by fucking with these aliens they may inadvertently trigger an interspecies war. In the broader context of things, however, he exhibits a classic sense of denial. Despite clearly suffering from PTSD, he is doing his best to not really address the root cause of it all: that he and his friends were abducted by aliens who then murdered one of them.
It’s not a leap to see this film as a metaphor for the ways people deal with sexual abuse. Take any scene in which the characters are screaming at one another about what happened (and, for better or worse, that happens quite a bit) with the context of aliens removed and they could be talking about a shared event of sexual abuse. In this sense, the film reminds me of Sleepers: a series of characters picking at scabs of the past to reach a catharsis. In the case of Sleepers, it’s Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard gunning down an unfortunately mustached Kevin Bacon in a diner; in Altered it’s a gang of haunted rednecks tromping through the woods at night with a homemade harpoon gun hunting an alien. One is a little more on the nose than the other, but the parallels are still there. There is a past trauma that has simmered and simmered and now has come to a boil. The difference being that none of Sanchez’s characters in this film are particularly well-adjusted people. They’re either addressing the trauma directly, but handling it in a dangerously irresponsible manner, or they’re in denial while existing in a constant state of haggard alert and terror that threatens their relationships. This speaks to the multitude of ways that survivors of sexual assault cope with their trauma. There is no uniform coping mechanism, no one size fits all way that survivors handle things. Altered is by no means a galaxy-brain-take intellectual film, but it’s a smart enough film to understand the impact that unprocessed trauma can have on someone’s life years down the road.
It’s also worth noting that much of the film’s conflict is between the human characters. For the first act of the film, the alien is little more than a MacGuffin that sits in the eye of the storm as the characters argue and scream amongst themselves. As the unacknowledged and suppressed emotions and feelings are vented, the alien slips free, and then the real mayhem begins. You can almost pinpoint the moment of “alright we’re really going to have this conversation? We’re really doing it?” and then boom: alien is free, shit hits the fan, the arguments stop and the fight for survival begins. What’s inside is let out and the trauma, something that was danced around before, is now in the room with them wrecking their lives again in real time. It’s a very painful illustration of how trauma, once revisited, can very quickly overwhelm and consume our lives. Sanchez’s film wouldn’t be alone in suggesting a link between childhood sexual abuse and claims of alien abduction.
Lovely Molly is a far more visceral and strangely far more personal film than Altered. Our titular character Molly (played near-flawlessly by Gretchen Lodge) and her husband move back into her childhood home, a stone colonial farmhouse in rural Maryland. A series of eerie events soon reveals that Molly may experiencing visitations by a supernatural force and things spiral out of control. What makes this film so deeply unsettling is that much of the supernatural aspects of the film are never explicitly shown. Rather than showing us some spooky creature tormenting Molly, the audience is instead treated to Molly’s reactions as she panics at the sight of only something she can see.
There are a handful of truly frightening moments in this film in which Molly interacts with something the audience cannot see: her hiding in a closet and tearfully pleading with whatever it is to leave her alone; or sitting in the kitchen, strung out on heroin, screaming at her husband because he can’t see her father sitting in the chair across from her. Our only hints at an actual presence are the faint sound of horse hooves moving through a hallway accompanied by the heavy whickering of a horse (more on them shortly) and the occasional lilting tune of “Lovely Molly” sung by a quiet off-key voice. Unlike Altered, in which there is undeniably a supernatural presence in the film, Lovely Molly never really commits until the very end as to whether or not there actually is a presence in the house and not just a figment of Molly’s desperately unwell psyche. Also, unlike Sanchez’s prior film, this film is far more literal in its depiction of childhood sexual trauma re-awakening.
The film begins when Molly and Tim move back to her childhood home. Even at their wedding months prior, there’s a slight sense of unease in the discussion of her childhood. It’s revealed that Molly and her sister Hannah were raised by her uncle after their parents died, and that Molly is a recovering addict. It soon becomes very apparent that something ghastly happened to the girls as children, with it being all but flat out stated that their father sexually abused them after their mother died. It’s later revealed that Hannah actually murdered him to keep him from hurting them anymore. It’s also heavily implied that Molly’s drug use was a coping mechanism to deal with these repressed memories. Once Molly and Tim move back in, things head south quickly. Tim is a long-haul truck driver so he’s often away, leaving Molly alone in the house.
We see her experience a great deal of anxiety upon entering her childhood bedroom, and at one point she is assaulted by something only she can see, leaving her in a closet screaming and begging for whatever it is to leave her alone. At work, her horrified manager witnesses her remove her pants in a dark hallway while weeping and then get shoved up against the wall and violently sexually assaulted.
When Tim returns, he finds her sitting on their bed, naked and staring blankly into the corner. She begins using again, and amongst other things begins talking to a dead deer that is stashed in the ceiling of the basement, at one point viciously stabbing it while screaming at Hannah that their father is going to hurt her nephew. She begins to exhibit symptoms of hyper-sexuality, which is somewhat common in survivors of sexual assault: one morning after using she forcibly takes Tim on the kitchen floor, and later on in the film seduces a pastor who is a friend of the family. In the context of the film it’s implied that this is the result of her being corrupted by whatever demonic force is inhabiting the house, but the symbolism is hard to ignore.
Molly’s father’s presence is hauntingly portrayed in this film. He’s only ever seen by the audience in a few pictures, all of which are joyless affairs in which he looks less than thrilled to be having his picture taken. However, he is often spoken of in the film, and never once in a positive manner. Most of the time he’s being referred to by Molly as still haunting her. At one point when Tim finds her sitting in the kitchen apparently talking to herself, she begins screaming at the empty chair opposite of her and demanding that whoever is there “show himself”. Earlier in the film, when Tim finds Molly sitting and staring in the corner, she flatly tells Tim that her father is still alive. And there’s a scene in which Hannah pleads with Molly to come live with her and her son; Molly refuses because she believes that their father will kill her nephew if she does. Her memory of her father is distorted into something otherworldly. Even if the belief that he was back from the dead and haunting her wasn’t enough to rocket the film into the realm of absolutely horrific, the final scene of the film has Hannah finding a photo album that Molly had found of the family when they were children. Only Molly had pasted representations of horse heads over all the pictures of their father, perhaps to cover up his face and avoid seeing him, maybe transforming into something more pleasant, or maybe hinting at a far more sinister and literal phenomenon.
Remember when I said we’d get to the horses? Well, we got to the horses. Molly is fan of horses. There are pictures of them everywhere in the house. It’s a very childlike thing; little girls like horses. The sound of hooves and whickering often accompanies the assaults Molly endures, and the last shot we have of Molly is her walking out the back door at night, naked, into the waiting arms of horse demon with glowing eyes. It seals the deal on Molly’s condition being an external phenomenon and not purely the result of psychosis (and honestly, I think is a bit weaker of an ending narrative-wise) but fuck me is that image of her embracing the demon absolutely chilling. I’m honestly not sure what the imagery of the horses is supposed to represent. In a broad sense, I suppose it could be seen as a corruption of a symbol of innocence (little girls loving horses) and within the context of the film there’s apparently a horse headed demon that haunts the grounds of the family’s home and it took the shape of her father to haunt her but that’s a matter for the special features to discuss. It could be symbolism, or it could just be Sanchez correctly surmising that weird horse imagery is terrifying.
I posit that with the effect this is all having on Molly it doesn’t really matter if it’s all in her head; she’s either deeply ill and in desperate need of help or she’s actually being haunted by something. And, given the blasé response from the doctor when Tim asks what they can do, it’s clear that either scenario is equally horrific. Hannah’s reluctance to have Molly checked into a hospital hints at there being problems with rehab in the past for her, which ties in with the idea that maybe the past is something that’s best left buried and alone. By all accounts Tim and Molly had a very happy life together until they moved back to her childhood home. This could be the most recent instance of old wounds being re-opened. Either way, the sad reality is that Molly is effectively alone in this scenario. She feels isolated by whatever is haunting her, be it memories of sexual abuse or a horse-headed demon. Even her sister, the one person who can truly relate to her, seeing that she murdered their father to put an end to the abuse, can’t get through to her. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to see this as a manifestation of the feeling of desperate isolation victims of sexual assault can deal with.
Much of the backstory of the house comes from the special features of the film. Much like he did with BWP, Sanchez crafted an exhaustive, thorough, and very creepy backstory for the family’s home. I won’t go into detail on it (that’s why I included the link for the special features) but needless to say there’s quite a bit of unsavory history to the home even before Molly’s family moved in. Sanchez’s purpose of this backstory was to provide a mythos for the evil that is actually corrupting Molly in the way that it had corrupted her father. They weren’t the first people it had ruined and, based on the FOR SALE sign we see on the house at the end, they won’t be the last. Broadly speaking, however, it serves as an example of hidden sins in a home’s history. Civil war soldiers committing atrocities to one another, families going missing, other murders occurring on the property; these are all historical skeletons in the closet. The house has a dark history just as Molly does, and that extends figuratively into the subject of sexual assault. It’s a secret, something people wished hadn’t happened, something they wished they could forget. The house’s history is the manifestation of that.
Sexual trauma isn’t necessarily something that ruins a person. Someone can experience it as a child and go on to live a perfectly happy life in which they love in a healthy manner. Victims of sexual assault aren’t incomplete or broken. I cannot stress that enough. However, there is a horror to be explored in the concept of repressed memory and forgotten trauma. I think Eduardo Sanchez excels at doing that through these two films in a way that is haunting and frightening but most of all creative and dignified.
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