When is a scary movie not a horror movie?
I ask because I recently watched Alex Ross Perry’s enigmatic and tense film, Queen of Earth. The movie stars Elizabeth Moss (yay Mad Men!) as Catherine and Katherine Waterston as Ginny, two women whose once close friendship has become strained after each has suffered personal catastrophes.
When the film starts, we find Catherine on the receiving end of a nasty break-up, which comes on the heels of her father’s suicide. Ginny, in an attempt to be a dutiful and supportive friend, invites Catherine on a weeklong vacation to her family’s luxurious cabin. Once there, it becomes clear that their friendship is not as stable as they pretend it is, as both feel lingering resentment towards each other.
This may sound innocuous enough for a movie, but everything is not tranquil under the placid surface—Catherine’s already fragile emotional and mental states begin to steadily disintegrate. The arrival of Ginny’s latest fling, Rich (played with wonderful douchieness by Patrick Fugit), serves only to put further stress on the friendship and push Catherine closer to a full nervous breakdown.
If you saw the retro, 70s-horror-flick-inspired trailer, you’d probably assume, as I did, that this was going to be a moody psychological horror movie where the picturesque cabin setting would quickly prove itself not to be a serene retreat but an isolated, terrifying trap. I mean, look at this:
While Queen of Earth was a scary, scary film, I wasn’t sure if it was a horror movie or not, which seems slightly contradictory even as I type this.
This is not the throwback slasher you’re looking for. There is no masked murderer lurking in the woods. There is no terrible secret biding its time at the bottom of the lake. There is no blood and hardly any violence, save one particularly gripping scene.
That’s not to say every horror film needs gore and violence. There are some movies where gore works and is necessary for the story’s purpose. In other films, blood and guts would be out of place in the narrative.
But this is the rule: gore or no, every horror film needs to provoke a reaction of disgust, repulsion, terror, or horror in the audience.
Does Queen of Earth obey this rule? I don’t really think so. Initially I couldn’t decide and oscillated between calling it either a psychological drama or a psychological horror.
On one hand, psychological horror scares us with its depiction of a break with reality, of a vulnerable person spiraling into madness. This subgenre confronts us with the truth about where the boundaries of sanity are, how easy they are to trip over, and close we all are to losing control. What a psychological horror film lacks in blood it more than makes up for with twisting narratives, nuanced character portrayals, and expertly rendered tension. Think of The Shining, Carrie, The Others, and of course Repulsion (which I’ll get to later).
On the other hand, a psychological drama probes the mental and emotional state of a character for the sake of the portrayal, teasing out how key events push the character’s deterioration. Such a film might incorporate elements of action or mystery, but the ultimate aim is to create a powerful psychological portrait for the audience, thereby communication certain difficult truths about the human mind. Examples might be Se7en, Vertigo (anything Hitchcock, really), The Silence of The Lambs, and Momento.
Queen of Earth does some things well–it delves into the complicated dynamics of an all-too-real friendship and paints a compelling portrayal of a woman’s slide into insanity. It wants to succeed in scaring us, I believe, and while it may not want to mimic a straight psychological horror flick, it certainly owes the genre a debt. On multiple occasions, the film acknowledges the classic horror film Repulsion, which I’ve written about here. From plot details to the whole look and feel of the movie, it’s clear the film influenced Perry.
(Don’t forget Catherine Deneuve played Carole in Repulsion; Catherine is the suffering, unstable main character’s name in Queen of Earth. It’s subtle but that’s totes an homage.)
Particularly telling is how Catherine’s idyllic retreat, which was supposed to be a feminine space, is threatened by an unwanted and threatening male presence, just as in Repulsion.
Both protagonists develop coping mechanisms where they regress to near catatonic, paranoid, childlike states.
Both protagonists have terrifying hallucinations of ravenous, unrelenting hands groping and pinning them down, underscoring their loss of control and inability to maintain a sense of autonomy.
And last but not least, the infamous rotting rabbit in Repulsion is resurrected as the wilting salad in Queen of Earth, images rife with symbolism.
Another great part about this film is the cast.
Elizabeth Moss has always been an enormous talent. She seizes the opportunity to flex her acting muscles here, and it’s delightful. She switches from placid and doe-eyed and to snarling and crazed at the drop of a hat, which in and of itself requires great skill, but it’s those moments in between, in which Catherine is overwhelmed with inner turmoil, struggling with countless emotions, where Moss proves she’s a magnificent actress.
The script supports Moss, letting her breathe life into Catherine, while still giving Ginny her due. Katherine Waterston is a great, and her excellent, subtle, restrained acting is no less powerful than Moss’s. She is the perfect counter-weight to Moss, knowing just the right way to amplify the distance and strain between these two women. Her quiet, steely front brings out the nuances in Moss’s agitated performance, and vice versa.
The film also peaks at the dirty underside of close relationships, the neediness, the judgement, the ways close friends sometimes use each other’s weaknesses to feel superior. I appreciated that the story didn’t focus solely on Catherine’s descent, but set her descent in the context of the relationship. By anchoring the narrative in the previous year, and showing how Catherine used to be the “stable” friend who had her life figured out, the script underscores just how fall she has fallen. She lorded it over Ginny, flaunting her then-current boyfriend in Ginny’s face during what was supposed to be a therapeutic girl’s weekend.
And since we see how Ginny was the “messy” friend a year prior, reeling from yet another failed relationship, the script does not shy away from how much Ginny enjoys being the “calm, put-together, mature” friend in the present. Ginny may genuinely want to help Catherine overcome her problems, but she does relish a certain smug pleasure now that she’s not the mess anymore. We see it in when Ginny keeps inviting Rich over, despite how much is bothers Elizabeth. Ginny may say it’s just a fling, that it’s no big deal, but she knows what she’s doing.
So yeah, this movie is an unflinching, unflattering examination of a toxic, co-dependent relationship full of bitterness, resentment, mistrust, and jealousy. This isn’t outside the realm of possibility, because how many of us have been through this? Been in a relationship where we secretly savored how much the other person felt compelled to listen to us wallow in our misery? Been in a relationship where we judge the other person’s struggle and think, well, at least I’m not like that? And then what happens if the relationship dynamic switches? If the relationship ends?
That is a scary idea. No one wants to acknowledge that they aren’t the selfless friend they fancied themselves. It’s a powerful thought and an important concept. It should be contemplated.
But as far as the horror element, I never felt scared, not really. There was one shocking part, and Moss gives plenty of creepy, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. I was enraptured by the interpersonal drama unfurling on the screen. But what the film achieved with moody lighting and claustrophobic shots was undermined by action that was too removed and pacing that was too languid. I kept waiting for all of the elements to coalesce into something truly horrific, but the climax, while dramatic and unnerving, felt more sad than terrifying. I was not brought into the drama, nor was I forced to experience what Catherine and Ginny felt. Their desperation was not my desperation and their fears were not my fears.
Thus, I’d have to say that I don’t really consider this a horror movie, not even psychological horror. It’s only dressed up like that.
Sorry, everyone who thought this was the next Black Swan. Queen of Earth was entertaining and provocative, just not horror. All the same, I highly recommend it.