Terror Cult: The Family That Slays Together

Devon Ashby introduces you to the best - and most deranged - homicidal family movies ever made.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each week, Terror Cult dissects and analyzes a subcategory of the horror genre, highlighting key examples and exploring the common threads that tie them together. This week, we examine the tradition of horror movies about non-traditional families… with a mean streak.

Few things are more horrible for most of us than being forced to spend time with our families, particularly if we are old and wise enough to have amassed our resources and escaped them for an average of 11 months out of the year. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a grand tradition of horror has erupted over the years around the premise of deranged, insular families gone violently berserk.

Though the trope has some slightly earlier antecedents, and crops up occasionally in recent films, crazed family narratives are largely an earmark of the early 1970s, when the sleazier inner workings of the nuclear family were becoming increasingly exposed, both in media representation, and more visibly in casual social interaction. The ‘70s in America were characterized by the rise of women’s liberation, a spike in the national divorce rate, the aftertaste of the ‘60s counterculture (and its unofficial, ignoble rupturing and downfall in the face of the horrific Manson slayings), combined with increasingly troubling economic shifts that were already beginning to make single-income, middle class households appear ominously obsolete.

This assortment of factors combined to cast an increasingly jaundiced eye on previously cherished notions about family solidarity, both from a social, and from more practical perspectives. The so-called “family” responsible for the Tate/LaBianca murders drew unsettling parallels between the blind, wholesome, father-knows-best loyalty of the ‘50s, and the sudden rise of makeshift, bohemian pseudo-family structures that became typical of trendy urban youth in the late 1960s. At the same time, with the American middle class entering the first stages of a slow and grinding deterioration, scapegoats were needed, and fears of invasion, corruption, and contamination ran rampant. The same paranoid fears about overcrowding, lack of sufficient long-term resources, and the collapse of the social order that would give birth to Romero’s Living Dead trilogy (which would rapidly mushroom into a full-fledged and enduringly relevant horror tradition, thanks in no small part to the Italians) were also responsible for morbid and claustrophobic chamber pieces like Tobe Hooper’sTexas Chainsaw Massacre.

The family horror tradition, by its nature, will never stop being relevant or accessible; it taps into deeply rooted psychological fears about individual identity, Oedipal anxiety, and the destructive power of groupthink. They almost always include characters that behave, or believe themselves to be, younger and more dependent than their true age dictates, and those characters are frequently the most violent and predatory, raising disturbing questions about personal responsibility and the influence of environment and upbringing on personal identity.

Spider Baby (1968)

Directed by exploitation legend Jack Hill, Spider Baby stars Universal horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr., and is also one of the first movies ever to feature legendary sleaze horror icon Sid Haig. Alternately titled “The Maddest Story Ever Told,” Spider Baby is a dark comedy about a group of waifish sociopaths suffering from a degenerative psychological disorder known as the Merrye Syndrome, which causes a progressive reversal of psychological development culminating in a “savage, pre-human condition” that leaves its sufferers disposed to acts of extreme violence and cannibalism. Presided over by their kindly butler, the already delicate situation of the Merrye siblings is exacerbated further when their home is invaded by a group of interloping distant relatives, intent on having the Merrye children institutionalized in order to seize their property and assets. Spider Baby is one of Hill’s funniest and most revered movies, and one of the earliest entries in the deranged family subgenre.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven dipped his fingers into quite a few notable exploitation subgenres, including revenge horror, and later, teen slashers. The Hills Have Eyes was Craven’s contribution to the family horror tradition, released a few years after the high profile success of Tobe Hooper’s shoestring budgeted Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Inspired by the supposedly true legend of Sawney Beane, a rogue 16th century highwayman who took shelter with his wife and progeny in a network of caves outside a populated area of Scotland, and ultimately expanded his troupe into a roving band of deformed and inbred cannibals. Hills Have Eyes tells the more modern story of a vacationing middle class family whose camper trailer breaks down in the middle of a desert, ultimately forcing them to square off against a less-traditional family of murderous savages. The film’s legacy was unfortunately marred by Craven several years later with a crassly commercial follow-up, hastily released to cash in on the success of the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Perhaps the definitive entry in the deranged family tradition, Texas Chainsaw is also notable for being one of the most-cited, and most frequently-banned gore films of all time, despite its remarkable lack of any actual onscreen gore. Aside from some admittedly gut-churning rotting corpse tableau, luridly featured during the opening credits, almost all of Texas Chainsaw’s repulsive atmosphere is achieved with skillfully grainy cinematography, skin-crawling sound effects, and the power of visual suggestion. Despite its relative lack of onscreen gore, Texas Chainsaw was one of Britain’s most notorious Video Nasties, and remained an illegal film in that country, in its uncut form, until the late 1990s. Aside from being an enduringly creepy and affecting movie, its ability to shock and offend makes it a truly remarkable cinematic achievement, and one of the most powerfully condensed examples of the trends that defined American ‘70s horror as a whole. Its pathological intensity is fueled by profound and universal unease about the deterioration of the American dream, and the resulting vulnerability and helplessness characterizing the national landscape.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970)

Produced in Britain, this film’s twee title was shortened for its North American VHS release to Girly, partly to erase its conspicuous national flavor, and partly so the US distributors could deceptively capitalize on its relatively chaste sexual dimensions. Girly concerns a family of four, headed by Mumsy and her co-conspirator Nanny, who have successfully kept their shared progeny, Sonny and Girly, in a permanent state of arrested development. Sonny and Girly appear to both be in their late teens or early twenties, but dress, speak, and act like very young children. Sonny and Girly’s pent-up sexual frustrations are freely loosed on a string of vagrants and dilettantes whom they lure back to the family estate, with Mumsy and Nanny’s indulgent permission, and engage in a series of childish mind-games until their visitors ultimately bore them and are “sent to the angels.” True to its title, Girly has a distinctly English flavor and is more whimsically morbid and less abrasive than most of its brethren.

The Baby (1973)

Definitely the weirdest movie on the list, with a slow build and a whopper of a twist ending, The Baby seems totally unselfconscious about its twitchy discomfort with all things pro-Feminist. A social worker still recovering from a tragic accident that destroyed her marriage becomes involved with a decidedly non-traditional family consisting of two sexpot sisters and a gruff, no-nonsense single mom played by Ruth Roman. The youngest member of the family is Baby, an adult male who supposedly lacks adult mental and motor faculties, and who spends all day sitting in a crib or crawling around the living room with a teddy bear in tow. Suspecting that Baby’s state of existence is the result of systematic abuse rather than physiological deficit, the social worker sets out to wrest control of him away from his domineering bevy of female relatives, but her methods and motivations turn out to be more obscure than expected.

American Gothic (1988)

A later entry, American Gothic self-consciously appropriates the ‘70s family horror vibe to weave an over-the-top, twisty isolationist horror story. A group of wealthy would-be campers crash-land their private jet on a remote island and quickly find themselves at the mercy of a family of religious purists whose ethics and ways of living have evidently remained unchanged since the 1930s. Not surprisingly, the island’s proprietors sharply disapprove of their guests’ premarital sexual escapades and generally cavalier attitudes, and quickly resolve to dispatch them. Pa and Ma are played with hilarious deadpan intensity by Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo, and the rest of the unholy brood, true to form, consists of murderous and sexually deviant adult children who think they’re still pre-pubescent, including one portrayed by the inimitably fey character actor Michael J. Pollard. American Gothic is a veritable high camp orgy of necrophile rape, grown women in plaid hair bows and princess dresses, emotionally traumatized, pre-mental institution flashback sequences, and a mummified baby corpse getting its head ripped off.

Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s) is a French gore film [link], directed by oft-misunderstood filmmaker Xavier Gens, whose more recent American movie The Divide nightmarishly re-interpreted cold-war era isolationist narratives. Like American Gothic, Frontier(s) borrows ‘70s-era family horror tropes to tell a story that is somehow, obscurely, rife with political resonance. Gens’ work is typically infused with aggressively anti-fascist subtext, and Frontier(s) is no exception, casting a band of fleeing political subversives in the role of hapless interlopers, and coloring the predatory country family with some distinctly Nazi-esque overtones. Gens’ barbs aren’t always as transparent as they could be, but his passion for the subject matter, and fascination with morbid set pieces as a vehicle for evoking requisite levels of disgust bring the subgenre right back to its roots. 

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Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.