THANKS BRIGHTBURN! (OR, HOW TRAUMATISING KIDS CAN TURN THEM INTO HORROR FANS)
Every fan of the macabre remembers it: that exact moment they got the call.
Maybe it was looking at the posters for the newest slasher and catching yourself daydreaming about all the gruesome delights the movie promised. It could have been that thrill of hearing urban legends about hook-handed psychos or monsters under beds. Most likely, it happened when you sneaked more than a passing peak at a forbidden film--dodging your parents’ mostly watchful eyes and staying up later than you were supposed to, just so you could catch a glimpse of the weird, the wild, and the unspeakably violent.
Freaks like us always remember that first time we knew we had an itch only horror movies could soothe. It’s an exhilarating experience--primal as a loss of virginity, a rite of passage in our otherwise ritualless, disconnected world.
Lots of seemingly innocent movies have served as gateway drugs of sorts for people of my generation and older: Beetlejuice (the one that converted me to the dark side), Monster Squad, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Critters, Child’s Play, and even something as ostensibly cute as Gremlins hides a row of mean little teeth. Under the guise of being family-friendly, or simply because they had child protagonists, these movies were crazy-ass Trojan horses, not filled with rape-fueled Greek soliders, but boasting enough kinky depravity to either transform a kid into a hardened horror devotee or make them turn from the genre with a revulsion akin to food poisoning.
I wasn’t certain what film would fill this role for the younger generation. Certainly Coraline is a strong contender (it served the same function for my adorable nine year old niece that Beetlejuice did for me), but it’s been awhile since that film was released and not much else stepped up to take its place. I had to ask myself, “What is the future of the genre going to be like if there isn’t something dark, sinister and totally warped out there, prowling around, looking for young minds to corrupt?” But, to botch an immortal line from Jeff Goldblum, “Horror finds a way,” and when I saw Brightburn, I knew I had nothing to worry about.
My editor and colleague Jessie Hobson wrote a great review of the film HERE, and I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. It’s an underrated gem, but Jessie’s review doesn’t touch on what I feel is Brightburn’s greatest contribution to our culture: it’s going to make a shit ton of little horror fans.
The screening I attended was a Saturday matinee, and at my local theatre, that’s usually a pretty thin crowd of elderly couples and chronic morning people like myself, but for Brightburn, most of the seats were full, and the majority of the audience were families with multiple young children. I didn’t think anything about it, really, but by the time the film found its way to the infamous diner scene, I was actively concerned for the little guys sitting all around me.
I’ve been in some pretty great screenings in my time. Rowdy, reactive crowds are usually my favorite, but there’s something to be said for the stunned silent, jumpy crowds, and that was the mood in Brightburn. With several impressively brutal gore set-pieces, more beautifully savage and heartless than anything Saw ever gave us in eight films, the audience (as well as yours truly) gasped, groaned, and whimpered as fragile body parts were sliced, impaled, or otherwise shredded by the wicked child at the film’s center. There are few things more powerful than a vast, collective cry of pain, and Brightburn forced several out of us--and believe me, after the shit I’ve put myself through to satisfy my urge for the horrific, I was just as surprised as the unsuspecting parents who brought their kids to the matinee.
While the first time a young horror nut sees some really hardcore gore is always a special moment, Brightburn has other qualities that will turn sweet, unsuspecting kids into genre fans. I love Jessie’s comments on how Brightburn addresses the exhausted narratives surrounding superheroes, and while most kids can’t get enough of costumed goody two-shoes throwing down with two-dimensional baddies, I know there are kids out there who are just as fed up with the Marvel cultural hegemony as I am. Besides giving young kids a robust taste of some really first rate gore, Brightburn has a much more sinister streak: it’s all-pervasive nihilism.
There are no heroes in Brightburn. Love is a trap that ultimately damns the human race. Even the bond of mother and child, something even the most maudlin of horror films has vaunted to near godlike status, is shown to be too weak to defeat the powers of evil. That’s a ballsy message, delivered with all the brutality and pitch-black, nauseating nihilism of a Gaspar Noe movie. A lot of words may come to mind when you think of Noe, but “family film” probably wouldn’t make the list.
Sure, it’s good to teach kids that when we work together, we’re stronger. That even the underdog and the little guy can make a difference. That if we work hard enough and fight long enough, good will kick evil’s ass. Those are important morals we have to transmit to our children.
But, it’s also not exactly how the world works, now is it?
I’m a teacher (granted, of older kids than the ones I’m thinking of here), but the one thing I’ve learned is that kids are not as naive as we want to believe. They know what’s happening in the world around them. They see all the hatred and violence, and like us, they feel the same overwhelming anxiety for the future that hits older people in our quiet moments. Telling them it’s all going to be ok works sometimes, but other times, especially for kids with a bent toward the pessimistic, the dark, and the macabre, it’s about as effective as magical traveling show snake oil.
Kids need an outlet for their darkness, too. They need the cathartic release of seeing the bad guy beat the everliving hell out of the good guys. They need to have their fears validated. Sometimes that means watching our worst nightmares play out in a safe, contained world. More than any movie I’ve seen recently, Brightburn has the balls to do that.
A lot of kids will be completely horrified by Brightburn, and if you’re reading this and have young children, I would advise you against taking them to see it (there’s no need to purposefully traumatise our kids, after all). But, for some of the kids who have already seen it, or who will see it at under-supervised slumber parties or on TV or via the wild-west, anything-goes world of video streaming, all that gritty violence, the wall-to-wall bleakness, the unrelenting tone of despair and impending doom will be just what they need. Maybe they won’t be able to say why they feel better after watching something as weird and disturbing as Brightburn, maybe they’ll never really be able to articulate it (hell, I’m still trying to), but when the credits roll, they’ll know something true about themselves.
To all the young horror fans out there--enjoy the ride. It’s a good feeling when you face all the badness a really nasty movie throws at you, and you come out on the other side. Welcome, have fun, and don’t get any blood on the carpet.