Over the past decade, grief has become a popular topic for genre filmmakers. Top-class directors delight in traps built from the beams of their characters’ tragedies. And while the best of these films find real catharsis amid sadness, others are content to use tragedy as an anchor to bring their characters to a shocking ending. Given the slow twists and turns of Stacey Gregg‘s Here before are almost radical in their on-screen treatment of grief.
Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) loved someone, and now they hurt. A few years after their daughter Josie’s death, the couple are still striving to fill their marriage with the warmth it once had. They got it working, however, thanks in part to the presence of their son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie) and the relative peace of the community around them.
When a new family moves in next door, Laura is curious – but not necessarily upset – to discover that they have a young daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan) that reminds her of her Josie. They immediately become friends, and Laura is happy to play the part of the doting neighbor for a while. But soon Megan shares things about the life and death of Josie that she has nothing to know about. While the girl’s parents worry about the relationship, Laura must decide how far she is willing to find out the truth about Megan.
For the better part of an hour, Gregg’s film tugs at individual story threads and slowly brings Laura to a corner where the only way is to destroy her. “I understand that I sound crazy,” she says to Brendan, “because I can hear myself.” Laura believes that Megan must be her daughter’s reincarnation – or at least in communication with her ghost – and when all attempts to distance herself from the young girl fail, she bows to pursue the truth at all costs.
Like the best horror films, this Here Before setup allows you to work under a near-palatable cloud of fear. Even as our empathy for Laura grows, we know something terrible is about to happen, and most likely from her hands. Gregg reinforces this sense of impending doom by removing the many small touches from the film that are so often found in this type of horror. Aside from a late dream sequence – set to the happy, cheerful melodies of the sunshine pop band The Free Design from the 1960s – a lot of what we see in the film feels possible and only adds to our discomfort.
Riseborough has made working with challenging material easier for a long time. Her appearance in Brandon Cronenberg’s science fiction horror film Possessor was named one of the best of 2020. In Here Before, she takes on a complicated task: to lure the audience into a complex process of grief and paranoia without ever turning the scales on spiritualism. The horror of the first hour is that Laura knows that she is slipping. She knows that her grief is leading her down a dark path, but she still has the spiritual presence to remember her obligation to her living child. “He’s safe with me,” she tells her husband. We believe her.
Terribly, the line between grief and insanity is often non-existent. Tragedy creates tragedy, and characters struggling to overcome their grief often end up with hopeless ends. Riseboroughs Laura offers us something far more complex. She sets and honors boundaries with the people who are important to her. She’s also not afraid to ask for help if she feels a little overwhelmed. And when the forces around her are finally revealed, Laura somehow finds the truth worse than anything she can imagine.
Strip Here Before to the core, and this is a film about a woman’s struggle to come to terms with her grief. It may lack the nippiness preferred by so many horror films and thrillers of the moment, but thanks to the work of Gregg and Riseborough, it can more than fulfill its human flaws. Sometimes the little ways we let our loved ones down are scarier than any monster we can imagine.
Speaking of here before the end …
The rest of this review has SPOILERS for the ending of Here Before.
For most thrillers, the boldness of their resolution becomes a big talking point. For Here Before, the sudden reversal of its supernatural elements is sure to spark the conversation. As Laura delves deeper into the things Megan knows, she comes across a shocking truth: Megan is actually Brendan’s birth daughter, and Laura’s new neighbors have decided to move next door with his knowledge and blessings.
Some might argue that Gregg’s script gives up its ethereal storytelling in favor of simple plot manipulation and ruins a compelling ghost story with a Lifetime Movie of the Week hook in the final moments. I do not agree with you. The Here Before tragedy isn’t that Laura is surrounded by people who mean her harm. It is that those who are closest to her get tired of their trauma and actively choose to leave Laura behind when their grief resolves more slowly than they would like.
Brendan may play the role of the compassionate husband, but his belief that his path to acceptance is the right one – a point Laura highlighted in a previous fight – leads to a number of catastrophic decisions. It is a cruel form of projection that accuses a loved one of abandoning their family while you actively gas them on fire to prevent them from discovering the truth about your birth daughter. Given that the operatic styles of films like Ari Aster’s Hereditary have now become the norm in art house horror, it’s refreshing and no less harrowing to see the film dissolve in such a mundane way.
This also makes Here Before a companion piece to films like The Invisible Man and The Lodge, two 2020 horror releases that used gaslight as the basis for a character’s slow descent into insanity. What makes Here Before so different is the use: Laura’s husband is not conventionally (cinematically) abusive, but only negligent. His willingness to prioritize his own desires over his worried wife makes the use of Here Before dangerously close to the emotional aggression many people are exposed to from their partners. And these kinds of universal missions can and should be viewed as anything but anti-climactic.