The Ties That Bind: Metamorphosis and Domestic Horror

Who can you trust?

This short question is at the root of many fears. Humans have almost always existed in family groups; since the dawn of humanity one of the baseline assumptions of civilization is that family should be the first people we trust. For the overwhelming majority of people their family is the first relationships they ever have. But what happens to people if they are betrayed by their families?

This question lies at the heart of Hong-seon Kim’s 2019 film Metamorphosis. This Shudder exclusive, on paper, appears to be nothing more than another film about demonic possession and supernatural terror. But beneath the surface of a narrative that horror fans are already no doubt familiar with is a much harder set of themes.

(Warning! Minor spoilers ahead!)

So let’s set the scene: after an exorcism goes wrong, a young Catholic priest named Joong-su is suffering a crisis of faith and of his profession. To compound his miseries, his brother Kang-gu and his family (composed of his wife, Myung-joo, daughters Sun-woo and Hyun-joo, and son Woo-jong) have moved from their previous home due to the negative attention this incident. But soon they discover that moving isn’t enough, and the that the family has a supernatural battle on their hands. Worse still, the family will be forced to ask who amongst their relatives they should trust.

Metamorphosis is one of those films that is entirely more interesting in execution than it seemingly should. In an era post-Paranormal Activity, films about hauntings and possessions run the risk of being, put simply, not scary. Moreover the seemingly simple narrative of “Good vs. Evil” can often be a lazy excuse for an overly-simplistic plot. And what film featuring demonic possession can hold a candle to The Exorcist?  Metamorphosis does draw a handful of influences from The Exorcist, but there is an argument to be made that any film dealing with demonic possession is going to draw criticisms for being derivative of William Friedkin’s work.

But putting Metamorphosis in a singular box of “demon movie” is both reductive and unfair.  It deals instead with a more primal sort of fear. I would argue, in fact, that it smartly addresses one of the most important roots of fear: betrayal.

While I find it typically advisable to stray away from “theories of everything,” I do think that there are recurring themes within any sort of storytelling. In the case of horror, the recurring element that is addressed is the sense of betrayal in a person or group’s life. Going back to a previous point, why was The Exorcist so incredibly resonant with audiences, both upon it’s release in 1973 and today? One can point to the acting or the special effects. Both are still effective, even now. And it would not be unfair to say that Friedkin’s directing creates an atmosphere that is entirely believable. But the plot of a pre-teen girl being possessed by Satanic forces causes us to examine how such nightmarish events could be linked to such a seemingly innocent child. We, the audience, are dealing with a betrayal of our trust in the inherent goodness of children, and that “these things don’t happen.”

“Dr. Freud, you have a call on Line One”

With Metamorphosis, the true horror at the core of the film is that the betrayal of family and home. As the demonic entity begins to torture Joong-su’s family, it decides to use the forms of the family members themselves. This act creates an air of confusion that is genuinely unsettling. Typically speaking most parents don’t scream at or become physically abusive towards each other. Home should in most cases be a place where individuals can be comfortable. The betrayal of the sanctity of home and family is, at bare minimum, a deep and old anxiety.

Is Metamorphosis a perfect horror film?  Of course not. But it is an incredibly smart film. It uses the tropes of demonic confession and Catholic exorcism in an ingenious way. Many films could learn to use the actual horror elements of any plot as a framing device, and not the core of the film itself, like as this film does. This is not to say, however, that the film doesn’t have broad appeal. The sharp, believable acting of the cast will appeal to people wanting psychological horror.  The sharp cinematography is a genuine pleasure and will satisfy fans of a more artistic bent. And then there’s the gore. There are some genuinely gross moments in this movie that made even me feel a little squeamish.

Metamorphosis is not for the light-hearted, but is a genuinely rewarding film. It is guaranteed to get under your skin and make you to squirm. Most of all, it will make you nervous about your closest connections. Is the person on the couch with you to be trusted? How well do you know your neighbors? And if you don’t have good answers to those questions, do you have the number for a priest in your phone’s contact list?

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

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