I just watched Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde’s recent film, and much to my surprise, I loved it. Like many others out there, I was guilty of assuming that the film itself could not possibly be better than the behind the scenes drama. And since I read everything I could find (yes, I like escaping into Hollywood gossip with the best of them), it did not feel like there was anything left to consume about the movie. Even the movie itself felt redundant.
But then a friend urged me to watch it, so I did, and it is shockingly very very good. Even, perhaps, just maybe, as good as the behind the scenes drama!
Many reviews of the film were intertwined into the drama, so even though I try not to read reviews before watching movies (partly because I do not want to be influenced and partly because I so often disagree with them that I just get mad [Why There Is Nothing Funny About Don’t Look Up; The Problem with ‘A Star Is Born’; Tarantino’s Love Letter to Trump], I did know that generally the film did not get excellent reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 38% as its aggregate from critics — although, interestingly, the audience score is 74% — while Metacritic gave it a 48. All of which is a shame because I’m sure others, like me, felt dissuaded from watching it.
But I did! And hooray for that. Because other than Smile (Parker Finn, 2022), I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so much — and Smile satisfies for how well it follows the required genre road map. Don’t Worry Darling satisfies for how well it careens off the map.
The premise of the film will feel familiar to fans of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — originally a 1956 American science fiction horror film directed by Don Siegel and then remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman — and The Stepford Wives — originally a “feminist horror” novel by Ira Levin, famously also the author of Rosemary’s Baby, that was then made into two feature films, the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes and the 2004 version directed by Frank Oz. Alice Warren (Florence Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) live in Victory, a Palm Springs-esque world of mid-century modern perfection. Everything is perfect and clean and cheerful, the makeup on point and the cars immaculate. Jack heads off to work each day in his little sports car, lunchbox in tow, while Alice occupies herself cleaning the house, preparing dinner, and participating in coordinated choreographed dance routines worthy of Busby Berkeley. When Jack gets home, she is at the door, ready to greet him with a cocktail in hand, dinner served, and, apparently a body ready for sex on the dining room table.
Alice’s disturbing dreams and hallucinations are the only thing to mar this fantasy-level life. There is something not quite right in Victory. In typical horror fashion, everyone (including the doctor and her husband) tell her that she’s crazy and should be medicated. I’m going to take a sidebar here and paste in some excerpts from my Haunted Homes book that seem relevant.
As the suburbs grew in size and popularity throughout the twentieth century, the family took center stage in American life. Couples married early and had children shortly thereafter, filling up the multiple bedrooms in their new homes. Fewer women considered higher education as gender roles emphasized a sharp split between men (who pursued careers) and women (who pursued children). Despite efforts to sell the suburban dream as empowering for wives and mothers—film, television, magazines, and advertising all pitched the home as a place for women to attain power, control, and personal fulfillment—the restrictive solitude, as well as other aspects of gender dictated by suburban life, had far reaching (and negative) repercussions.
A significant theme of the Suburban Gothic tradition is that, unlike with most conventional horror narratives, in which the external threat could be a vampire, an alien, or a serial killer, danger often comes from within: if not from within the family, then from within the home itself.
David Church, in his article “Return of the Return of the Repressed: Notes on the American Horror Film 1991–2006,” writes that the repeated violence against women in these narratives can be viewed as part of a “wider remasculinization throughout American cinema that can be read as a backlash against feminism (and other liberation movements).” Women may gain more and more freedom and independence offscreen, but at least in horror films, they can be put back in their place.
Horror movies, and haunted home narratives in particular, tend to exaggerate the gender binary. Women are frequently seen as more vulnerable, intuitive, emotional, and prone to mental collapse. While this increased sensitivity makes them more aware, both emotionally and physically, of the hauntings, it also makes them more likely to be dismissed as crazy.
In turn, men are seen as more aggressive, rational, and pragmatic—reluctant to believe in anything that does not follow rules of science or logic. Often traveling or working, men are more likely to be absent parents in haunted home narratives, emotionally as well as physically…One way to understand this contrast is by noticing how many times men accuse women of being hysterical or crazy, a phenomenon that is far from new. In the episode “Rubber Man” of the television series American Horror Story: Murder House (FX, November 23, 2011), Moira O’Hara (Frances Conroy) tells Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), “Since the beginning of time, men find excuses to lock women away. They make up diseases, like hysteria.” She goes on to emphasize that things are no better today because “men are still inventing ways to drive women over the edge.”
In The Forgotten (Joseph Ruben, 2004), Telly (Julianne Moore) desperately searches for her missing son, a son everyone else tells her never existed. Dr. Jack Munce (Gary Sinise) tells her that it is totally normal for people to invent alternate lives with imagined friends, family, and children. The implication is not that people make things up but that women “make things up.” This is also nothing new. In Greek mythology, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. Angry that she was not properly grateful, he then cursed her, making sure that no one would believe any of her prophecies, however accurate.
Unlike traditional narratives in which the male hero has to vanquish the threat, in these stories, the wife/mother is often the only hope. It falls on her to protect her family and get rid of the evil spirits. As often happens on- and offscreen, it falls on her to clean up the house, literally and metaphorically.
Once we see Don’t Worry Darling through the lens of a horror film, perhaps it makes sense that that’s why I liked it. Perhaps, like Smile, it does satisfy for how it hits the high points of the horror genre. One of the ways in which Don’t Worry Darling really satisfies is for how it completes the most compelling aspect of horror: how it speaks to that which cannot otherwise be said. Horror films respond and reflect social fears and anxieties in ways that elude other genres. As Robin Wood writes in his famous essay, “Return of the Repressed,” horror “is currently the most important of all American genres and perhaps the most progressive, even in its overt nihilism–in a period of extreme cultural crisis and disintegration.”
The suburbs as a place of a horror, which is the central tenet in my Haunted Homes book, is a fascinating one, since the suburbs appeal precisely because of their supposed safety. And yet, as expanded upon in many of Stephen King’s books, as well as shaped by influential horror films Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) and The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979), it is precisely this contrast between the banality of the suburban home and the horrors tucked inside that made these instances of horror or supernatural fantasy so wildly incongruous. As John Carpenter, known for his horror classics Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), and Christine (1983), explains, “If horror can get there, it can get anywhere. . . . So a filmmaker, if he plays with that, can create fear. Lots of fear.” Similarly, Stephen King explains that, in his ideal horror story, “the monster shouldn’t be in a graveyard in decadent old Europe, but in the house down the street.” Unsurprisingly, since one can be seen as a response to the other, the advent of the Suburban Gothic coincided with the frenetic suburban sprawl that followed World War II, which is precisely the time period of much of Don’t Worry Darling!
Don’t Worry Darling is a contemporary film that dramatizes the evolution of the haunted house film — speaking directly to the gendered horror of the 1950s while also commenting on the misogyny that makes the horror genre what it is (and yes, it continues to be today) while also commenting on the misogyny of our off-screen contemporary American reality (see Robin Wood above)! Not only does tackling these three different levels of storytelling a brilliant concept, but the movie handles it all brilliantly. Even down to the way Alice must kill her husband before escaping because, after all, she is the Final Girl and he really was the monster, reminding us yet again that cis white hetero incel men are the most dangerous monster in the twenty-first century.
[And yes, the irony of Harry Styles, one of the most gorgeous and desired men alive, playing an incel is *chef’s kiss” level brilliance. In order to get his wife to have sex with him, he has to imprison her within a next level version of The Sims!]
However, he most chilling aspect of the entire film is its very simple reminder of every time someone chants “Make America Great Again” or revels in the repeal of Roe v. Wade, they really are putting women right back in the contemporary horror narrative from which we have tried so hard to escape, where not only should women be barefoot and pregnant but dancing choreographed routines.