Arguably the most prismatic genre in film, horror has long been used as a tool for social commentary and criticism, catharsis, and, of course, conveying contemporaneous fears. In the 1950s, for example, monster movies coming out of Hollywood encapsulated the overarching fear of communism. Likewise, in the ‘90s, the slasher genre, which boomed in the decade prior, moved towards a more sophisticated and less splatter-for-splatter’s-sake approach, capitalizing on cable television’s increased coverage of real-life serial killer stories.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, particularly with the election of a (now) twice-impeached and (as of this writing because who knows) thrice-indicted American President, we saw a plethora of horror films responding to U.S. politics, tackling authoritarianism (The Purge: Election Year), religious zealotry (The Witch), and various forms of apocalyptic dread (A Quiet Place, 10 Cloverfield Lane).
Indeed, one of the most successful and impactful horror movies of this decade is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. More than being a thrilling directorial feature debut from the actor and comedian, Get Out had its finger on the pulse of larger conversations surrounding race, anti-Black racism, cultural appropriation, and white supremacy that stood (and still stand) at the fore of social consciousness. Its success naturally opened the doors for other horror films and TV series to interrogate racial prejudice, from Antebellum to Them.
Adding his voice to the choir is British-Filipino writer/director Paris Zarcilla with Raging Grace, which follows Joy (Maxene Eigenmann), an undocumented Filipina immigrant who works as a housekeeper for affluent families in London, and her British-born daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). Desperate for cash in order to secure a working visa, Joy takes a high-paying job as a cleaner for Katherine’s (Leanne Best) lavish home, which eventually turns into a caregiver position for Katherine’s terminally-ill uncle, Mr. Garrett (David Hayman). However, the family’s dark secrets come to light, ultimately threatening Joy and Grace’s lives.
Raging Grace is effectively a solid and chilling debut from Zarcilla. Immediately, the film feels like a visualization of the Gothic sensibilities seen in the pages of a Brontë sister’s novel, Joy’s world seemingly drained of colour and, by extension, void of inner life. Of course, from the first moment we see her, we know that this isn’t necessarily true: she’s startled awake with alarming fervour that there’s no denying a storm is brewing inside her. But then, to suffer through her days as a cleaner — to fly as under the radar as possible — she makes herself small, almost invisible. From the start, we feel for her, want to get to know her, and are already on her side.
It’s really a testament to Eigenmann’s talent as an actress just how deftly she walks the line between Joy’s desire to go unnoticed and her desperation as a single mother and immigrant with everything at stake. Whether it’s Katherine or Mr. Garrett, deference seems to be her automatic response — “Yes, ma’am” or, in a spine-chilling moment, “Yes, master” — but Eigenmann’s delivery varies each time, with whispers of pain, embarrassment, and even anger laced in those simple words.
If Joy is the heart of Raging Grace, then Grace is that which keeps it beating. Almost the opposite of her mother, Grace is rambunctious and cunning. She understands to an extent her mother’s need for secrecy, especially when Joy sneaks her into Katherine’s home, but she’s also unafraid to question her mother, whether by word or, to Joy’s dismay, by behaviour. Without spoiling anything, Joy’s job as Mr. Garrett’s caregiver puts a wedge between mother and daughter, and Boadilla, young as she is, impressively shows us all of Grace’s shades, cute and precocious one moment, then fierce and even frightening the next.
Another match made in heaven is the film’s score and its cinematography. Jon Clarke’s music is Raging Grace’s strongest point and, with the way it induces dread with just a few notes, perhaps one of the best horror film scores we’ve heard in a while. Paired with Christopher C.F. Chow’s camera, which often frames Joy in a way that feels boxed-in, there’s an overall feeling of claustrophobia that underscores just how trapped Joy is — in the house, in her circumstances, in her employment, and in Mr. Garrett’s clutches.
Where the film falters somewhat is in its final act. Tensions — between Joy and Grace, Joy and Mr. Garrett, and, surprisingly, Mr. Garrett and Katherine — are at a sparking point here, literally, but because we’ve spent the entire film to this point in Joy’s POV, the switch to the inter-family conflict between Katherine and Mr. Garrett feels a bit jarring. Though the mystery of their strained relationship does provide some necessary answers, it’s unfortunate that it also reveals certain plot holes in the characters’ motivations.
Katherine and Mr. Garrett are, of course, integral to Raging Grace. After all, the film seeks to expose the underbelly of the system, and its players (or, more correctly, perpetrators), that put Joy in the position she’s in, in the first place. And for the most part, it achieves what it sets out to do. To its credit, the film, as spooky and ghostly as it feels, doesn’t rely on anything supernatural or demonic to deliver the horror. Which, in a way, makes it all that much scarier because it shows us that what’s truly horrifying in this world is what's real.