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Why the nightmare in-laws dynamic is ripe for horror

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Sep 7, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

Meeting the parents for the first time conjures up a variety of nightmarishly clichéd scenarios, from the over-protective father to the clingy mother. There are plenty of romantic comedies dedicated to this familial dynamic, often centering on the initial encounter, like Meet the Parents, or a matrimony-focused plot, like Father of the Bride and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. These situations are predicated on cringe-worthy moments and interactions between two families whose ancestral branches are about to merge.

Yet it isn't only mid-'00s comedy vehicles starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez bringing the proverbial Monster-in-Law to the film table. Conflict stemming from introducing an "outsider" to a tight-knit unit is a relatable premise, and as with comedy, horror thrives with the awkwardly familiar. And while there are fewer in-law-focused titles in the scary annals, it is ripe for this type of setup, and filmmakers have utilized this to advantage. This week, Charlie Kaufman's adaptation of Iain Reid's psychological horror I'm Thinking of Ending Things is out on Netflix and involves an unsettling trip to the middle of nowhere. To celebrate this arrival, we're going to check in with the extended families that have plagued unsuspecting romantic partners.

Credit: Universal Pictures

Two recent notable scary movies exploring this setting are Get Out and Ready or Not. In both cases, a wealthy white family is harboring a deep dark secret from their child's beau. Whether you are marrying someone or are waiting to take the next step, this kind of surprise is never welcome. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) have been dating for a few months before she takes him to her parents' rural home for this inaugural visit, whereas Grace (Samara Weaving) is meeting the Le Domas clan on her wedding day.

At the start of Get Out, Chris asks Rose if her parents know he is Black. His concern stems from the fact that Rose has told him that he is the first Black guy she has dated — later on, we find out this is far from the case — and Chris doesn't want to "get chased off the lawn with a shotgun." This scene is meant to put him at ease, while also setting up his girlfriend as someone the audience can trust. Because this is horror, we know the film is built on a foundation of terror, but for the third-act twist to work effectively, Rose has to look like an ally exempt from the nefarious body-snatching scheme.

Credit: Universal Pictures

They are not his soon-to-be legal in-laws, as marriage is never suggested, but there is a welcoming atmosphere when Chris arrives at the isolated estate that doesn't match up with his concerns. In fact, Richard Armitage (Bradley Whitford) is overcompensating in the way his daughter said he would be — yes, he would've voted for Obama again if he could've. It is far more cringey than menacing, but something is unsettling about the people they employ to tend to the grounds and their house beyond the Black servant stereotype.

Horror characters often make decisions based on what will propel the plot forward, regardless of how dumb it might seem. Chris never drops his guard, and he is always aware that something isn't quite right. Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to suggest he could've predicted exactly what the Armitage clan and their friends have in store — even if his best friend has been suggesting outlandish plots that might befall him. Little does he know that Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) are a horrifying combination of family members and Rose's exes.

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Director Jordan Peele took inspiration from Rosemary's Baby when writing Get Out, which also depicts seemingly normal people harboring an awful secret. Neighbors Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) aren't blood relations to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), but still, they act like overbearing in-laws as the unsettling horror progresses. The vested interest they have in Rosemary's unborn child reads like eager grandparents dishing out outdated advice; however, their preoccupation is far more sinister than Rosemary could ever imagine — much like Chris discovering Rose's true motives when she finally "finds" the keys.

A deal with the devil also underscores the troubling world Grace (Samara Weaving) marries into at the start of Ready or Not. Again, weddings are the popular destination of romantic comedy settings, but there is plenty about this occasion that is potent for horror. The business of board games is incredibly profitable for the Le Domas clan, as evidenced by the palatial mansion the wedding takes place at. It is far too late before Grace discovers they had a helping hand from a supernatural source, which requires that new family members play a game as a welcoming initiation. Rather than consummate the marriage in the traditional sense, Alex (Mark O'Brien) and his new bride are beckoned to another ceremony. The bizarre ritual kicks off with Grace drawing a card from the Le Bail puzzle box that will decide the game solidifying her Le Domas family status. Quirky traditions are hardly rare, so Grace takes this whole endeavor with amusement rather than strife.

Credit: 20th Century Fox 

Unfortunately for Grace, she draws the one card that will end in her death (if the game goes to plan). This very unorthodox version of hide-and-seek includes an extra bloody factor because when the bride is found, she will be killed. Early in the movie, we find out that Grace grew up in foster care and has been anticipating joining Mark and his clan. If someone had explained the rules before she said yes, it is unlikely they would've made it down the aisle. This eye-opening experience will ensure she doesn't make the same mistake twice.

Nightmare in-law stories run rampant in horror, from passive-aggressive comments to full-blown fights. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has had a tough time of it in the Scream franchise when it comes to relationships and those targeting her — from blood relations to boyfriends. In Scream 2, Billy's (Skeet Ulrich) mother masquerades as a local reporter, Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), while orchestrating and committing some of the attacks on Sidney and her friends. Intent on getting revenge for her dead son, Debbie is a nightmare mother-in-law without Sid even realizing it. She dodged a bullet in more ways than one.

Manipulative stepmothers are at the heart of TV movies too, with titles such as Killer-in-Law and the forgotten Gwyneth Paltrow/Jessica Lange 1998 vehicle Hush. The latter takes the age-old controlling and manipulative trope to the extreme. Lange plays Martha Baring, who has already blamed her husband's death on her son, Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) when he was just 7 years old. In the present, she has convinced Jackson and his wife Helen (Paltrow) to live with her on the family farm.

Leaning into what now feels like an antiquated narrative, Martha goes to drastic lengths to ensure her son stays loyal, including trying to break up his marriage and inducing Helen's labor — oh, and trying to kill her too. Thankfully, this decade's depictions have been far more nuanced.

Credit: A24

Toni Colette hits a recent trifecta of in-law movies culminating with I Am Thinking of Ending Things, each of which has taken a very different approach to extended family. Knives Out — much like Get Out and Ready or Not — is centered on a wealthy family playing out their unusual games and traditions. Less horror and more whodunit, Knives Out features a colorful collection of nightmare individuals who are pretty much only concerned with what is in it for them. Playing a Gwyneth Paltrow-type lifestyle brand businesswoman, Colette is an in-law without a husband to support her.

In Hereditary, she is the one at the heart of the story, and it is her family that suffers because of her mother's supernatural beliefs and practices. Mothers-in-law often get maligned unfairly, but Steve (Gabriel Byrne) has just cause to be angry — at least, he would if he weren't dead. Even though she is deceased, his mother-in-law rips a hole through his entire family, leaving bloodshed and fiery misery in her wake.

You don't get to choose your own family, which also extends to some of the in-laws you might acquire through romantic relationships. If they ask you to play a game or visit for the weekend, maybe ask a few more questions before leaping in feet first. You never know what they might be hiding in the basement or which demons they have done a deal with.

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