The aftermath of colonialism and imperialism are not something horror films have shied away from. From Get Out to Candyman and Aliens to The Shining (maybe?!), the concepts of colonialism and the commodification of indigenous people is something of an easy wellspring to draw horror from. But never has a film looked at the benevolent and Kiplingian face of colonialism in such a head on fashion as Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace. Instead of painting imperialists as cartoonish villains, Zarcilla shows them in a much more frightening fashion: not as grim conquerors, but as smiling parental figures utterly convinced of their own moral superiority.
Raging Grace is the story of Joy, an undocumented Filipino worker living in London with her daughter Grace. Joy receives a job offer from Katherine, the walking picture of a stiff British upper lip. The job entails light housekeeping and the caretaker of Katherine’s seemingly on his way out uncle. Joy soon discovers that things in the Garrett estate are far from what they seem to be.
What sets this film above and beyond other films that have tackled this topic is that while it is undeniably a horror film it is rather light on what we would consider “horror”. There are no spooky specters lurking the estate at night, no chain rattling ghostly bankers bemoaning their life choices. Rather, Zarcilla draws much of the initial horror of the film from the experience of the undocumented worker. The utter lack of protection under the law. The absolute scorn of native-born citizens. The not knowing if immigration services are going to come and break up your family. The threat of violence from xenophobic locals. Any number of existential nightmares that would break the will of most people are shown here as everyday elements in the lives of migrant workers. And Joy experiences it all. She is the epitome of someone that a person like Katherine would look for: vulnerable, desperate, and with everything to lose. Watching this film and realizing that some variation of this is occurring likely as we speak is absolutely harrowing.
The core of Raging Grace’s horror, however, is the concept of “the white man’s burden”, a phrase coined after the poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling bemoaning what he saw as England (white people’s) sacred and god given duty to civilize brown people all over the world, coincidently enough by exploiting them at every opportunity. But in a brilliant move, this idea is not represented by the condescending and snooty Katherine; rather, it is creepily but flawlessly embodied by her uncle Mr. Garrett, a seemingly kind and benevolent old man who speaks breathlessly about his time growing up in the Philippines and how much he loves the Filipino people. Actor David Hayman brilliantly brings this character to life, letting Garrett slowly curdle in front of the viewers’ eyes as his motivations are slowly revealed. Garretts acts of generosity aren’t born from any sort of true altruism or compassion towards Joy and her daughter but instead spring from the same poisonous fountain of malevolent parentalism that is at the heart of colonialism: these people need to be civilized and should be grateful for any help he gives them. He doesn’t view Joy and her daughter as vulnerable people in need of help but rather simply members of a race that he believes is his to guide towards civilization. It’s a profoundly upsetting view of the world and it’s embodied perfectly by Hayman’s frightening tendency to switch from “smiling grandpa” to “flint eyed, sullen monster” the second he isn’t being revered as a savior.
This film does an outstanding job at keeping the viewer off balance and guessing. Not that it’s unfocused so much as Zarcilla switching things up often enough that you don’t know who to trust or what to believe. It goes far in putting us in the shoes of someone like Joy who actually doesn’t know who to trust seeing as she doesn’t know what’s going on. Just when you thought you have a character figured out, something will happen that will make you second guess yourself and wonder what their motives are. There are arguably three or four twists throughout the movie. Not great big Shymalanian affairs, but more little turns that will make you quietly go ‘ohhhhh’ to yourself. And, as I previously mentioned, you really have no idea who to trust in this movie. Only in the very end do we get a solid read on everyone and it’s tremendously satisfying.
If you’re looking for an instantly gratifying, jump scare filled romp, Raging Grace is not the film for you. Instead of a film that throws you in the passenger seat and floors it towards frightening imagery, it is a film that ambles along, letting you soak up the imagery, allowing what you’re witnessing to marinate in your brain while you pick it apart. The sense of horror is cumulative, a delayed kick that catches you off guard when you realize what’s happening. Zarcilla uses the current monstrous ways that undocumented workers are treated as a springboard that peels back that scab and reveal a rotten history of exploitation, subjugation, and objectification, all done in the name of “the white man’s burden.”