Warning: Heavy spoilers ahead for ‘There Will Be Blood’.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which made many critics’ lists as one of the best movies of the aughts, is often placed under a handful of different headings. Western. Turn of the century drama. Existential tragedy. Dissection of American greed and the birth of modern capitalism. And it is indeed all of those things, and quite successfully so. But another aspect that cannot be ignored is that There Will Be Blood is in many ways a horror film. Moreover, a closer inspection reveals that not only does it derive energy from the horror genre, but it actually follows the template of a monster movie.
A partial adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, Anderson’s film tells the tale of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis, in an Oscar-winning performance now considered career-defining), a silver prospector turned oil magnate in the early 1900’s. Setting up a new operation in the forgotten dustbin of Little Boston, California, Plainview comes into conflict with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the local faith healer. As the two engage in a passive-aggressive rivalry as to who will truly steer the future of this rejuvenated community, Daniel becomes increasingly paranoid, vindictive, and possessive of his business, giving way to acts of malice and eventually murder. Caught in the middle is his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), rendered deaf early in the film by a pressure explosion at the oil well.
The title indicates a fair amount of gore, yet there is actually very little onscreen carnage displayed in the film. The movie’s true relationship with the horror genre is not by way of blood and guts, but the transformation of Daniel Plainview throughout the story, as we watch him wrestle with his humanity as the darkness slowly takes root in his soul.
While the cinematic touchstone for the movie’s look and tone was (according to Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the director very specifically calls upon the horror film to convey Daniel’s fall from grace. (Let’s not forget that he’s well acquainted with the genre: P.T. Anderson’s father was the performer behind the popular horror TV host Ghoulardi, after which Anderson named his production company). One of the other main inspirations for the film’s style was Stanley Kubrick, something that becomes apparent in the first 15 fifteen minutes, which portray Plainview’s discovery of his first oil well as a kind of creation myth. Obviously, this harkens back to Kubrick’s 2001 and its opening sequence which depicts the evolution of man. But another Kubrick work that Anderson is tapping into is The Shining. The score for this sequence, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is a series of menacing atonal drones that recall a number of moments in Kubrick’s film, which famously combined an electronic soundtrack by Wendy Carlos with a handful of orchestral pieces in order to convey an ever brooding sense of menace.
The Shining is centered around a man who slowly goes mad, becoming a threat to those he loves as a toxic demonic presence invades him. It too is a monster movie, and There Will Be Blood follows this exact basic progression. Like Jack Nicholson’s character of Jack Torrance—note that in both movies, the main character shares a first name with their performer—Daniel is so full of repressed rage and resentment that all it takes is a certain situation to nudge him towards insanity. With Jack, it’s a haunted hotel, whereas with Daniel it’s his becoming an oil baron. The Shining blurs the line between the psychological and the supernatural, eventually giving way to a full blast of metaphysical horror, but Anderson’s movie features no actual otherworldly element. That said, Plainview’s metamorphosis is handled with such infernal intensity that it almost feels supernatural, as if he may become a literal monster of gnashing teeth and razor sharp claws at any second.
The pivotal moment in the film is when Daniel meets his supposed long lost half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). For the first time in his adult life, Daniel has connected with another man, and he grows to trust and even care for Henry. Not only that, he has made a familial blood connection, something which has until this point been absent, as H.W. is not his biological child. (A fact which he has deliberately withheld from his supposed son, who is in reality the orphan of a former business associate).
Yet at the same time, an early exchange with his brother, where Daniel explains why he’s happy that Henry has come to Little Boston to visit, reveals just how much malevolent bile is already brewing within him. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people . . . . There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone . . . . I see the worst in people, Henry. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built up my hatreds over the years, little by little. Having you here gives me a second breath of life. I can’t keep doing this on my own with these . . . people,” he says, cynically spitting out the word “people” as if he sees them as anything but. This already existing misanthropy demonstrates that Daniel Plainview is, and possibly always has been, a ticking time bomb.
That time bomb first explodes when Daniel discovers that Henry is not his brother, but a con artist who’s come to mooch off of his newfound success. Daniel stares at Henry with such boiling anger that it’s as frightening as any actual beast or demon that could appear onscreen. In this moment, we are seeing the monster within Daniel fully emerging, like the Wolf Man or Mr. Hyde. That monster confronts Henry while he’s trying to sleep, and after an admittance of guilt (and an apology that is both genuine and weary), it puts a bullet right into Henry’s head, followed by another just to be sure. The monster buries Henry in a shallow grave which fills with oil. Whatever part of Daniel Plainview that was still willing to trust and believe in people is dead.
(O’Connor is remembered by many fans for playing the magician Swann in Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions, and this film serves as a bit of a reunion for Barker’s movie: fellow Illusions actor Barry del Sherman portrays H.W.’s birth father in the beginning of There Will Be Blood, and Joanne Sellar was a producer on both films).
Anderson treats this scene like a horror movie, Daniel’s face lit only by the reddish glow of a campfire, conveying the burning rage inside. Earlier in the film, when the well gusher catches fire, Daniel is shown in a similar fashion, nearly entranced by the flames shooting upwards, the pulsating radiance cast upon his face. Given that the wooden derrick, pointed to the sky but looking unfinished, evokes the Tower of Babel–and given that flames bursting out of the ground suggest Hell–it’s impossible not to read an undercurrent of Biblical horror into the proceedings. Similar to Jack Torrance, it’s as if we’re watching Daniel Plainview being slowly possessed.
Following Henry’s murder, Daniel begins his slide into irredeemable awfulness. Finally succeeding at gaining ownership of the entirety of Little Boston’s oil and establishing a pipeline, he takes H.W. to a local bar so they might celebrate with steaks. After quickly getting soused, Daniel proceeds to verbally taunt a former rival sitting nearby, before stumbling over to the man’s table, bragging about his success, and casually reviving a previous threat to one day slit the man’s throat in his sleep. In this scene, Plainview thinks he’s the victor, but in actuality he’s coming across as pitiful, a delusional sore winner so wrapped up in his own petty egomania that he has almost zero self-awareness. The monster is winning.
But it’s not until the final 20 minutes that There Will Be Blood fully reveals itself as a horror drama. Flashing forward to 1927 and casting off the Western aesthetics, Daniel is visited in his mansion by an adult H.W., who has come to tell his father that he’s establishing his own oil well. At this point Daniel has devolved into a raging, mistrustful alcoholic who shuffles around his manor shooting furniture for fun. Already he and H.W. seem to have drifted in both their business partnership and relationship, but upon hearing this news, Daniel again goes into monster mode. Never comfortable with H.W.’s deafness, he takes the opportunity to repeatedly make jabs at his son’s disability, then kindly informs him that the two of them aren’t actually related. “You’re just a bastard from a basket,” he announces, relishing in the cruelty. But the attempted spiritual assassination of his erstwhile son doesn’t work. “I thank God there’s none of you in me,” H.W. replies before walking out of Daniel’s life forever. Daniel’s reaction is to continue screaming “BASTARD FROM A BASKET,” a gibe H.W. can’t even hear.
This scene, though set in Los Angeles, is filmed like a Gothic horror tale. The sky is grey and foreboding, thunder can be heard in the distance, and Daniel’s office is all gloom and shadow, a crackling fireplace in the background, the smoke from his cigarette slithering through the window light. Daniel himself appears wet and oily, some kind of slimy creature living in this deranged castle as he slowly kills himself. Again, the movie recalls The Shining, as Jack grows fixated on killing his son Danny, chasing him through the hotel grounds with an axe. Both Jack and Daniel’s rage towards their children is redirected self-hatred. Though Daniel is not physically trying to hurt H.W., his goal is the same: destroy the son.
But it’s Eli who ends up becoming the target of Daniel’s destruction. Throughout the film, Eli has been a foil for Daniel’s plans, constantly trying to assert himself as the two of them vie for different versions of the same thing: Daniel for control, and Eli for the spotlight. Eli Sunday is presented as a charlatan, a snakeoil fraud taking advantage of people’s pain and loss with his promises of healing and salvation. It’s not easy to miss that their feud is rooted in the parallel between religion and capitalism, and Daniel is often as blatantly insincere and manipulative and jealous as Eli. But Plainview’s method of cheating and using people is simply superior in a Darwinian sense, and Eli keeps finding himself upstaged. (Though some have criticized his performance, Dano manages to imbue the extremely hateable and pompous Eli Sunday with a miniscule amount of pathos, despite the fact that his sanctimonious faux piety is so grating that it’s like rusted nails scraping across a chalkboard).
Eli briefly gets revenge when Daniel is forced to convert to Eli’s Church of the Third Revelation, as one of the landowners won’t lease to Daniel unless he becomes fully integrated into the religious community. At this point, H.W. no longer lives in Little Boston, since Daniel has sent him away to a school for deaf children, a decision born out of impatience and embarrassment as much as wanting H.W. to learn sign language. Using this as an opportunity to humiliate Plainview, during his baptism Eli forces Daniel to confess “I have abandoned my child” in front of the whole congregation, one of the few moments where Daniel’s humanity and vulnerability briefly slip through his calloused exterior. Daniel seethes at Eli during this scene, and Eli appears to relish every moment of briefly besting his rival.
In 1927, Eli has ostensibly come to visit his old friend so they might catch up. Of course, he’s actually there to ask for money by offering some recently available land, as the country is in the midst of a yearlong recession and Eli has been wiling away the earnings of his ministry in all manner of secret excess. He finds Daniel drunk and passed out in the mansion’s basement bowling alley. Seemingly nothing can wake Daniel . . . until he hears that it’s Eli Sunday addressing him. The beast emerges from its slumber.
Much of this scene is actually hysterical, as these two egomaniacs seem to be competing over who is more wretched. A tearful Eli on the emergent recession: “[the Lord] completely failed to alert me to the recent panic in our economy!” This happens while Daniel gnaws a cold steak with his bare hands, chugging from his flask and slapping himself to ward off the shakes before doing absurd impressions of Eli’s more histrionic statements. “Yes, he does!” “YESSS HE DUZZUHH!!!!” (In addition to looking at this as a horror film, there’s a case to be made for Blood being an oil-black comedy). Both men are so unrepentantly terrible that, in a sick way, they really are friends, as no two people deserve each other more. (It’s also worth noting that Daniel and Eli are also technically family at this point, since H.W. has recently married childhood friend Mary, Eli’s sister).
But the scene grows increasingly horrifying as Daniel’s monster overtakes him. Delivering comeuppance for his humiliation at Eli’s hands years earlier, Daniel coerces Eli into renouncing both himself as a false prophet and God as a myth, otherwise he’ll withhold all financial assistance. Eli does so, at first unwillingly, but is then forced to repeat it so many times that it turns into a confession. Eli sufficiently shamed, Daniel announces to him that there’s no land in Little Boston he doesn’t have access to either directly or indirectly, and Eli has no leverage and won’t be getting any money. In this moment, Daniel has achieved the spiritual homicide that he attempted to enact on H.W. He continues to bully Eli, calling him “afterbirth” and delivering a monologue about milkshakes meant to elucidate the concept of drainage in oil drilling.
In case there was any doubt that this a monster movie, Anderson frames Daniel (who has a bad back and leg from injuries sustained decades before) as some kind of demented goblin, hobbling around the basement as he taunts and threatens Eli, screaming “draaaaainage” while drool seeps from his mouth. He picks Eli up and somehow throws him across the bowling alley. “I told you I would eat you! I am the Third Revelation! IIII AM THE THIRD REVELATION!!!!” While there’s still an element of dark comedy to this scene, as it’s so unhinged and both characters so pathetic, it also embodies apocalyptic horror. The comedy completely evaporates, however, as Daniel begins to beat Eli with a bowling pin, hitting him over and over until he crushes Eli’s head. He has fully become the monster, and has consumed Eli’s soul. His final line is spoken like a man who has just completed a meal. “I’m finished!” he declares to his butler, or maybe to himself, or possibly no one in particular. There is nothing left for him to do, because there’s nothing left of him.
Daniel’s evolution is a monster story where the monster wins. He begins as a man with an almost superhuman will to succeed, but that drive slowly replaces any and all human connection, something already sparse for him in the first place. He becomes some kind of grotesque parasite who will take and take and suck and suck, but whose appetite will never be sated. When he murders Eli, he’s doing so because he can. Yes, it’s revenge, but more so it’s an act of desperation, the beast inside him filled with self-loathing and needing something to destroy, and Eli has conveniently stepped into the crosshairs. There Will Be Blood is a tale where Larry Talbot becomes the Wolf Man but never comes back, where Mr. Hyde wins and Dr. Jekyll is never seen again. It’s Jack Torrance, but this time his house is haunted only by hatred and greed.
The Shining and There Will Be Blood are both, in a sense, frontier horror stories, despite The Shining being set in modern day. Both films depict white men parading into the mythical wilderness of America—what could be more wild and untamed than oil?—and irrevocably transformed into bloodthirsty creatures by this landscape they don’t truly understand. This sensibility has taken root in recent years as what could be called the horror Western.
The Western genre itself had experienced a resurgence around the same time as Anderson’s film, with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, 3:10 To Yuma, and No Country For Old Men (filmed by the Coen Brothers not far from Blood’s production in Texas) all released within the span of a year and a half. No Country could certainly fall under the horror Western genre, as it contains a relentless ghoulishness–carried over from the Coen brothers’ earlier work like Blood Simple and Fargo–and a mythic landscape of savagery and bloodshed where men struggle for power. Javier Bardem’s hitman Anton Chigurh is as unsettling a character as Daniel Plainview, a walking angel of death so lacking in human frailty that he might as well be Michael Myers. Tapping into the existential questions raised by many of these neo-Westerns, the film wonders whether it is noble duty or foolish romanticism to fight the chaos of human nature, another spin on the question of good vs. evil.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight serves as a more recent example. Equal parts Western and murder mystery, it also liberally cribs from and quotes the horror genre, nodding to The Shining, The Evil Dead, and especially John Carpenter’s The Thing. The film deliberately trades in inversions of Christian morality: the opening shot of a frozen statue of Jesus, a piano rendition of “Silent Night” preceding a tale of rape and revenge, a piece of score lifted from The Exorcist II: The Heretic. Hateful Eight concerns itself with whether bad people are truly capable of acts of good. Like Blood, it serves up a type of biblical horror which grapples with the atrocities of human nature.
Even television has seen its own version of the genre, as Breaking Bad combined Western tropes with elements of horror films, its violence frequently more macabre than adrenaline pumping. Walter White is nothing if not a spiritual descendant of Daniel Plainview and Jack Torrance, yet another man in the frontier who becomes seduced by power until it transforms him into a monster. Breaking Bad also functions as a mad scientist tale, as Walter is a chemist overtaken by his creation (an especially potent form of crystal meth) and the criminal mastermind persona he adopts. In an odd way, Daniel falls under this category as well, but instead of meth his addictive product is oil.
One of the main questions hanging over Breaking Bad is how much of this toxic alter ego was already living within Walt, waiting to be unleashed. That same question applies to Daniel. Even at the beginning of the film he is shown to be disingenuous and duplicitous, traits which grow as he gains influence. Though he truly cares for H.W., even in the early going he’s using the boy as a prop to sell himself as a loving father running a family business. It’s part of his act. Clearly the seeds of the monster already dwelled inside of him, waiting to be watered.
But what exactly is it that sets Daniel Plainview over the edge? It’s easy to read the movie as a critique of capitalism, since oil acts as a more than suitable metaphor for greed, and the film was made during the second conflict in Iraq and scandals such as Enron. It could also be seen through the lens of religion: though the story seems uncertain about the existence of God, there is a mystical charge to the land which Daniel is violating, and the fact that it ends with him denying God and murdering a preacher does lend a satanic quality to his behavior. (The movie’s opening sequence portrays his discovery of an oil well as both a baptism and a loss of innocence, nothing if not a take on original sin). Or it could be that the guilt over his murder of Henry preys on him so deeply that eventually he succumbs to insanity rather than face his actions.
While all of those ideas are in play, in the end we have no real certainty about the source of Daniel’s monstrousness. There is no werewolf or vampire which bit him, no demon summoned in a ritual, no hotel on an ancient native burial ground, and his past is kept vague enough that no clear conclusions can be drawn. He is a black hole in the shape of a question mark, a monster without origin.
The only surety is that Daniel Plainview is a predatory creature, seeing the world as strong and weak, and the society in which he lives is perfectly built to affirm that worldview. Daniel’s beast is not just encouraged, it’s given permission to thrive. Oil means money and money means success and that is the bottom line. Despite Eli’s claims to the contrary, the lion devours the lamb. Eli should know this. They are both men who tell others what they want to hear while covertly maintaining their own self-interest. Like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, a similar expression of male privilege and wealth and the violently pathetic existence it generates, Daniel’s material success allows him the luxury of getting away with all manner of misdeeds and viciousness. He all but literally eats people.
Ultimately, the movie portrays a world where men like Daniel Plainview are naturally prone to take charge and get what they want. If that’s not a horror story, nothing is.
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