Tuesday, June 27, 2017

On The Legacy Of Resident Evil: The Evil Within and Resident Evil VII

Mostly I like to write about horror films, occasionally horror on television (for as rarely and briefly as it remains good), but more and more I’m thinking about games as visual media as ripe for examination as more passive forms of viewing. As I’ve said before, I’m a coward when it comes to playing scary video games, but the existence of broadcast playthroughs of games mean I can watch them like I would any other film or television story, and somehow that remove, the subtraction of agency, takes a lot of the sting out for me. The first indication that this might be worth looking into was the game SOMA, which was simultaneously as scary and thematically rich as some of my favorite horror films of the last few years, enough that I said to myself “holy shit, I have to write about this.” If it had been a movie, it would have been amazing, but the degree it used player agency as part of the story added a certain something that really you can’t get outside of active interaction with a narrative.

I don’t really find either The Evil Within or Resident Evil VII up to that standard, necessarily, but as relatively recent iterations on a long-running series of horror games, I think they’re worth examining in comparison. They’re both reasonably scary, though I’m not sure I’d really call either one of them thematically rich. But as artifacts, as different takes on what gets carried forward in a medium where sequels and remakes are pretty much as common as horror film, I’ve been thinking a lot about both of them lately. And the Resident Evil series is extensive and long-running enough to essentially have created its own aesthetic, so it’s worth seeing how that aesthetic changes and gets remixed over time.

Resident Evil

So first, some background. The Resident Evil series began with its titular namesake back in 1996, as a story about a group of police officers sent to a mysterious mansion in the middle of a forest, to investigate what happened to a previous group of police officers who had been sent there to investigate suspicious goings-on of some sort. There’s a helicopter crash, an attack by a pack of mysterious dog-like beasts, and so the survivors of the follow-up team are scattered and cut off from each other. The game follows you as one of the surviving officers as you investigate the spooky, Gothic mansion. As it turns out, the mansion has a serious flesh-eating zombie problem.

Much of the horror associated with the original game lies in both its core gameplay mechanics and its narrative. Mechanically, there’s a strong emphasis on helplessness and disempowerment. You’re a cop, and you have weaponry, but ammunition is scarce relative to the number and durability of zombies you encounter, so every situation becomes a choice between using what few resources you have and running away. Inventory space is very limited, so you routinely have to make difficult choices about what kinds of equipment you’re going to keep on you at any given point, and you’re more likely than not going to miss what you leave behind. Running away is made more difficult by the slow, clumsy movement mechanic, which is probably more a limitation of the technology than a deliberate design choice. Nevertheless, it adds tension because running becomes no guarantee of survival against enemies who, in fine zombie tradition, are slow but never, ever stop. You try to run, but they’re always there. It recalls the common nightmare feeling of being pursued by a monster but feeling yourself robbed of all energy and forward momentum.

In games we’re used to being the hero of the story and dispatching enemies of whatever stripe with relative ease and aplomb as we master the mechanics associated with the game. Here, the mechanics are simple and actually sort of work against you. In any genre other than horror, this would feel a bit crap, but here it adds to a sense of tension. You move slowly, without agility, your ability to deal damage and recover from damage is limited, and to make progress you have to solve puzzles that require you to fetch keys of one sort or another to unlock new areas, and the keys themselves range from the prosaic (actual keys) to the bizarre (why the fuck is this door locked with a medallion? And why is that medallion embedded in a statue somewhere on the other side of the mansion?). So you’re slow, limited in your ability to defend yourself, and you’re constantly backtracking through areas that may very well be filled with zombies, dodging harm to basically run errands. The act of getting a door open can be, at times, downright heroic.

And that’s just the mechanics. This is all in service of a story that starts as pretty straightforward by horror standards (spooky mansion, flesh-eating zombies and zombified dogs) and just gets weirder the deeper in you go. You aren’t just dealing with zombies, as it turns out. You’re also dealing with giant snakes, giant spiders, giant carnivorous plants, flesh-eating crows, and poisonous moths among other stuff. And the mansion - a warren of hidden passages and trapped rooms for reasons never adequately explained - gives way to vast secret underground lab facilities, complexes of concrete and steel and bizarre experiments involving mutagenic viruses responsible for all the monsters on the surface. As the environment changes, so do the threats. The labs introduce examples of the mutagen run rampant - riots of superfluous eyes and limbs erupting from vaguely humanoid forms, reminiscent of the sort of biology-run-amok that makes John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing so unsettling. And as environment and antagonist shift, so do our allegiances, as members of your team are revealed to be double agents working for the sinister corporation behind all of this experimentation - a pharmaceutical company called Umbrella.

So...yes. To recap: You are a member of the small-town equivalent of a SWAT team sent to a mansion in the middle of the woods, where you find monsters created by a pharmaceutical company in a bid for world domination.

It’s all a little silly.

It’s all a little silly, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s actually pretty tense and engaging because you’re struggling to stay alive (for the most part - resources are far less strained in the endgame than at the start) as things around you keep getting more and more batshit. You’re a in a mansion, then you’re in a secret lab, then you’re taking a submarine (accessed, if I remember correctly - it’s been about 18 years since I played the first game - by unlocking access to it with a marble plaque of a ship’s steering wheel because of course) to yet another underwater secret lab which leads to another even larger lab complex, and you go from zombies to giant plants and lizards and arachnids to things that aren’t even really life as we recognize it anymore and oh yeah, this is all part of a vast conspiracy engineered by a company that makes cold medicine. The what-the-fuck factor is off the charts, and this is important to note because it’s going to come up later.

This, mind you, is just the first game. A quick Wikipedia check tells me that counting sequels and offshoots and remakes, we are currently looking at twenty-seven games either complete or in development between 1996 and 2017. I am not going to discuss every one of these games, but I do want to quickly hit the highlights because it’s going to be important to set up the recurring elements in the series and how they play out in the newest iteration of the series proper (Resident Evil VII) and what I’m arguing is a spiritual sequel (The Evil Within) and how the two are both similar and different. So the first game really establishes a lot of things that persist throughout subsequent entries to the series, most notably the following six elements:

1. A Fixed Cast of Characters

The first Resident Evil game introduces us to a basic cast of characters, who persist throughout the series. New faces get added along the way, but in general we end up with the sort of consistent rotating cast you’d expect to find in any soap opera or, say, the Saw franchise. Nobody exists in this narrative world who doesn’t have some tie to the protagonists or antagonists, and they tend to keep popping up, with plenty of shifting allegiances, double agents, triple agents, antiheroes, the whole lot. We will see the same names and faces again and again, even if their roles do change.

2. Scarcity and Safety

Like the cast, specific resource mechanics persist from game to game. Certain weapons show up over and over again (handguns, shotguns, grenade launchers), herbs of different colors show up as healing items, and can be combined to create more powerful healing items, game saves are accomplished through some kind of technology in the environment (traditionally typewriters), and there are designated “safe” rooms in the game space where save points can be found alongside item crates where you can store items for which you have no room in your inventory. Like the cast, specifics vary from game to game, but these are pretty constant. Scarcity - of resources, and inventory slots to carry those resources - are pretty constant as well, at least early on. Around Resident Evil 4 that becomes less of a thing (culminating in the pants-on-head action-movie ridiculousness of Resident Evil 6).

3. Puzzle-Solving For Progression

Movement through the game’s world (and thus, through the story) is regulated by the need to solve convoluted puzzles, whether the environment makes them appropriate or not. You could possibly make the argument that fitting themed plaques into slots on a door to open it makes a kind of sense in an eccentrically-designed mansion. Rich people can be fucking weird. But this same mechanic pops up again in Resident Evil 2, which takes place in the nearby town of Raccoon City, and there’s no sensible reason why the Raccoon City Police Department would use the same themed-plaque system for securing its own damn headquarters. And yet, if you want to get into the squad room, you need to pry the medallion from the base of the statue in the lobby. In all fairness, sometimes it’s something that makes sense contextually, like a fuse to insert into a box to provide electricity to a shorted-out security door, or someone’s keycard. But sometimes it’s a plaque with an eagle on it, which needs to go into the door with an eagle on it (and not, you know, the wolf door). Why? Who knows?

4. Weirdness, Science, and Weird Science

The use of odd puzzles in mundane places is echoed by a similar juxtaposition of technology with the baroquely Gothic in character and environment. Often you’ll have traditionally Gothic elements coexisting alongside the more technological elements (like the way the games begin in spaces like mansions and move to laboratories), but sometimes they’ll be commingled and embodied in the antagonists as well. In Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, the primary antagonist is a wealthy member of a noble family who is obsessed with his twin sister, to the point that he dresses like her and assumes her voice and acts her out. The main antagonist in Resident Evil 4 has this whole sort of Napoleon-meets-Little Lord Fauntleroy aesthetic going on for reasons never explained. It even happens in smaller moments, like Resident Evil 2 (or maybe 3, again, it’s been awhile), where you encounter Raccoon City’s mayor in his office, with his daughter’s body laid out on his desk in front of him, and he gives a speech about her beauty and how he couldn’t save her that, in his operatically melodramatic insanity and grief, could have shown up in a Bram Stoker story. It’s worth noting that the abovementioned dude with sister issues is also a scientist for the Umbrella Corporation, and that his family mansion hides yet another massive lab complex, because...

5. Insanely Powerful Evil Corporations

The Umbrella Corporation is the consistent antagonist behind the scenes across all the games, and their scope and reach just scale up and up and up as the series goes on. Pretty much every villain in each individual game is somehow employed by Umbrella, which, although ostensibly just a very profitable pharmaceutical company on the surface, moves over the course of the series from “pharmaceutical company doing some iffy research on the side” to “pharmaceutical company with improbable resources bent on world domination” to “massive multinational with endless resources, vast armies of mercenaries, technology so fantastic as to border on actual magic, and secret control of pretty much the whole planet and now they’re just fucking with people because evil.” Umbrella is behind basically every conspiracy and bad thing in the world of Resident Evil, and the idea of conspiracy, secret organizations, and secret organizations within secret organizations just proliferates exponentially as the series continues. And it’s always Umbrella pulling the strings.

6. The Further You Go, The Less Human Everything Gets

Finally, each game features a consistent progression in the type of ground-level antagonists you face from more to less recognizably human. You typically start with flesh-eating zombies (or mindlessly aggressive enemies in the tradition of 28 Days Later’s “rage” zombies), then face monstrous animals or lizards or insects, then either human or non-human adversaries whose biology has become corrupted and distorted, until the final encounter is typically with a creature who is less recognizable as any kind of living creature than just an amorphous mass of tentacles, claws, eyeballs (always eyeballs, lots of eyeballs), and bony protrusions. Basically, the further in you get and the weirder the circumstances get, the weirder the enemies you face as well.

These don’t always appear to the same degree in any given individual installment (the final antagonist in Resident Evil is mostly recognizable as human, for example, and the Gothic elements are pretty much entirely stripped out of Resident Evil 6), but they’re consistent enough to make up what I see as the core of the Resident Evil aesthetic. So, all of that ground laid, I want to take a look at the two most recent expressions of that aesthetic. And yeah, there are going to be spoilers for both Resident Evil VII and The Evil Within, so forewarned, forearmed, etc.

Monday, May 29, 2017

One Long Nightmare: The Problems Of The Elm Street Franchise

(This post was originally intended for publication a couple of days after Wes Craven died, and it didn’t feel right to put it up so close to his passing. )

I’ve never really been much of a fan of the series of films that started with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I also recognize that it’s been years and years since I’d watched any of them. Although I wasn’t about to go to the same kind of effort to be either surprised or disappointed all over again that I did for the Hellraiser series, I thought it might be worth getting the big picture on the (ugh) franchise and maybe reconsidering them as a body of work, if not as individual films. I was never a fan (as with so much 80s horror of the loosely-construed slasher genre), but, like with The Exorcist, to the extent that the Elm Street films are a pretty big part of popular culture, it didn’t feel right to completely neglect them.

So I ended up taking more than a few hours one afternoon to watch Never Sleep Again, the extensive documentary covering the making of the first four films in the series. What I ended up getting was a pretty good look into some of the earliest days of horror franchising, and thus in many ways ground zero for so many of the systematic shortcomings of commercial horror film in the United States today. The Elm Street films are the epitome of a cautionary tale.

When Wes Craven made Last House on the Left, he captured lightning in a bottle - an unhinged, discordant burst of galvanic rage that channeled so much national discontent and disillusionment into a deeply unsparing and maybe slightly dangerous film. And for that, and some of his later accomplishments, he’ll always be (rightly, I think) one of the most well-respected directors in American horror. But A Nightmare on Elm Street, perhaps his most well-known contribution to the genre?

Sorry, but, it isn’t great.

This is too bad, because it’s a really compelling idea: The ghost of Freddy Krueger - a reviled neighborhood child molester/murderer, burned to death in an act of mob justice - strikes back at the children of the people who lynched him through their nightmares. The film came on the heels of Halloween, arguably the first slasher film, and presented a similar adversary - implacable, unstoppable, revisiting the place of their antagonistic birth to take revenge on the descendants of the people who wronged them. Krueger was more explicitly supernatural than Halloween’s Michael Myers (who would eventually be reconfigured into a far less interesting supernatural threat over multiple sequels and reboots), and so where Myers was minimalist and austere, Krueger could be baroque and beyond conventional logic. Dreams are the place anything can happen, where the laws of physics and causality are suspended. Myers communicated that small-town America was no longer safe, Krueger communicated that your own mind was no longer safe. All bets were off. Again, that was the idea, but even given the rapidity with which the conceit turned into hokey, non-threatening pop culture, the original film wasn’t an especially strong case for it to start.

Part of it is that A Nightmare on Elm Street really hasn’t aged well, but that’s not entirely fair to the film. It feels cheap to me to criticize films for being a product of their times, in terms of their aesthetic and technical shortcomings. But I’d argue that even for the time, it wasn’t especially good. The dialogue is terrible. No teenagers ever talked the way they talk in this film, even in the 80s. And I know, because I was there. “Up yours with a twirling lawnmower”? “I’ll punch out your ugly lights”? Who the fuck wrote this? It’s all incredibly wooden and stilted and there’s not much the actors can do with it. And no, people do not generally go to horror films for the dialogue, though I think that’s a mistake - there’s no reason, I think, to expect any less from horror film than drama in terms of dialogue and characterization. Film is film. But I’ll allow that the point of a horror film is not usually the dialogue. Even by those standards - standards where otherwise unremarkable, workmanlike dialogue would be sufficient, this is still just fucking crummy writing, and it’s actively distracting. The characters become less believable, the situation becomes less believable, and so our investment in the characters and what is about to happen to them diminishes.

The film is also tonally inconsistent - Krueger starts off as a mostly silent antagonist, and this is, I think, when he is at his scariest, because he’s just this force that doesn’t have to obey the laws of time and space, and even when he starts talking, it’s mostly violent threats which, used sparingly, would probably be okay. If the only information you get is “this creature has no aim but to torture and kill you,” that’s direct and effective. But then, as the film proceeds, you get hints of the wisecracking pop culture figure he’d become, and that works less well. Some of the setpieces aren’t especially convincing, and their cheapness makes them look more silly than scary even for the time and given the state of effects technology. But, again, I have to give the film credit here for trying something new with the resources they had, even if they didn’t quite stick the landing.

In terms of its conceit, what Craven was basically trying to do was take the masked-killer idea in some interesting new directions, and the basic premise could still be viable today. There’s a great kernel of an idea in having to weight sleep deprivation against making yourself vulnerable to a killer who cannot be stopped because he is out of reach of the physical world, and a modern treatment that uses hallucinations and cognitive impairment stemming from sleep deprivation as an explanation for the deaths and as a framing for Krueger (half-glimpsed things, or things seen plainly even though nobody else sees them) could be scary as fuck - basically, Mike Flanagan should be tapped to direct a Nightmare on Elm Street film, because based on his work in Absentia and Oculus, he could rock that shit right.

But, really, that’s not what happened. Attempts to take the then-new genre in a slightly different direction aside, this is still a slasher movie at its heart, with all the puritan morality and focus on violence that implies - note that even here, the first to die is the girl who had sex with her lunkhead boyfriend. Ultimately, it still comes down to teenagers being mowed down, adults refusing to take the problem seriously, and only the virginal Final Girl escaping the slaughter. Were Krueger another mortal in a mask with some kind of gimmick, A Nightmare on Elm Street would be absolutely nothing special. The unreal/surreal settings of his murders - the new thing the film brought to the table - were instrumental in elevating it, at least theoretically, above schlock, but would also end up being the series’ undoing, as they pushed subsequent stories further into fantasy and comedy territory, and gimmick replaced mood.

Of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t a slasher-film also-ran. It was a very successful film, and, as detailed in Never Sleep Again, it struck me how once the first film did well, two things happened immediately  - first, the producers said “how can we make more of these now and strike while the iron’s hot,” and pretty much everyone who got tapped for one of the sequels said something along the lines of “we should do something different, you know, change it up” without seeming to have any idea of what made the first one successful in the first place.

So the “let’s put out another one now” mentality is a problem, and we see how it’s a problem with the second film right away - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is almost like a C-grade imitation of a Savage Steve Holland teen comedy, only people die in really gory ways periodically before we go back to the wackiness. There’s all the well-documented homoerotic subtext (or, let’s face it, text), but that’s not a liability, that’s actually interesting. No, the second film takes all the tone problems with with the first film and redlines them. This is an actively goofy film when people are not dying. Everyone is a caricature, and though Freddy is less quippy in this one, a lot of the potential menace is undercut by just how ridiculous the entire enterprise is. The death scenes feel even more like setpieces here than they did in the first one. The director, interviewed in Never Sleep Again, talks about how he wanted to take the franchise in a fresh new direction, which is the sort of thing you expect from someone directing the fourth or fifth film, not the second film. And this film really feels like it was made by people with no sense of the first film’s strengths at all - which, given that it was a decision driven primarily by financial interests (Wes Craven wasn’t even consulted), makes sense. One film in, and the next iteration is already just product.

And here is where we see the problems of franchising taking hold - the more films get made, the further away they get from whatever made the first one good, and the more they are abstracted into elements that are repeatable and quantifiable, that can be rearranged and permutated over multiple sequels. What made the first film good was, I think, its aggressive weirdness - deaths completely detached from conventional causality. Like, anything could happen and be gory as fuck while doing so. Though I’m not much of a fan of any of the films in this series, I have to admit that the scene in the first film where a young man gets sucked into a bed and sprayed out as a fountain of blood has a certain power to it. But if you think about it, the focus of the first film isn’t really Freddy - it’s these kids trying to get adults to understand that something is killing them and the adults being completely ineffectual for a variety of reasons. That’s actually a nightmarish thing right there - the feeling that you are trying to do something to no effect. You scream but people don’t react, you run but you don’t go anywhere, you hit someone but the blow lands with the weight of feathers. Waking life in the first film was oddly dreamlike at times, and that’s kind of cool.

But the subsequent films did neither jack nor shit with that, choosing instead to focus increasingly on Freddy as the central character, turning him into almost like a foulmouthed Warner Bros. cartoon character, with the new group of kids really there as set dressing for increasingly cartoonish setpieces. By the fourth film, Freddy is less an object of fear and more a cartoon bad guy - like an evil wizard or scheming Scooby-Doo villain, and you know the good guys, with their newfound secret powers, are going to defeat him, because at that point these aren’t even horror films anymore - they’re oddly gory fantasy films. And with every film we find out more and more about Freddy and as is always the case, the more we know, the less frightening he is. The more we know, the more internal mythology is constructed around the character, the more bound the character is to the rules and logic of that mythology, and considering that one of the big strengths of the first film - you know, the one that made all the others possible - was the anarchic nature of the antagonist (he did not even recognize the laws of physics, you know?), that’s a bad thing to have happen. Then it’s not scary, it’s just an exercise in watching the protagonists discover whatever piece of this mythology will let them defeat the bad guy.

Monsters, in my opinion, shouldn’t be pop cultural figures. They lose their teeth the more we know of them. The more they stand in the light, the less frightening they become. Nightmares, once confronted and understood, have no power, and that’s exactly what happened here.

And so after six increasingly sillier films, the franchise was ostensibly laid to rest in 1991 with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, about which Wikipedia says: “Doc discovers Freddy's power comes from the ‘dream demons’ who continually revive him, and that Freddy can be killed if he is pulled into the real world. Maggie decides that she will be the one to enter Freddy's mind and pull him into the real world. Once in the dream world, she puts on a pair of 3-D glasses and enters Freddy's mind. There, she discovers that Freddy was teased as a child, abused by his foster father, inflicted self-abuse as a teenager, and murdered his wife. Freddy was given the power to become immortal from fiery demons. After some struggling, Maggie pulls Freddy into the real world.”

Yep. That is exactly as silly as I expected it to be. And given that it featured cameos by Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, and Alice Cooper, the transformation of the story from one of horror to one of comedy appeared to be complete. Which is the only possible outcome, really. The more you elaborate, the more you add, the more you iterate, the further away from the primal power of the original you get, until what started as horror becomes comedy or shitty fantasy or science fiction. And this happens because the creation of these films is not in the hands of filmmakers. It’s in the hands of producers and studio executives whose only concern is profit, with no eye toward what made the original good or sense to get out of the way when someone’s managed to do something that works. That the immediate reaction to this film was “let’s make a lot more of them and give them to people who had nothing to do with the first one” makes this devolution inevitable.

And then, three years later, Wes Craven comes back with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the seventh Elm Street film, and only the second with him directing. And I have to admit, it starts with an interesting premise - the whole thing is a self-reflexive examination of the Nightmare on Elm Street films that posits Freddy having a life of his own outside the films, a film in which Wes Craven and others from the first film are both themselves and characters in the film - but, sadly, in the end it reverts to type, too bound to commercial considerations to really commit to its premise.

New Nightmare opens on what appears to be a scene from a new Nightmare on Elm Street film - Freddy has created a new robotic glove, and he’s about to sever his own hand to attach it, and just as he does we pull back to see that it’s a film set, on which Heather Langenkamp’s husband is working as an effects technician. But then something goes wrong with the glove effect and it goes berserk, attacking her, her husband, her husband’s coworkers, and her son. Then Heather wakes up - it was all a nightmare.

So we open on a scene from a movie about nightmares, which just turns out to be a movie about a movie about nightmares, which turns out to be a nightmare of a movie of a movie about nightmares. This is awesomely labyrinthian, and at least at first the commitment to the idea is great - bringing in the actual producer and director/writer and cast members, all playing themselves, with this idea that this phenomenon has affected all their lives in different ways - Heather has a husband and son and isn’t so into doing horror anymore (plus she’s had stalker trouble) - and all of this actually mirrors Heather Langenkamp’s life outside the movie, no less. Wes Craven is writing a new script for a new Nightmare film - a script that begins at the same time as a series of earthquakes, and people start having nightmares again, almost like he’s conjuring this into reality like Sutter Cane in In The Mouth of Madness, another art-becomes-life film that came out the year after this. Maybe there was something in the air with directors who made their bones in the 70s starting to think about their effect on the culture, I don’t know.

But, back to the Nightmare. At least at first, this nicely self-referential conceit is played straight enough that there’s an interesting story getting told about the blurring of art and life, and the idea that in the end everything is narrative. It could be the story of Craven’s creation taking on a life of its own in the collective unconscious, it could be the Repulsion-style story of Heather’s emotional deterioration in the wake of a tragedy and the cost of being associated with such a prominent piece of popular culture. It could have done some really interesting work around art and celebrity and our relationship o our monsters while still being really scary and unnerving.

Instead it settles for being yet another Nightmare film, just with some self-reflexive trappings and a hokey rationalization for what’s happening (there’s an ancient spirit of evil that inhabits stories throughout history and it’s using the Nightmare franchise to break through to our world)  that ultimately makes it, especially in the third act, just as full of corny jokes from Freddy Krueger (who looks even more like a fantasy character than ever) and gratuitous effects work (plus fanservice) as any of the others. And maybe that’s metacommentary as well, that no matter how hard any of the people involved in starting this thing rolling try to escape or transcend or improve upon it, in the end everyone reverts to the same story, the same gimmicks, the same setting that’s worked all along. It’s not so much Freddy that is unstoppable and unkillable as it is his myth and the commercial value of that myth at the expense of art and interesting films. I don’t think that’s what they were going for, but, well, who says the author really knows what his story is about, anyway?

Luckily, I don’t think Wes Craven’s legacy as a filmmaker will be wholly defined by the Elm Street films, as closely as he’s associated with them. (Unfairly so, given how quickly he was shoved aside in favor of directors willing to work cheaper and make fewer demands in service of a profit.) His early work also include The Hills Have Eyes, which, though not as transgressive as Last House on the Left, was plenty gonzo in its own right, The Serpent and the Rainbow, which, although not supernatural, is still a solid foreigner-way-out-of-his-depth film, the unapologetically weird The People Under The Stairs, and Scream, which I think is a much, much stronger take on some of what he was trying to do with New Nightmare, a slasher film set in a world where slasher films exist, a film aware of its own mythology, and most importantly, tense and scary as shit. Sure, Scream went on to spawn three unnecessary sequels, but it never turned into quite the joke that the Elm Street films did. Killers - supernatural or otherwise - will eventually be laid to rest, but the profit motive won’t.

And that’s why A Nightmare on Elm Street got a “reboot” in 2010, and yet another remake is being bandied about now as well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

El Habitante Incierto: This Is Not My Beautiful House, This Is Not My Beautiful Wife

(This one’s kind of spoilery, so if you think you’re going to watch it, fair warning)

The term “psychological horror” has always struck me as kind of a non-description. I mean, isn’t all horror psychological? Emotion is a psychological phenomenon. It’s not like your skin can be frightened on its own. We see and hear and feel, we perceive, we appraise, and from this emotion emerges. Of course horror is psychological.

But, you know what? This is me being a dick about terms. Psychological horror isn’t so much horror that is, like all horror, a psychological phenomenon, it is horror that emerges from our mental processes, from what is perceived or experienced or thought. In that, it stands in opposition to, say, body horror, which is horror that emerges from our physicality, our biology. Body horror states that what we are is uncertain or possibly threatening. Psychological horror states that what we think or perceive is uncertain or possibly threatening. The old mind/body distinction, or as William Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice: “Tell me, where is fancy bred? In the heart, or in the head?”

I’m thinking about this, because I think in order for psychological horror to work - to make the protagonist and by extension the viewer feel upended, as if they cannot trust anything they see or think, you have to establish a baseline, a sense of how the world is, if revealing how it really is is going to have the effect you want. There have to be rules to violate.

And this is my problem with El Habitante Incierto (The Uninvited Guest) - it’s an odd stab at a psychological thriller that doesn’t take the time to make its twists plausible or even in places coherent, given the world in which they occur. We don’t feel upended because very little makes sense in the first place. 

We begin with poor, lovelorn Felix. He’s an architect, with an immaculate home he’s designed himself, and not much else, given that his girlfriend Vera left him some time before. Her stuff is still cluttering up the place, though - boxes of it stashed in the attic, in the front hall, all over the place. Felix wants her to come get it, because it’s cluttering up his clean, minimal space and making him a little nuts, but he also likes it being there as a pretext for her to come visit. He misses her, but he also doesn’t see how his obsession with order and space might be a little alienating from an intimacy standpoint. But this isn’t a recipe for a horror movie, this is a recipe for a romantic comedy about an uptight architect who learns to let love (and the clutter it brings) into his overly-orderly heart. 

No, what brings it to us is the strange sounds Felix keeps hearing at night - like someone’s walking around in his own house and then disappearing. Things are moved from their carefully chosen places.

Figures are glimpsed in the shadows.

Basically, the film starts off ostensibly as what could be a supernatural occurrence or one person’s descent into total paranoia, depending on how you read the events. Either someone (or something) is actually lurking around Felix’s home, or Felix is starting to crack under the pressure of his life and need for order. That’s the crux of one type of psychological horror - is this really happening or not? Am I really threatened or just imagining it? Can I trust my own senses? And if it stuck to that, tightening the screws slowly, using space and the way we navigate it to make even the smallest things threatening, we’d be onto something. But, it really doesn’t. It starts off with this fairly straightforward premise, and then starts chucking all kinds of stuff into a blender. There’s some almost-slapstick comedy mixed in as Felix investigates some potentially suspicious neighbors, slapstick that turns into Hitchcockian conspiracy, paranoia, and double-identity stuff (the same actress plays both Vera and Claudia, Felix’s wheelchair-bound neighbor in whom he develops an increasingly unhealthy interest for...reasons?), and then the original psychological-disintegration storyline briefly reasserts itself before the whole thing goes totally sideways about halfway through, discarding the original idea to explore a tangent for entirely too long, before piling a shitload of twists on at the end, as if someone reminded the film that it was supposed to be psychological horror and that it needed to pay off a bunch of shit from the first act. The result is a film that feels like a ghost story being told by someone easily distractable, who is also making it up as they go along. 

And it’s a bummer because there’s some really interesting stuff in the mix here. It starts by playing with the idea of personal space, or more accurately, interpersonal distance - Felix wants lots of it, Vera wants to be closer, and this is why they split up. Claudia talks about her absent husband Martin, and how he became emotionally abusive after the accident that paralyzed her. He could just walk away from Claudia as a way of silencing her, he could go places in their house she could not because of the wheelchair. The conflation of emotional with physical closeness could be, in the right hands, made really creepy, but it’s just sort of on the periphery here.

On top of that, houses represent personal space in a different sense - it’s where we are (or should be) safest and most comfortable, and when there’s an intruder, it feels like a violation of that. Felix’s coldness and need for order is pretty much embodied in his house (with Vera’s clutter signifying how others complicate the designs we envision for ourselves), and even though he knows his own house inside and out, there’s still someone moving about inside of it without his knowledge or consent, and that’s disturbing. And the idea of a physical space as a proxy for our mental state is by no means a new one, but that’s worth exploring too - Felix knows his own house inside and out, as he purports to know himself, but if there are hidden spaces, rooms left locked and unexamined, that could mirror Felix’s denial of his own darkness, of his own impulses and shameful secrets. It could, but it...only sort of does, again, fitfully, at the periphery of the film.

The film does begin on a solid note establishing the importance of space and distance, but it ends up squandering that early work with the bizarre detour at the halfway point, in which everything from the first half is sort of put on hold while Felix begins, bizarrely, to himself become an intruder into Claudia’s life for no real apparent reason. And this brings in some ideas about duality or similarity and parallel lives (the house he “haunts" is not so different from his own, as Claudia is very similar to Vera), but although that works okay on its own, and could be seen as an expression of Felix’s obsessive nature, the way it plays out in terms of tone seems very much at odds with the beginning of the film and its initial thesis. It’s all very abrupt and feels less like a story of mounting obsession than some kind of bizarre buddy comedy. 

This plays out for a bit before the film takes a tack in an entirely different direction, one which ends the film with a series of non sequiturs drawn pretty much out of thin air. We’ve had no preparation for them, and they mostly just seem designed to end the film on a pointless, contextless down note. The borderline-slapstick humor seems out of place, there’s no one narrative or thematic through-line to carry the film, and the whole thing feels like the filmmakers changed their mind about what kind of film they were making two or three times before they decide to end it in a manner so nihilistic as to border on goofy. It’s hard to upend a viewer’s expectations when they aren’t given much of a chance to find solid ground in the first place, and it’s hard to find the horror in our expectations being violated when we aren’t given much of an opportunity to develop expectations in the first place. We’re never given the chance to feel at home.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, November 4, 2016

Another Top Ten: New Contenders, Part Two

So, following from my previous post, here are five more films that, although having not yet met the test of time or magnitude of impression test that my top ten list demanded, are definitely strong candidates for inclusion. Sometimes it’s doing something very simple very well, sometimes it’s pushing the boundaries of what we consider horror, sometimes it’s approaching something with fresh energy and a new eye, but all of these are, at least in my humble and certainly limited estimation, worth watching.

6) Honeymoon

This is a fairly straightforward horror story - a newly-married couple is on their honeymoon out in the country, and something mysterious happens, and the new bride begins to...change. Thematically, it borrows equally from “the person I love is not who I thought they were” films like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and the tortured interpersonal disintegration of earlier entrant Antichrist. It’s far less campy than the former and less extreme in its vision than the latter, but the skillful juxtaposition of the adjustments and negotiations common to any new couple with far more Lovecraftian changes make it tragic and horrifying by turns, as we watch the already-fragile bond between these two people fall apart, sacrificed alongside humanity and life itself to something utterly unknowable.

7) Kill List

Horror films that draw from other genres are tricky - it’s tough enough to navigate one filmic language, let alone two or more - but when they pay off (as with Alien, for example), they are often thrilling, because we’re taken outside of our comfort zone - our safe assumptions about narrative are violated. The protagonists of Kill List are not hapless teenagers or flintily resilient Final Girls, they are coolly competent assassins taking one last job out of economic necessity. They’re stock characters to a degree, sure, but not from horror films, and so making them helpless in the face of horrors beyond their comprehension is somehow even worse. Of course a bunch of camp counselors are going to get mulched, but when these dudes are in trouble, that is some bad, bad shit. It’s a crime film that slowly segues into complete nightmare, and a lot of the most important bits happen in the background, in the edges, are inferred, and it lends the whole film a feeling of vague but persistent dread and menace, one which explodes into revelation in its last moments, but ends before we can really comprehend its enormity, leaving only awful silence in its wake.

8) The Loved Ones

I’ve seen people dismiss this film as torture porn, and I really hate that. I mean, I actively dislike the term torture porn in general, but I also think that some people just assume any film that uses graphic violence is torture porn, and they aren’t, not necessarily. Yes, this is a violent film, grittily so, but I’d argue that it’s also a film about violence, how we use it to seek relief from our own pain and the way that violence we commit or experience shapes us. The protagonist is a troubled young man who turns violence inward, engaging in self-harm to seek relief from the pain of loss, the antagonist turns violence outward to relieve the pain and frustration of her constant failure to achieve the idealized, romantic existence sold to her and in a desperate grab for agency (the inversion of gendered expressions of violence here is interesting). On top of that, it’s a story told in bright, gaudy colors that clash with the blood and filth, like a badly-made-up corpse before the funeral, with a pop and rock music soundtrack that is both impeccably curated and an effective narrative device. There’s nothing else like it.

9) REC/Quarantine

This is sort of unusual, first because I’m generally really picky about found-footage films (The Blair Witch Project is on my top ten, but that’s it), and second because I’m recommending both the (Spanish) original and the U.S. remake. But honestly, this is one of the rare occasions where very little is lost in the translation. There are some tweaks made to important revelations at the end, but it’s pretty clear that they’re nods to two very different cultural contexts and don’t really affect what makes the films good. In many ways, they’re damn near shot-for-shot identical, and though this, to me, makes the remake superfluous (in a way that. for example, We Are What We Are isn’t because it so radically remakes basic elements of the original), I’m also not the kind of dickhead who’s going to be all “original or nothing” about it. Check out either one. The important thing is that both films are kinetic, claustrophobic stories told in a confined space, using an increasingly bizarre threat to force escalation - both in the figurative sense that circumstances become more dire, and in the literal sense that the only hope for escape the protagonists have is to go up, which also takes them closer to the source of the threat. There really is nowhere to run, and things just keep getting worse.

10) Vinyan

The director’s previous effort, Calvaire, was a lyrical, sorrowful film about the costs of loneliness, disconnection, and isolation, the stunted and deformed shapes taken by desire long-denied. I’m all about that film too, but I feel like Vinyan is a considerable refinement of the same lyricism, applied to the costs of grief and guilt, and the way those things can drive people apart. It’s some of the same emotional territory covered by Antichrist, though in far more subdued, restrained fashion. It’s the story of two people both united and isolated by their shared loss, and how obsession with the desire to undo the loss, to unmake an unbearable tragedy, turns into a literal and metaphorical journey into darkness. The question “how far will you go?” applies in multiple senses here, and the final answer, the ultimate solution to what each person really and finally wants, is devastating.

And for all of these films, there are others that I think “well, what about this other one too?” I’ve gotten to watch a lot of surprisingly good films in the process of writing this thing, and this is sort of why I tend to resist lists - because they’re so constraining, It’s always nice to screen something that I don’t know anything about and come away from it pleasantly surprised by it (most recently, Starry Eyes), even if that means I also occasionally run across movies that I’m anticipating and by which I end up being disappointed (still looking at you, Banshee Chapter). With the availability of films from all over the world, with a bunch of different distribution options above and beyond theatrical release, with what seems like more and more filmmakers who take horror seriously instead of seeing it as camp or a series of clichés intended to service an uncritical fanbase, it’s a good time for horror. I fully anticipate having an entirely separate slate of films for another feature like this in a year’s time.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Another Top Ten: New Contenders, Part One

So a couple of years ago, I did a couple of posts outlining ten of my favorite horror films. I didn’t make any pretensions to these being the best or the greatest, just ones that have stuck with me and had profound formative power in terms of how I personally think about horror films. Apart from a few Johnny-come-latelies like Martyrs and Lovely Molly, I think it was a pretty unsurprising list. I mean, films like The Shining and Night Of The Living Dead are hardly scrappy, bold choices for the horror film canon. They’re obvious classics, and are so for a reason. 

But even while I was doing that, I was thinking of a bunch of other films I’ve watched in the last few years that stuck with me as films that could be considered in the company of those films, given time and sufficient appreciation. As I was putting together the list, I kept thinking “yeah but what about, and what about, and there’s also...” and it’s been sort of nagging at me ever since. So that, and a busy week that didn’t leave a lot of time for new films basically converged, and so I want to talk about ten films that impressed me, that stayed with me to one degree or another, that were assembled with care and skill, that should someday, I think, be considered alongside the other greats. They’re arranged alphabetically because that makes as much sense as anything else, and so let’s start with the first five...

Two things work to this film’s advantage. The first is its intimate focus on the relationship between two sisters. The entire film takes place at a very human scale, closely observing the minutiae of the tensions and resentments between two people who love each other but have a fair amount of pain in their past. A lot goes into making the people in this film believable and real, and that emotional investment makes everything that happens to them that much more sharply felt. The second is the way everything is built out of small details - a figure slumped in the corner, a faint clicking, sudden appearances and reveals. There are no music stings or tight zooms or other intrusive techniques used to bludgeon us with THIS IS SCARY. It just happens in the margins, as quiet and awful as the silences between the protagonists. Like The Babadook, it’s a story about how real-world horrors overlap with supernatural horrors, only here it’s ultimately a lot less ambiguous, and at the end, so much worse.

2) Ahi Va El Diablo (Here Comes The Devil)

Demonic possession is not a type of story that has gone unexamined, to be diplomatic about it. It’s easy to get someone to thrash around on a bed and growl and call it a day, and the number of “The Exorcism of...” or “The Possession of...” films extant is testament to that. One of the things these films are often missing is any sort of thematic conceit apart from “someone is possessed.” There are ways to make evil’s presence felt - especially in the classic Satanic sense - without the usual gestures toward possession. Ahi Va El Diablo takes place in a world subsumed by desire. It’s in the vivid palette of the film, the way heat practically rises from the frame, and the drowsy, sweat-suffused way the protagonists take advantage of a moment alone in the car while their children are off playing. Sex and lust are central to every major story beat in the film, and their expressions become more deranged as the reality of that fateful day become apparent to the characters and to us. The devil was in the world all along, he’s just getting easier to see.

3) Antichrist

Make no mistake - this is a horror film. Even if the director is respected for his provocative drama work in television and film, this is still straight-up horror. Call it an art film, it’s still horror. Horror is art. Specifically, this is highly expressionistic filmmaking, a painting of pain and rage and grief done in imagery pulled directly from primal feelings. It’s cryptic, and may even feel a little nonsensical in places, but it all speaks directly to the irrational, the emotional, the raw, twitching heart. This forest, this hellscape, is all the protagonists have left in the wake of their loss and grief, as their understanding of themselves and their relationship both disintegrate. This film is the internal landscape of trauma and its consequences turned outward, unspeakable feelings and human frailty externalized as monstrous creatures and more monstrous actions. This is a tough one to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s beautifully realized, giving the worst things that happen some sort of somber dignity.

4) Asmodexia

On a lighter note, sometimes it’s nice to appreciate a story that doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but is handled deftly enough to make the experience an enjoyable and even surprising one. This is a demonic-possession story, but though it doesn’t have Ahi Va El Diablo’s borderline-hallucinatory luridness, it does a fine job of establishing a feeling of faint but persistent wrongness almost immediately. It seems to exist in a world where possession is a spreading affliction, like a virus (interesting given the similar approach taken by REC, which I’ll be covering in the second half of this post), and mostly follows someone who seems to be treating the afflicted, while being tailed by a sinister, mostly-unseen figure. But everything seems a little off, and it’s hard to put our finger on exactly what it is, but the turn - elegantly revealed - recontextualizes everything we’ve already seen at a point where there is nothing left to be done, and the ultimate effect is like that of having a rug pulled out from under our feet. Everything certain falls away, and by the time we realize what it is we’re dealing with, it’s too late.

5) The Canal

It occurs to me that a lot of the films that I’m considering are ones that I’m considering because they do a really good job of establishing a mood or atmosphere. One of the worst mistakes a horror film can make is to ignore mood in favor of discrete scenes or clichés intended to confer some idea of “scariness” on a film that is anything but (I’m still looking at you, Nothing Left To Fear). If you establish a mood, you can make small, subtle things scary, but the biggest, loudest monsters or chainsaw-wielding killers will not be scary in the absence of mood. The Canal does a very good job of establishing a mood - the film is mostly about a series of murders that took place in the protagonist’s house decades before he lived there, but what really drives the film, at least in its first half, is his foggy descent into paranoia following his discovery that his wife is having an affair. Things are half-glimpsed, faintly remembered, his evenings become fuzzy, and this pervasive uncertainty keeps us off-balance. And then, in the last act, as some things are revealed - both about the house’s history and what has really happened between the protagonist and his wife, the haziness is replaced with bright, sharp tension and a sense of doom that tightens and tightens and tightens, and just when you think the depths have been plumbed and it doesn’t get any worse, it does. We’re lulled into security and then strung up, and it leaves you gasping.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Human Race: Hate The Game, Not The Player

I don’t have a lot of patience for horror films about “games” or “experiments.” Mostly because they end up never being as revealing of human nature (or horrifying) as actual real life is, and the vision of the antagonist who forces people to play these games or participate in these experiments is usually really banal. It’s teen-boy philosophizing, arriving at the conclusion that people are...bad! And...selfish! Woo! Mind fucking blown! We’re expected to care about the people forced to play this game, to care about which ones will survive and which won’t. We’re expected to be curious as to what the rules of the game are and the rationale for the game. And so at least one of these two things needs to be compelling - the players, the human interest factor, or the game, the puzzle and mystery factor.

The Human Race is a weird little film about people forced to play a game. There are some interesting choices made (to varying degrees of success), but ultimately the film doesn’t quite hit its marks, and part of that is because neither the game nor the players really seem to be all that important.

It’s a cold open on a series of instructions, given by a robotic voice and accompanied by still shots. Follow the arrows, stay on the path. The house is safe. The school is safe. The prison is safe. Step on the grass and you die. Leave the path and you die. Get lapped twice by another racer, and you die. Now race. And then we cut to a young woman, who is visiting her sick sister in the hospital. The doctors aren’t hopeful, but she’s holding it together, until her sister is gone and she’s burying her alongside her parents. It’s done economically to great effect. And then she gets some bad news of her own. So she starts running. She runs, and runs, and runs. She flips off an uncaring sky, tells an invisible God “fuck you.” And then she gets some good news, and she smiles to an uncaring sky, tells an invisible God “thank you.” She gets a reprieve.

And now here she is, suddenly elsewhere, in the middle of a crowd of people, all of whom hear the same thing she does in her head: Follow the arrows, stay on the path. The house is safe. The school is safe. The prison is safe. Step on the grass and you die. Leave the path and you die. Get lapped twice and you die.

Now race.

And so the crowd of people begins to move - almost all strangers to each other, suddenly displaced from a city block in Los Angeles to a deserted neighborhood marked by ominous, spiky, steel arrows. There is a path, and now the people race. The ones who break the rules - who step on the grass, who stray from the path, their heads explode in a shower of blood and brain matter.

Now race.

And this is all we get - the rules, and that a lot of people have been suddenly transported to someplace else, someplace with rules and dire penalties for breaking them, and all that’s left is forward motion. There’s the young woman from the hospital, two war buddies back from Afghanistan for awhile, a couple of deaf joggers, a bicyclist, the list goes on. We learn some of their stories, they run. They ask why they are there, and they run. Some die, others continue to run, trying to figure out why they’re here and what it means, all while still trying to stay alive.

There are some interesting directorial choices here - someone who is set up to be a sympathetic protagonist and given extensive backstory dies a quick and messy death early in, the action is periodically broken up by flashbacks or conversational detours into the lives of the people caught in the race, and it makes good use of split-screen and numbered intertitles in ways that you usually don’t see in small-budget independent films. It sort of reminds me of Mockingbird in that respect - the premise is one of unrelated people caught in a mysterious game in both cases, it doesn’t really look like most horror films getting made, and it’s just enough off-center to give it some character.

Where it probably most falls down is in its (ha-ha) pacing. We’re aware of the rules - stay off the grass, stay on the path, there are three safe places, and if you get passed twice, you die - but the way a story like this would work best, you’d think, would be as one that emphasizes the crushing relentlessness of these things and the way they strip people of their humanity. Except it doesn’t really feel especially relentless here - we’re aware that people die, but it doesn’t feel like people are so much being pushed to their breaking point because the race itself doesn’t necessarily get that much screen time. And I’m not sure I blame the filmmakers - it’s hard to make something that potentially monotonous very compelling, not impossible, but tough. But the end result is that everything sort of feels like it happens in a vacuum, there’s little sense of time passing or people really being put under strain. There are some scenes where some people try to do the right thing, others where people try to figure out why and how this is happening, others where alliances and cooperation break down, but they’re all sort of isolated from each other rather than being part of a continuous whole.

And even this sort of falls apart about two-thirds of the way into the movie as people sort of switch over from “terrified and confused” to “gratuitously homicidal” without any real warning. At this point the film becomes even less of a story about ordinary people being put in an impossible situation and basically becomes a gory free-for-all, which, after dealing with a large number of people dying by exploding head, starts to lose its impact. I’ll give the film credit for not always keeping the most sympathetic characters alive (or even keeping them sympathetic), but when it sort of becomes “everyone starts to murder everyone else” there’s just not a lot there. Especially since we have very little insight into the majority of people in the film and so they aren’t especially well-developed characters. That means it’s hard to invest much in their success or failure, or in their life or death. One group of three people most egregiously sort of become giggling sociopaths out of completely nowhere, and it borders on cartoonish. 

And all the time, the constant is death. There’s stabbing and bludgeoning and heads popping like swollen ticks, and it isn’t until there’s only one left standing that we get any sort of answer as to why this is happening, and it’s...well, it’s not terrible, but after the overload of violence visited upon and by people we don’t have much attachment to, it just sort of falls with a thud, like “oh, okay, that’s why. Well, whatever.” Part of the problem with stories where people are subjected to bizarre, fatal competitions is that invariably the reason this is happening is going to be disappointing. It’s probably better to leave it mysterious, but it’s also hard to do that without it feeling like a cheat. So ultimately the game needs to matter less than the people playing it. For this film to work, it needs to get us to identify with the people in the game and then to get us rooting for or against them. This is something reality television figured out a long time ago, but fiction here is less concerned with character than ostensible reality. There’s no real arc - there are people who are good until they’re bad, or completely irrelevant until they’re killers, people who develop personalities out of nowhere. And pretty much all of them die. There’s no tragedy, no triumph. Just another meandering lap around a blood-soaked track.

Available on Netflix (DVD only)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Babadook: The Monster At The End Of The Book

It’s not unusual for us to talk about difficult emotional states and life circumstances as separate, external creatures. Jealousy is a green-eyed monster. Addiction is a monkey on our back. Our secrets are skeletons in our closet. Difficult memories and experiences of regret leave ghosts. Sometimes the only way we can communicate how much something is hurting us is to describe it in the language of horror. Which I think is interesting because most of the time we talk about horror as a way to safely distance ourselves from our real problems, to take our sources of anxiety and externalize them as part of a work of fiction. But it’s not a one-way street. Insofar as horror (film) has created a shared language, we can use that language to articulate to others the dimensions of our own personal horror (experience). Sometimes the only way to understand our experience is in the language of monsters.

So that’s a lot of hot air to basically say that The Babadook is ostensibly about a monster, but it’s really a taut, masterful examination of one woman’s psychological disintegration in the face of unresolved grief.

We meet Amelia in the middle of what seems to be a reverie. She appears to be floating in space, bathed in light. The light whirls around her, and then glass shatters, and then the world shatters around her as she bolts upright in bed. Amelia has, yet again, had a nightmare about the night her husband Oskar drove her to the hospital. The night that they got in a wreck that killed Oskar but spared her and their as-yet unborn son Samuel.

And so now it is six or seven years later, and it’s just Amelia and Samuel alone in this big old house, a house and a life with a huge Oskar-shaped absence. The circumstances of his birth (they were driving to the hospital to deliver Samuel when it happened) and his mother’s persistent grief have made Samuel a troubled little boy. He’s sensitive, and very anxious. He’s got an active imagination and is obsessed both with the idea of monsters and the need to protect Amelia from them. He’s also like any lonely, awkward little boy, desperate for his mother’s love and attention, which can be hard for her given that he’s essentially a reminder of the husband she lost. But she and Samuel manage, hard though it sometimes is, and then one night, Samuel asks his mother to read him a bedtime story he found - a story about the mythical Mr. Babadook. It’s a pop-up book, filed with black and gray figures apparently made of living shadow, that pop up to gulp down the unwary. When you hear the Babadook knocking, you can’t let it in, or it will eat you all up. 

Needless to say, this sends Samuel into a panic spiral, his behavior at school getting worse and worse. He’s terrified of the idea that the Babadook is going to get him and his mother, and an already-tenuous situation turns into a full-time struggle to keep Samuel from hurting himself or other people. Amelia has no help in this, she’s managing it all on her own.

And then come the three knocks on the door. The three knocks that herald the arrival of Mr. Babadook.

What occupies most of the movie and really forms its emotional core is the story of Amelia as a woman under tremendous strain. The circumstances under which she lost her husband are fraught and make her relationship with her son complicated. Her son’s anxiety and active imagination and obsession with monsters and protecting his mother means he keeps playing with dangerous homemade weapons in an effort to defend her. He gets in trouble when he brings them to school, and the stories he tells about monsters alienate him from other adults and from his peers. His demands on Amelia’s attention, his constant neediness combined with his tendency to get himself into one form of trouble or another, means she never has time to herself, or really the opportunity to engage in any form of self-care at all. One scene, where Samuel falls asleep next to her in bed, his arm draped carelessly around her throat, says a lot about Amelia’s life. This is all magnified by her job as a nurse at a retirement home. It’s a dispiriting job under the best of circumstances, and again she’s taking care of people who, like her son, cannot really be expected to take care of themselves. Caretaking then is her entire life, and there’s nothing left over for romance, hobbies, or even a good night’s sleep. She is literally taking care of everyone except herself. It’s like the worst expression of the old maxim “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot” ever.

And, as is so often the case with grief, she isn’t really surrounded by sympathy or understanding. Her son’s school just sees a boy making life difficult for the other kids (though their observation that he appears to need specialized professional help is pretty much on point), her sister finds being around her depressing and doesn’t understand why she can’t just, like get over it already. Her boss at work is sort of a pinched, bitter, unsympathetic figure all-around, and the messiness of her life drives away people with any sort of friendly or romantic interest on top of everything else. Just when she needs support and companionship the most, it is the furthest away.

So the first half of the film is really just Amelia being stretched tighter and tighter and tighter, and it’s when Samuel finds out about Mr. Babadook that she snaps. So even though this is putatively a ghost story, the real horror here is more in Amelia’s steady, gradual decompensation. Time-lapse footage and jarring transitions make the days bleed into each other, time doesn’t really seem to pass the same way inside her house, a house whose disarray - along with Amelia’s - only becomes readily apparent from people from the Australian equivalent of Social Services come to check on Samuel. Everything is falling apart, and Samuel can’t be expected to understand that or the role he’s playing. He’s just a kid, he can’t know how upsetting and disruptive his behavior really is, he’s just trying to work out some really complicated shit about not having a dad. The editing and direction is sharp and impressionistic, and repeated motifs (Amelia trying to sleep, Amelia watching TV) convey both the monotony of her existence and, in the ways they change over the movie, her slide downward. When things start getting overtly creepy, it is wisely done through little things - the half-glimpsed figure, the innocuous sounds with sinister alternate meanings, the mysterious reappearance of the book, shadowy forms in the corner of rooms. As the film moves on, everything becomes progressively more and more drained of color, and the light, when it comes in, is increasingly harsh.  This movie does a really nice job of sort of telling two stories - the monster/ghost story happens around the edges, in the little details, in suggestion. And then right in front of us, a woman rapidly losing her grip on reality. 

The degree to which the Babadook is literal or figurative probably doesn’t matter - it is certainly possible to read it as an externalization of Amelia’s grief and rage and sadness, and the film’s conclusion would support that. In that sense, this film reminds me of Repulsion, another story of a woman essentially trapped and consumed by unresolved trauma. But knowing the “right” interpretation, knowing whether the monster was “real” or not, isn’t the point. It’s the way the natural is often just as horrifying as the supernatural and how the best horror isn’t afraid to put them in parallel. Sometimes the only thing that can articulate our real struggles - our pain, our grief, our sadness, our exhaustion - are monsters, that only things too horrifying to be real can give shape and volume to the horrifying real things we deal with.