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.

Friday, October 14, 2016

SOMA: The Mind/Body Problem, Revisited

I want to do something a little different this time. See, I can watch scary movies of any and all stripes and engage with them - like, I can watch them and feel scared or unsettled or disturbed or horrified, but I’m still able to examine them critically and maintain a certain amount of critical distance (well, for the most part, there’s one film I’ve started two or three times and keep noping out of because it freaks me out too much, but someday, someday). I can watch scary movies and hang in there.

But games? When it comes to horror games, I am a fucking coward.

I enjoy playing video games and have for years, but there’s something about the narrative immediacy of them that makes scary games really hard for me to handle. I get freaked out really badly, really fast. Now, this isn’t true of all of them - the campiness of something like the early Resident Evil games keep them from being too unsettling, and the later ones are basically just monster-focused action like the namesake film (ugh) franchise. But, for example, the Silent Hill games, especially the second, are deeply unsettling, and I get nervous playing them. My first trip through Silent Hill 2 actually felt less like I was playing a game than dealing with an artifact of evil pressed onto disc. The persistent atmosphere of despair, the washed-out appearance of the town, the way everyone in the town had their own trauma, their own private hell, the role that descent, both metaphorical and literal, played in the narrative, all of it made me seriously anxious, enough that I didn’t finish it. Basically, Silent Hill 2 as an almost-straight adaptation would have made an excellent horror film, (at least better than the one we got). Even in non-horror games, the occasional scary bits (like the Dunwich Building or Dunwich Borers quarry in the modern Fallout games, never mind the entirety of the Dead Money DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, or even the dark, abandoned house on a rainy night of the definitely-not-horror Gone Home) make me a little uneasy until they’re over. Take away even the little bit of distance afforded by being a passive observer (because even found-footage films don’t have this effect on me) and I am just not about it.

So I generally avoid horror games, or did for a long time. But now we live in the era of Twitch and Let’s Play and what is essentially the recorded and broadcast playthroughs of games, and I can go along for the ride - once I’m no longer in control of the game, it’s not all that different, necessarily, from watching a film. Sure, it’s a lot longer (so closer to a TV series) but once I’m back to being an observer instead of a causal agent, I relax.

Which is a whole lot of words to basically explain why I’m writing about SOMA. It’s a game I watched someone play during my hiatus, and one that immediately made me think “I should really write about this.” It’s a chilling, bleak examination of what it means to be alive or to be conscious, notable because it is ultimately a tragic story rather than a conventionally frightening one. There are no real monsters in SOMA, just people and technology made monstrous, often by the best of intentions.

It begins as the story of Simon Jarrett, a young man from Toronto who was badly injured in a car accident. The car’s other occupant was killed, and he was left with severe head trauma, resulting in persistent brain bleeds. We play from Simon’s perspective as he wakes up from a nightmare on the day that he’s scheduled to go in for an experimental brain scan. He’s a test subject for a new treatment, where the brain is scanned, mapped, and modeled, and that model subjected to different iterations of treatment to discover which treatment plan would be best - because it’s a virtual model of the brain, they can fail as many times as necessary in the search for a treatment without doing the patient any harm. What isn’t really brought up to Simon is the notion that a model of someone’s brain at that level of granularity is, in effect, a backup copy of your consciousness, insofar as our conscious experience of the world - perception, cognition, and memory - all happen in the brain. This, however, becomes very important when Simon sits down inside the scanner. There is some clicking, whirring, bright light...

...and when he opens his eyes, he is somewhere else entirely.

Not just somewhere else, but also somewhen. Simon has managed to leap forward by decades and wake from the scan in Pathos-II, an underwater research and satellite manufacturing facility. It’s dark, debris is strewn everywhere, and most of the equipment is covered by mysterious, glowing, warty tentacled growths. Things are breaking down and falling apart, and there are robots. The robots talk to Simon.

What’s more, they don’t seem to realize they’re robots.

This is where it gets a little...high-concept. Pathos-II is a station in the late throes of crisis, stranded at the bottom of a blasted world. There has been an extinction-level event on the surface, and the station’s inhabitants only survived because they were on the ocean floor. Everyone Simon knows or cares about is long dead. The station complex - a series of connected facilities - is run by an autonomous artificial intelligence, whose primary function is to keep the inhabitants of the station alive, and the use of both the scanning and modeling technology pioneered in Simon’s day and an advanced technology called structure gel (which basically acts as a medium capable of repairing either mechanical or biological systems) gives it all kinds of options for achieving its goal.

Because it is an artificial intelligence, many of these options are frighteningly literal-minded and miss the more elusive ideas human beings have about life, or the quality thereof. Simon encounters people who do not realize that they are copies of their consciousness downloaded into robot bodies, as well as human bodies, kept functioning in excruciating pain and fear by mechanical means. Immobile, yoked to artificial lungs grown out of the structure gel that pervades the station like a cabled, glowing parasite, begging to go home. Shambling horrors, both mechanical and biological, consumed by the gel which animates them into a parody of existence.

They are all alive, as the AI is mandated to keep them, after a fashion. But one of the best things SOMA does is explore ideas about what it means to be alive or the implications of replicable consciousness, not through speeches or even one central defining struggle, but through the presentation of its logical outcomes. If we can put a human consciousness into a robot body, how does it adapt to that? Can it? If a body is alive, but not conscious in any meaningful sense, is that life? If you copy your mind over into another body, what happens to the first one? Simon and Catherine (one of Pathos-II’s survivors) busy themselves with the project Catherine and her colleagues began working on after life was extinguished on the surface - scans of many of Pathos-II’s employees have been copied into a virtual environment called the Ark, which Catherine wants to launch into space as, essentially, humanity’s last gasp. And so Simon and Catherine travel the length of Pathos-II, its rusting and flooding corridors, its buildings left as bizarre charnel houses in the wake of the AI’s spasmodic attempts to repurpose people as things it can keep alive, the sad story of the complex’s final, tragic days before Simon’s arrival, the howling darkness of the deep ocean floor. All to cast something to the stars that will serve as our species’ final memorial.

SOMA is definitely a horror game, and the central relevant mechanic is the need to avoid the more monstrous inhabitants of Pathos-II. There’s no combat, all you can do is run and hide. The monsters range from powerful industrial robots given crazed life by the AI to humans overridden and overgrown with structure gel, essentially animated corpses with the most basic of drives. But honestly, this is the least interesting (and I think least horrifying) aspect of the game. The monsters help tell the story, but the need to avoid them is a distraction, something that pulls you out of the story. The real horror here is the gradual realization of what has happened, what is happening, what will happen. Simon essentially arrives not long after everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong, and the wreckage of the last days of Pathos-II are everywhere. It is at every level a tragedy, the story of the last of humanity and their ignominious end, and the parody of life that emerges from the ruin. As Simon, you have to make decisions throughout the game that determine whether people live or die, and what it means to “live” or “die” changes from situation to situation, and there is often no good choice. All of this set against the long, cold dark of the bottom of the ocean, the claustrophobia of creaking hallways, the thundering silence of desertion, isolation. Even though you have a companion for the majority of the game, you always feel terribly, terribly alone as you stumble upon the remnants of tragedy after tragedy, atrocity after atrocity, failure and decay. It is this oppression, this constant serving as witness to horror, this solitude, and the dreadful implications of every choice you make, this is the horror of SOMA. I’m not sure it would survive a transition to film or television, but if it did, it’d be one of the scariest fucking things I would see all year.

Wikipedia entry
Official site
YouTube playlist of the playthrough I watched

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Nothing Left To Fear: Horror Movie Product Prototype #12

Say what you will about incompetence, sometimes it lends a film character. Oh, sure, well-made film has its own character as well, in all kinds of ways, too. But it’s often (not always, but often) the case that ineptitude has its own vision, its own particular stamp that makes an awful film something that’s still an experience. It may not be good by any metric, but it’s still got personality, even if that personality is shitty. I’m not a huge fan of “so bad it’s good” or ironic enjoyment, but even the cruddiest films I’ve watched still feel like one of a kind, even if I hate them. 

Nothing Left To Fear is not one of those films. It is a completely and totally average horror film. It isn’t bad, but it’s not especially good either. It’s just sort of there, reliant on clichés to the point of being utterly characterless. It just manages to do a good enough job to not be bad, but not good enough to be good, either, and it relies on a lot of devices and imagery whose novelty had already worn off by the time it came out. It’s hard to describe, but the whole thing feels like it was put together by some kind of algorithm intended to design maximum-profit horror film product units.

(As a side note, it’s never really made clear why it’s called Nothing Left To Fear. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything in the movie. It feels as focus-grouped as everything else about it.)

Dan Bramford and his squeaky-clean family (wife Wendy, oldest daughter Becky, middle child Mary, youngest son Christopher) move to the rural town of Stull, as Dan has taken the job of being the town’s new pastor. They get a little turned around trying to find the town and end up at a farm asking for directions. The farmer is initially hostile until he realizes Dan’s the new pastor, and then he’s much more welcoming. Meanwhile, a figure appears in the foreground, hands covered in blood.

Oh but wait, that’s just hunky farmboy Noah, who gets Becky’s eye immediately...

...even though he’s...slaughtering and bleeding a bunch of sheep?

There’s ample precedent for The Small Town With A Secret in horror films like The Children Of The Corn and Jug Face, all sort of revolving around the idea that there is always a price to be paid for the town’s continued prosperity or even just their existence. Often the price is sacrifice, and it’s usually couched in religion. It’s no different here. The townspeople are all very welcoming - even offering to help move the Bramfords into their new home in lieu of the moving crew. A kindly old lady even bakes them a welcoming cake! It isn’t until Becky (who is sort of telegraphed as a prototypical Final Girl almost from the get-go) has a really disturbing dream that we get the sense that something in this town might not be completely right. Well, that and that we’re watching a horror movie. But the disturbing dream is relatively formulaic, relying mostly on lots of lightning, people appearing and disappearing outside the window, and then one suddenly appearing inside, face hollow-eyed and grotesquely contorted in the early 2010’s go-to shorthand for “ghost.” Had this film been made in the early 00s, it would have been a little girl with long hair covering her face instead, is what I’m saying. 

And sure enough, Becky’s dream is prescient, as it turns out the entire town is keeping some terrible secret, involving the reason Dan’s family was brought to town. As it turns out, the town of Stull has an awful responsibility as the site of some kind of gateway into hell, or at least some dimension of evil. (And apparently, the actual town of Stull, Kansas does suffer from urban legends that repute it to be the site of a gateway to hell.) This responsibility involves regular rituals intended to keep the evil at bay, not just from Stull, but from the world. And so the townspeople are organized, either in commission or omission, in the performance of this responsibility. It’s going to cost lives, but this is the way it has to be. Not because the townspeople are evil or even selfish, but because they have come to realize that sometimes terrible things have to be done in order to keep others safe.

And under other circumstances, this would actually be a pretty good premise. That it’s not just a town full of thoughtless malevolence or mindless drones is definitely a step up where this particular set of clichés is concerned. Life in a small town is already a pretty solid engine for paranoia, where there’s nowhere to run or hide and everyone knows everyone else’s business (or invents business when deprived of the real story), and so the idea that this closeness also implies conspiracy, where every passerby on the street is watching you and knows something, that would be a nice basis for tension, especially when the protagonists are newcomers, unfamiliar with the ways of the town. Dan’s family is largely complacent, happy to be settled into their new home, unquestioning, but that’s as it should be, because people do not live in horror films. Becky seems to be the only one who isn’t comfortable, and this again makes sense because she’s a teenage girl and is probably not thrilled with having to pick up stakes and move to the middle of nowhere after years in the city. Unfortunately, it also kind of marks her out right away - along with putative love interest Noah - as the ones who are going to make it through whatever comes next, and the film doesn’t really subvert that point. 

That it does subvert the idea that what’s being done is evil for evil’s sake is good, but it doesn’t put enough time or effort into articulating what that means. Noah’s all pouty and stompy about it in the first half of the film (for reasons that become apparent but probably also have more to do with his feelings for Becky than much else), before shit pops off, but everyone else just sort of mouths a lot of cryptic fluff about people being “chosen” and how this is the Lord’s will. Kingsman, the pastor whom Dan is supposed to be replacing, does show some flashes of sadness and resolve - he’s aware that this is not what was intended, but the experience of shepherding this town seems to have reshaped his faith. As he says at one point, there aren’t any angels coming. It’s just us. But that’s all it gets is a little bit of talk - it doesn’t really show up in the other townspeople’s behavior toward the Bramfords or in any other little background ways that might have contributed to an air of mystery. 

And mystery - or really any kind of mood or atmosphere - is notably absent here. The people in this film aren’t caricatures, but they also don’t have much opportunity to be people outside of their specific scenes either, if that makes sense. The family is just sort of a generic family, without a lot of sense of relationship dynamics or quirks, and the townspeople are largely just extras, just sort of people filling space in the scene without giving it any personality. The lighting and camerawork is perfectly serviceable, but not much else (with the exception of one reasonably well-realized dream sequence involving Becky that could have replaced the really ham-handed one earlier in the film that I mentioned above), and the dialogue feels just enough like dialogue instead of conversation to make it harder to close the distance between the characters and the audience. None of it is egregiously bad or inept, but that just ends up making it feel bland.

And then when everything does go off, it’s just as formulaic as everything else. Evil enters our world in the form of a possessed person, all contortions and black eye and mouth makeup, preceded by tendrils of computer-generated darkness and corruption that evoked in me only the feeling that that must have been where most of their effects budget went, and by gum they were going to make sure we saw as much of it as they could manage. The evil walks free in Stull, as it must (for reasons that are never quite made clear - apparently the only way to keep the gate shut is to...open it? And then shut it? Like so much else about their responsibility, it’s just kind of hand-waved), and the residents are prepared, all the blood Noah collected used to paint their doors (in a nice Biblical nod), and what must happen happens, and so the film comes to a close in a manner much like the rest of it - not at all surprising. Not bad, it is not a bad ending, just as it isn’t a bad film. Just one so predictable and expected as to rob it of any impact or opportunity to evoke any sort of emotion in the viewer apart from “well, that happened.”

Available on Netflix (DVD only)

Friday, October 7, 2016

Starry Eyes: The Sacrifices We Make

After my last post, I ended up having a conversation with some friends about the importance of tragedy in horror film, and it’s definitely something I think is important. Good horror films don’t have unambiguously happy endings. If there’s a victory of any sort, it should come with tremendous physical and/or psychological cost. As the tagline to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre said, “who will survive, and what will be left of them?” Good horror ends badly, with loss and regret and things forever changed. Good horror is at heart tragedy, and one of the most time-honored tragic stories is that of the person whose ambition costs them everything, whose drive to the top alienates them from everyone and everything, sometimes even their own humanity. 

Starry Eyes, then, is a sharply observed story of what it can mean to do whatever it takes to achieve your dream, to a terrible degree. It’s not an especially original premise, or an especially novel approach to it, but it’s handled with tremendous skill and confidence and works wonderfully as a result.

Sarah Walker is an aspiring actress who is, like a lot of actresses, struggling. She has a shitty job at a PG-rated Hooters type restaurant, she goes on auditions and gets nowhere. She has a reasonably sympathetic roommate and a small circle of fairly unsympathetic friends who really can’t or don’t look past their own selfish needs. One guy is an aspiring filmmaker who lives in his van and hasn’t actually produced anything but talk, another guy is a shallow, thoughtless twerp who thinks taking photographs of everything makes him an artist, and there are two women who undermine Sarah constantly in pitch-perfect displays of relational aggression and do whatever it takes in a situation to keep themselves at the center of attention, even to the point of pretending to slip and fall the instant the others stop noticing them. Her roommate’s largely harmless, but nobody in this film is really on Sarah’s side. 

Nobody’s on Sarah’s side, and her life is basically a series of small, repeated concessions - she concedes her dignity at her terrible job, she concedes her value and self-worth to her insensitive friends, she concedes her sense of herself every time an audition goes badly. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Sarah is maybe not as stable as she should be for this career path, as failed auditions are inevitably followed by fits of rage and compulsive self-harm. So here she is, stuck in a dead-end job, no acting prospects, her only social support network a bunch of self-involved nitwits who are all talk and no resolve, and her ambition to transcend all of this (and her anxiety at failing to do so) is eating her from the inside out.

And then comes the call to audition for a horror film called “The Silver Scream.” It’s a weird audition - the two production company representatives are oddly reserved past the point of professionalism into near hostility, and a decent line reading gets her no closer to the job. So she goes into the bathroom, screams, curses, and tears her hair out, as she always does.

And there, waiting outside the stall, is one of the representatives, who wants to her to reproduce her fit of rage and self-punishment for their cold, appraising eyes. How far are you willing to go?

And then a second audition, where she is asked to disrobe under a spotlight, where discomfort gives way to release, to brief, half-glimpsed visions of blood and bared, feral teeth and hooded figures.

How far are you willing to go?

A woman trying to become a successful actress in Los Angeles is probably the most obvious vector for a story like this, but it’s handled with a lot of skill. Lots of things happen in little moments - interruptions in conversation, quick glances, fleeting expressions, sudden, swift changes in mood. You can see the life sap out of Sarah as she begs her blandly paternal boss at the restaurant for another chance. You can see the moment, played out entirely in small changes in facial expression, where she lets go of some of her dignity as she sheds her clothes for the audition. The little moments with her friends where their dynamic is sketched out economically and clearly and a tossed-off mispronunciation of a movie studio’s name communicates so much. A meeting with a producer who seems avuncular if slightly unhinged curdles into something worse in the blink of an eye. It’s finely tuned in a way that’s rare for horror films (and manages to be blackly funny in places without tipping over into comedy), and it makes all of what happens eventually so much worse. The editing is crisp and relies (at least initially) a lot on quick cuts and sudden transitions. The effect is slightly disorienting, but not overly so, just enough to maintain a constant low-level hum of tension and deep unease. And then, when the inevitable happens, and Sarah decides how far she is willing to go, that crisp economy gives way to extended sequences of very human-scale suffering, as the cost of Sarah’s decision and the scope of the bargain she has made begins to make itself evident in horrifying ways (her ambition really is eating her alive). 

(As a side note, it’s interesting to me the number of ways in which this film resembles Contracted, another story about a troubled young woman in Los Angeles who is surrounded by people who do not have her best interests in mind. The parallels don’t stop there - rape or at the very least sexual coercion in both cases drive a traumatic internal transformation which results in violence against the people who should have kept the protagonist safe. I think Starry Eyes is probably the better film of the two insofar as it is inhabited by people who are less cartoonish than those in Contracted, but I felt weird enough about one film taking this tack, that there are two makes me feel even more uncomfortable.)

A terrible price must be paid for Sarah’s “gateway part,” and we’ve had the whole film to recognize that not only is Sarah primed to pay it, but nobody around her has treated her in a way that would give her pause to reconsider. She is asked to do something bloody and horrible and she does so willingly because everyone has made it easy, The violence that follows is genuinely uncomfortable, her suffering is raw and hard to watch, and so is that of the people who pay a price for her ambition. All of the snappy glibness of the film’s beginning falls away into something excruciating. A price must be paid, and Sarah is born anew into a Los Angeles sunrise, ready for her close-up.