Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ten Of My Favorites - The Second Five

Following from my previous post, I offer another five of what are ten of my favorite horror films. I know it's not an especially unusual list (going over the first five. I'd argue that it's basically an exercise in "no shit"), but these are largely the ones that have stuck with me ever since I first saw them, in many cases for years. I've seen plenty of stuff that I consider favorites, but these are ones that have never gone away.

6. The Silence Of The Lambs

I've said ad nauseam that I don't like conventionally constructed serial killer movies, and I mean it. But every rule has its exceptions, and in this (and Se7en), I have my exception. It's a measured, largely somber film that offers very little on-screen violence (although what violence there is is gruesome to a degree almost but not quite at odds with the restraint of the rest of the film), but doesn't look away from terrible aftermath or emotional violence - as gross as it is in spots, I think the scene where Buffalo Bill mocks the screams of his prisoner disturbs me more than any of the gore. And in Hannibal Lecter, you have a remarkable character - someone whose evil is rarely (but not never, which is important) openly displayed, but rather coiled within him, a dangerous trap waiting for a misstep to spring it. He's built up to be this monster, and when he is introduced, immaculately groomed, standing perfectly still in the middle of his cell, it is a chilling, alien moment, terrible intelligence behind his eyes and the slightest observation calculated to cut like a razor. Once you know how events play out, you realize just how much and for how long Lecter toyed with the authorities, slipping private jokes into the most innocuous of phrases, setting out a trail of clues the whole time. And when the mask slips, the contrast of the mannered with the bestial is bracing. Somehow, it's worse when he lightly brushes Starling's finger than when he clubs the guard to death.

7. Martyrs

It's not often that you run across a film that can actually grapple with some pretty high-minded ideas (the virtue of sacrifice, ordeal in the service of transcendence) while still being utterly visceral and unpredictable. What really sells Martyrs for me is its sense of viciousness and despair once it really gets going. We're presented with a mystery early on, but it seems to be unresolved until things are clarified with a shocking juxtaposition, painted in gouts of blood over a canvas of cozy domesticity, which in turn is then further iterated into a sort of ghost story told with contorted, agonized figures who turn out to be something other than what they appear, and open the door to a further, even less comprehensible truth, which tells another story, and another, and the pain never lets up, because the pain is sort of the point of the movie, examined from different angles, like a triptych, variations on a scene of suffering. You're kept completely on your toes throughout, and no matter what nightmare places the story goes (and it is unsparing in its violence and scenes of - and this is important - suffering), it's telling a coherent, thoughtful story the whole time. It's almost painterly the way it uses terrible imagery as metaphor, but it never stops punching you in the stomach. It's sort of my platonic ideal of the modern horror movie - one that balances extremity with serious ideas and skillful cinematic technique.

8. The Devil's Rejects

A lot of the things I like about this movie are the same things I like about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - it's a wild-eyed gonzo rampage told using the aesthetics of grindhouse cinema (yeah, I know, I just wrote that and I'm sort of rolling my eyes at it too, but I can't think of a better way to say it). Now, because it's a modern film told using a specific retro cinematic style, it doesn't have quite the same punch as the films it emulates - it's played straight, but there are so many nods to other films (especially in terms of casting - watching this film is a fucking Who's Who for pop culture enthusiasts of a certain age) embedded in it that it's hard not to read it on some level as a commentary on the films from which it takes cues. But it's a love letter to those films, so you get this heightened distillation of all of these images and ideas from all these different movies, all compressed into one delirious rollercoaster ride. The stylization gives it an impact that some of its progenitors lack and lend it moments of perverse beauty in places. It's not the real thing, it's the hyperreal thing.

9. Lovely Molly

One thing I feel like is missing from most modern ghost stories is a real sense of dread. Ghosts are too often puzzles masquerading as threats - find out what the ghost wants (or what object you need to defeat it) and the problem is solved. But there are ghosts and then there are ghosts - as I said in my write-up of this movie, there are many ways you can be haunted, and Lovely Molly does an excellent job of weaving the different meanings of haunting together into a story that communicates both lingering evil and very real trauma and personal disintegration. It doesn't rely on cheap jump scares - no distorted figures in white jumping into frame here - just careful background details, little noises, objects framed in a certain way, all of which tell you why it is bad that Molly is back in this place, because it has always been a bad place for her and whatever hurt her as a child is still here. Death didn't shorten its reach. And then as things get worse, its escalation is observed in short, sharp intrusions of evil and madness into the world. We are given everything we need if we pay attention, and so the half-open closet door, the thud of hooves, the mysterious camcorder footage, all of it comes together into one terrible truth, finally embraced. It's devastating.

10. The Blair Witch Project

I managed to dodge the whole viral "these people really went missing" publicity campaign, because my first exposure to this movie was a picture in some magazine, showing the cast and crew celebrating getting into a film festival. So I knew it was fiction from go, but that did not matter, because the premise was so neatly encapsulated - these people mysteriously disappeared while making a movie, and now we've found their footage - and the way it was presented, as raw information, just completely hooked me. It was like nothing else I'd ever seen. It's easy to pooh-pooh found-footage horror since the Paranormal Activity franchise made them a huge moneymaker, but there's something really gripping about having all of the little tricks and strategies you use to keep yourself comfortable in a scary movie stripped away from you, and one of the strengths of this movie is uncertainty - it's not really clear if what you're seeing is due to the supernatural or just a portrait of the psychological disintegration of three students lost in the woods, utterly out of their depth. It stays this way for quite awhile, which gives it sort of a Shackleton Expedition snuff-film feel, like you're witnessing a preventable tragedy. But then in the last act it drops new information on you, and before you're really given a chance to collate everything, you're hit with a lot of really cryptic imagery and it's only after you stop to put the whole thing together that the full implications come crashing in on you. I must have seen it five or six times in the theater, and the final image of Mike, standing in the basement, still resonates with me, inexplicable but terrible.

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