Monday, October 5, 2015

Coming Soon, To, Well, This Place Right Here

I apologize for the quiet of late - being that this is a hobby, it's one of the first things to get thrown under the bus when other demands on my time become onerous, and between work, and Wes Craven's untimely death (right when I was getting ready to pick apart some of his biggest contributions to horror film) and my annual three or four days sick in bed and work being a bear, this thing of mine has been spending more time getting thrown under the bus than an extra in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Which is not to say that I haven't been doing anything. In fact, I'm finally writing up my notes on the beginning of the most ambitious thing I've done here yet (not that that's saying much, but still) - I'm planning a three-part retrospective of the Hellraiser films, all nine of them. I've watched the first three and am in the process of writing the post. It's taking me longer because I'm covering three films instead of one and today was the first time in awhile I've been able to devote any time at all to it, but it's happening.

I'm going to watch all nine of them and share my thoughts about each in turn and what it means as part of a larger narrative, as well as a case study of the problems of franchising that isn't me copping out halfway through film 4 like my take on the Saw films was. Given that the ninth film, Hellraiser: Revelations, was a found-footage quickie made on a shoestring to keep the rights from expiring, I can't imagine it's going to be a breathless paean to the series' quality. In fact (spoiler!), they kind of start sucking immediately after the first film. But I have tremendous respect and affection for the first one, so this is happening.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Well, This Is Awkward

So in planning what was supposed to be this week's posts for this thing I write right here, I planned a commentary on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, having watched the comprehensive documentary about them, Never Sleep Again. It's a good cautionary tale about the pitfalls of franchising, neatly illustrating many of the things I described as problems when I used the Saw films as an example. Needless to say, I am not very complimentary in my notes.

And then I decided, since I was already thinking about the Nightmare on Elm Street films, that it might be time to revisit Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which I found sort of dull when I originally saw it a year or two after it came out. And I can't honestly say I did a complete reversal on it.

I planned all of this, and the day before I planned to post the piece based on Never Sleep Again, Wes Craven passed away.

So now...doesn't feel like the time to criticize films he made. Wes Craven made some really important films, and it feels a little unseemly to, now of all times, pick apart stuff he did. So that will be for a later week, after some time has passed. All I'll say right now is that it's a damn shame that nobody since him has seemed to know what to do with the ideas in the first Nightmare film, New Nightmare was a great idea that was hamstrung from reaching its full potential by what were probably commercial considerations, I really need to watch Last House on the Left one of these days, and Scream is one of the few slasher films I really like. R.I.P.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Monsters: Dark Continent: Welcome To The Occupation

(As a heads-up, this one gets a bit spoilery.)

This one’s going to be a bit different from most of my posts. See, usually when I write something up, I’m working from notes that I jotted down immediately after watching the movie. Just enough to capture what I see as the important points before they slip my mind, and then I flesh them out into a post anywhere from 3 to 6 days later depending on my schedule. This one, though, I’m doing completely off the top of my head, two days after watching it, not so much because I don’t need the notes as because it won’t quite get out of my brain. I didn’t originally plan to watch it with a writeup in mind, but it won’t get out of my head.

Whatever I was expecting out of Monsters: Dark Continent as a sequel to Monsters, it sure as shit wasn’t this. And I’m still not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s been awhile since a movie left me this unsettled.

Monsters was the story of a world in which the crash-landing of a deep-space probe returning to Earth ended up infesting Mexico with alien life forms, none of which seem to be intelligent. Some of them were dangerous, and there were deaths. So life went on, much as always, only we built an even larger wall on the U.S./Mexico border, and Mexico is divided by the alien-infested “Infected Zone.” Two people - stranded in Mexico by bad luck and bad decisions - have to make their way north to the border before the U.S. starts carpet-bombing the shit out of Mexico to stop the infestation, and this means making their way through the Infected Zone.

Now, it’s ten years later, and the monsters are just as much - if not more - a fact of the world as they were before. They’ve spread, because apparently carpet-bombing Ground Zero didn’t do jack shit. So we’re...still carpet-bombing them, and the story has shifted to the Middle East, where they’re all over the deserts. And we meet Michael, Frankie, Karl, and Shaun, four friends who have grown up rough in Detroit and enlisted in the military because they really wanted to get the fuck out of Detroit and the fates that surely awaited them there. We meet them on their last day in Detroit before they ship out.

They’re going to go kill monsters.

At least, this is what they think. What they discover is that monsters are few and far between, and life in the occupied zone is much like war always is - long stretches of tedium interrupted by moments of pants-shitting terror, courtesy of the local insurgents. Basically, these are people sick and tired of American bombs missing the mark and flattening villages and killing families in their futile quest to wipe out the literal herds of alien creatures roaming the desert. The real danger here isn’t mammoth Lovecraftian horrors, it’s IEDs and sniper fire and the smoldering hostility of a people who never asked for the armies to come in the first place. I was afraid from the trailers that this would be an ooh-rah action film where badass soldiers mow down herds of aliens, utterly missing the point of the first film, but that wasn’t the case at all. Just as in the first film, the monsters aren’t really the point, nor is the point necessarily how life and people have changed since the monsters came. It’s that really, the presence of monsters doesn’t change things all that much at all.

But the first film was hopeful, ultimately about connection and understanding. I’ve glibly described it to people as “Before Sunrise with giant alien beasts” and though that’s definitely a smartassed take on it, it’s not really wrong. This film, as befits its change of locale, is unremittingly bleak. Our four protagonists aren’t unsympathetic, but they’re not not unsympathetic either. They’re crude and aggressive, guys from a rough neighborhood who have been trained up into killers. They spend their last night snorting coke, drinking, smoking weed, and fucking strippers. They go to a dogfight with an ugly twist - a pitbull versus a small alien. It’s relentlessly ugly and ends with both animals dead, a long unblinking shot on the bloodied corpses, dead for no good reason. This is the world they think they are leaving behind. When they get to Camp Renegade, their base of operations, Sergeants Forrest and Prater explain the situation. They’re going to be spending more time patrolling the towns and trying to root out insurgents and dodge IEDs than they are taking down monsters. And then the mission comes, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one that takes them into heavily monster-infested territory to find out what happened to a patrol that hasn’t reported back.

And it’s this point, as you might expect, as everything spirals into nightmare, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and soon enough, we’re almost inhabiting a nightmare version of the first film - two people wandering through a foreign landscape, among suspicious or openly hostile locals, dodging humans and monsters alike in search of home and some sort of answer. But just as the two people in the first film are drawn closer together by their journey, the two men here are driven further and further apart - from each other, and from their essential humanity, in the service of survival and a mission brief that becomes, as things continue, simultaneously the least important thing facing them and the only sure anchor to certainty they have. And instead of being witnesses to death and horror, they are complicit agents in death and horror. They are the ones leaving bodies behind, not so much the monsters. It’s a static film, with lots of voice overs and long closeups and long vista shots. It’s long stretches of nothing partitioned by moments of blood, fire, and panic. It is corpses upon corpses, the wreckage of our good intentions. And always, the monsters roar in the background, and the jets thunder, and the fire rolls over the dunes, and this dark reflection of the first film leaves me shaken at its unrelenting grimness, at the way nothing is spared. This is just how the world is now, and you are in it. You are bathing in ashes and death, and that will never change.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Exorcist: Iconography and Iconoclasm

I have a confession to make: I have never seen The Exorcist before now.

I know, I know, it’s one of those “what do you mean you haven’t seen it?” movies. It’s so indelibly embedded in popular culture that it’d almost take a conscious act of avoidance to not see it. You’d have to work at that shit. And yet, here we are. I read the novel on which it was based when I was younger (probably too young, come to think of it), so it’s not like I’m totally unfamiliar with the story, it just always fell into that category of “oh yeah, I should watch that someday.” For better or worse, it’s part of the canon, and sometimes when things are part of the canon, it’s harder to muster the enthusiasm for them that you can for newer, more potentially surprising material. But in the process of writing my last post on Asmodexia, I started thinking about my general experiences with demonic possession movies (mostly positive, all told), and part of that was “oh shit, I’ve never seen The Exorcist.” It seemed like it was time.

If by some chance you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of actress Chris MacNeil and her preteen daughter Regan. Chris is in Washington DC shooting some sort of student-protest movie that has her, as a teacher, exhorting students to “change the system from within,” and it’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. The director’s a drunken prick named Burke Dennings, and Chris juggles his lack of boundaries, planning something nice for Regan’s upcoming birthday, and trying to reach Regan’s perpetually absent father. But it’s a pretty sweet gig otherwise - they have a nice house in Georgetown, servants, a driver, it’s all going well otherwise. Until Regan gets sick - fever, nausea, muscle spasms...

...coming downstairs in the middle of a party, telling one of the guests “you’re going to die up there” and then peeing on the rug.

No prizes for guessing what’s happening to Regan, because this film laid the blueprint for an entire subgenre the way Night of the Living Dead did for zombie films. This is where the connection between possession and illness began, the priest grappling with the strength of his faith, the idea that the demon knows everyone’s darkest secrets. And for me, watching it for the first time, this was a bit of a problem. It’s a difficult film to discuss, because it’s so part and parcel of everything that’s come after it. Pretty much any standard story beat we associate with demonic possession movies really began here, and for me at least, that took the bite out of the film. Horror, I think, works best in terms of the unknown, or the process of making the unknown known, and The Exorcist is so well-known that, at least for me, it has very few surprises left. Every moment from this film has become a classic moment - Regan’s head twisting all the way around, Regan puking all over the priest, Regan screaming “your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, it’s all familiar even to someone who hasn’t actually seen the film because it’s been referenced and parodied and emulated over and over and over again. It’s so much a part of our consciousness that there aren’t that many mysteries left. There’s no unknown to fear. So I came away from it feeling kind of cold on the whole experience. Nothing I saw really grabbed me (except maybe Dennings’ casual assholery or the tone-deafness of the film in which Chris is starring) or invested me because I knew what was coming and how it was going to turn out. It’s yielded up all its mystery to the culture, and for me at least that robbed the film of a lot of its power. Now that it’s an icon, it doesn’t shock anymore. It is a monument to itself, instead of itself, if that makes sense. That said, it didn’t end up one of the most successful and critically recognized horror films ever made for no reason - I’m just saying that for whatever reason, the qualities that have brought it so much attention didn’t, for me, survive its induction into the collective pop culture consciousness. 

So what are those qualities? If I wasn’t moved by the film itself, I can still at least try to understand what gives it the power that it wielded over so many viewers over the decades. I think a lot of it is in the pacing. As horror films go, The Exorcist is…surprisingly deliberate, almost meditative, for its first half. I think this was effective because it makes the events of the back half of the film all the more shocking for the naive viewer. There are little hints here and there that things are not right - we open on an archeological dig in Iraq, where a weary-looking man (Father Merrin, the titular exorcist) has located a sinister-looking idol. Back in DC, a statue of the Virgin Mary is found obscenely vandalized. No explanation is offered to connect them, either to each other or to the main story. It’s just there, lurking in the background, this sense that something is wrong. Quiet scenes with Father Damien Karras - a priest/psychiatrist called in to consult on Regan’s case - smash cut to noisy subway trains rushing toward the camera, as if Karras doesn’t know what’s coming for him. Merrin’s discovery of the idol is soundtracked with snarling dogs fighting off-camera, suggesting awful violence contained by the idol’s implacable stillness. As much as the main story seems like the plot to a drama about a woman and her daughter trying to make it without a man in the house (this was 1973, after all) or a romantic comedy about an actress and single mother trying to find love, these small touches curdle the edges of the film with unease until the other shoe drops.

And it’s how the other shoe drops that I think is the other important component to this film’s success, Given that I have to talk about this film in the context of the time in which it was made, what I think made it so powerful then was its iconoclasm - few things are sacred in this film. Chris MacNeil is a single mother - wealthy and famous, yes, but still a single mother during a time well before divorce was considered appropriate subject matter in films - and Regan doesn’t seem especially precocious or willful as we would expect a child (especially one from a “broken home”) in film to be. She’s just a kid, and kids have imaginary friends and play with Ouija boards and we think nothing of it. She doesn’t call attention to herself. There’s no love interest (Dennings is highly unsympathetic by any measure), and our other major figures of authority - Fathers Karras and Merrin - are frail, vulnerable men, wracked by illness and doubt. In fact, men in this film don’t really come off too well in general. They’re largely ineffectual at best and selfish and venal at worst, not a traditional hero in the bunch.

Things really start to spin up with the vandalized statue in the church, a briefly-glimpsed but still pretty startling act of blasphemy to put on screen, and this begins a series of events that ultimately escalates to a 12-year-old girl raping herself with a crucifix, screaming obscenities, and vomiting on priests. Contrast this with the graphic suffering Regan experiences during a battery of medical tests and her obvious physical decline and we’re left with a film that has a casual disregard for rules about the sanctity of religion, childhood, and traditional family values. The law (as represented by the single detective) cannot make it right, mothers are on their own and cannot keep their children from suffering, priests cannot stop evil except through the costliest, most desperate measures, and children say and do horrible, horrible things to themselves and other people. This must have been a lot to take in when this film first aired, in what was still a fairly conservative climate. There must have been a sense that all bets were off, and anything could happen next, and it’s that casual disregard for taboo that I think drives home what the pacing sets up - you are lulled into a false sense of security, and then shit goes sideways to a degree with scant precedent up to that point. It’s an approach that would serve horror films made during the 1970s well, and I think it’s sorely missed today. I have to wonder if that sort of iconoclasm is worth it, though, if it only serves to desiccate the film that indulges it into an icon without its power and vitality intact.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Asmodexia: Revelations

Demonic possession movies do a good, solid line as horror films go. They’re sort of the utility players, never really falling out of favor but never really dominating the slate in any given year. I don’t know that I’m a sucker for them as a type, but I have to admit, I’ve liked a lot of the ones I’ve seen since I started writing this thing, and The Last Exorcism and Ahi Va El Diablo come immediately to mind as two of my favorite horror films. There’s often a real disease or illness subtext to them - The Rite presented us with possession as chronic illness, The Taking of Deborah Logan presented it as degenerative illness, and in most possession films, it ends up being the real cause behind what initially seems to be some sort of mental or physical malady. I guess this is appropriate since one of the earliest explanations for what we now call mental illness was possession by evil spirits. It’s a link forged in history and culture.

So the brief for Asmodexia suggests that its hook is possession as communicable illness. At first I was leery, because that could end up being yet another hackneyed riff on zombie films, of which I am most definitely tired. Much to my delight, it is not that at all. It’s a slow, careful crawl toward dread and the horror of revelation.

The film opens with closeups on a VCR, a videotape marked “Luna,” footage of a mysteriously traumatic childbirth, and a man screaming to a terrified woman, forcing her to look at the child who has just been born. It isn’t at all clear what has just happened, and then we flash-forward to 15 years later. Which, at first, made me sigh, because I am tired of pointless flashback-and-“years later” constructions.

Except that it’s “15 years later...3 days before the resurrection.” Huh.

The body of the film is three basic stories - an old man (the one from the flashback) and his granddaughter, a woman confined to a mental hospital, and two police officers investigating a series of mysterious deaths. All of them take place in and around Barcelona while, in the background, strange things are happening. It’s an unseasonably hot December, it’s coming up on the end of the Mayan calendar, Christian sects throughout Spain are engaging in all kinds of ritualistic behavior, and all over the country, more and more people are exhibiting the signs of what anyone else would call demonic possession. It’s apocalyptic in every sense of the word - the old man and his granddaughter wander from place to place, performing exorcisms as they go, almost like plague doctors treating an epidemic. The woman in the hospital watches as the order of the hospital crumbles around her as more and more of the patients succumb to the supernatural infection. The detectives, always one step behind the old man and his granddaughter, are trying to figure out what the pattern is behind these deaths, just one step behind the chaos beginning to embrace the world. Everything is falling apart.

It’s initially a difficult sell - the structure is clear enough, but the film starts very slowly and is at first a little hard to follow. It’s very elliptical, mostly made up of long, static shots with little interrupting them, or conversations between two people in isolation from everything else. These scenes are broken up largely with dissolves, so it feels like we’re shifting between three different movies without necessarily there being a lot of continuity from moment to moment. It takes a little bit to locate everyone in the story, so the first act especially feels like it jumps around a lot, especially given how little context it has at first with the opening flashback. There’s also sort of an overuse of dramatic music stings and ominous ambient music over what seem like otherwise innocuous scenes - I get that the filmmakers are trying to create an atmosphere of unease, but it’s a little ham-handed in places, and doesn’t always feel like the sound is being contrasted with the image in a meaningful way.

But none of that is really, ultimately, that much of a problem because this is a film that rewards patience and careful attention. It’s not at all immediately apparent how everything and everyone fits together, and so the beginning of the film is a little confusing, but things do cohere - there are connections between the people in these three storylines, and they aren’t always what or how you’d think. Really, the film is a process of revelation - what these people have in common, what they are in the process of doing, what has happened in the past, and what is happening now. It would be a cliché to say that nothing is what it seems, but the appeal of this film is the way it goes about fitting all the pieces together. Even for a movie about possession, everything’s a bit off around the edges, like it’s not following the demonic-possession playbook exactly, and what may seem like quirks at first begin to make sense the longer you watch. The tableaux broken up by dissolves, the weird clashes between sound and image, and a story that seems a little off on the details all contribute to this feeling of dreamlike wrongness. It isn’t really until the last 15 minutes or so that the full implications of everything you’ve seen really begin to click into place, and so the cold, sick, sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach is a strong payoff of everything that came before. It’s the slowest and quietest and coldest of burns. I’ve talked before about the “horror of revelation,” that moment when the awful truth begins to make sense and comprehension is terrifying, and this film is an excellent example of that horror at work.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Nightbreed (Director’s Cut): Where The Wild Things Are

Monsters are, undoubtedly, central to horror film, as the antagonists of some of the earliest and purest examples of the form. We’re afraid of the Other, of what’s in the dark, of what we don’t understand, so that’s one very direct route of the nightmare center of the brain. That said, if monsters are the oldest trirck in the book, the question of who the monsters really are in is at least the second-oldest. Sympathy for the putative “monster” of the film goes all the way back to Frankenstein, and the presentation of the so-called “good guys” as somehow even worse monsters still show up even today in films like 28 Days Later and The Devil’s Rejects. It’s one of the most basic questions we can ask: What makes something a monster?

Nightbreed is an overly ambitious attempt to examine the concepts of humanity and monstrosity, and its reach exceeds its grasp.

It is largely the story of Aaron Boone, a troubled young man who suffers from nightmares in which he runs from unseen pursuers toward an overgrown cemetary, where he is beckoned by bizarre-looking creatures. Horned and spined things who run alongside him but don’t appear to be the ones chasing him. Apprently, this is a recurring thing for Boone, to the point that he’s developed an elaborate mythology around these nightmares, claiming that they concern a legendary city of monsters, an underground world called Midian. His girlfriend Lori suggests he contact his therapist, Dr. Philip Decker, about these dreams, and Decker also thinks it would be a good idea.

You see, Aaron Boone apparently has a tendency toward blackouts, and as it transpires, his last blackout coincided with the murder of an entire family. 

So here we have our first setup - Boone dreams of monsters, and may be a monster himself. Decker wants to help Boone get better, but as becomes apparent very quickly, Decker has an agenda of his own. as psychiatrists in horror films often do. And really, the strongest through-line in this film is the relationship between Boone and Decker, and Decker’s cool, unflappable demeanor provides a nice counterpoint to Boone’s more rough-hewn personality and his connection to monsters. It’s a conflict between the old ways and the modern rationality that seeks to erase it in the name of improvement. And if that were the primary conflict here - modern medicine versus ancient mysticism, we’d have a pretty good movie. But it’s just one piece of many.

Boone versus Decker would be a good movie, the search for Midian would be a good movie, one about one young man’s attempt to reconcile the pull of myth with the real-world implications of his obsession. Hell, even Boone’s relationship with Lori would be a good movie - how much do you worry when the man you love keeps talking about some bizarre inner world he has and people keep dying? - but all of these things end up crammed together in a single film, and as a result, it especially becomes a bit of a mess in the back half. Yes, as it turns out, Midian is a real place, and Boone and Decker are of two minds about what that means. So there’s one conflict, but there’s also Boone exploring Midian, getting to know its inhabitants, who, although monstrous in the sense that they are bizarre-looking, have very human motivations and feelings and desires and mannerisms, which makes them feel less alien than just exercises in makeup effects, for the most part. And then we have Lori looking for Boone when he goes missing, so now we have to divide our time between Boone exploring Midian, Lori looking for Boone, and Decker trying to track down Midian with the aid of law enforcement, which ends up as these storylines all converge, becoming confusing if not downright incoherent in places. 

Once the police get involved on a large scale, the film also turns downright cartoonish in its portrayal of humans as well as monsters. - The local police department are a parody of gun-toting yahoo masculinity, and so the final act of the movie discards any sense of horror or fright or menace to basically become a B-grade action flick with a lot of elaborate makeup effects. That this is still the case in the director’s cut (which adds about 45 minutes back into the film) suggests that it was a problem all along.  At that point, it’s not horrifying, it’s not scary, it’s just action with a different set of rules, and it’s sort of a jarring shift in tone from the first, and even to some extent second act of the film. It’s also not clear how Lori fits in other than she loves Boone and wants him back - at no point does she seem utterly overwhelmed by the monstrosity around her, her entire point in the back half of the film seems to be to just keep telling Boone she loves him as some kind of remedy for everything else, and there’s little attention paid to how she must feel about trying to reconcile the Boone she knew with what he becomes over the course over the movie. She just sort of stands next to him and looks up at him adoringly. 

The problem of ambition and overreach extends to practical aspects of the movie as well. Because it’s a film about monsters, there are a lot of practical makeup effects, and because this film was made in 1990, the effects aren’t espeically believable. It’s really tough to do monster makeup believably, even today and under the best of circumstances and there are so many monsters in this movie that quantity compromises quality. Some of them might have been effective at the time but just haven’t aged well, but some were downright silly even then. Again, this leads to a sharp contrast between the first part of the film, where there’s a real sense of menace, and the second, which verges on bloody slapstick, everyone a caricature.

The strength of creator Clive Barker’s work in written fiction is the way it conveys the idea that there is something mysterious and ancient underneath the everyday world. It’s the idea that just around the corner or behind that door or in a clearing somewhere in the wilderness, the ruins of long-forgotten civilizations and the battlefields of forgotten arcane wars and the keepers of long-forgotten stories and secrets are hiding in plain sight, and our world is basically just a polite, mundane skin over something roiling and ancient and incomprehensible. But telling those stories on the screen requires a lot that his films have pretty much never been given, in terms of time and, frankly, budget (the adaptation of his Lord of Illusions suffers many of the same problems of this film, albeit at a smaller scale). And in some ways, they work best as smaller stories with glimpses into larger realms - Hellraiser (probably the most effective adaptation of his work) is a very contained story about one intrusion of the supernatural into a family’s life. When it’s grounded in the “normal” and we just get peeks into the terror beyond, that’s when it works well. When the terror beyond is the focus and laid out for display, as here, it gives too much away, and then making the whole “humanity are the real monsters” point so blatantly on-the-nose doesn’t help either.

In its attempt to make monsters more human and humanity more monstrous, the depth and feeling of the film suffers and nobody comes off as anything so much as props, exercises in effects and cliche. Old monster movies are objects of derision for the shoddiness of their work, visible zippers on costumes giving the game away. Here, you can see the zippers on the monsters and the people alike.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Beyond The Black Rainbow: Journey To The Center Of The Mind

I think, sometimes, that modern horror film tends to give short shrift to aesthetics. Or, at least, it tends to find one or two that work and beat them into the ground, treating it not as something artistic, used to evoke mood, but as a component, like masked killers or little girls with lank black hair or ghosts whose features distort as a placeholder, as something that says “here, you should be scared now.” I like films that show me the world in ways I’ve never seen it before, and you’d think that’d be something embraced by an ostensibly transgressive genre of film, but like I pointed out recently, horror (or at least some strains of it) are actually deeply conservative. That’s not just something that applies to morality, but also to aesthetics. So when a film goes balls-out to show me something I’ve never seen before, or commits so strongly to an established aesthetic that it becomes something else, I will be right fucking there.

As in the case of Beyond The Black Rainbow, which is an absolutely striking evocation of a particular time, place, and aesthetic. This is less a film you watch than a film in which you immerse yourself.

We open on a title card that says simply “1983.” And then we’re treated to what appears to be a circa-1970s advertisement for the Arboria Institute, a research institute devoted to helping people fully self-actualize through a combination of “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting.” The narrator, Dr. Mercurio Arboria, seems kindly, sort of Timothy Leary by way of Carl Rogers. He’s interested in helping you become your best self, and the Arboria Institute - with its state of the art facility and “award-winning gardens,” is here for just that.

And then we’re introduced to Dr. Barry Nyle, the Institute’s head of research, as he visits with a young woman named Elena. She lives in a featureless white room, and she’s escorted by a stern-looking nurse, and Nyle meets with her through a wall of thick glass. The “award-winning gardens” and warm, reassuring tones of Dr. Arboria are nowhere to be found. It’s just him, and her, and the blank, cold, unfeeling walls.

Elena is apparently very special, and Dr. Nyle has plans for her.

Truth be told, there is very little story to this film, just a series of scenes and images and impressions that we put together to infer a series of events, and not everything is explained. Takes are long and deliberate (or strobelight quick - this is not a good film for people who are vulnerable to seizures), the dialogue (what little there is) is highly elliptical. It’s hard to get more “show, don’t tell” than this. 

And “show” is the key here, because the setting, the music, the colors, the camera work, These are what tell the story. The Arboria Institute is futuristic, for a particular vision of the future common to the 70s and 80s, and the way the sleek, glossy 80s starship interiors of the Arboria Institute clash with the 70s-era hippie-futurist optimism of the introductory video suggest that Nyle has taken the Institute in a very different direction from its original intent. In fact, the Institute seems almost deserted - you get the sense that it really is just the people we see, continuing work long since abandoned. There’s Nyle, Elena, and the nurse, for the most part. This is not a busy place. What actually happens is pretty minimal - Elena appears to have some sort of extrasensory ability, and Nyle has an agenda with regards to that ability. Elena wants to escape the Institute, and Nyle wants to keep here there.

That’s...pretty much the whole plot, but it’s how we learn the specifics of each of these that make up the experience of the film. There’s something not quite right with Nyle, this is apparent almost right after we meet him, but what exactly is wrong with him is only gradually revealed through his interactions with others and a stark, nightmarish flashback that unpacks a lot in just a few minutes. Elena does appear to be gifted somehow, but we don’t realize exactly how powerful she is until something really bloody happens impressionistically out of focus behind her. Nyle’s agenda is revealed in a rapid-fire series of images that don’t stay on the screen long enough to really register, but leave us with an awful, unsettling feeling afterward, like getting a glimpse into an alien mind. Basically, the filmmakers decided to use Stanley Kubrick’s art direction from 2001 to create a tone poem about the dangers of journeying into the center of the mind and prying open the third eye, or perhaps a cinematic artifact, a long-lost 80s science fiction film that straddles the lines between glossy futurism, psychedelia, and body horror.

The whole thing is strikingly shot, with bold uses of color - vivid reds and whites and reflective blacks mark what we see of the Institute initially, and so this palette becomes sort of our visual baseline, and departures from it - to Nyle’s home, to the parts of the Institute outside of where Elena lives, to the world outside - create sort of a journey, reinforcing the idea that Elena is escaping something insular and artificial, as well as telling the story of what the Institute must once have been like. You get the sense that this is something at its end, a dying thing kept barely alive for one purpose, and what that purpose is and what it has taken to achieve it are only hinted at, as are the fates of the story’s major players - what has happened to Arboria, what Nyle has become, what the future holds for Elena. This is not a movie that overexplains, or fills in backstory. This is a film that asks you to behold it, to feel it, and let its strange trip wash over you.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I Am A Ghost: Samsara

samsara (noun)

1. Buddhism. the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature.
2. Hinduism. the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject.

I’m sort of surprised this never occurred to me before, because it’s hardly a revelation - if we consider especially the Buddhist idea of samsara, the idea that suffering is the product of attachment to earthly things, well, you’re basically talking about ghosts at that point too, aren’t you? Films dealing with ghosts and hauntings talk all the time about the spirit being unable to let go of something from their life. Attachment to worldly things is the cause of suffering, and ghosts, by their definition, suffer. They are trapped between. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto something everyone else already knows here. 

But anyway, I am here to talk about I Am A Ghost, which is an impressionistic, understated story of one person’s attempt to free themselves of earthly suffering, experienced as, essentially, an endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths.

The film begins with an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem - “One need not be a Chamber / to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The Brain has Corridors / surpassing Material Place”, which neatly summarizes the central elements of the film in a few lines, but I’ll get to that in a bit. This and the title card are followed by a series of static shots of a large, old house, accompanied by an underlying ambient hum, which establishes a certain tension. The emptiness is tangible and pregnant with its own disruption. You wait, and wait, and wait for something to happen. Something has to happen any second now, to break the absolute emptiness and stillness.

When it is broken, it is not by anything horrifying, it is broken by Emily, who is a prim young woman in a white dress reminiscent of an earlier, more modest time. Emily goes about her day - we meet her making her breakfast, as the radio plays old, old news reports and music, she tidies up, goes grocery shopping, and the next day she wakes up with a yawn to do it over and over again, the exact same actions, the exact same way, slotted in a different order. Even within this sort of iterative, permutated Groundhog Day, it soon becomes clear that something is a little off - the oddly menacing way she raises her butter knife at the breakfast table, throwing up at the bathroom sink, her hand bleeding and bandaged.

The thumps and groans coming from upstairs, the voices calling her name.

As it becomes clear, this house, and the things that happen within it, are the limits of Emily’s life, and they occur and reoccur in different orders and variations, one or two new things showing up gradually. Like the poem says, there’s a person, a house, and a mind. Like I keep restating in most of my reviews of haunted-house stories, houses can be haunted, and so can people. Eventually, we begin to discover why this is the case, as Emily begins talking to an unseen woman named Sylvia, and what has been a series of statements and restatements starts to take on new value as we begin to see those familiar scenes from unfamiliar angles, as Emily begins to talk, as we get new pieces to fit into the puzzle, as the picture slowly becomes clearer. Emily is in this house, and there’s something very special about Emily in this house, the way she inhabits its rooms, and as we come to discover, something equally special about Emily’s mind. 

The pacing is interesting - long takes, very understated music and little to no dialogue for the first half of the film, and it’s just the same collection of scenes over and over again, in different rhythms, with variations in order, the occasional new scene inserted. It’s a very artificial approach, but it pays off, because the early tension of the opening dissipates under this relative familiarity, the same things over and over again, and it is only as we first get new bits of information introduced that we started to feel uneasy again. It has the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security and as we find out more about Emily, as the truth is revealed, the tension comes back with a vengeance as the place that has become so familiar is made threatening again by the new revelations, and this makes the endgame a much different experience from the rest of the movie. Just as you begin to wonder whether or not this is actually a horror movie, it kicks in with an almost Lynchian purity and primitiveness. This big, old house suddenly becomes claustrophobic because there really is nowhere to run, for the characters or the audience.

The filmmakers do a lot with very little - the film is almost entirely carried by a single actress, it’s set almost entirely in a single location, and so shot composition and editing (along with the tasteful deployment of split-screen and some unobtrusive effects) do most of the heavy lifting instead of gratuitous musical stings and gore and a lot of screaming. The majority of the film gets over on mood and setting alone, and so when it does branch out into something less restrained, it’s almost cathartic in its intensity. In lesser hands, its premise would have been a complete shambles, the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes so hard they end up in someone else’s eye sockets, but by staying focused and presenting us with just what we need to know to understand what’s happening, it brings it into clarity.

It’s almost a horror film as haiku, distilled to its essential elements to tell the story of one woman’s attempt to break the cycles associated with memory and denial and flight from the truth. Houses are haunted, people are haunted, and when we hold onto something because we don’t want to let it go, or to let it free, we suffer. And when we suffer, we can’t move on. Samsara is the wheel of suffering borne of attachment to earthly things, and until Emily reconciles her earthly attachments, she cannot be free of suffering. Even in the end, which deftly avoids cliché, it isn’t made clear whether or not she truly is freed at all.

Unvailable on Netflix

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Drownsman: Mean Girls

For all of the moral panic surrounding them, slasher films are a deeply conservative expression of the horror genre - they are worlds in which any misstep, from a rashly-made decision to drinking to defying authority to mocking traditional values to extramarital sex, tends to be rewarded by death of varying degrees of violence and ickiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the idea of the Final Girl. In most slasher movies, women make up a decent chunk of the victims. Maybe not all, but most, and it’s typical for the upstanding, virtuous, oh-let’s-just-say-it-she’s-a-virgin  woman in the bunch to be the one who survives and even turns the tables on the antagonist. So the hot take is that women are victims, unless they are “pure,” in which case they aren’t. On top of everything else that might give one pause about slasher films, that the women in them are defined almost entirely by their relationship to men (and their value in patriarchal terms) might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s a problem.

The Drownsman is interesting, insofar as it’s a story driven almost entirely by women, in a genre where that’s hardly typical. Unfortunately, this would probably mean more if their portrayals weren’t so utterly unsympathetic and the story they inhabit so transparently formulaic.

It begins at the end of another movie, - one about a serial killer named Sebastian, who ritually drowns his victims, and the Final Girl who defeats him…or so she thinks. Black screen, panicked breathing, open to a woman lying in a crawlspace terrified as a hulking figure drags her toward a tub. She begs him not to, and when he puts her in the tub, she catches him off-guard by kissing him, then stabbing him with a shard of glass. You know, like women do. But ah, there’s a twist - when she submerges him in the tub as she stabs him, he...vanishes. Gone. It’s just her in the tub. Screams and smash to black.

Then, we flash forward to a different movie, this one, about a young woman named Madison and her three best friends, one of whom, Hannah, is engaged to be married. As they’re out celebrating, Madison has an accident, and falls into the lake…

...and wakes up in some nightmare basement, with a sodden, hulking monstrosity looming over her.

Flash forward yet again to a year later, and it’s Hannah’s wedding night, and Madison - the maid of honor - is trapped helplessly in her room as rain pours down outside. She’s developed a profound fear of water and so, afraid of leaving the house, misses the wedding. Hannah is furious, because God it’s been a whole year and can't she just be over it by now. Never mind that she takes all of her fluids intravenously because she can’t even drink a glass of water, this is Hannah’s night. Madison’s friends - Hannah, Kobie, and Lauren - decide to stage what they think of as an intervention, because as far as they’re concerned, Madison just needs someone to humor her crazy shit for a second and everything will be fine again. The intervention takes the form of sort of a séance-meets-exorcism-meets-immersion therapy, using a woman who has experience contacting the dead, and because we are dealing with the ghost of a serial killer who has a thing for water, shit goes all kinds of wrong from there in a real hurry.

And this is the first problem with the movie - her friends are not just unbelieving, they’re unsupportive to the point of utter callousness. Hannah sets up this “intervention” with the help of a medium, but expects…and even insists…that it be a hoax, a going through of the motions and she’s immediately nasty and dismissive to the medium when she tries to insist otherwise. This goes beyond being a bad friend into psychological cruelty. Lauren blithely refers to Madison as “our crazy friend” and there’s no appearance of any sympathy or goodwill from any of them. If these are her best friends, it’s a toxic fucking relationship.

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to connect emotionally with any of these people (even Madison seems written more as a cringing victim than anything else - and though that isn’t necessarily bad as a way of demonstrating just how traumatic an encounter with the supernatural would be, it makes it hard to really get on her character’s side). This isn’t really a movie about the toll mental illness can take on the friends and loved ones of the sufferer, and though that could be a good movie (The Taking Of Deborah Logan almost gets there sometimes...almost), this film is by no means equipped or inclined to go down that path, so what we have instead is a bunch of really shitty people that we’re supposed to believe are Madison’s friends because they keep saying so, rather than showing it. Contrast this with the complicated-but-believable relationship between the two sisters in Absentia, for example. As a result, we pretty much know right away that this is going to be a movie in which these shitty people get picked off by a vengeful ghost one by one, and that’s exactly what we get. No real surprises to be had on that front, and so the opportunity to feel bad for these people as they die, one by one, is diminished because they’re people who dismissed forces they didn’t understand and who therefore deserve their fate. We’re just marking time between kills at that point.

The Drownsman is, however, notable for being pretty much entirely about and concerning women, though - the antagonist is male, and there’s maybe one secondary male character and, I think, one other speaking part for a man total. Hannah’s fiancée/husband never shows up, and isn’t even really mentioned even when it’s established Hannah’s getting married. Were it not for the bad guy, this film would almost past the Bechdel Test, which is worth noting. But that’s…about it. Because in every other way, it’s really rote. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, that is, it sounds like exposition, not how people actually talk, and the acting is uniformly just wooden enough to highlight the problems with what’s actually being said. The film doesn’t really pay much attention to external logic (sure, just walk in unannounced into a mental hospital in the middle of the night and say you’re there to see a patient, why not? That’s how it works, right?), or even internal logic (without spoiling much, this vengeful ghost plays by a set of rules, like all vengeful ghosts, but they only seem to apply when necessary for the plot). The antagonist is made more monstrous than strictly necessary (he doesn’t just drown women…he drowns them because he stayed in the womb for 19 months as a child and longs for the sound of his mother’s heartbeat…what the fuck?), and the whole thing ends with absolutely no attention to or respect for anything else that happened in the film. I think it’s trying for the sort of last-minute reversal that The Ring pulled off nicely, but because it occurs without context or reference to anything else that happened, it just comes up as something beyond cheap and into cinematic Calvinball territory.

It’s too bad, because its production values are pretty high, and it does have some well-done moments (Madison sitting on her bed, distraught on the night of Hannah’s wedding, the rain pouring down the window reflected onto her was a nice touch), the ghost is handled well for the majority (not entirety, but majority) of the movie, the effects are pretty good, and water is a great hook - it can go almost anywhere, it’s ubiquitous and necessary for life, and drowning, as a manner of death, is certainly less over-done that death by various and sundry sharp things. There’s almost no blood in this movie, and that’s a good thing. But all of this is in service of a story so completely by-the-numbers, assembled with so little insight into human nature, care for plausibility, or sense of anything but a constructed narrative that it undoes any goodwill engendered (ha!) by the things it does right. Ghost stories work because something unnatural and unreal is intruding on the natural and real, and nothing in this film - not the way the characters relate to each other, not the way institutions or social niceties work, nothing - feels natural or real. These are a group of women, propped up as terrible to each other, set up to be knocked down as they move from one setpiece to another, the people with which they interact having no sense of life or even existence outside of the moments they need to be in the movie to move the plot along. And so, in its own way, it reinforces the very status quo - cinematically and in terms of gender representation - that it could have just as easily subverted.

Unavailable on Netflix

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Canal: Going Deeper

One of the critical pieces of any horror film (well, any film, but let’s stick to the subject) is knowing how far you’re going to push your story - sure, it’s all about twisting the knife, raising feelings of dread or fear or disgust or anxiety or whatever, but separate from that, I think, is the sense of escalation - are you going to hinge things on one moment or incident or revelation? Are you going to present the story one way and then throw in a twist or three? Are you just going to plod along with setpiece after setpiece in what I’m coming to call the “things happen, then more things happen” school of storytelling? As things get worse for the protagonists, how much worse are they going to get? 

The Canal is a sharp, unrelenting story about perception and reality, and the way the truth is buried - literally and figuratively. The key here is unrelenting - this is a film that does not stop tightening the screws at all.

David Williams is a film archivist, and we meet up with him and his pregnant wife Alice as they are in the process of buying an old historic home in Ireland, near an old canal. They’re optimistic, happy, and excited about the future. But then, as we flash forward five years, there’s a distinct note of melancholy - David seems a little weary, a little beaten down, and it's clear that in the five years since he and Alice (and their young son Billy) bought their house some distance has grown between them. They love their son, but David spends a lot of long nights at the office, and increasingly, so is Alice. There’s one particular client with whom Alice seems to be spending a lot of time, and it’s beginning to worry David. It’s the picture of domestic discontent. He doesn’t want to believe the worst, but there it is. Into what is already a stressful life comes a new package of old, old police crime-scene footage from the early 20th century that David needs to work on restoring and preserving. It’s grim stuff - films taken at the site of a multiple murder, where a man killed his wife and children before ending his own life. Not the sort of thing a man already at odds with his own life needs to think about.

Especially when David realizes that the footage was shot in his house.

As it transpires, David and Alice’s historic home was indeed the site of a brutal murder, and the knowledge, combined with his own fears about his deteriorating relationship with Alice, begin to haunt David. It all begins with the story of a man whose marriage is failing, and plunges downward from there. There are ghosts here, and like any other good ghost story in recent memory (see also Lovely Molly, Absentia, Oculus), there’s a focus on the ways we can be haunted both by the mundane and the supernatural, and on the merging of past and present, the reliving of old events over and over again. David is obsessed with the house, David is obsessed with his increasing distance from Alice and protecting his son, and the two begin to blur. To that end, the denouement is pretty much what an observant viewer thinks it's going to be (and this really is one of the film's few shortcomings), but what’s especially noteworthy here is the trip it takes to get there. This film is not content to say “oh hey, maybe there are ghosts,” it peels back revelation on top of revelation stirring up all of the hidden muck of secret histories, letting nothing remain unburied, so that we come to realize that the real story behind the house’s past and David’s present is much, much worse than one would expect going in. Even though the ultimate outcome is more or less what we’d expect, the reasons for and implications of that outcome pack a much bigger wallop than they would otherwise. 

It helps that the film is nicely understated for the most part. It relies primarily on briefly-glimpsed things, shadowy visions, and nightmare sequences for most of the heavy lifting, along with well-executed sound design and a keen sense of shot composition that establishes relationships early on, framing things in tight boxes like the old film that provides David's initial revelations, and provides for some truly striking images. As the story progresses, the film bleeds over into David's nightmares, David's life bleeds over into the film, and the present recapitulates the past. In that sense, it reminds me to some degree of Sinister, but where that film took an interesting idea and tried to build a film around it and then build a franchise around the film at the expense of the story they were trying to tell, this film just concerns itself with telling its story, seeing it out to its logical conclusion, digging past domestic tragedy and the horrific and the supernatural into madness and nightmare and evil, leaving the viewer gasping for breath as it comes to a close.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Aaaaaargh, Technical Difficulties

So first it was a serious winter malaise, then it was several months of getting my ass kicked at work, and just as work was beginning to subside, my laptop gave up the ghost. I've got notes on The Canal to write up, and some more thoughts on franchising after watching Never Sleep Again, the documentary about the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Hopefully I'll get the computer situation figured out soon, and get back to writing soonish. Thank you for your patience, and watch The Telephone Book on Netflix. It's not a horror movie, but it's pretty fucking strange.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Digging Up The Marrow: Imitation Of Life

So on the one hand you’ve got film-as-fiction, and on the other you’ve got documentaries. One is a lie, the other is the truth (yeah, documentaries have agendas and what really is the truth anyway, but you know what I mean). In horror (not just horror, but here is where it’s been most profitable), you have the found-footage film, which ostensibly tries to employ the pretexts and filmic devices of the documentary to tell a fictional story that will hopefully feel rawer and more immediate, and maybe bypass some of the safeguards in our brain that keep us from fully engaging with a fictional story. This is all well and good, but found-footage as a narrative device is overstaying its welcome by a country mile. Whatever benefits you might derive from filming everything like it’s been shot by a handheld video camera or surveillance cameras are pretty much swallowed up by “oh Jesus, not this again.” It’s become another form of artifice, as empty a gesture as the most obvious and conventional techniques of film-as-fiction (oh shit there’s a monster behind the door aaaghhhh!).

This leads to an interesting hybrid, where fictional stories are located inside what appear to be actual documentaries, so you’re still watching a work of fiction, but one with more extensive trappings of legitimacy attached to them. It takes the “a bunch of people filming a documentary” conceit of at least 70% of all found-footage films and follows through. S&Man did this and ended up working as a really interesting commentary on the role of specific types of horror film in the lives of their audience, though not so much as an actual horror film (you cannot believe that someone would release a documentary in which they knew they were party to the activities of an actual serial killer).

Likewise, Digging Up The Marrow is an interesting attempt to reconcile the realities of horror film with the idea of actual horror, but it falls flat as a story even as it provides some interesting insights into the nature of horror film, its relationship to its audience, and its relationship to real horror.

Adam Green is an actual honest-to-goodness horror film director, responsible for such diverse fare as Hatchet, Frozen, and Spiral. The film opens as he’s going about his busy life, working on new films, a TV series, doing the convention circuit, the whole thing. He talks about how as a kid he wasn’t frightened by monsters, but fascinated by them, and how it was probably this impulse that got him into horror film...the hope that someday he’d find out that monsters were real and he’d get to meet them. Into Green’s life comes a man named William Dekker - an ex-cop who claims to have spent years investigating the existence both of actual monsters and the subterranean cities they inhabit, a network he refers to as “the Marrow.” It’s Dekker’s contention that throughout history, children born with deformities did not, as thought, die shortly after birth, but instead were guided to the Marrow, where they grew up in a world parallel to our own, beneath and alongside us in births, deaths, marriages, divorces, triumphs, and tragedies.

Green, as the sensible filmmaker he is, is pretty sure Dekker is a kook, but begins documenting his meetings with him nonetheless to see if it goes anywhere. The little boy in him wants to believe. Dekker has sketches of sighted creatures, collected news stories, even maps of potential portals to and from the Marrow, and lucky for Green, there’s one in a public cemetery not too far away.

So, of course, Green and one of his directors of photography go with Dekker to stake the place out. And there’s nothing, and more nothing, and more nothing.

Until there’s something, misshapen, right up in their faces and screaming.

The rest of the film isn’t terribly surprising - Green wants to push for even more proof, his wife and coworkers are afraid he’s becoming obsessed, Dekker’s afraid of them being found out for some reason, and digging a little into Dekker’s background reveals that it’s not really clear at all who he actually is. None of this is surprising, and honestly it all falls a little flat. It’s not dissimilar from S&Man, but that film probably worked better because it was far more naturalistic - it was less ambitious, but the added plausibility gave it an impact that Digging Up The Marrow doesn't have. Serial killers lurking among the denizens of micro-budget direct-to-video horror plays as much more likely than actual monsters discovered by someone with several notches more legitimacy.

And honestly, I think it’s the difference in Green’s role within horror film that ends up being this film’s undoing. It's supposed to be a documentary, but everyone's a little too glib and arch - everything everyone says seems to be tuned as dialogue, rather than how people actually speak, so you're very conscious that what you're watching is a product, a construct intended to signify certain things without being those certain things. (A quick glance on IMDB reveals that, yep, all the dialogue is scripted, and boy is it obvious.) You're never really able to buy it as a documentary that gets out of hand, even though it's grounded in actual filmmaking and uses actual people from horror film to shore up its credibility - again, S&Man worked much better in this respect because nobody seemed like they were acting, for better or worse, and the stakes were more believable. This feels designed from stem to stern and the artificiality works against it.

Likewise, in terms of artificiality, it doesn't help that the practical effects don't really hold up. It feels like a cheap criticism, but practical monster effects are really hard to do well without looking completely unbelievable (or even ridiculous), especially on the budgets most horror movies have. I acknowledge that it’s a really high bar to set, but if you're going to tell me that these don't look anything like practical effects (by having people in the film actually say, out loud, “those did not look like practical effects” they need to not, you know, look like obvious practical effects. The illusion doesn’t hold up. Its narrative premise is that horror is intruding on the real life of people who make fictional horror for a living, but it’s so thoroughly produced and directed and designed that it doesn’t for a second feel like real life. It all ends up feeling sort of pointless. Again, according to IMDB, Green made a point of casting a well-known actor as Dekker so people wouldn’t be fooled into thinking any of this was real. Then what was the bloody point of the whole story in the first place?

In its own way, however, this film is interesting though, even if not for its intended purpose, because horror as it's presented here is so thoroughly created, produced, and marketed. The film is filled with posters and t-shirts for various films Green has made, often recontextualized into cartoons or heavy metal band logos, which indicates the degree to which they've been absorbed into larger pop culture to the point of no longer really being something that’s especially frightening. It’s another product to be consumed. So, really, this film does comment upon the tension between actual horror - real monsters - and horror's commodification. The filmmakers want so badly to believe in real monsters, but their very presence outside the portal to the Marrow threatens to drive them completely away, and when they show their footage to well-known horror movie actor Kane Hodder he cynically can't see it as anything but another creation or construction. His first assumption is that this is one more product to be presented and consumed by an audience wanting more sequels, more gimmicks.

The people most invested in actual horror are the ones most responsible for it disappearing.


IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, April 17, 2015

Calvaire: Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that horror films don’t just evoke horror anymore - dread, fear, anxiety, terror, revulsion, there’s a whole palette of feeling and experience with which a filmmaker can work and still be seen as making horror films. I think this is generally a good thing. I think seeing horror films as a vehicle for scares, shocks, and cheap thrills is limiting and probably a little condescending, and the more moods and shades of feeling available, the more corners of the human condition they can illuminate, and the more possibility there is for horror films to be the art they can be.

That said, it wasn't until I watched Calvaire (Ordeal) that I realized just how rarely horror taps into feelings of sadness, loneliness, and sorrow by comparison.

Marc Stevens is a singer for hire. He does weddings, parties, private engagements. We meet him as he sits at a mirror, putting on stage makeup, getting ready to perform old love songs for a roomful of women at a retirement home. He has a little banner with his name on it tacked to the wall, he comes out in a cape with his name on it. His music is prerecorded, and he serenades a shabby, fluorescent-lit room full of aging pensioners with all the charm and sincerity you could ever want. He’s a hit. He’s been here before. He’s always a hit. He returns to his dressing room to take off the makeup and get ready to hit the road for his next engagement. One of the women comes back to his dressing room, and Marc knows her by name. She’s worried that the next time he comes around she won’t be alive any longer, and she makes a fumbling pass at him. It’s exactly as painful as you’d imagine, and the camera doesn’t look away. Marc isn’t cruel to her in his rejection, but she is cruel enough to herself for both of them. And it’s not just her - one of the nurses at the home, responsible for paying him, buttonholes him on the way out and makes a pass of her own. She seems desperately lonely. They all do. You get the impression that Marc’s visits are one of their few bright spots, and they’ve invested a lot in him. He’s obviously uncomfortable with it as he coaxes his brightly painted van stubbornly to life. He can’t stay. He has to hurry to his next gig.

Well, you can’t have a person on their own, driving through the countryside without car trouble, and sure enough, Marc’s van - which sounded none too healthy when he left the retirement home - breaks down in the middle of a very foggy nowhere, in the middle of the night, after a close call with an animal. He spots a sign for an inn some distance away, and he heads for it. It’s late, but the innkeeper - a man named Bartel - lets him in and makes up a room for him anyway. It’s been awhile since anyone stayed at the inn, Bartel says, but the rooms are clean and he’ll fix Marc something to eat. Bartel tells him he can look at his van in the morning, and he tells Marc that he used to be a performer, too - a comedian. He understands artists, because he used to be an artist too, before he lost his wife, Gloria. Bartel seems lonely too. But he wants to help Marc and enjoys his company.

Just don’t go down to the village, Bartel tells Marc. They don’t...understand...artists there. Not like Bartel does. He understands Marc very well.

Marc reminds him so much of Gloria.

What ensues serves as your basic spiral into nightmares, as Marc learns more about Bartel, the village nearby, and his own role as a fresh face in this very isolated community. It definitely gets bad (it’s called Ordeal for a reason), but what I find especially interesting about Calvaire is that no matter how horrific it gets, it never loses its steady undercurrent of sorrow and loss - the feeling that everyone in this film (perhaps even Marc) does what they do out of some desire to feel love and connection. These people aren’t monsters, no matter how monstrous their deeds, they’re just stunted and deformed by their lack of love and ability to connect to each other in healthy ways. Bartel and the men of the village are mirror images of the women at the nursing home and the nurse there. They are all yearning for the resurrection of their memories, of the fondest recollections of their past, or maybe just for a chance at love and connection in a world that doesn't provide it. In that sense, Marc's predicament is just a nightmarish reflection of his everyday life. Same shit, different day.

And shit is probably a good word for it. The film's palette is a thoroughly dismal one - everything is dingy and shabby and run-down and muddy and squalid and decrepit. The nursing home is clean, but maybe a little frayed around the edges. Bartel’s inn is also clean - mostly - but much older and in rougher shape. The village is basically an unbroken sea of mud and shabby, sickly-lit buildings. Shafts of light break through overcast skies, only to illuminate marshland, wet, churned fields with sparse, stubby tufts of grass peeking out. Everything is dirty, everyone is selfish, nothing is pure. It doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to the terrible things that are happening - there’s no melodramatic music (in fact, outside of Marc's songs and one especially unsettling interlude in the village, there’s no music at all), there is little in the way of obvious camera staging - a mixture of quick cuts and long takes is used to linger on suffering and move things from bad to worse economically. 

And things do go from bad to worse - horrible things happen casually, because out here in the backwoods, life is different from how it is in the cities and towns. Bartel isn't lying when he says the villagers are different - they’re all brutish men, inarticulate to the point of silence, and occupied with strange, unwholesome customs. A lot goes unsaid in this film, but if you read between the lines, the story is really, really not a happy or pretty one. It’s not often you can describe a horror film’s tone as sordid, but that’s exactly how it all feels. What begins as sadness darkens to dread, which descends into grotesquerie before landing at outright nightmarish surrealism as things get worse for Marc who, throughout it all, really does seem blameless. He’s a man trying to do his job the best he can, despite all of these people projecting their need for love, long-lost love, love irretrievable, onto him. By the end, Marc is almost gone, swallowed by all of the dreams and memories people have projected onto him.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Brood: The Mind/Body Problem



a number of young produced or hatched at one time; a family of offspring or young.


to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder:

to dwell on a subject or to meditate with morbid persistence 

to cover, loom, or seem to fill the atmosphere or scene

It’s something that’s been argued over by philosophers and other assorted scholars of human behavior for centuries - what’s the relationship between the mind and the body? Is the mind a product of biological systems (the body) that facilitate consciousness, or the illusion thereof? Or is our sense of ourselves as a living thing - a body - the product of our consciousness? Is the mind something separate? Is it the purpose of the body or a byproduct of it? Where does one end and the other begin? There’s a certain anxiety associated with feeling detached or alienated from your own body, of feeling like this unwieldy meat vehicle is completely out of your control, and horror exploits that through the terrors of vampirism, lycanthropy, zombies, disease, mutation...the list goes on. The mind is too - the idea of “psychological horror,” where the psychology is threats to the mind and consciousness, rather than the body. But there’s something especially squirm-inducing about the intersection of the two, when both the mind and body are warped and the horror of one scars the other.

The Brood may not have aged as well as it could have, but its ideas about modernity’s collision with humanity and the tyranny of mind over body are still potent.

It’s the story of Frank and Nola Carveth. Nola’s in intensive psychotherapy for issues stemming from what appears to have been an abusive childhood, and this leaves Frank on his own to raise their daughter, Candice. Nola’s in the care of Dr. Hal Raglan - a pioneer in a field of study he terms “psychoplasmics” - the externalization of suppressed feelings and conflicts as physical trauma. A young man’s conflicted feelings about his father erupt into boils during a demonstration, and this is apparently cathartic. Dr. Raglan has written a book about his approach, titled The Shape of Rage. Nola is in intensive one-on-one treatment with Dr. Raglan and despite Frank’s protestations, Raglan won’t let him see her, because she’s at a critical stage in her treatment. For example, Nola and Raglan, through the use of psychodrama, work through Nola’s hatred of her alcoholic, abusive mother.

A mother who dies mysteriously, shortly after the session in question. She’s found viciously beaten to death by some unknown assailant, and Nola never left the clinic.

As wacked-out as the idea might seem, there’s precedent in early theories of  psychotherapy - Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis stemmed from an experience he had with a colleague’s patient - a woman code-named Anna O, who had gone spontaneously blind, and later paralyzed, presumably as a response to having to take care of her bedridden father. Freud believed the body was preventing the mind from acting on unacceptable urges. The mind hijacks the body.

More than taking advantage of this tension, The Brood serves, like the filmmaker’s previous Shivers, as another comment on the ways that modern life shapes and is shaped by the body. In Shivers, it was the closeness of modern high-rise living taken to the extremes and the post-Sixties relaxing of sexual mores, and here it references what were at the time new fads in psychology and self-improvement, like EST or primal scream therapy, combined with the narcissism that arose from the abandonment of Fifties stoicism, resulting in the disparaging label “the Me Generation.” People were beginning to talk about their feelings and their struggles and their pasts instead of suppressing them, and though it was probably a swing too far in the other direction, it was an understandable overcorrection, and lead to a lot of quack ideas about self-actualization. Raglan, as an example of one of these many gurus hiding behind a thin sheen of psychology instead of spirituality, encourages his clients to somaticize their feelings and unresolved issues, making the "lancing the boil" or "draining the wound" metaphors literal.

And we get the picture clearly enough with regard to the protagonists - the way Nola's parents conduct themselves tell you everything you need to know about them. The constant refills of drinks, the nips from the flask, the huge gulf between her mother’s recollections and her father’s. All of the trips to the hospital. You can only imagine what her childhood was like, but you know it wasn’t good. Frank is a man in over his head, trying to balance work and being a single father for all intents and purposes, and the father part's going lacking. But it's hard to be wholly sympathetic - there's definitely a strong undercurrent of bitterness that makes you wonder, just as we do about Nola's childhood, what things must have been like between them before Nola went into Dr. Raglan's care. In the middle of this maelstrom of toxic anger and bitterness is Candice, mostly mute throughout, buffeted one way and another by the legacy left both by her parent's marriage and the abuse her mother suffered. And behind all of it the mystery of a body count that seems to escalate with Nola’s distress and target those by whom she perceives herself to be wronged.

It's very much a film of its time, and to the extent that there are indeed monsters in this film, the practical effects go a little lacking to the modern eye, and things that should be viscerally frightening feel more like placeholders because the artifice is too obvious. Nevertheless, it still by and large gets over because of the absolute audacity of the concepts presented here - feelings literally made flesh, the perversion of motherhood, both by Nola and Nola's mother, the way children are constantly at risk - for physical abuse, neglect, and as witnesses to horror - throughout the film. I suspect it'd be very difficult to make this same film today without some folks being really up in arms, and it's that unsparing quality, that willingness to put taboos about the body and society aside to interrogate these ideas, that still gives this film power decades later.

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Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, April 3, 2015

Honeymoon: In Sickness And In Health

One of the earliest horror movies I can remember watching as a child was 1958’s I Married A Monster From Outer Space. No real surprises here: There’s a woman, she marries a man, he turns out to be an alien in disguise, and his intentions aren’t good. The title tells you exactly what you need to know. And movies like this aren’t just a product of the quaint Fifties, they’re still getting made today. We just tend not to think of them as horror movies, because by and large, “the person I just married turns out to be evil” stories show up primarily on Lifetime, where they alternate with “someone is having an affair and it’s causing problems” movies and “I want my kids back” movies. 

But if you want to talk about horror movies as allegory for real-life anxieties (as some do), the uncertainty that comes with the realization that you’ve just committed to a life with another person is definitely in the wheelhouse. That sort of commitment is rife with second-guessing, and what better way to cathart that than a film where the new bride or groom literally becomes a monster?

So I’m really glad that these filmmakers made Honeymoon, because it’s a creepy and masterfully paced story that turns all the awkwardness of a new marriage into a nightmare, restoring the “my spouse is a monster” riff firmly to horror film.

Paul and Bea are just married, and they’re headed into upstate New York to stay at the summer cottage Bea’s family own for their honeymoon. The opening of the film alternates their drive there with scenes from their wedding video - Bea recounting the proposal and marveling at her new status, Paul recounting their disastrous first date and the failed camping trip that ended up being the proposal, the two of them being adorable at each other. And all seems well enough - they’re sort of on the irritating side of cutesy, but it’s to be expected of a young couple flush with newly affirmed love and a life together ahead of them. There’s banter, talk of the future, heroic amounts of sex, all of what you’d expect. And then, in the middle of the night, Paul awakes to find the other side of the bed empty. Bea is initially nowhere to be found, and with mounting dismay, Paul heads outside into the woods, where he eventually finds Bea standing naked in a clearing, insensate to the world.

It’s weird, she’s not normally a sleepwalker, this is the first time this has happened. She doesn’t know where her nightgown went, she can’t remember what happened...

...and she doesn’t know what those strange marks on her thighs are. Or why she’s starting to have trouble remembering things. Or why she doesn’t want Paul to touch her anymore.

Right in front of Paul, Bea becomes a very different woman from the one with whom he fell in love, from the one he thought he married. Of course, every new couple has those moments where they wonder who it is they've married - there's this sort of threshold that you cross, however ineffable, where you realize that however well you thought you knew this person, they can still surprise you in good and bad ways, and it's not always where and how you'd expect. So we see Bea and Paul on their honeymoon, and you can tell they're a couple - they've got their little in-jokes, their private language, the shared memories based on hours of conversation, all of that. But even so, Paul's errant crack about her "womb" after some especially vigorous marital sex gets Bea sort of twitchy over the idea of kids and motherhood. It's the kind of tense moment any newlywed couple is going to have, as the reality of a future together sinks in, that yes, now you have to confront these possibilities. What this film does well is it starts at that moment of uncertainty, when Paul and Bea are on that cusp between the couple they were before and the marriage they are now, and just starting to explore what that means, and then proceeds to erase everything either one of them knew, a bit at a time, until it becomes clear that something awful has happened. Bea starts acting strangely, having trouble with increasingly basic things, and in some ways this is a metaphor for how a married couple has to renegotiate life together - they have to learn this new way of being together, and Paul is frightened, she's no longer the Bea he knew, and as the film goes on, the implications of that get darker and darker and darker.

This gradually unfolding horror works because the pacing is excellent. It starts maybe a bit on the slow side, with lots of time spent on Paul and Bea frolicking in the woods, but when things start to go bad, it's just a bit at a time, a little thing here, a little thing there, all adding and building on each other in a slow ratcheting up of tension that doesn't really ease up as it moves through possible explanations for what's going on, so by the time the truth is revealed, you don't really have any outs. It begins idyllic, then notes of unease creep in, and the unease gives way to tension and distance between the newlyweds, and then the tension turns to paranoia, and the paranoia to terror, all without a hitch

It's a story told with minimal music, lots of quick cuts, almost dividing the first half or so of the movie into vignettes, with this shifting to longer scenes as things escalate. Lots of moments of stillness and nature in repose - ants, worms, caterpillars, the almost alien life of the forest, scuttling around us all the time and going barely noticed. Impressively, it really feels like a folie a deux almost, as even though things seem to be centered on Bea, Paul hardly remains a model of reason himself as he sees everything he thought he knew about the woman he loved slip through his fingers just as things were going to get good.. There's an interpersonal disintegration dynamic then that adds some real notes of sadness to the tension and the dread. In some ways, this film sort of reminds me of kind of a mirror image of Antichrist - in both, a couple heads into the woods, but here it is to celebrate a beginning rather than to cope with an end. This is a story of promise, not loss, but the outcomes are similar - all sorts of horrible things are waiting in the woods, and in the end, there is nothing that male rationality can do about them.