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.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
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.