Sunday, October 30, 2016

Another Top Ten: New Contenders, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

3) Antichrist

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

4) Asmodexia

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

5) The Canal

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

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