Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Dark And The Wicked: Things Unsaid

In any ensemble horror film, there are a couple of ways that things can go - if the protagonists are sympathetic, they’ll generally band together and resist the evil preying on them, because looking out for your fellow human being is a sympathetic trait. You’ve also got the ones where the protagonists are basically selfish, obnoxious jerks who get picked off one by one. Personally, I don’t really think of the latter situation as horror, because there’s not much scary about cheering on the deaths of people you don’t like. Given the evergreen popularity of slasher films, I might be alone in that estimation.

But anyway. lately I’ve been really enjoying films that take people who are generally sympathetic and put them in a situation where they fail to come together, and everything goes bad as a result. Maybe they’re overmatched, maybe they’re deeply flawed, but even though they aren’t bad people, they just don’t or can’t get it together when it matters. Films like Hereditary, Green Room, The VVitch, and now The Dark And The Wicked, a creepy, atmospheric film about how a family’s inability to communicate or connect in the face of a tragedy allows evil to infect their lives and destroy them from the inside out

We open on a farm somewhere in rural Texas. It’s dark outside, not late-night dark, but early, early morning dark. This is a working farm. They raise sheep and goats, and chores start early. An old man lies in bed, hooked up to oxygen, unmoving. An old woman, careworn, works in the kitchen, softly singing a hymn under her breath. The house is modest, maybe even shabby. It’s quiet and still.

Until something unseen creaks a door open. Scrapes a chair across the floor. The old woman holds her breath, clamps her eyes shut, and wills herself not to look.

This is the Straker family farm, and siblings Louise and Michael have come home to look after their parents. Their father is gravely ill and wishes to die at home. Their mother has some help from their farmhand Charlie, but she’s trying to do far too much on her own. So, Louise and Michael have come home to say goodbye to their father and hopefully lighten their mother’s burden. You get the sense that it’s been a long time since the whole family was together. The siblings are worried about their mother - she seems overworked, run ragged, but that’s to be expected when she’s trying to keep a farm going and attend to her dying husband. She also seems…haunted. Afraid of something out there in the dark somewhere. But she doesn’t want to talk about it. 

She doesn’t want to talk about the thing that comes in the night and whispers to her.

This is a film that relies on atmosphere above all else. It’s a dark (thematically and visually) film with a drab palette - all of the color has been drained from this film, and the interiors are largely swallowed up by shadow, even during the daytime. It does a lot of work with silence that hangs in the air so that any interruption is startling. Doors open and lights switch on by themselves, the floorboards creak when there’s nobody walking across them. A wolf howls somewhere in the distance. As the film progresses, there are apparitions, visions, nightmare sequences that expertly punctuate the stillness. A couple of sequences verge on jump scares, but not so much that it becomes annoying, as jump scares often do. It’s as much about framing and pacing as anything else. The result is that a pall of dread falls over the film very quickly. It’s clear something isn’t right here, and that it isn’t going to get better on its own.

This emphasis on silence extends to the people in the film as well. There’s very little dialogue, and most of it is halting and elliptical. These aren’t people who talk a lot, and you get the sense that there’s pain in this house. Neither Louise nor Michael have been home in a long, long time, and they all haven’t been very good about keeping in touch. Michael’s got a family of his own, and Louise seems to be going through a rough patch. There’s definite guilt at how things have turned out, and you never get the sense that these people hate each other, but there is a bit of the feeling that this all too little, too late, that whatever damage has been done to this family is finally irreparable. Even now, in the face of tragedy, their mother doesn’t want to tell them what’s going on, doesn’t want to tell them why she told them not to come. It doesn’t seem unusual to Louise and Michael, they expect their mother not to make a fuss, to refuse help. This is a family that at their bedrock doesn’t talk about things, even things that bother them greatly. 

There isn’t a lot of character development, but people largely act like people - for as uncommunicative as they are, Louise and Michael are at least honest with each other where and when it matters, and when things start to get really strange, their thoughts turn not to how to defeat the evil that’s consuming their family whole, but how this is a bad scene and they should probably get out of there, complicated by their feelings for their parents. There’s also a refreshing lack of explanation for everything that’s happening. No serendipitously discovered ancient tome, no experts on hand to tell Louise and Michael what they need to do, no names, no origin stories, no history of ancient rituals. There’s something out there in the dark, and it’s also in there with them, and it’s feeding on all of them. Even a diary provides nothing but a litany of hopelessness and fear, and the overall feeling is that the die has been cast, and everyone is helpless n the face of something malevolent that is toying with them, torturing them, confident in its final victory. The word I keep seeing used to describe the film is “bleak,” and I have to say, it’s about right. There’s very little light in this film, and terrible things happen in the light too.

There are a few false notes. Not many, but noticeable by contrast in a film otherwise made with so much skill and attention to detail. The music is mostly tasteful strings and ambience, but gets overheated in a couple of spots, underlining the action a little too obviously. This is especially noticeable in a film that relies so much on silence and stillness and small details doing a lot of the work. One sequence falls a little into cliché, another feels less sinister than confusing, and toward the end we become so accustomed to things not being what they appear to be that one particular scene falls a little flat because you can sort of see it coming. But these are really small problems, as much about how nitpicky I get when a film is good as anything else. The overwhelming majority of this film is executed with a taste and restraint that modern horror films (at least in the U.S.) eschew as often as not, but without sacrificing any unease. In its unrelenting grimness and oppressive rural setting, it reminds me a lot of The Abandoned, and it’s one of the few films I’ve seen lately that actually made me gasp out loud more than once.

And if the damage done to this family’s relationship to each other is irreparable, then their fates are equally inexorable. The evil is already here, it’s already found its way in, there’s nothing to keep out. Evil finds its way in through the cracks in our ties to each other, it goes where love isn’t and spreads like a cancer from one person to another. It divides and conquers, and its triumph is absolute. Maybe this could have been avoided, maybe not, but it’s too late now, and it leaves you with an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach when the film ends.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Bug: You’re Never Really Safe

After the events of the last few weeks…oh, who are we kidding, the last four years, I find myself thinking about a lot of things. This week, I’m looking at conspiracy theories, shared irrational beliefs, the needs they meet and their consequences.

We really don’t like the unknown. From a survival standpoint, what you don’t know CAN kill you. So we look for pattern, for meaning, as much as possible. It’s wired into us, this need for things to make sense. Part of what makes horror films so scary is the extent to which they deal with the unknown, unknowable, uncertain, or unavoidable. All of the things that resist our attempts at making meaning.

But the flipside of that- the lengths to which we go to make meaning where there is none or where meaning is obscured - is equally a source of horror. This is where conspiracy theories begin - with an attempt to impose meaning on events which elude it. Sometimes, shit happens that is just too horrifying, traumatic, or too big to really get your head around, and one way people deal with it is to tell themselves a story that makes sense of it, even if that story requires you to believe in vast networks of secret organizations controlling every aspect of life. Bizarre though it might be, for some people it beats the alternative. 

Which brings me to Bug - an intense, nightmarish treatment of folie a deux, psychological disintegration, and the things we’re willing to believe to keep our lives from feeling entirely out of our control.

Agnes is a cocktail waitress in rural Oklahoma, and as the film opens, she’s dreading the return of her ex-husband, Jerry. Jerry just finished doing a bid for armed robbery, and he’s set on reuniting with Agnes - well, moving into her motel room, taking money out of her purse, and beating her when she gets too uppity, at any rate. Turns out they don’t really enforce restraining orders where Agnes lives. They used to have a son, and they don’t anymore.

So this is Agnes, lonely and worn away by tragedy and abuse, living in a squalid motel room in the middle of nowhere, her only comforts the occasional night out with friends, booze and cocaine. It’s not much of a life, and with Jerry back in her life, there’s fear now as well. And then one night her friend R.C. brings over Peter, a guy she just met not too long ago. He’s tagging along with them to a party. He’s shy, and quiet. Sort of awkward, but he seems nice. And they get to talking, and one thing leads to another. A moment of tenderness and grace in an otherwise bleak existence. He isn’t cruel, he isn’t callous.

He’s just really preoccupied with bugs.

And so as the film moves on, we learn more about Peter, about where he’s from, what he’s doing, how he sees the world. He sees bugs everywhere. He sees secret organizations behind every event in his life. There are people experimenting on him, and that’s why he had to escape from the hospital. They were turning him into a zombie assassin, just like they did Timothy McVeigh. But Agnes doesn’t freak out or run away from this. Oh sure, Peter has some weird ideas, but he doesn’t slap her around or steal from her. He’s a buffer between her and Jerry. And for someone in Agnes’ situation, that might just be enough. And in Agnes, Peter has someone who will listen to him, who takes him seriously and doesn’t call the cops when he starts going on about the bugs in his bloodstream. These are two people clinging to each other like the other is their life raft in a cold, incomprehensible world. Just as Peter isn’t Jerry, Agnes accepts Peter for who he is and what he believes, and so it becomes very easy for Peter’s explanation of the world to become Agnes’ as well. It becomes a story they tell each other about each other. one that allows each of them to feel like the horrible shit that has happened to them has an explanation. For Peter, the world is a vast machine manipulated by the military, by governments, by secret societies, and on some level, For someone who’s been through the wringer as much as Agnes, it makes as much sense as anything else, and it keeps Peter close to her. Playing along turns into belief soon enough, and it’s not long before we get a sense of just how deep Peter’s damage really runs.

The whole experience is grimy and claustrophobic - there’s maybe one sequence that doesn’t occur in Agnes’ motel room, which also illustrates the limits of her life, and the segments with Jerry exude menace. This room is almost her entire world, and Peter becomes part of that. People come and go, and as the film moves on it becomes more and more difficult to tell how much of what we’re seeing is actually happening and how much of it is Peter and Agnes’ shared delusion, punctuated with cutaway shots to hatching insects and the rush of blood through veins and arteries, as if their obsessions are invading our experience of the film itself. In this sense, this film is really good at playing with the same vagaries of perception that fuel conspiracy theories. We see and hear what we see and hear, but meaning isn’t made by eyes and ears, it’s made by the brain, and so perception is subjective, contingent on memory, our assumptions about meaning, the most accessible information we have, motivations, and biases. We see and hear what we want to see and hear, what we expect to see and hear. 

In this instance, the results are devastating. The dialogue is a little stagey at times (betraying the story’s origin as a play), but not enough to be distracting. It’s expertly paced, beginning on a note of unease, with Jerry stalking Agnes, and ticking along surely, Peter’s delusions moving more and more to the forefront the more time he spends with Agnes, who is all the more willing to believe them because Peter is, to her, the best thing that’s happened to her in some time, which is as much indicative of how bleak her life is as anything else, until the whole thing erupts into something almost operatic in its horror, the two of them finally collapsing into gibberish as their shared delusion reaches a fever pitch, two people moving further and further away from reality in an effort to make sense of their traumas. 

From the outside, it doesn’t seem plausible, how one person could believe in vast, faceless conspiracies to the degree that Peter does, let alone rope someone else into it. But spend enough time on your own, isolated and fearful, and anything that make sense of it starts to become attractive, because it makes the pain go away, and a lot of times that’s what people want. If believing some weird shit makes the pain go away, they’ll believe it. And it’s complicated by the fact that conspiracies do exist, albeit not at the scale of something like the Bilderberg Group or mind-control chips spread by viral transmission. Peter uses the existence of the very real MKULTRA and Tuskegee experiments as support for and justification of his own beliefs, and the appearance of a military doctor in the third act underscores this. We know Peter is delusional, but…well, just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. 

Agnes and Peter are scared, in pain, and don’t feel like they have any control over their own lives, and if building an elaborate shared fantasy is what it takes to make the pain go away, well, that’s what it takes, and it ends badly. There are a lot of people out there who are scared, and in pain, and don’t feel like they have any control over their lives, and all it takes is a community of like-minded people who are all engaged in building an elaborate shared fantasy to make the pain go away, to make things make sense. As Peter says to Agnes, “you’re never really safe.” That’s a hard way to live, and so Agnes and Peter burrowed down into fantasy, burrowed so far that everything they used to be completely disappeared..

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Green Room: However This Ends, It Won’t End Well

After the events of the last few weeks…oh, who are we kidding, the last four years, I find myself thinking about a lot of things. This week, I’m looking at the savagery that so often attends white supremacy, the distinct gap between its lofty rhetoric and its reality, and the use of white supremacists as monsters.

White supremacists do a good line as villains. I mean, there’s absolutely a reason for that, as a viewing of Night And Fog will vividly demonstrate. But I think over time there’s a tendency to reduce them to ciphers, to a placeholder for “evil” in the absence of actual characterization. There’s any number of horror films that feature Nazi experiments gone awry as monsters, or that make human villains white supremacists as a way to amp up their menace. Some time back, I wrote up the film Frontiere(s) and gave it a lot of shit (rightfully so, I think) for making its antagonists not just cannibals, but Nazi cannibals, as if that would somehow compensate for the film’s shortcomings in other areas. Another case of thinking that a signifier replaces actual writing or story or themes. 

What this threatens to do over time is reduce white supremacists, like serial killers are reduced, to monsters devoid of any real recognition of the harm they actually do and have done to real living people. Like I said, a viewing of Night And Fog will demonstrate the folly of doing that.  

Green Room - a grim, relentlessly tense film, devoid of sentimentality - doesn’t reduce its villains. In fact, it is their humanity that makes them so unsettling.

We open up on a van, run off the road into a cornfield. It’s not violence, it’s a band on tour. Long hours on the road, the driver’s fallen asleep. They’re the Ain’t Rights, a hardcore punk band from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on a coast-to-coast tour. They’re in the Pacific Northwest, a long way from home, and after…acquiring…some fuel, they meet up with the promoter for their next gig. As it turns out, he lost access to the venue while they were already en route. And this is an occupational hazard for touring bands in the punk scene. You aren’t represented by a management company, you don’t have a bus, you aren’t playing arenas, or even clubs sometimes. Sometimes the gigs are at coffee shops, or abandoned warehouses, or in someone’s basement. The promoters aren’t professionals, often they’re just fans themselves, flying by the seat of their pants. 

So gigs fall through. But the Ain’t Rights - Reece, Tiger, Pat, and Sam - are indeed a long way from home, and they needed that gig money to keep going. They’re going to have to end the tour and limp back to D.C. on one tank of gas and whatever they can siphon out of SUVs in parking lots along the way. The promoter says he can line something up - it’s a little out of the way, in rural Oregon, outside of Portland. It’s a matinee, two other bands, $350.00 guarantee. Considering their last gig netted them about 28 bucks, this is what they need to get back home. One slight catch. As the promoter puts it, it’s mostly a boots and braces crowd down there. Skinheads. 

“Play your older stuff,” he says. “Don’t talk politics.”

Here’s the thing about the Pacific Northwest: Once you get outside the big (diverse, progressive) cities like Portland and Seattle, things get very white and very mean very fast. As it turns out, they’re not playing at a bar so much as they are at a compound - a bunch of buildings way out in the woods, far away from prying eyes. Lots of Confederate flags, National Front logos, White Pride World Wide stickers. It’s pretty clear what the politics are. 

But, to their credit, the ones running the venue are consummate professionals - they get the band loaded in, tell them the schedule, and put them in the green room to hang out until soundcheck. Tiger, the group’s hotheaded vocalist, decides they’re going to open their set with a Dead Kennedys cover - “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It does not go over well. But that’s not the problem - once they launch into their own material, the pit opens up and everyone has a good time. They play a solid set, collect their pay as promised, and start loading out. But Sam realizes she left her phone in the green room, and so Pat goes to grab it…

…and walks in on four people sitting around a very dead young woman.

Pat’s seen something he wasn’t supposed to see. Something, for that matter, that wasn’t even supposed to happen. The last thing these folks want is police attention, and now they have to make the problem go away. And the Ain’t Rights are now part of that problem.

So this is a siege film. The Ain’t Rights are locked in the green room with a couple of skinheads, and they’re pretty sure that they don’t have long to live. They’re out in the middle of nowhere and a very long way from home. And in walks Darcy Banker, the owner of the venue. He’s older, calm, measured. He doesn’t raise his voice. He’s a working man, with a number of different business interests and a passion for “racial advocacy.” As he reminds the crowd, “remember - it’s a movement, not a party.” If the crowd is the people there for the party, then Darcy brings in the people there for the movement, the loyal soldiers, the “true believers,” ready to do what they’re told, ready to make their bones, to earn their red laces. He issues orders like a man who has handled situations like this before. His eye for detail and icy pragmatism are even more chilling, somehow, because they’re so methodical and detached. There’s no yelling, no ranting, just cool appraisal of the situation and consideration of all the factors. Banker isn’t just a committed white supremacist, he’s also a businessman, and he can’t afford having the cops come around his place for reasons that have nothing to do with the murder. He and his loyal soldiers know the law, know how the law thinks, know the limits of the law. And so the Ain’t Rights, a bunch of 20-something musicians, have to figure out how to outwit a building full of people wholly comfortable with violence, a strong motivation to make this whole thing go away as quickly as possible, and a pretty good idea of how to do so.

The result is a tense, claustrophobic film that avoids a lot of easy clichés. First, it gets the setting exactly right, and that setting brings with it its own dread. It’s easy for film and television to get subcultures wrong, usually in ways that only members of that particular subculture will notice. This is a film about a hardcore punk band trying to tour, and what happens to them when they get in way, way over their heads. And it rarely, if ever, strikes a false note on that front. The shows attended by eight people, crashing in people’s houses, siphoning gas, falling asleep at the wheel, it’s all true to life. You’re hurtling across the country basically on the goodwill of others, and sometimes they come through, sometimes they let you down. I was a punk rock kid too, and went to shows in cruddy DIY venues where the soundproofing was mattresses shoved up against the windows, shows ended early when the cops showed up to shut it down, shows where people in KKK and neo-Nazi t-shirts mingled freely with the rest of the crowd, shows where some of those people put other people in the hospital after the show. In some parts of the country, it just comes with the territory - you go out to see bands and the faint hum of imminent violence is just always there. Culture at the margins attracts people at the margins, and things get gritty. The setting, then, rings instantly true. It’s pretty clear to any audience that the protagonists are among a rough crowd, but if you’re especially familiar with the milieu you’ll get the same empty feeling in the pit of your stomach I did as soon as they pulled up to the club, because you know this situation. You’ve probably been in this situation. In this subculture, you learn how to read the room, and you know when bad shit is brewing. It’s absolutely true to life.

Next, it gets the characters right and affords them a great deal of humanity. The Ain’t Rights aren’t action heroes, but they’re not entirely helpless either. Touring coast-to-coast out of a van breeds a certain amount of resourcefulness and tenacity, and they’re not about to let themselves get slaughtered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There aren’t any hysterics, any breakdowns, they keep their wits about them, which makes everything that happens that much worse in a way. They’re doing the best they can, they’re just wildly overmatched, and their best isn’t necessarily going to be enough. And the skinheads are people too. It’s not unusual for film and television to turn white supremacists, especially white-power skinheads, into two-dimensional fanatics, constantly rabbiting on about purity and the master race and all that. But that’s rarely how people talk or act. Even Nazis have lives and conversations about things other than being Nazis, and so the antagonists don’t go around throwing up Roman salutes or engaging in gratuitous sadism. There’s no leering, no monologuing. They’re not especially happy about the situation either, but it’s happened, and they have to take care of it. Some of the younger members of the crew are eager to prove themselves and welcome the prospect of doing so with bro-ish enthusiasm, while the older members are all business. They’re not looking forward to this, but they aren’t backing down either, and they have no problem taking lives. So this is not a film populated by caricatures. It isn’t a character study, but you get a good sense of who people are from how they carry themselves, how they talk, how they act, and they’re largely real.

So we have people who feel real in a place that feels real, and what happens also feels very real, and this is where the horror really is. This is a violent film, but it isn’t the gratuitous, tossed-off violence of the slasher film. People cry and moan and bleed out, and the damage is visceral. It’s a desperate struggle to stay alive, things happen quickly and without buildup or fanfare as often as not. Someone’s alive one second, then they’re not. It doesn’t revel in gore, a lot happens just off-camera or is cut away from quickly, with a few graphic depictions of violence providing excruciating punctuation. It’s broken glass and box cutters and shotguns and machetes and attack dogs and choking people out until they turn purple and just…stop. It’s hard to watch. It’s supposed to be. The violence matters here in a way that often isn’t true in horror films and vividly illustrates the stakes.

Which isn’t to say that it’s wall-to-wall ultraviolence, there’s a real sense of mood here as well. It’s leavened by a dark sense of humor throughout - the protagonists are acutely aware that they’re outmatched and don’t respond with steely resolve as much as bewilderment and a sense that they’re sort of making it up as they go, and the utter arbitrariness of their situation - four people just trying to get back home, in the wrong place at the wrong time, the difference between life and death a matter of a cell phone and a door that should have been locked - gives the final act a real sense of tragedy and melancholy. All of this could have been avoided, none of this had to happen, but it did, and it cost lives. 

For all their rhetoric about preserving their culture and heritage, white supremacists are ultimately bullies who hurt others to feel better about themselves. It always ends up there, no matter how polite the front they present. But they aren’t monsters, just like serial killers aren’t monsters. Monsters aren’t real, and people like this are. They’re weak, damaged, and their need to make themselves feel strong only causes needless suffering and anguish. As Darcy says at the beginning, “however this ends, it won’t end well.” And it doesn’t. Good people die for no good reason at all. That’s what this film says, and it’s haunted me since the credits rolled.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Sacrament: A Question Of Belief

 After the events of the last few weeks…oh, who are we kidding, the last four years...I find myself thinking about a lot of things. This week, I’m looking at what happens when a whole group of people decide to blindly follow someone who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

So, there’s this old, slightly hackneyed saying, that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Here’s the thing: It might be a cliché, but it’s also sometimes true. Whatever you can think up, some crazy motherfucker has probably done it, it’s just a matter of whether or not that particular rock has been turned over and exposed to the light of public attention. And an element of truth lends a certain bite to horror - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was billed as being “based on a true story,” though the connection’s so thin you could read a book through it. The Blair Witch Project was marketed as being an actual disappearance of three filmmakers, and that added something to the film (not that it needed it). It’s why found-footage films, when they’re good, are really good - if something feels true, we experience in a way different from what we know to be fiction.

And this is sort of what makes The Sacrament both compelling and frustrating. It’s a confection made of layers of truth and fiction. It’s well-paced and tense, largely believable (for good reason), but it also struggles enough with the line between truth (or realism) and fiction that it doesn’t hit quite as hard as it could.

It starts off as a conversation between Sam and Jake, journalists at Vice, an actual media outlet that got its start as a nightlife magazine for gentrifying hipsters in New York City, but over the years has moved closer to actual journalism. There’s still a sex-and-drugs streak in their subject matter, but it’s just as often about investigating conditions in impoverished areas as it is about going to far-off lands to do exotic hallucinogens.  Sam’s been all over the world covering all kinds of crazy stuff, and Jake is a photographer who mostly works in fashion but yearns to do something more substantive. As it turns out, Jake has just received a letter from his sister Caroline. Caroline was in sober living for awhile, then she dropped out of sight entirely. Now she’s written him to say how much she misses him and to invite him to Eden Parish, the commune she calls home. It’s not in the U.S., and Sam smells an opportunity - he’ll go with Jake and bring his cameraman Patrick along. They’ll document the siblings’ reunion and get a look at some crazy commune out in the jungle somewhere. It’s exactly the sort of thing Vice does.

And so after a long flight to somewhere unspecified in what might be either South American or Africa, Sam, Jake and Patrick take a helicopter out to Eden Parish. Heading up to the entrance, they are stopped by men carrying assault rifles. These men are not happy to see any of them, especially a cameraman. Caroline has to intervene before things get ugly. She didn’t know Sam and Patrick were coming, but it’s fine, really.

She’s sure Father won’t mind. 

I’ve watched enough features on Vice to know what they look like and how they typically go, and at least in the broad strokes this narrative conceit works fine, because in my experience, actual features on Vice often consist of young city hipsters with gonzo-journalism aspirations getting in over their heads, and that is exactly what happens here. And it’s entirely plausible that Vice would show something like this - a trip gone horribly, horribly wrong - warts and all, but if the broad strokes are convincing, it falls down in the details. The narrative mode is realism - we’re supposed to believe we’re watching an actual documentary made by a real-world media company - but the acting and writing betray that sense of realism. The dialogue tends to waver between the naturalistic, the expository, and the painfully on-the-nose, and though most of the characters are believably acted, there are a few that get close enough to cliché to break the conceit. As often as not, you’re aware that you’re watching actors acting, instead of journalists interviewing people who live in an agrarian commune, under the watchful eye of Father and men with guns. For every thing that makes it believable, there’s something to interrupt that sense of believability and it’s distracting. 

I don’t, however, know that it’s fatal to the film. It’s well-paced, turning up the tension gradually but inexorably, moving from quiet menace to bleak, unblinking horror over the second half of the film. The important characters aren’t caricatures and it does a pretty good job of resisting cliché (with one glaring exception). The motivations of the important characters feel largely realistic, there are some slightly abrupt changes of heart, but nothing jarring. At first, everything seems fine at Eden Parish - a little odd, and maybe their medical supplies aren’t great, and it's a little disconcerting to keep hearing Father’s voice coming out of loudspeakers all over the commune, but people seem happy. Then again, there’s the men with guns always just on the edge of the commune, and Father is as evasive as he is avuncular. He doesn’t want to talk about how Eden Parish was financed by the life savings of everyone there. And he knows maybe a little too much about Sam for someone who forbids his community to the use of phones, television, or the Internet. 

The arrival of visitors from the outside world is more disruptive than anyone expected, and as Sam, Jake and Patrick keep asking questions, fewer and fewer things add up, and then in the third act it all comes to a head in a manner that doesn’t let you look away, and even if the dialogue feels a little stagey, it’s still acted in a raw and confrontational way. There is one plot hole that leapt out at me at the end - a moment of “wait, how did they have that footage?” - but I know I’m pickier about that sort of thing than most people. It’s not found-footage, strictly speaking, more of a mockumentary, but anytime you present something as realism, you have to do everything you can to get the audience to believe they’re watching something real, and there are just enough moments that violate believability that the impact is diluted somewhat.

Something else that ends up being a bit of a problem is the degree to which these fictional people working for a real media company experience events that are a pretty thinly fictionalized version of real-world events. It’s not going to take long for anyone familiar with the story of Jonestown to figure out what’s happening and about to happen in this film. It’s not a direct beat-for-beat recreation, it’s scaled down to fit the story of these three journalists, but though some minor details are changed, the sequence and nature of events play out faithfully to what actually happened there. If anything, it’s less horrifying in scale than the actual events on which it’s based, and it’s still pretty horrifying in the final act. It’s a fictionalization of real events, presented as a documentary made by fictional people employed by a media company that actually exists. That’s a lot of conceit in one movie, and I think it didn’t quite commit enough to the idea of realism to really nail it. It doesn’t always come off believable, but knowing that it’s pretty faithful to something that actually happened does make it a sobering testimony to the dangers of belief, to what happens when a bunch of people decide to put all of their faith, their money, and their lives in the hands of a man who seeks to create a world that revolves entirely around him.  

Monday, January 18, 2021

Videodrome: The Glass Teat

As I’ve said before, I prefer to look at films as finished, singular products, and focus less on the people who made them. Not that those things are unimportant - far from it, the choices and decisions filmmakers make shape and define the final product, and there are particular directors whose work I seek out as much as possible - but rather because I think it’s easy to lose sight of the film when you focus on the personalities behind it, and this is especially a problem in horror film. Horror film has its own level of celebrity, and it’s hard for the enthusiast press to be objective in the face of it. More cynically, as often as not the people being celebrated are just churning out another sequel or spinning off one franchise from another franchise, and I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate. To me, the film is what matters, more than who made it.

But goddamn is it ever hard to maintain that critical separation when talking about certain directors, and few directors are more difficult to divorce from their work than David Cronenberg. Over the course of almost 25 years, he made a series of films that confronted ideas about desire, control, technology and biology with both the clinical eye of a surgeon and a surrealist’s refusal of taboo. I’ve written about a couple of his earlier films - Shivers and The Brood - here, and though they have their shortcomings, they’re still really powerful if for nothing else than the ideas they present. 

Cronenberg envisions the body as, in some ways, technology - a collection of machinery that can be put to different purposes, often other than originally intended. And because there’s this tendency to see the body as sacred or pure, as emblematic of humanity, the ways he depicts this idea are often pretty damn unsettling. And I think it’s Videodrome where I really see this particular vision of his start to cohere, where a thesis about the intersection between technology, desire, biology and perception starts to come into focus. Like those other films, it’s very much a product of its time, and I wonder if that dulls its edge a little, but there’s still a lot going on here.

Max Renn is an executive at a sleazy television network - sort of the Canadian equivalent of public-access television. They’re a small operation with pretty low bandwidth, and a healthy chunk of their programming is soft-core pornography or violent exploitation. Cheap thrills for the indiscriminate consumer. Max secures programming in part by having a technician pirate signals from foreign networks using a satellite dish. It’s tough, I think, to appreciate this idea in the modern day. Once, everything was terrestrial broadcast, and if you had a powerful enough receiver, you could pull in signals from all over the world, not all of which were intended for public viewing. Signals could be scrambled, but it wasn’t exactly modern encryption. Things that were scrambled could be unscrambled. 

And it’s in this search for new programming, harder-edged programming for an increasingly jaded viewing audience, that their technician discovers a program out of Malaysia called Videodrome. It’s pretty low-budget - there’s a bare room, and two men in hoods, beating and torturing people. No narrative, no breaks. People get dragged on and brutalized, people get dragged off. Max is fascinated - he wants to find the people making it, he wants a distribution deal. He can’t believe how realistic it looks. Almost like it isn’t being faked.

Not all signals are intended for public viewing.

Max’s search for the creators of Videodrome take him to some strange places, but the world we’re presented with is already strange in its own right. Video is a medium permeating everyone’s life in a way that wasn’t really true of the time in which it was made, and it’s all shown in incidental details - a well-known media critic refuses to appear anywhere in person, only communicating through video broadcasts, homeless people gather at a mission, not to eat meals and hear sermons, but to watch television, and as Max soon discovers, rogue broadcasts have the power to reshape the brain. The film presents a world in which video broadcasts and videotape recordings have essentially infested everyday life like a fungus. Television was an established medium when this film was made, but its omnipresence in the world of the film feels sinister without being didactic, and as Max goes further down the rabbit hole in search of this mysterious program, the more the world around him begins to warp - nightmares, hallucinations, televisions and videotapes that pulse and breathe with animal life, and strange changes to his very biology. There must have been nothing like it at the time.

Watching it now, there’s still nothing else like it, albeit for different reasons. Almost all of the technology in the film is now obsolete, so there’s a quaintness to it, the unease of pernicious technology undercut by that technology’s antiquation. I suspect to anyone who didn’t grow up during this time, it could all feel faintly silly. Its age shows in other ways as well - like The Brood, it’s very much of its time in terms of relations between the sexes and the zeitgeist of the late 70s/early 80s in general (there’s plenty of casual sexism to go around, and some of the cultural preoccupations might not make sense to a modern viewer), and though the effects don’t let down the story as much as they do in that film, some of them are still somewhat dated to the modern eye. It’s not as choppy as Shivers, but it still moves a bit abruptly and doesn’t necessarily give some of the revelations room to breathe. Weird shit tends to happen and then the scene changes, so it’s less effective at building a mood than it could be, and the last act sort of loses focus and threatens to collapse into gobbledygook, but I think a lot of these limitations are more a function of a limited budget than anything else. That it got made at all is something.

It’s an audacious vision, regardless of the context,  and one that runs through the first half of Cronenberg’s career, from Shivers up to eXistenZ, one that doesn’t hold the body or bodily desires as sacred, that explores what happens when technology becomes as much a part of the body as anything else, how powerful entities will exploit it, and the ways we rebel against that control. These preoccupations, and its mix of high technology and grungy settings, the street finding its own use for things, the way people get in over their heads, running afoul of the wealthy and powerful, these all persist all the way up through today in films like Antiviral and Possessor, made by Cronenberg’s son Brandon, who hasn’t missed a step. None of these things have really changed, only their trappings. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Lovecraft Investigations/Archive 81: Listening To Horror, Redux

 Well, now that the holiday season has wound down, it’s time for me to get back on my horror movie bullshit, but I spent the last few weeks not really watching much in the way of horror film. The occasional break helps to keep me from feeling burned out, and under more normal circumstances, I would have been traveling anyway. What I have been doing is listening to horror podcasts, having been made aware of a few more by some of the fine folks who follow Old Gods Of Appalachia, and having devoured two - The Lovecraft Investigations and Archive 81 - over the last couple of weeks, I’d like to look at what they each do well (which is quite a bit), and what they each do not so well (which isn't too much).. 

The Lovecraft Investigations

This is a production of the BBC, and as you can probably tell from the title, it’s a series of audio adaptations of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Now, there’s certainly no dearth of Lovecraft adaptations out there, but the hook here is, I think, a reasonably clever one: These adaptations are set in the modern day and presented as episodes of a modern true-crime podcast  called The Mystery Machine, hosted by plucky, enterprising journalists Justin Heawood and Kennedy Fisher. They report on unsolved crimes, the usual cold-case fare, but as the podcast begins, they’ve been drawn into a rather unusual case, that of a young man who apparently vanished from a locked room in a mental hospital without any assistance. This is, then, the Lovecraft story The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and soon enough what starts as a simple attempt to put together the details of a years-old mystery turns, as it does, into something much larger and much more sinister. Which is your standard true-crime podcast template, but here “larger and more sinister” means immortal body-hopping sorcerers, creatures that we can’t see clearly because our brain isn’t equipped to perceive them, and much worse.

It’s followed by adaptations of The Whisperer In Darkness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and as a whole they’re presented in convincing fashion - the actors playing Heawood and Fisher have the easy conversational style of people who are comfortable with each other and with telling stories, but who aren’t professional broadcasters. For the most part, they sound like they could fit quite neatly next to something like Serial, though some of the supporting actors are a touch too theatrical at times, which can make it a little tougher to get really immersed. It’s sort of a similar problem to that of found-footage films that veer away from naturalism - it’s presenting itself as real-world media, but when the dialogue gets a little too arch or contrived, the illusion is broken for a bit and its power diluted some. But in general, it strikes a nice balance between faithfulness to podcasting convention and faithfulness to the original text, which preserves events and plot beats while updating them to modern settings and sensibilities.

The bigger problem, I think, is that the creators of the show attempt to create a single overarching narrative across the three stories, as if the things the protagonists discover in the beginning are leading them even further and further down a rabbit hole. This by itself isn’t bad, necessarily, and it’s handled well and pretty seamlessly even though the original stories weren’t really connected to each other, but the net effect is one of changing the scope and subsequent focus of what’s going on - the rabbit hole isn’t so much deep as wide, with Heawood and Fisher hopping continents and getting involved with clandestine government agencies and uncovering conspiracies both supernatural and natural, and so over the course of the three stories, things start to get more and more overstuffed, feeling less like cosmic horror and more like the X-Files. Make no mistake, it’s entertaining throughout, and to my mind just provides more evidence that Lovecraft’s work can be adapted effectively without including any of his awful racism, sexism, classism and pernicious xenophobia. His stories work in spite of those things, not because of them, so the more people find ways to bring them into the modern day and leave their egregiously backward aspects in the past, the happier I am. I wish that this podcast had been better able to preserve the sense of dread and menace of its first episodes throughout, but it’s good fun.

Archive 81

This one is a much stranger beast than The Lovecraft Investigations - it’s presented as a podcast hosted by a young man named Mark, who has obtained a bunch of recordings related to his friend Dan, who has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and is publishing them as a way to try and solicit help in finding him. The recordings are audio-verite, set (at least to start) in a mysterious archive belonging to the LMG Corporation. They’ve hired Dan to listen to and catalog a very large number of audio recordings in the archive. He has been given very specific instructions to not attempt to fix or clean up the recordings in any way, and to in turn record himself as he goes through the process of listening and cataloguing these tapes. So we’re listening to recordings of someone listening to recordings as they record their reactions to the recordings, It’s not as difficult to follow as I’m making it sound, but it does set up a narrative through-line of audio recording as a form of alchemy, as something both process and product in creating a big, strange audio universe. 

There are three broad phases to the show to date - the first concerns Dan’s introduction to the archive and a series of recordings about a very strange high-rise apartment building in Manhattan. These work generally well as discrete vignettes and are consistently unsettling, as little details build up and paint a picture of a building full of people somehow drawn to and contorted by the building itself. The second shifts focus to recordings made by an expedition sent by LMG to someplace very, very different from any world we would recognize, and the efforts of that expedition to find their way home again. This broadens the narrative scope considerably, and though there are definitely moments of body horror (Dan especially is…repurposed…for the expedition), as this phase of the story moves on it starts to take on more of a feeling of dark fantasy, the expedition concerned with learning the rules of this place and how to outwit the corporation that sent them there.. The mood is still uneasy on balance (they are someplace very strange, and very far from home), but what made the first part so effective was the way something would start off normal enough and then as the episode progressed, more strangeness would creep in around the edges, and it was the contrast between the two that made those episodes work well. In the second part, everything is strange, so it’s less acutely felt - it’s a lower-intensity, but more pervasive uneasiness stemming from an utterly alien world. 

The third part is concerned primarily with a pair of half-siblings, Nicholas and Christine Waters, and their attempts to complete a magical ritual left to them by their late father. If the first part was a modern take on cosmic horror and the second was dark fantasy, the third splits the difference pretty neatly, as the action moves between our world and others, and characters from the span of the series reappear, sometimes at unexpected times or in unexpected places, and the story is as much about the relationship between these two siblings, about forgiveness and connection and friendship, as it is the increasingly bizarre and dangerous things they have to do. It’s not as consistently creepy as the first part, but it definitely has its moments, and it serves to gather together what appear to initially be disparate smaller narratives into something grander, and at its best it reminds me of Clive Barker’s ability to create worlds filled equally with horror and wonder. Or, to use a more contemporary example, at its best it feels like the people who made Resolution and The Endless decided to try their hand at SCP-style stories told as episodes of Radiolab. If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is, but though it has its weak points, it’s remarkably well-handled and evocative. A series based on the podcast is in the works at Netflix, and I have to say, I’m curious.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Antrum: The Necronomicon In Paperback

When I was a teenager, I was really into cosmic horror (well, I still I am, but I was then too), and I remember browsing in a bookstore near my house one afternoon and coming across a copy of the Necronomicon. For those unfamiliar, the Necronomicon is a fictional book that features in some of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. It’s a cursed book filled with ancient, forbidden knowledge, and it drives anyone who looks upon it insane.

And since I was looking at a copy of it in mass-market paperback, sitting on the shelf at a B. Dalton’s, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the real thing. Antrum is kind of like that paperback copy of the Necronomicon.

I love stories about cursed media - films, books, records, plays, etc. that bring madness nr ruin on anyone who experiences them. Works of art that serve as literal gateways to hell, that offer up visions that destroy the sanity of anyone who sees them. Usually, very few copies exist, or they’ve passed into the realm of myth, and the protagonist is someone tasked with going down whatever rabbit hole will lead to the art in question. Sometimes these stories are done well and sometimes they’re done badly, but I will give them a shot pretty much every time. 

But there’s another thing these stories tend to have in common - the audience rarely if ever gets any firsthand experience with the art in question. We almost always see its effects secondhand, with the horrifying experience itself left up to our imagination. And I think Antrum (subtitled The Deadliest Film Ever Made), if nothing else, gives me a good idea why that’s the case. It’s an ambitious failure of a film that gives itself a very difficult task to accomplish and doesn’t pull it off, mostly because it doesn’t have confidence in its audience or its ability to tell the story

We begin with a sort-of documentary introduction to the titular film, which was supposedly made in the 1970s and exhibited in public exactly twice before vanishing from the face of the earth. The problems start early, with about 10 minutes of background on the film’s effects - some of them seem to be supernatural (a theater in Budapest showing the film burned down in a mysterious fire), but others are people befalling accidents which could easily be unfortunate coincidence, and yet others appear to be the direct result of things that have nothing to do with the film. Right off the bat, this muddies the brief because it seems to be as much happenstance as evil. If you’re going to tell a story about a cursed film, make that shit evil. Make it the kind of thing that drives people to gouge their eyes, to change their name and move far away. Make everyone involved in its production either dead or very difficult to locate. Especially if you’re going to subtitle your film “The Deadliest Film Ever Made,” you can’t sell it with things like people slipping in the bathtub, because nobody’s going to believe that a film that has caused death and madness is going to be available on streaming services. You aren’t going to find the Necronomicon in paperback. Instead of trying to sell the idea that this is a real film, let it be fictional and then sell the idea that it’s something truly unholy. 

So we’re already off to a shaky start. It’s handled convincingly enough from a mockumentary standpoint, it sounds and plays like an actual talking-head documentary, but it doesn’t make a strong enough case for the actual power of the film before introducing the film itself. We get just enough to know that there is a film called Antrum, it only showed at a couple of film festivals, and pretty much everyone who saw it met with one kind of bad end or another, and it’s not enough to establish the film’s myth. It could really use some more setup in terms of who made it, where did it come from, what happened to everyone who starred in it, and so on. Or, hell, even just establish that it was made by someone nobody had ever heard of, and that nobody could track down the cast and crew. That would help establish the mystique that the story really needs. Instead, we get some perfunctory setup before we’re introduced to the film itself with a 30-second countdown under a disclaimer, which feels too hokey, like an old William Castle gimmick. 

So the first problem is really one of plausibility - we’re being sold a bill of goods that doesn’t for a second feel likely, and there’s not enough mystique to get the audience invested. The second problem is that we’re being shown the film in question, and there’s no way it’s going to live up to whatever mystique it does have. Usually the way these stories work is that the protagonist is someone tasked with tracking down a copy of the work in question for someone wealthy and powerful and usually depraved. The story then is usually more about the journey than the destination, the dark, horrible things the protagonist discovers along the way, rather than the work itself. And I think there’s a reason for that - it’s really, really hard to directly depict a piece of art that opens doors to hell and destroys minds and do justice to the idea. It’s much easier to convince an audience that the artifact in question really is as bad as it seems through showing the effect it has on others than it is through showing us the artifact itself. Put simply, it’s a lot easier to show people watching a movie and losing their minds than it is to show us the movie itself and make it seem convincingly like something that would make people lose their minds. Imagination tends to beat out direct depiction - the worst thing you can come up with in your own is generally going to be freakier than what someone else comes up with, and so whatever follows is bound to be underwhelming.

And sure enough, it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s the story of siblings Oralee and Nathan, who have apparently just had to euthanize their dog, Maxine. Afterwards, Nathan is plagued by nightmares and the feeling that Maxine is somewhere in hell because she was a bad dog. So older sister Oralee takes Nathan into the woods, supposedly where Satan fell from heaven, to perform a ritual and dig a hole to hell so they can rescue Maxine’s soul and redeem her. And so they begin to dig, and as they do, strange things begin to happen around them. By itself, it’s not a bad idea - the film as presented does feel like a cheaply produced piece of outsider art, like a somewhat cleaner, slightly more professional Manos: Hands Of Fate. It’s just amateurish enough to make everything about it seem slightly weird and uneasy. And it’s plausible enough, technically speaking - it looks like something that was made on the cheap in the 1970s, albeit in surprisingly good condition, though I’d rather have its vintage underplayed than overplayed. But there are a couple of problems with the film itself, apart from the gap between imagination and reality I already outlined. 

First, if it’s going to be as plodding and unfocused as it is from a narrative standpoint, then the strangeness really needs to pop - either the whole thing needs to feel off-kilter or it needs to feel really mundane right up to the moments that it doesn’t. As it is, it takes a little too long to get really weird, and there are too many stretches where nothing really happens even after it does get weird. Second, there are sort of two layers of narrative strangeness here, and they sort of detract from each other. The things actually happening in the film, when they do occur, are more often than not sufficiently creepy by themselves. But then on top of that, you have obviously spliced and inserted material - occult symbols, words on the screen, what seem to be scenes from a different, equally low-budget movie - and it’s all at odds with the source film, both by being way too obvious, and by being obviously added digitally - it’s too clean and sharp compared to the source material. Puzzlingly, the documentary layer of the film explains - well, first it explains that it’s there to begin with, ruining any element of surprise that it could have had on its side, and then it explains that it seemed to have been added later, which if anything dilutes the mystique of the original film. And then once the film itself is over, we get even more explanation over the end credits, basically “see, there were hidden symbols in this film, and here’s what they mean,” which is kind of insulting to the audience’s intelligence, at the end of the day. It’s not enough to let us sort of experience the film as text, the filmmakers had to signpost and footnote everything in case we missed the point, just yelling “GET IT?” over and over again.

This was always going to be an uphill battle, but there was potential here. The film within the film starts off with a dreamy strangeness to it and has a few moments that are genuinely creepy, and I think if the filmmakers had trusted in that footage without the distracting spliced-in stuff, and had tweaked the actual story some, it could have been something pretty unsettling. Not the sort of thing to drive anyone mad, not by a long shot, but at least disconcerting. Let inference do more of the work up-front, make the film’s history and provenance more elliptical, let the audience read into it more, then show us what appears to be a circa-70s low-budget story that just feels…off, and then take it stranger and stranger places. Don’t obviously splice in ham-handed subliminal stuff, and definitely don’t explain the subliminal stuff after the fact. That could have been something, but this tries too hard on every front to convince us that the paperback book really is the Necronomicon, when nobody was ever going to believe that.