Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Gaia: Getting Lost In The Forest

Sometimes, you think you know what you’re in for when you go into a movie and it ends up being something else - either in a sly subversion of the premise or what is just a hard swerve out of nowhere. There’s something appealing to me about going into something with expectations that get firmly upended. You watch enough genre films, you’ll start to get a sense of what the beats are going to be. So anything that jolts me out of that is going to be welcome. At least, it will be when it’s done well, This is the biggest problem with Gaia. There’s a good, effective body-horror story in this film somewhere, and it’s a pity that that’s not the story it ultimately chooses to tell.

It opens on a vertiginous shot of a vast, unbroken expanse of forest that slowly upends itself in a way that is disorienting. It’s a good moment, really establishing a sense of nature as something alien and hallucinatory, but as one of those people who’s watched a lot of genre films, all I could think was “wow, drone shots are starting to turn into their own sort of cliché, aren’t they?”…before it cuts to someone in a canoe, on a river, flying a drone. Well-played, film, well-played.

There are two people in the canoe - Winston and Gabi. They’re rangers for the South African forestry service, out doing surveys, collecting footage from stationary cameras, making sure nothing’s amiss. Gabi’s piloting the drone and it’s about two kilometers out when it collides with something, or someone and loses signal. This isn’t good, it’s expensive equipment and they don’t want to leave their trash in the forest. Winston doesn’t want Gabi to go out alone - people disappear in these forests - but she insists she’ll be fine and won’t be gone long. Meanwhile, two figures dressed in handmade rags, covered in mud, move slowly through the forest. One of them has the drone strapped to his back. They smear mud of the lenses of the rangers’ cameras. They set booby traps in the forest.

People disappear in these forests.

Gabi discovers that the two mysterious figures are Barend and Stefan - father and son who have left the modern world behind to live off the grid in the forest. Not just living off of the land, worshipping the land. Specifically, a giant mycorrhizal network spanning the breadth of the forest. A vast, singular organism that, as Barend puts it, was old before apes even started dreaming of gods. It is ancient, huge, and its spores have a way of taking over those exposed to them, until none of their humanity is left. This is why they set traps, and Gabi is, effectively, trapped with them in their ramshackle cabin in the middle of the forest.

In ways both large and small, this film bears more than a bit of a resemblance to In The Earth - they take place in two very different parts of the world, in two very different cultural contexts, but both concern themselves with people who go into the forest for work and discover hermits living there, in the middle of something vast and strange at a point where nature becomes something entirely other. A vast fungal network underlying the forest is important in both cases, as are ideas about what our relationship to nature is or should be or even can be. Coincidentally, really unpleasant foot injuries are also key to both films. I don’t think it’s plagiarism or anything as much as convergence on common themes (both were written and made in the middle of COVID-19 lockdown, which was certainly fertile ground for malevolent-nature stories). And both have their shortcomings, but I think In The Earth comes out of the comparison better, because although Gaia has a lot of what you’d need for a good, visceral take on nature at its most indifferent and alien (something In The Earth largely forsakes for a more cerebral approach and a barrage of psychedelia), it decides instead that it primarily wants to be the story of the dynamic between Gabi, Barend and Stefan. And honestly, the characterization isn’t there to support it. It’s got all this other compelling stuff around parasitic plant life and body horror that it effectively relegates to the background by the halfway point. In The Earth, for its faults (mostly a messy ending), creates a mood of real tension and danger, mostly around the people in this strange landscape. This film squanders a vivid, more conventionally horror-based expression of that same landscape for what is effectively a relationship drama. And relationship dramas are fine, but it’s not what we came here for and the characters aren’t fleshed out enough for us to really care at that level.

And it sucks, because it really is a vividly told story when it’s good. Microphotographic shots of plants and time-lapse footage of sprouting fungi, floating spores and branching tendrils really work to sell the almost Lovecraftian otherness of the deep forest, and the ecosystem that holds sway out there, centered around a massive fungal presence that almost seems to breathe, makes for some really striking and unsettling body horror. It’s not entirely without precedent, but it’s definitely not your stock infection narrative - there’s a resemblance to some of the imagery from Annihilation (and the video game The Last Of Us, which is getting its own adaptation on HBO soon enough), but it isn’t really derivative. It’s less in the service of surrealism and more meant to unnerve us, which it does quite well. There’s an icky, visceral tactility to it because it takes things we see in nature all the time and puts them in contexts which make you sort of realize that yeah, something like this could very well be out there, waiting for us to delve too greedily and too deep, to burrow into our flesh and begin to sprout.

At least, when that’s the story and imagery that’s at the forefront of the film, which it is only fitfully, and in a way that doesn’t really sustain a sense of dread. This is another problem with the film - it’s got all the right parts, but they’re put together in a way that largely undercuts their impact. The film’s pitched in such a way that we’re supposed to think that Gabi only gradually realizes that Barend and Stefan might not be entirely benevolent, but it’s clear early on that they have their own agenda. Rather than gradually building to a reveal of just how far the fungal organism has spread and what it’s actually done to people and the forest, things that feel like major revelations are sort of dropped in here and there without a lot of buildup or sense of their importance, and though they’re moments that are impressive and still startling in and of themselves, they don’t really hang together because they’re seeded in between the development of a dynamic between Gabi and Barend and Stefan, and in the second half of the film, that seems to be what the filmmaker’s more interested in exploring. 

And there’s not much to explore there, as it turns out. Not that they’re cartoons (well, Barend starts getting there toward the end), just that we don’t know much about them one way or the other. It’s a very terse film in terms of dialogue, which is fine and for a story focused on the threat all around them that’d work well, but for a character and relationship study, it falls short. We don’t really know why Gabi makes some of the choices she does, Stefan is largely a cipher, almost a Tarzan to Gabi’s Jane, and Barend goes from having some potential depth to ranting fanatic, right on cue. There is, on the other hand, some interesting subtext with Barend, in that you have this highly educated Afrikaner rejecting modern civilization and presuming to go native and in the process decide that he in effect knows what’s best for humanity. Meanwhile, you’ve got African natives Gabi and Winston, working to preserve the land that Barend’s decided he understands better than everyone else. It echoes South African colonialism, and though it’s never explicitly addressed, I don’t think it needs to be. It might just be down to opportune casting, but it does give the film in whatever form it takes a little bite it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

There’s a lot of vivid, disturbing imagery, and to the extent that this is a monster movie, the designs are supremely creepy and the effects entirely believable. This is a film with a good sense of restraint about how and how long to keep creatures on camera, so the mystery’s never really dispelled. On the other hand, the filmmakers made the puzzling choice to locate as much of the horror in nightmare sequences as in actual happenings, even though they’re both pretty similar in imagery and outcome. Usually nightmare sequences are used to communicate some kind of oncoming dread in a way that violates our understanding of the real world, so it doesn’t make much sense for the nightmares to be of things that actually end up happening in the waking world. It feels redundant, and nightmares get used often enough that it starts to feel repetitive and tiresome. There’s one extended hallucination sequence (because, again, fungi and Mother Nature, it’s kind of the law) that, oddly enough, feels if anything a little pedestrian given what we’ve already seen elsewhere.

And finally, though the end of the story proper is a very evocative sequence, it feels sort of anticlimactic, and then there’s a coda that’s not just a “the end...OR IS IT?” cliché, but manages to be preachy in the process. I get wanting your film to Say Something, but I think one thing some filmmakers miss is that a very straightforward film is just as capable of that, if not more, than one where the filmmakers are consciously trying to communicate a message. That ends up being clumsy and didactic, as it is here, and so the film ends with kind of a thud.

The movie about the utter unknowability and mystery and indifference of nature, about how our bodies aren’t necessarily our own, that movie would have been a pretty straightforward monster film with some great almost Lovecraftian touches in malevolent nature. But trying to actively make points about mankind and nature and our relationship to each other and to nature and What It All Means just ends up feeling kind of callow and missing the mark. It certainly takes a hard swerve into the unexpected, just not in a way that’s at all satisfying.

IMDB entry
Available on Hulu 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Whole Truth: Too Much, All At Once

I have my biases, and one of them is for focused, elegantly constructed stories. Shit, given that we’re talking about scary movies, you could probably call a preference for an actual story a bias. Whether it’s a simple, cleanly executed premise or an elaborate clockwork of a thing, having a story that ticks along, hitting the notes it needs to hit when it needs to hit them, just feels satisfying to me. You don’t need gore, you don’t need creature effects, you don’t need a lot of screaming. With the right story, just a look or an open door or a well-placed shadow can be utterly frightening.

This is not, unfortunately, a lesson learned by the people who made The Whole Truth. It starts off promising, but gradually devolves into a mess as it tries to cram about three or four different stories together to the detriment of all of them.

Mai is a single mother with two teenage kids - her daughter Pim and her son Putt. Dad’s not in the picture, and nobody mentions him. Mai’s just gotten a promotion at work to head of international sales, which is awesome, Pim’s up for captain of her school’s cheerleading squad, and Putt…well, Putt is shy, disabled, gets bullied a lot, and has a “friend” named Fame who invites himself over to aggressively creep on Pim and threaten Putt with some sort of blackmail. Mai plans to go out with her kids to celebrate her promotion, but she gets stuck at work late - her new job means having to hang around for a long meeting with a major client. On her way home, she’s struck head-on by a drunk driver.

Now Mai is in the hospital, comatose. Her condition is stable, but the doctors only give her about a fifty-fifty chance of ever waking up again. So now Pim and Putt are effectively orphans, and in steps Mai’s father, Phong. He takes them into his care, bringing them back home, where they meet their grandmother, Wan. Pim and Putt don’t really know their grandparents very well - never visited them, didn’t really hear from them, and they’re not exactly the warmest people. Wan fusses over Pim a little, and…mistakes Putt for someone else. As it turns out, Wan suffers from dementia. Where she is, when it is, and who people are get fuzzy for her sometimes. And now it's up to Pim and Putt to make sure she gets her medication, and try not to upset her.

So, this is their life now when they aren’t in school. And soon enough, Pim and Putt start to notice things are a little off…Wan’s oddly insistent on Putt drinking all of his milk, some of the family photos are just empty frames, some have a person cut out of them. There’s a space on the wall where it’s clear something used to hang. And there’s a hole in the wall that appears to look into the living room of the neighboring house.

It’s always nighttime in that house. Even in the middle of the day.

The basic premise - two kids basically at the mercy of grandparents who don’t really know them, at least one of whom may not be in their right mind - has some promise if the story’s going to be more grounded. There’s real tension and unease in the prospect of being dependent on someone who isn’t really aware of what they’re doing. And a story about a family with deep, dark, hidden secrets (why haven’t they had any contact with their grandparents? Who’s the person missing from the photos?) can work right alongside that pretty easily. That’s even assuming everyone is who they claim to be. Separately, a story about a mysterious hole in the wall that sort of shows up one day and seems to offer a window into some other nightmare reality is, by itself, not a bad premise for a more explicitly supernatural story. But piling all of these three together puts too many ingredients in the pot all at once, not letting any of them develop as fully as they could because the movie’s juggling too much as it is. They’re all connected, in that there’s definitely a reason why Mai didn’t really stay in touch with her parents, it has something to do with the person missing from those photos, and whatever’s on the other side of that mysterious hole may be the key to it all. But it’s a lot, so the space you need to build up dread isn’t really there. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. Early in the film, when you think it’s just going to be about these two kids being effectively trapped with people who say they’re their grandparents, but don’t seem especially affectionate or competent to care for them, there’s definitely something there. But it dissipates quickly in the face of all of the other moving parts.

And on top of all of that there are two other subplots, neither of which have a whole lot to do with the rest of the film. There’s one concerning drama and high-school intrigue around Pim’s place on the cheerleading squad and Fame’s whole predatory fixation on her, and another concerning Phong’s attempt to get at the truth behind the car accident that left Mai in a coma. They don’t really work to flesh out the characters or give them depth or even set up situations that drive the decisions they make later on, they’re just sort of there, padding out the run time without adding anything to the film, or at least not enough to justify the amount of time they take up. They don’t really end up being anything more than distractions. And I suspect the filmmakers were concerned about their audience being easily distracted, because this is not a film that does subtle at all. Not a moment goes by that isn’t punctuated by some kind of music sting or dramatic zoom or close-up. Nothing’s allowed to breathe or just happen in the background or the periphery of the action, which I think it potentially fatal to a movie like this, one that needs some amount of atmosphere to get over. The  more explicitly supernatural elements are pretty standard Asian-ghost stuff punctuated by some gross-out moments, none of which really land because they’re so obvious and so thoroughly forecasted. When someone looks in the hole, you know something bad is going to happen, so at that point it cannot even startle you. This film doesn’t build anything up, it just sort of flings stuff against the wall. And in case there’s any confusion, the characters are there to say out loud the stuff we’ve already figured out for ourselves.

A film like this (or at least one of the films this is like) works through revelation - what is the thing nobody wants to talk about, what happened on a particular night, stuff like that. Which is fine, and there is some of that, but there’s not a lot of mystery to it, it becomes perfunctory at best and convoluted at worst, everything coming to light in the last twenty or thirty minutes in a way that both restates the obvious and throws in some additional twists that, again, don’t really seem to add to the story, ending the whole thing on a note that I think is supposed to be creepily ambiguous but just ends up being confusing, yet again.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t trust in your audience or in the strength of a single story, and the resulting mess tries to do a bunch of things and fails at all of them.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Extremity: Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride

Another one of horror film’s time-honored traditions is stories of make-believe that goes too far. Maybe it’s a movie, or some kind of game, or more recently a reality show or an escape room, but what they have in common is the idea that something that’s being presented as simulated danger turns out to be real, actual danger. It’s an idea that’s easy to do badly, as films like The Task, Hellraiser 8, or The Houses October Built readily demonstrate. It’s a pretty simple premise - what if they’re being murdered for real? - and it’s often treated simplistically, starting and ending with the obvious. It’s the kind of film I’m likely to skip over, all other things being equal.

But as an example of this kind of story. Extremity avoids a lot of the cliches I was afraid it was going to fall into, and largely tells a story that finds tension in places other than the obvious and keeps you guessing. At least, until the third act, when one seriously wrongheaded narrative choice undoes a lot of the film’s goodwill and it limps to its end as something much less compelling. I’m not mad, just disappointed.

After a brief, cryptic scene of someone we can’t see possibly engaging in self-harm, the film opens with sensationalistic title cards and voiceovers about extreme haunt attractions, and how they’re totally unregulated with no safe words or supervision and how anything could happen in one, interspersed with ostensible footage from such haunts, with people being slapped around, covered in cockroaches, etc. You get the impression that this is going to be a movie about how some unsuspecting patrons are lured into some kind of snuff operation, and that threatens to be really boring.

But then the camera pulls back to reveal that what we’re seeing is a video that a young woman is watching on her phone. Her name is Allison Bell, and she’s applied (and selected) to be a participant in an extreme haunt (sometimes called “immersive horror experiences”) called Perdition. She receives instructions to drive to a building out in the middle of nowhere. Then she’s on the phone with someone else, presumably her girlfriend, who’s begging her not to go through with this. Allison assures her she knows what she’s doing, that this is something that she needs to do. Allison had some very bad things happen to her as a child, things maybe she’s never really gotten over. There have been suicide attempts. She’s obsessed with horror films - not your standard stuff, not like what I write about here, the real grimy underground stuff. The kind that sometimes gets confiscated by customs. She arrives at her destination, gets out of the car and dumps her medication out.

Allison wants to push herself as far as she can.

In retrospect, the opening scene sort of sets the thesis for the whole film. It’s not a complicated one - everything is not what it seems - but it’s handled well for the most part, and gets at the compelling thing about these sort of attractions, the degree to which the line between theater and reality blurs. And these sort of attractions do exist in real life, though the pearl-clutching about no safe words or regulations doesn’t seem to have much basis in fact. They’re money-making operations, and require publicity. They’re on the radar, so there are precautions. Guests have to sign extensive waivers of liability, health checks before admission are not uncommon, and there are most definitely safe words. It’s all because attractions like Blackout and McKamey Manor really do ride a line between haunted house, immersive theater, and BDSM scene. They are absolutely not for most people. And much of what we see of Perdition is very similar to what I know of those attractions, so it all feels plausible in that regard. It’s pretty grim - Allison and another participant, a guy named Zachary, find the releases they have to sign in the bathroom of the abandoned building and then begin the game by fishing something out of a toilet filled with actual shit.

This is the gist of this kind of experience: Once you’ve committed to it, once you’ve signed the release, you’re theirs. And it becomes clear very quickly that what Allison and Zachary imagine that is going to mean is very different from what the people running Perdition have in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It’s too late to get off now. The narrative, then, features a lot of interplay between what’s artifice and what’s real. Part of it is in how the story is told from multiple perspectives. The film bounces around between what’s happening in the present, flashbacks to Allison’s childhood, conversations with her therapist and a fraught life with her partner, along with the occasional dream sequence, and the perspective of a Japanese news crew there to document Perdition. So there’s what Allison and Zachary are enduring, what brought Allison here in the first place, and what’s going on behind the scenes. There’s a lot of perspective-juggling going on, but it’s all easy to follow. Anyone coming into this expecting a story about an extreme haunt where the make-believe is ALL TOO REAL or some shit like that is going to be disappointed. For most of its running time, this is more about the tension created when someone who is most likely very unstable puts themselves in a position where their already-fragile ability to cope is pushed to its limits, as well as what happens when you’re trying really hard to make your artistic endeavor a success and maybe you’re taking some chances you shouldn’t, or cutting some corners. It’s more of an accident-waiting-to-happen film, and that’s where a lot of the tension is.

And in that regard, it does a good job of keeping us on our toes - at any given time, it isn’t clear how much of what’s happening is really this attraction going off the rails and how much of it is theater, or to what degree Allison is decompensating or not. Just when you think you’ve gotten it figured out one way or another, it’ll throw something else in to wrong-foot you. There was one twist that I guessed pretty early on, but to the film’s credit, it took a long time to pay it off, which made it easier to believe that maybe it wasn’t coming after all. As the film moves on, we start to get a sense that everyone’s sort of got their own issues - Allison’s are obvious, but the person running Perdition is dealing with a lot behind the scenes, you get the sense that his motivations might not be the healthiest (though not in the way you’re probably thinking), leading to him breaking with protocol and overstepping boundaries, and his staff run the gamut from competent professionals to relatively untested amateurs, to people who seem quite possibly legitimately unhinged. So it’s a story where we’re getting a glimpse into all of the places where this could all fall apart, a confluence of the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time leading to avoidable tragedy. But it’s never (well, almost never) as simple as unsuspecting teens being lured to their doom.

Also to its credit, it has a great sense of setting and style - exteriors are snowy and rural, forests and the outskirts of town in what might be the Rust Belt, though it’s never made clear, interiors are suitably dank and decaying urban ruins, all lit in lurid funhouse reds and blues and purples, as befits the nature of Perdition. It’s one of the few times the abandoned hospital aesthetic doesn’t seem like a cliché to me precisely because Perdition is leaning into that aesthetic like any horror attraction would, and it looks quite real. There’s sort of a late 70s/early 80s grindhouse scuzz to it in places without it ever feeling like pastiche. The soundtrack is ominous synthesizer, shrieking strings, discordant rattles and clanks and thumps, and though it’s nothing surprising, it conveys a feeling of jittery anxiety well, and never really overwhelms the action. The acting is serviceable to good, but the dialogue - especially the sequences with Allison’s therapist - runs toward the clumsy and affected, and it’s definitely distracting at times. There are, on the other hand, some deft cinematic touches in the visual storytelling, so the overarching proposition is still one of a film that’s smarter than you’d expect from the premise.

The biggest problem to me is probably the third act, which starts strong, but then climaxes in a twist that absolutely beggars believability and leads to a series of events and narrative choices that push everything into much more disappointingly conventional territory. A lot happens very quickly and sort of glosses over how plausible any of it would be, some characters behave in really puzzling ways, and it takes the otherwise relatable, grounded story that we’ve been watching so far and pushes it into Grand Guignol in a way that to me didn’t really feel earned. There’s also one final flashback that feels like it’s supposed to be an important revelation, but it’s not really set up as well as it should be so it just feels a little confusing and out of nowhere, ending on a note as cliched as you might have expected before you started watching it. Which is too bad, because there was definitely something here that was working well for most of its running time, and it’s by the same director who made Last Shift, another film that seemed like it was going to be hackneyed mediocrity and ended up being much better than that. But that film, although not perfect, came nowhere close to sabotaging itself in the home stretch like this one did. You don’t get what you were expecting, and that’s good, until it isn’t.

IMDB entry
Available on Tubi

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Tumbbad: Money - The Cause Of (And Solution To) All Of Life’s Problems

Myths, fables, and fairytales are fertile ground for horror. They’re often instructional stories, intended to provide an explanation for how something came to be or to teach important moral lessons. And one way to teach important moral lessons is to scare the shit out of your audience. But over time, they get sanitized, turned into something harmlessly entertaining that we can tell our children without giving them nightmares. I’m not saying that we should be trying to traumatize our children, but it doesn’t take much to scratch off the bright, colorful sheen of a story like Hansel and Gretel and reveal something far grimmer underneath.

This is the wavelength on which Tumbbad operates. It’s an evocative dark fantasy about the corrosive effects of greed, and as someone not especially conversant in Indian mythology, it’s got some really haunting moments that aren’t like anything else I’ve seen.

It begins with the goddess of prosperity, from whom all food and riches flow, giving birth to 160 million gods at the birth of the universe. Beloved above all others was her firstborn, Hastar. But Hastar was greedy, and wanted all of the food and riches for himself. He took all of the gold, but was stopped before he could take all of the food. The goddess refused to let him be destroyed for his sin, but decreed that no temple would even be built to Hastar. He would be a forgotten god. And so his name faded from memory, the subject of no worship, no praise, no stories.

Until someone in the village of Tumbbad found the old stories, found his name, and dedicated a temple to Hastar.

This prologue gives way to India in 1918, and a woman who is mistress to a wealthy old man named Sarkar. She has endured Sarkar’s attention for many years because she has two children to feed, and Sarkar has promised her a gold coin, worth enough to take care of her and her children. He dangles the promise of it like a carrot, assuring her that one day, someday, it would be hers. But that day keeps on failing to come, and in the meantime, she has another responsibility. There is an old, old woman. A woman who must be fed and kept placated. A woman who is kept chained in a room, in the depths of a crumbling, decaying castle, in what used to be a village called Tumbbad.

A woman who has been alive - if that’s what you can call it - for a very, very long time. A woman with the secret to Sarkar’s wealth.

One night, an accident leaves Sarkar’s mistress with only one remaining son and no desire to take care of this very old woman anymore. Her surviving son, Vinayak, is a curious, restless sort, unsatisfied with their meager living, sure that Sarkar will never give up that gold coin to his mother. But when Sarkar dies, the gold coin is indeed hers. And the first thing Vinayak wants to know is where they can find more. But his mother makes him promise to never, ever return to Tumbbad. But as an adult, he does, with the inevitability of fate. There’s something there, and it makes Vinayak - otherwise scraping by as an errand boy to a shady local businessman - a rich man. His fortunes improve, he becomes an important local figure, he marries, he starts a family. All the while concealing the terrible cost, the terrible risks he must take to ensure his prosperity.

(Come to think of it, this film has a bit in common with Incantation in that respect. Though Incantation is much more a straight-up horror film, they both feature old, forbidden gods, cursed villages, and the idea that blessings and curses are sort of two sides of the same coin.)

It’s a story based in folklore, so the imagery isn’t your stock-standard horror fare, with a number of striking set pieces and a strong sense of atmosphere throughout. It’s a story of forgotten gods, cursed villages, and the terrible things people are willing to do for money. Tumbbad is a crumbling ruin, perpetually drenched in rainfall, the castle at its center a tangle of stone chambers with dirt floors illuminated fitfully by torchlight. The visuals do a lot of the work here, consistently strong and drawing on traditions you don’t see a lot of in the West. There’s always the danger of exoticizing things, but one of the things I appreciate about horror from other countries is the novelty, to me at least, of the imagery and cultural assumptions driving the films. I don’t know how rooted in actual Hindu mythology the story is, but it works well, putting a fresh and surprising spin on ideas that are themselves not necessarily new. So there’s a fairytale aspect to it, but the fairytale in its original, non-sanitized form, where the moral is taught in blood and sacrifice and fire.

It's a story that spans a period of almost 30 years, from a mother’s duty and a childhood tragedy to a father’s debt and its cost being everything, all set to the backdrop of an India in the process of gaining its independence. It’s a world in flux, and we see things changing right in front of us. The old ways being bulldozed and paved over by the new. Vinayak isn’t especially sympathetic - from a very young age he’s obsessed with the existence of a treasure rumored to lie under Tumbbad and it warps him into a man comfortable with corruption. You get the sense that the promise of this treasure has this effect on anyone it touches - Sarkar holds it over Vinayak’ mother’s head for years, and Vinayak grows into a complacent man contemptuous of Indian independence and social change. And Pandurang, Vinayak’s oldest son, never really stands a chance in this regard. He is his father’s son, and his ambition exceeds even that of his father, as the young and headstrong so often do. The more money you have, the easier it is to see it as the solution to everything and Pandurang learns this far too early.

It tells its story economically, with an effective use of montage and repeated sequences to indicate the passage of time, and it's moody as hell, full of rainswept vistas, crowded villages and torchlit ruins, and places far stranger than that. For most of its running time, it’s located very much in the real world, concerned with Vinayak’s meteoric rise in an India that’s in the middle of tremendous change. But this makes the moment where it taps into something more mysterious and otherworldly that much more effective. It’s a world where bribes and backroom deals are just a car ride away from something much older and darker. And when it is concerned with the older, darker parts of India, the visual effects are surprisingly solid given how ambitious they are. The story plays fair as well - even the most unsympathetic characters never descend to the level of two-dimensional villainy. They’re driven by very human flaws, and seem to be aware of just how precarious their situation is. Vinayak’s wife doesn’t know what he has to do to keep the family in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, and though she’s curious, she doesn’t press that hard, as if part of her really doesn’t want to know.

There are, perhaps, some pacing issues, insofar as the film starts strong and then bogs down a little in the middle as the focus shifts from the nightmarish secrets hidden in cursed villages to the life of a man who doesn’t seem to have any problem with wealth, but then, as we get just the briefest glimpse of what he has to do to get it, it all becomes much clearer and things begin to pick back up from there. A long time ago, the people of Tumbbad did something forbidden, and the results are both a curse and a blessing for anyone who dares to brave its depths.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Odishon: Everyone Is Lonely

Loneliness is corrosive. We’re a social species, for whom community is historically an important part of our survival. And even though it might not be as critical to our continued physical survival as it might once have been, depriving someone of that can impact their mental health negatively, and it can become a vicious cycle - the more disconnected we become, the harder it is to reconnect. It’s easy to forget yourself, forget your humanity even, over a long enough stretch of time isolated from everyone else.

And Odishon (Audition) knows this very well. It’s a masterfully made, absolutely harrowing story about loneliness and how it distorts and misshapes us.

It’s been seven years since Shigeharu Aoyama lost his wife Ryoko to a terminal illness. It’s just him and his son Shigehiko, who is now a teenager. Shigeharu does alright for himself in television production, but even his son sees that he’s lost some of the spring in his step, that he looks tired. It’s the time-honored romantic comedy cliché of the child urging their widowed parent to get back up on the horse, to start looking for love again. Shigehiko’s even got a girlfriend of his own, who comes over for study dates and is impressed with his knowledge of dinosaurs. Even his secretary is about to get married. It’s time for Dad to get back out there.

But it’s tough to meet people the older you get. Shigeharu doesn’t want an arranged marriage, he wants something romantic. He wants to meet someone and fall in love, and that’s not the kind of thing you can just make happen, especially as a busy professional. And one night, out at a bar after work, his friend Yasuhisa hits on an idea. See, Yasuhisa works in film, and it wouldn’t be that difficult for him to arrange a casting call for a movie ostensibly in production. Shigeharu will sit in on the auditions, he’ll be able to look over their resumes, get their contact information. Thirty women, see if there are any he likes. He can follow up with them later, and what do you know, it turns out the funding for the film’s been withdrawn. Tough break…but how about having dinner with me? One comic montage later, complete with actresses doing everything from baton-twirling routines to stripping down nude, one quiet, shy young woman stands out to Shigeharu. Her name’s Asami. She’s very quiet, very demure. She trained in classical ballet for 12 years but her hopes of a career were cut short when she injured her hip. Now she gets by working at a friend’s bar three nights a week. Shigeharu is almost immediately smitten.

Yasuhisa isn’t so sure, though. He thinks there’s something…off…about her.

There’s a lot going on here. It’s got the premise of a romantic comedy, but almost right from the start there’s something more astringent about it. Once they agree to their ruse, Shigeharu and Yasuhisa exhibit the conspiratorial chumminess of less overtly misogynistic versions of characters from In The Company Of Men. There are glimmers of conscience and concern, but it doesn’t stop them from going through with what is basically the presentation of thirty women as commodities, as if Shigeharu is selecting a new car, or a pet, or the fish he wants for dinner. And once Shigeharu falls for Asami, he’s as giddy as a schoolboy, which makes sense, since the idea of having a series of women paraded before you so you can pick out your favorite is a deeply juvenile one, It illustrates the idea that in some ways, some men never really grow up, that when it comes to sex and love, Shigeharu isn’t much more mature than his son. He’s happy, he’s got a new lease on life, he’s excited again, and it all seems sincere. There isn’t really any maliciousness or cruelty to him, it really is the headiness of new love, but the lie it’s predicated upon is never really far away. He’s a man who puts his needs first, and doesn’t really give the implications of that much thought.

And then there’s Asami. She is very much someone who seems fine at first glance, but the longer you look and the deeper you look, the clearer it becomes that there’s something very wrong. She’s demure, but demure to the point of utter stillness, almost dissociated (which would make sense given what we will eventually learn about her). Her background doesn’t check out at all - not her employment references, not anything. She’s a total blank. As Yasuhisa observers, he cannot find anyone who actually knows her. There are allusions to a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family, revealed to be much more and much worse in startling, upsetting flashbacks. She says things like “love only me,” to which Shigeharu readily agrees, not yet realizing how literal she’s being. Asami’s been through a lot from a very young age, and it’s had a profound impact on how she views things like love and connection, abandonment and pain.

The characterization is solid - nobody here really feels two-dimensional. Shigeharu is believable as a man who’s been grieving for a long time, and finds himself excited by the prospect of new love, enough so that he’s willing to overlook some of his qualms at the blatantly unethical way he’s pursuing it. Yasuhisa gives him the idea in the first place, but he also recognizes that his friend isn’t thinking straight and tries to counsel him to be cautious, so both of them are neither wholly unsympathetic nor wholly sympathetic. Like far too many men, they’re otherwise decent people with some pretty serious blind spots when it comes to how they treat women. Asami, from the outside, is just disconcerting enough in speech and manner to be noticeable, but not so much that someone like Shigeharu couldn’t disregard it (and there are some suggestions late in the film that he’s remembered some of their interactions very selectively), and it’s easy to believe her as someone bent into something monstrous by profound abuse and neglect. Shigeharu’s son is your basic heterosexual teenage boy, as interested in dinosaurs as he is in girls, but he doesn’t seem predatory about it. He wants his dad to be happy, he’s starting to discover attraction himself, and that all seems about right.

So it’s a film that’s very much about loneliness. This isn’t even subtextual - at one point, Yasuhisa observes that “everyone is lonely in Japan,” and it sort sets the thesis for everything else. Yes, Asami’s clearly been warped by a childhood filled with abuse to the point that she has real trouble connecting to others, but Shigeharu’s own relative loneliness causes him to ignore his better judgment and disregard some very clear red flags in the things Asami says and how she behaves. That lack of connection estranges people from their sense of self and their good judgment. But it also highlights the idea that there’s lonely, and then there’s lonely. Next to Asami’s utter isolation and disconnection - not just from humanity, but from empathy and healthy boundaries - Shigeharu’s loneliness is very relative. He has a son, coworkers, friends…his loneliness seems more like self-pity compared to the desolation that is Asami’s life and the shape it’s forced her into. We’re introduced to her sitting in her room, staring out the window into the rain, and it’s immediately evocative of someone whose emptiness is total.

And all of this is in service of a story that’s told in an audacious fashion. The film plays a lot with narrative in a few different ways, all to good effect. It begins as a romantic comedy (if you think about it, looking for a spouse under the pretext of auditions for the leading role in a film feels a lot like a rom-com waiting to happen. If you stop to consider it, the implications are appalling, but that’s not unusual for romantic comedies) stem to stern - it’s got the lighthearted, breezy pop soundtrack, a yearning secretary, a no-nonsense housekeeper, and a son urging his dad to get back out there. And then at the end of the first act, the penny drops for the audience in a single scene, as unnerving as it is simple in construction. Now we know for sure that something isn’t right (well, we did anyway, since we’re watching a horror movie), but the film more or less continues as a romantic comedy, even as discordant notes increasingly creep in - as we learn more about Asami (or rather, learn how much we don’t know), as Yasuhisa becomes increasingly concerned by this and urges Shigeharu not to rush into things, while Shigeharu blithely ignores his friend, so strong is his attraction to Asami. The second act has more than a bit of the feeling that Shigeharu is walking toward the edge of a cliff, whistling and looking at the clouds. But it’s still grounded in romantic comedy, where his absentmindedness and willingness to take risks or ignore what’s staring him in the face would read as the dizzy recklessness of new love. But knowing what we know, it reads vert differently, like someone headed toward his doom.

It also plays with narrative visually as well, making inventive use of cutaways to convey beats economically, and flashbacks that mix up time and place - putting the adult versions of characters in situations where they were children and vice versa, and revelations that do the same, turning someone’s process of putting two and two together into a visual recombination of people and places and conversations we’ve already seen that simultaneously suggest the unreliability of memory, the logic of nightmares, and the delusions that accompany extreme ordeal, the wish to be anywhere but here. It jumbles a lot of things up in a way that defies linear storytelling, but it communicates truths nonetheless - there are points where Shigeharu, in terms of the plot, can’t be where he’s shown to be or seeing the things he’s seeing, but nonetheless, it carries the weight of truth. It’s like he’s starting to realize exactly what he’s gotten himself into, as well as having some revelations about his own past behavior, his realizations playing out in front of him and us. He’s almost serving as a proxy for us, showing us the things that have happened even though he wasn’t actually there and things that he did long before the events of this film. And even apart from the inventive use of flashback and dreamlike, hallucinatory revelation, there are a number of moments that are masterfully composed, some haunting, some unsettling, some beautiful, using light and space and the positioning of characters and objects to communicate the emotional states of characters without any words, or to underline exactly how creepy everything is getting.

And then in the third act, it all comes crashing down on him, and he is very much there, and so are we, and has so often been the case in the film up to this point, we are not allowed to look away as Shigeharu learns exactly how much of a mistake he’s made and what the costs are going to be. It’s excruciating to watch, and somehow doesn’t feel at odds with what’s come before - when Asami said he should love nobody except her, that’s exactly what she meant. Other people have told her that they would love her in the past, but they lied. And what Asami has learned is that while other people lie, pain never does. It plays fair in that regard - the film tells us that there’s something off about her, Yasuhisa knows there’s something off about her, it’s clear to us that there’s something off about her, but Shigeharu doesn’t listen, and now this is happening, with the dread inevitability that’s been building the entire time, This film is considered to be a classic of Japanese horror, and there is a very good reason for that.

IMDB entry
Available on Tubi
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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

L'uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo: An Odd Bird

Today, I’m going to be writing about my latest in an ongoing attempt to familiarize myself with classic Italian horror. Most of what I’ve taken away so far from the films I’ve seen is that classic Italian horror is visually stylish and utterly unacquainted with things like “subtlety” or “nuance.” And L'uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) is where a lot of this begins. It was director Dario Argento’s first sole directing credit, and it…for better and worse…really lays out the thesis for what would follow.

The film opens on an unseen figure typing a note that appears to be the location for a meeting. And then a pair of hands, clad in black gloves, unwrapping an impressive array of knives. There’s a lingering over the knives, over the leather of the gloves. It’d be really obvious to call it “fetishistic,” but that’s because it’s really obviously fetishistic. It’s an opening that leaves nothing in doubt: People are going to get stabbed.

And then we’re whisked away to meet Sam Dalmas. He’s a writer from the United States, in Rome to write a manual about varieties of birds. He was hoping for a novel, but writer’ block means he’s taking the work he can get. He doesn’t even want a copy of the book he’s just written - the check is enough. Sam is maybe kind of a dick, but he’s a dick with a hot model girlfriend and a week or two left on the lease for his apartment. He’s getting ready to move back to the U.S. with abovementioned hot model Julia. And so Sam’s walking home one night, and he ends up going past an art gallery, well-lit, full of sculpture and a front wall and entryway made entirely of glass…

…which makes it very easy to see the black-clad figure inside attempting to stab a woman to death.

Sam manages to drive the attacker off by creating a commotion, and to his credit, sticks around to make sure the potential victim is okay. He is now also the sole eyewitness to this crime, and after an interview with a detective ends in a game of “whoops, got your passport” that Sam loses badly, he’s stuck in Italy until there’s some kind of resolution. So he does what anyone would do in this position, and begins his own search for the assailant, even though he has no background or credentials in law enforcement. It’s not like there’s much else he can do.

The basic structure of the story revolves around Sam’s attempts, working both with the police and on his own, to figure out who tried to kill this woman even as more bodies start to pile up. It’s a mystery, but not necessarily an especially artfully crafted one. In fact, I think the best way to describe this film is as…eccentric. 

It’s eccentric from a visual standpoint - there are a lot of point-of-view shots from both the killer’s and victim’s perspectives (which actually work pretty well even if they are a little predictable(, a lot of close-ups of eyes and (screaming) mouths, and an editing style that can only be described as “jarring.” It’s a film where scenes of violence cut immediately to scenes of domesticity, often in the middle of a conversation, without any real transition or indication that the scene is about to change. It’s also a film in which a police crime lab is represented by a sterile white room with banks of whirring tape drives, as classic a visual shorthand for “SCIENCE!” as you could want. It’s a more visually subdued affair than Argento’s later film Suspiria, depicting everyday Italy in both its glamorous art galleries and modest apartments in crumbling neighborhoods, but the way it’s shown lends it a sheen of strangeness nonetheless.

But it isn’t always gratuitously strange, some of the visuals can be quite inventive. One especially memorable scene has Julia recounting the other murders to Sam in voiceover while we see stills of the crime scene photos from each killing, and it works really well. It also makes good use of flashbacks, sometimes freeze-framed or played over and over, inserted into the middle of scenes in a way that makes them feel almost like intrusive thoughts. And all of this is scored with a soundtrack that is equal parts discordant jazz and wordless female vocalization, landing it somewhere between a crime film and a supernatural horror film, which is appropriate. Though the killer isn’t a supernatural figure, the narrative requires that we don’t see their face until the final reveal, so for most of the film they seem less like a person and more like a presence, an undetectable, unstoppable force.

It’s narratively eccentric as well. It’d actually be more accurate to say that it’s all over the shop. It’s tough to believe that law enforcement would just let a civilian - an American one, no less - just run around conducting his own ad hoc investigation, and on multiple occasions, we get flashbacks to things Sam’s experienced that depict events clearly and vividly, but he struggles to remember the things we’re seeing right in front of us on the screen. It almost makes it feel like he’s holding something back, though at no point is he implied to be the killer. There are strange comic touches as well, like a stuttering pimp and an informant whose portrayal borders on slapstick and who feels like he wandered in from an entirely different movie, along with a deeply eccentric artist with some peculiar dietary habits, and one especially odd scene where Sam recounts an upsetting phone call to a friend, only to turn around and start making out with Julia with such fervor that the friend shows himself out. Between this and the cinematic choices, it’s a film with a tone best described as abrupt. 

None of those things are necessarily weaknesses, given the right context, but it’s got some full-on weaknesses as well. The sexism is toned down compared to Argento’s film Profondo Rosso, but the casual homophobia and transphobia from that film shows up here as well and is, equally juvenile and off-putting here. The end is a mess of fake-outs before the final reveal, jettisoning the offhand clues we get through most of the film to land on a final reveal that mostly comes out of nowhere (unless you’ve seen Profondo Rosso, in which case you will, like me, be expecting it), explained with a lot of psychobabble that to modern sensibilities will probably land as at least a trifle offensive. 

Still, it was Argento’s first sole directing credit, and though it might not have been the first giallo, it’s certainly where the form took off and it sets a tone for a lot of the films that followed. On that level, it’s an assured and confident debut with a distinct vision, and it pioneers themes and techniques that echo through his later work and into the work of other directors. It’s a clumsy mystery, but one that blazed a trail.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Carnival Of Souls: Unheimlich

The German word unheimlich means, strange, or eerie, or uncanny, and literally translates as “unhome-like.” So something that is strange or eerie is something that is not home. And I can’t really think of a better word to describe Carnival Of Souls, an early-60s oddity that’s earned cult classic status over the years. It’s definitely strange, still pretty eerie in the modern day, and it’s very much a film about someone who doesn’t feel at home where she is, and why that might be the case.

The film opens cold on a group of three women riding together in a car. They stop at a red light, where two men in a neighboring car challenge them to a drag race. Against all good sense, the woman driving the car meets their challenge and they peel out when the light turns green. Soon enough, they come to a narrow bridge over a river. There’s just barely enough room for two cars to run abreast, and in jockeying for position, the car with the women in it gets nudged just enough at speed to send it through one of the flimsy wooden guardrails and into the river below. The car immediately begins to sink. The opening title and credits play out over the rushing water.

Some time later, one woman…only one…crawls out of the river, dazed and covered with mud.

Her name is Mary Henry, and she’s the sole survivor of the crash. The rest of the film concerns itself with her attempt to put something like a normal life back together after the accident. She takes a job as a church organist in a small town, though she herself is not religious, and secures lodging in a boarding house. It’s just her, the landlady, and one very, VERY creepy neighbor. She develops an obsession with a local pavilion, grand and majestic, but abandoned. It used to be a dance hall, and then an indoor carnival, but nobody goes there now. And then the dreams start. And then the hallucinations.

To the extent that this film works (which is pretty well, all told), it’s because it’s a very, very strange film. It was clearly shot on a small budget, but what it lacks in technical sophistication, it makes up for in sheer uneasiness. I think some of this is attributable to the film itself and some of it to the period when it was made. The dialogue and performances  are as stilted as you’d expect from a film made in the late 50s-early 60s. with all the verve and polish of an industrial training film (which makes sense, since that was the director’s stock in trade, and the format to which he returned after making this, his only feature film). It’s shot entirely in black and white, equal parts mundane everyday life and noirish chiaroscuro, with sort of a similar vibe to Night Of The Living Dead in that respect. The soundtrack does a lot of work toward the overall mood, consisting of periods of shrill, dissonant organ music, alternating with complete silence. But even beyond that, everyone feels a little…off, from the tremulous, easily flustered landlady to the furtive, weaselly neighbor, to Mary herself, aloof, brittle and remote, constantly driven by the urge to get away, to separate herself, to be alone. And you don’t really blame her, given that everyone around her seems bent on inserting themselves into her life and her business. It doesn’t have the bug-eyed intensity of something like Messiah Of Evil, but it does have that same sense of a world where everything is just a few degrees left of center.

It’s also a film that’s willing to do the unexpected cinematically. Since the director’s background was in industrial training films, there’s a plain, workmanlike feeling to the cinematography that contrasts with the fantastic subject matter. There are some instances of clever editing and moody, haunting composition, but these just stand out even more against the dry mundanity elsewhere. And there are some definite eccentricities at work here - close-ups get held a little too long or are placed where you wouldn’t expect a close-up to be, and other shots get cut off mid-sentence, so it never really falls into a predictable rhythm. For every sequence in broad daylight, in the waking world, there’s another swallowed by shadows, but one thing that distinguishes this film from a lot of other horror films is that the bad stuff doesn’t just happen at night - as the film goes on, Mary’s visions are as likely to intrude on her waking life as her nightmares, which adds to the overall off-kilter feeling of the film. It skirts convention in how it tells its story and how it conveys it visually, not so much defying expectations as disregarding them.

There’s not much of a story here, really - the film is mostly just Mary going from strange incident to strange incident until it ends, though there is a definite sense of escalation as the film moves along. Her start in a new town seems normal enough, but then the nightmares start, and then the hallucinations, and then there are periods where she seems to slip out of sync with the world altogether, and it does start to wear on her more and more over time. And honestly, her interactions with her lecherous neighbor were as uncomfortable and unsettling to me as anything else, if not more so, but I think a lot of that is the combination of the unsubtle performances and the gender norms of about sixty years ago. Still, it ends up adding a whole other layer of unease to the proceedings. The more supernatural elements are conveyed economically, but effectively, using simple makeup and slightly undercranked shots to give everything an unnaturally hastened feel. Between its theatricality, the soundtrack of spooky organ music, and the simplicity of the makeup effects, the climax reminds me of nothing so much as German Expressionism, crude but still effective.

The ending probably isn’t going to surprise anyone in a modern audience, since films with a similar conceit have become more common since this was released, but I bet this blew minds back in the day. Home is someplace comfortable and familiar, and Mary can’t feel comfortable anywhere anymore. Nowhere is home, and as an audience, we’re equally denied the comforts of familiar, predictable horror storytelling. Her experience and ours are equally unheimlich.

IMDB entry

Available on Amazon