Sunday, July 26, 2020

Caged Birds

Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)

Olivia De Havilland died this week at the age of 104. It sometimes seemed to us film fans that she would live forever. She was the last of the great actors from classic Hollywood and with her, an era that recedes farther and farther from living memory comes to a definitive ending. I remember her best for her films with Errol Flynn and for her horror movies in the sixties and seventies, but she won a pair of Oscars after her collaboration with Flynn ended. Her feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine, seems to finally be at an end. I haven't written about many of her films, but I'm probably going to watch a fair dozen of them this week. I wrote about Lady in a Cage in 2006 for another venue. I'm reprinting that piece here, only slightly rewritten for clarity.

Lady in a Cage, 1964, directed by Walter Grauman. Olivia De Havilland, James Caan, Jeff Corey, Ann Southern, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan.

I experienced a certain amount of deja vu while watching Lady in a Cage. On the surface, this seems like yet another rip-off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which an aging actress from Hollywood's golden age is put into an exploitation story--in this case, Olivia De Havilland, who made a lot of bank in these kinds of films in the 1960s. But there, the similarity ends. The Baby Janes, for all their grand guignol gestures, are essentially old-style gothics. Lady in a Cage is something else. It is a fore-runner of the exploitation films of the 1970s, in which the sixties youth revolution collides with the middle class. It's remarkably prescient. Consider the opening credits: We see a city in a heat wave. On the soundtrack, we hear the intimations of a world spinning well and truly into chaos. The arresting freeze-frame shots of the world at large recall the end of Night of the Living Dead, but the last image we see as these shots progress to the house of our heroine is the flyblown carcass of a dead dog in the street. Even before the story itself has begun, the movie has laid before the audience the technique used a decade later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre AND anticipated one of its first images (Tobe Hooper's film was originally to open on a shot of a dead dog by the side of the road--which can be seen in the extras of some editions of the film--but opted for a dead armadillo instead).

The story itself, in which the disabled upper class woman played by Miss De Havilland is trapped in an elevator by a power-outage and terrorized by home invaders, recalls Wes Craven's early films, in which the bourgeoisie are stripped of their privilege and must compete with the savages for survival. James Caan plays the film's version of Krug, the David Hess character from Last House on the Left. But this film goes Craven one better. Craven suggests that even mild-mannered "civilized" people become monsters to fight monsters. This film suggests that those "civilized" people may already have been monsters to start with. Our heroine even articulates this thought at key points of the film's running time: once near the beginning when she speculates that it might be a good time to invest in armament stocks, then later when she specifically calls herself a monster. This film is surprising for a film made in 1964 for making the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots explicit. Even more surprising is the depiction of affluence as a suffocating burden on the young. It should be noted that there are several not-so-sub rosa allusions to Oedipus and the complex named for him. The film even manages a few apocalyptic touches, especially when our heroine speculates that her plight has been caused by someone dropping the bomb.

James Caan and Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)
New Hollywood vs Old Hollywood in James Caan vs. Olivia De Havilland.

This is all so compelling that one can't help but be disappointed that the film isn't better than it is. Apart from the opening credit sequence--perhaps the best rip-off of Saul Bass that I've ever seen--the film is largely anonymous. It looks a bit like the TV noir of The Twilight Zone or The Untouchables. This is not surprising from a director who is a veteran of television. What's good here argues that the dominant creative hand behind the film is screenwriter/producer Luther Davis, who later wrote Across 110th Street, one of the bleakest of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. More than that, the villains of the piece seem unconvincing, whether because they are poorly conceived (likely) or poorly acted (also likely). More interesting than the main villains are the secondary villains, for want of a better term, played by Jeff Corey and Ann Southern. If the film had had the wit to conflate Jeff Corey's bible thumping wino with James Caan's young firebrand, then the film would have been REALLY prescient, presenting a proto-Manson. But it doesn't, and I'm digressing from the point.

In any event, what the film lacks in style, it more than makes up for in brutality and sheer nihilism. It's a bracing film even today.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

True/False 2020: Lingering Traumas

Sunless Shadows (2019)

This year's True/False Film Festival brings a couple of films about the lingering effects of trauma. This is a constant well of subject matter for documentary filmmakers which doesn't speak well to the world we live in, but it makes for compelling drama.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

True/False 2020: Tales of Two Cities

Mayor (2020)

The annual True/False Film Festival went on as scheduled this weekend in my fair city. There was a whistling-past-the-graveyard feeling to this year's proceedings, given the spectre of a global pandemic that hung over almost every conversation I had with other attendees, particularly once the news hit that South by Southwest had canceled their festival and it was increasingly likely that True/False would be the end of the road for this year's festival season. Here in Columbia, Missouri, currently untouched by the pandemic, the show went on. Even lacking the pandemic, though, many of this year's films were grim, reflective of a world out of balance to an even greater degree than usual. I know that the selections at this festival aren't intentionally picked so that they rhyme each other, but it happens often enough. And so it was this year.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Now You See Him

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (2020)

One of the enduring challenges facing horror movies is finding things that really scare an audience. Most horror movies fail at this, or abstract it in a way that an audience can sidestep their fears and take them out for a walk without any risk. A horror movie that can lay those fears bare and weaponize them against an audience is a rare thing and is likely to alienate a mass audience. The things that scare people are so personal that it's hard to find something that will reliably scare a large audience. Better to offer a thrill ride. I say all of this because the new version of The Invisible Man (2020, directed by Leigh Whannell), is legitimately scary and not in a fun, thrill-ride sort of way. It finds a raw nerve and it exploits it without mercy. What this film plays as a fantasy is all too real for so, so many women who are the victims of abuse. The varieties of abuse are all there on the screen: physical, mental, financial, institutional; the whole of a society geared to dismiss the suffering of women comes under scrutiny of this film's clinical examination. It's like a slap in the face.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Island Reveries

Fantasy Island (2020)

I suppose it was too much to hope that a new version of Fantasy Island (2020, directed by Jeff Wadlow) would be something other than a bunch of moralizing twaddle. Moralizing twaddle was baked into the DNA of the old TV series. It's what made the show popular with the old ladies who were its primary audience. My grandmother loved the show, although that might also reflect her crush on Ricardo Montalban. There's a certain poetry in the original show's position as the follow-up to The Love Boat, given that it takes the privileged bourgeois characters of THAT show and holds up a mirror to their moral failings. That could work even today. It's not too surprising to see it re-imagined as a horror movie, either. The original 1977 pilot for the show had more than a little horror woven into it, particularly that weird Gothic ambience unique to 1970s tv movies. Horror tropes abounded throughout the series original run from the outset. The pilot featured a riff on The Most Dangerous Game and another story about a woman who wants to attend her own funeral, after all. It was a sunlit variation of The Twilight Zone at Rod Serling's most didactic. So the new movie, which includes both the moralizing and the tired horror tropes, is at least recognizable as descended from the original show.

Saturday, February 08, 2020


Mackenzie Davis in The Turning (2020)

"But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped." --Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

If you fall down the rabbit hole of genre taxonomy,* one of the things you'll discover is how fuzzy and indistinct the borders between genres really are. Nowhere is that more evident than in trying to draw an outline around what constitutes the horror story. If you look too hard at horror as a genre, then it evaporates before your very eyes, with its component parts ordering themselves either as dark fantasy and psychological suspense. Horror, as has been said by sharper horror scholars than I, isn't really a genre at all, but is rather an emotion. An emotion can come from anything. The things that scare and disturb us are protean and idiosyncratic and cannot be contained within the boundaries of a literary genre. It seems to me, though, that there is a horror genre composed of a common pool of archetypes and narrative tropes and that you can't fractionate those generic elements based on whether or not something is supernatural or naturalistic or however you want to order things. The corpus colossum that unites the various lobes of the horror genre is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw with its famously ambiguous unreliable narrator. Is it a supernatural ghost story or a tale of ordinary madness? The story is cryptic on this matter. This is a challenge to later interpreters, particularly to filmmakers. Jack Clayton's The Innocents is more or less successful at straddling this divide, but not every version has the kind of blue-blooded cinematic bona fides that that film has. The latest version in the cinema (as opposed to the one that's coming as a series to Netflix) has no such pedigree. The Turning (2020, directed by Floria Sigismondi) attempts to split the difference. Literally.

Spoilers, I guess.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Sophia Lillis in Gretel & Hansel (2020)

“Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?” -- Kenneth Patchen.

Many horror movies take place in what I call "Horror Movie Land", which is some non-specific time in the past, usually in middle or eastern Europe but sometimes in France or the UK or even early America. The time period can vary from the late middle ages all the way up to the early 20th Century (the automobile in Hammer's Kiss of the Vampire is a giveaway, for one example). What they have in common is that these settings are nowhere real. They are, rather, archetypal landscapes, the land of dreams and nightmares conjured up by the Gothic imagination of the Romantics. Think of the bleak landscapes painted by artists like Caspar David Friedrich or Otto Runge, or the Europe of Melmoth the Wanderer or The Castle of Otranto. Almost all horror movies that are set in Horror Movie Land abstract their settings for effect. There's a level of theatricality in all such movies, whether they're shot on a soundstage, as Corman's Poe movies were, or in the landscapes favored by Hammer and Amicus. Osgood Perkins's new film, Gretel & Hansel is set in a more abstract version of Horror Movie Land than usual. The locale is doggedly non-specific (the Hansel and Gretel story is German, but this film doesn't seem particularly Germanic), and the time period seems to exist outside of a historical context. Given the film's origins in a fairy tale, it's entirely appropriate that it exists inside an archetype rather than in a specific time and space. It makes for a strange mood.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

In No Man's Land

George MacKay in 1917 (2019)

Only the dead were always present—present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air.

--The Night Patrol, Arthur Graeme West

The art of film editing is the manipulation of time and space. The eye of the movie camera can travel millions of years and millions of miles in the blink of an eye. Think of that famous cut at the end of the "Dawn of Man" sequence in 2001 for an extravagant example. I do not believe, as the makers of films like Birdman or Russian Ark seem to believe, that editing distances the viewer from the experiential elements of film, so I am suspicious of long-take filmmaking, particularly of feature-film-as-a-single-take filmmaking. I mostly think it's a technical stunt, one designed for film students who are over-awed by the opening shot of Touch of Evil or the action sequences in Children of Men. Of course, both of those films knew when and where to cut. So I find myself surprised that I liked Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019) as much as I did. I was expecting the equivalent of a videogame run-through, and in some respects that's what I got: a sequence of first person shooter set-pieces interspersed with cut scenes to advance the story. That's a glib description even if it's one that I used myself to disparage the film before I had actually seen it. 1917 is a more disciplined film than that, and that discipline is on full display when the filmmakers actually choose to cut, to use the power of the cut to manipulate time, and to hell with the purity of their project. There's purity and there's effectiveness. This film favors effectiveness.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Oceanic Dread

Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020)

Underwater (2020, directed by William Eubank) is a relentless horror movie that puts its foot on the gas at the outset and never lets it up. In this regard its a throwback to movies like The Terminator or The Hidden, films in which anything that doesn't immediately serve the narrative on screen is cheerfully thrown over the side. It's built for speed. It has a visceral immediacy. It's a film whose plot can be summed up as, "Oh shit oh shit oh shit." It has the pop vitality of really good pulp fiction. Somehow, it manages to be more than that. Underwater is the best kind of genre film, in so far as it uses genre as a crucible for its characters. Its characters do not reveal themselves in exposition or in heartfelt scenes of dialogue. They reveal themselves in their actions. In turn, their circumstances test them to destruction in ways that would elude more naturalistic filmmaking. In doing so, it quietly undermines the expectations of genre. It uses the tropes, sure, but it also subverts them.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Wills and Fates

Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

"Our wills and fates do so contrary run" -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

There's a philosophical problem buried in the second half of Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, directed by Tim Miller) that's new to the series. The Terminator films have always dealt in metaphysics, questioning whether the universe is deterministic or whether it can be affected by free will. This is the dichotomy between the first film in the series and the second. The films since then have mostly tried to have it both ways because if the end of Terminator 2 holds sway, there can't be any more Terminator films going forward. There's too much money at stake for that to derail future films, so these questions mostly get addressed in ways that permit the new films to take place at all, without too much thought about the original dialectic. The new film is mostly unnecessary, as all of the subsequent Terminator films have been unnecessary, except for a brief moment when it veers away from the series' metaphysical dilemma into the realm of epistemology. It asks: "What is the purpose of a killing machine once it has fulfilled its mission?" Then it asks a similar question. "What is the purpose of a mother of the future when that future no longer exists?" It also touches briefly on what it means to be a human being once a trans-human singularity drastically changes the physical bounds of what human beings actually are. It even interrogates, however briefly, the function and moral worth of work in a world where humans are not actually needed to perform that work. All of these questions have been lurking in the underlying structures of the Terminator movies, but this one brings all of them to the surface. It does not, however, dwell too long on them because there's stuff it needs to blow up real good.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Post Mortem

Olwen Catherine Kelly The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

...But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all...

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, his landmark essay on the subject of fear in horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft opined: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." I think this says more about Lovecraft than it does about the nature of fear in horror fiction, though. Lovecraft was scared of his own shadow, after all. My own feeling is that the root of fear in almost all things--especially in the horror story--is ultimately a fear of death. That undiscovered country of Shakespeare and the neurotic obsession of the Gothic romantics. Lovecraft is right in one respect, though: death is a great unknown, and not just because no one yet has returned from its Plutonian shore to offer a report on the lay of the land. The rituals of death are often a mystery, too, hidden away from most people in the Western tradition. As a people, we have become disconnected from death and death rituals to a point where the cerements of the grave provide the horror story and the horror film with their most constant companion. There are also taboos about the dignity of death. One of the most persistent themes in horror is the "bad death," in which the body is violated by death and its aftermath, whether it's from being mangled in a threshing machine or mutating into a fly creature. The integrity of the body is the fundamental state of an untroubled universe; its violation is an affront to the human sense of order in the world. Maybe this is why there is a persistent sub-genre of horror stories about autopsies and morticians.* All of these things percolate through André Øvredal's second film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), which is among the most effective horror movies of the current period.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Escapist Entertainment

Taylor Russell, Jay Ellis, Logan Miller, and Tyler Labine in Escape Room (2019)

Note: I wrote most of this in January of 2019 and neglected to publish it. I rewatched Escape Room for the October Challenge and remembered that this was waiting in my drafts.

A snowstorm was barreling into my part of the Midwest last Friday and my employer sent everyone home at 1 pm to avoid the inevitable disasters on the roads. Unfortunately, my partner wasn't so lucky and I wound up with four hours to kill before I could drive the 25 miles to home. I didn't want to make the drive twice, so I went to a movie instead. I felt bad about the theater employees, who were equally at risk, but the theater was open and the most convenient showtime wasn't for a tentpole movie or an award bait prestige film, but was rather for Escape Room (2019, directed by Adam Robitel) one of those horror movies studios like to dump into theaters every year during the cinematic wastelands at the beginning of January. It's like they're the unofficial start of a new movie year. Perhaps they are the exhalation of a whoopie cushion acting as a starting gun announcing, "And they're off." This tradition dates back at least as far as the early 2000s. Maybe farther. I haven't bothered to research it.

In any event, I went to see Escape Room for no other reason than it had a convenient showtime. It was a pleasant surprise. While it wasn't a world-beater, and has the grave misfortune of coming on the heels of one of the better years for horror movies in recent memory, it's not a film that insults my intelligence, nor is it one that's egregiously incompetent. That's faint praise, alas. What it is is a tense exercise in suspense filmmaking that managed to keep my mind engaged during its entire running time. It's not even particularly frivolous. Within the confines of its PG-13-rated thrills, it's a perfectly fine film that stays within the bounds of its ambitions. If it's not particularly original--and it's not--it at least executes its genre elements with something like elan.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Unmask, Unmask...

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964, directed by Roger Corman) was originally planned to be the second of Corman's Poe films for American International Picture, following the unexpectedly large success of House of Usher. Corman had a screenplay in hand, but he eventually decided that the subject matter was too similar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which was then making its way through the American marketplace. Corman, reluctantly, turned to the more gruesome The Pit and the Pendulum. He wouldn't come back to The Masque of the Red Death for several years. By that time, he had started to use the Poe films as experimental films. Corman, in spite of the cash register in his heart, was a man of taste and discernment. When he returned to The Masque of the Red Death in 1964, he did not care that the screenplay he had in hand was too similar to Bergman. He was fine with that.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

If That Nightingale Won't Sing

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale (2019)

The Nightingale (2018) shares some elements with director Jennifer Kent's debut film, The Babadook. Both films are about motherhood. Both films are about women driven to extremes. Otherwise, the resemblance is slight. Where The Babadook was an intimate, almost private film, The Nightingale is altogether more ambitious. It takes its specific story and projects from it a more global portrait of a world that is sick at heart. It's also a good deal more violent. There were walk-outs at the showing I attended, something I can probably chalk up to an arthouse audience unaccustomed to a rape/revenge film that doesn't pull any of its punches. Even accounting for that, it's a rough film to watch. It's not an exploitation movie, not really, but it has the visceral impact of one.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Hell On Wheels

Christine (1983)

Such was Stephen King's popularity in 1983, that work on the film version of his novel, Christine, began while the book was still being edited. 1983 offered a bumper crop of films based on the writer's work, including Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine. The later two were directed by two of the masters of late 70s/early 80s horror movies, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. Carpenter, for his part, was coming off the failure of The Thing, a financial disaster that saw him removed from the director's chair of another King project, Firestarter,* and desperate for a hit. Christine was fast-tracked and appeared in December of 1983, a mere eight months after the novel's publication.