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. It's 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.


Saturday, October 05, 2019

Double Your Pleasure

Mary and Madeleine Collinson in Twins of Evil (1971)

By 1971, Hammer Films were grasping at straws, trying desperately to stay relevant in a changing marketplace. There was a sea change coming in the wake of Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead. Their competitors for the British horror market were producing the likes of The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Raw Meat, Don't Look Now, and Frenzy while Hammer tried to milk the last ounce of blood from their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises. Hammer's usual Gothics seemed quaint in comparison, no matter how much bright red blood they spilled or how many nubile young women they undressed. There's a cautionary tale in this if the makers of the current crop of blockbusters want to take it. In any event, Hammer's biggest success of the era was an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla", filmed in 1970 as The Vampire Lovers. That film added a dash of transgression to the Hammer formula, given the overt lesbianism that drives its plot. They tried it again with that film's sequel, Lust for a Vampire (1971), with diminishing returns. With the third film in the Karnstein sequence, 1971's Twins of Evil (directed by John Hough), it was back to business as usual. The lesbianism was mostly gone except for one minor nod in that direction, as was everything else that made The Vampire Lovers work. In spite of that, it's not without interest.


Friday, October 04, 2019

Sleeping Like the Dead

Barbara Steele in The Horrible Doctor Hichcock (1962)

Welcome to another installment of the annual October Horror Movie Challenge. The goal, as always, is to watch 31 horror movies before the clock strikes midnight on Halloween. At least half of those movies have to be films I haven't seen before.




Film history hasn't been kind to Riccardo Freda. Arguably the father of Italian horror, his star has been eclipsed by his great contemporary, Mario Bava. It was Freda, not Bava, who directed the first Italian horror movie of the sound era, and only the second horror movie ever made in Italy. Bava, a cinematographer at the time, was Freda's main collaborator, and their first film, I Vampiri, was a failure in 1957. The stage had not yet been set for the revival of the Gothic horror film. They were a year too early, a year before Hammer films in England paved the way with the massive success of their Frankenstein and Dracula revivals. When Bava went back to the well with Black Sunday, it was a huge hit. Its time had come. Freda, who had lobbied hard to get a horror movie off the ground, was left behind. His next horror movie wouldn't appear until 1962, and it wouldn't make it abroad until two years later. That film was The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, starring Barbara Steele. Steele is also associated with Bava, but she only made one film for him. She was Freda's favorite collaborator, however, and it was Freda more than Bava who shaped her into a horror icon. In spite of all this, Freda is largely forgotten while the cult of Bava (justifiably) grows apace.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Family That Plays Together...

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (2019)

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Ready or Not (2019, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) hit theaters a mere week after the similarly themed Blumhouse/Universal film, The Hunt, was pulled from release after whining from conservatives about "coastal elites" hunting red-state salt of the earth for sport*. Ready or Not punks this in hilarious ways. Mind you, I haven't seen The Hunt, but from the trailer, I get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's a certain amount of misinterpretation going on here. The trope of the rich hunting the poor for sport is not new. There are plenty of pulp novels that use this plot and there are rip-offs of The Most Dangerous Game without number. Hell, one of the films that came out at the start of 2019, Escape Room, used this trope, too. Moreover, the dichotomy between hunter and hunted has never been about liberal versus conservative, so much as it has been haves versus have nots. There's a core of Marxist critique of a murderous, decadent aristocracy in this trope that cannot be erased no matter how much you try, and it's amplified by appearing in an era of unrestrained billionaire plutocrats. There's a line in John Woo's Hard Target that makes all of this explicit when Lance Henricksen's hunting guide explains to a client that "It has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many." Ready or Not is very much coded along these lines. It's lucky in its timing because it fills a void that might otherwise not have existed.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Two for the Road

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw

I knew I was going to owe my brain an apology when I sat down to watch The Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019, directed by David Leitch), so I'm mildly surprised that it wasn't quite as dumb as I was expecting. What I got was a ridiculous action movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, and it delivers the action thrills promised by the trailers. It's been a weird evolution for this film's overall franchise from street racing b-movie to sci fi espionage epic. The only franchise I can think of to undergo an even more drastic evolution is Don Mancini's Chucky movies. But that's a different matter. This is as deep a movie as a slick of rain on concrete, but I did notice odd flourishes seeping in from the ambient culture.


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Keeping the Gators Fed

Kaya Scodelaria in Crawl (2019)

Crawl (2019, directed by Alexandre Aja) isn't nearly as much fun as Piranha, the director's last foray into the revolt of nature film, but it offers uncomplicated horror movie thrills and plenty of red meat in spite of that. I mean, sure. Horror fans are still waiting for Aja to replicate the intensity and what-the-fuck-ery of his debut film, High Tension, but it seems increasingly likely that he never will. If that means lean commercial horror movies like Crawl, well, there are worse ways a career can go. Crawl, for its part, is pretty entertaining in its own right.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

Adding Color to the Sky

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

"Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky."--Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds


There is a gloomy sense of millennial unease threaded through Fast Color (2018, directed by Julia Hart), a sense of a world on the downward side, worn out, done. In spite of its fantasy plot, this is very much a film about climate change and the looming extinctions--possibly including our own--that the century ahead holds in store. Contrary to its title, it's a monochrome film, shot mostly in de-saturated colors across desolate landscapes. Like many genre films that don't want to be thought of as genre films, it's a dour, unhappy experience.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here


David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

"The devil is not as black as he is painted." -- Dante, The Inferno


I have to admit, I was looking forward to the new Hellboy movie in spite of the wave of negative reviews that hit the week before it opened. I mean, sure, it was never going to be Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy, and it would take a bit of getting used to someone beside Ron Perlman in the role, but things move on with these sorts of franchise movies. If anything, I thought David Harbour was pretty good casting and I've liked Neil Marshall's work in the past (even the critically derided Doomsday). And Mike Mignola's comics provide a wealth of material. Too much so, as it turns out. Marshall's Hellboy (2019) reminds me a bit of Doomsday, in so far as it's a mishmash of various sources. It plays a bit like an anthology film, with the film's main plot acting as a framing sequence. This does the film no favors though.