Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scenes from the Apocalypse

Of all of the idiot children of Night of the Living Dead, I think Zombieland (2009, directed by Ruben Fleischer) might be the farthest from the source. Where Night of the Living Dead's apocalypse demolished all of our social constructs concerning race, gender, and family, Zombieland spends its brief 80 minute running time reasserting those very constructs (well, most of them--the racial content of NotLD is conspicuous by its absence). The heroes of Zombieland were solitary loners to start with, and wind up constructing their own version of "family" by the end of the movie. Where NotLD was radical, Zombieland is essentially conservative. And by constructing the movie in part as a "how-to" guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse ("Rule #1: Cardio"), the filmmakers put the film at a certain remove from the horror genre, converting it into cultural object rather than an art object, if you catch my drift.

That all said--and really, who wants to know all of that, eh?--I had a great ol' time at Zombieland. It's funny. It's not scary, but it uses the tropes of the horror genre to great effect. The film provides a metaphor for what it actually is by setting the end of the movie at an amusement park. It's a ride, and not a bad one, really, and it's populated by an interesting band of misfits, mixed and matched. Jesse Eisenberg's nerdy hero wouldn't seem like a perfect foil for Woody Harrelson's bad-ass, but it works. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are fine as sisters working the short con. None of the principles is asked to explore a wide range of emotions, really, but the movie is set far enough into the zombie apocalypse that that makes a certain kind of sense.

*****

1976's Who Can Kill a Child? (directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) presents an all together more disturbing vision of the apocalypse, in which a British couple expecting their first child vacation on a Spanish island where all of the adults appear to have been killed by the island's children. The moral dilemma is framed by the film's title. Could anyone kill a child if it was kill or be killed? For the most part, this is built in the vein of Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned, but it takes its premise to a far bleaker conclusion than either of those films.

The film starts with grave newsreel footage of the varied atrocities committed during the 20th Century, most of which disproportionately killed children, then follows it within the background of the main narrative with hints of a world spinning truly into chaos. Our heroes, played by Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome, are a blissfully unaware of the dire omens surrounding them, from the bodies washing up on the beach to the collapse of Thailand in a civil war. They almost seem like a pointed indictment of an indifferent bourgeoisie.

The island setting is ominous and, unusual for a horror movie, splashed in bright sunlight. This is one of those sunlit horror movies that acts as existential dreamscape and it's very creepy. Even creepier is the behavior of the children on this island. Their new way of "playing" seems completely natural, whether it's beating at a corpse hung up like a piñata or, more ominously, "willing" other children to join their games. The most disturbing instance of this passes without a hint of what's going on, until near the end of the movie, as a smiling girl feels the pregnant belly of our heroine. Later, in a scene of sublime nastiness, her unborn child attempts to kill her.

The title of the film is asked explicitly in the course of the movie. "Who can kill a child?" The movie corners it's protagonists into confronting this dilemma head on, and once there is an answer, the movie turns bracingly nihilistic.

This is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s.

*****

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972, directed by Massimo Dallamano) also asks a question in its title, one that holds the key to the giallo mystery it presents. Someone is killing the students at a prestigious British girls' school, and the main suspect is the foreign gym teacher. He's having an affair with one of his students, who in turn is having seemingly psychic visions of the murders. When the student in question is murdered herself, our hero finds himself compelled to get to the heart of the matter on his own. It's a pretty straightforward plot, that plays fair with the audience once the title question begins to be asked by our hero.

What sets this apart from some other giallos from the same period is its approach to violence. There's very little overt gore in this film, but the nature of the crimes and how they are filmed make them very disturbing none the less. Is this the first movie in which the killer prefers to murder women by stabbing them in their vaginas? I think it might be. This became a common trope in some of the more outrageous giallos that followed, but this film actually makes something of the image beyond the phallic violence the knife usually signifies. It's a stand in for a particularly nasty flashback scene in which one character is submitted to an involuntary back-alley abortion.

For the most part, this is one of the better giallos, but I'm beginning to wonder if there is actually a giallo that benefits from a strong central performance. Fabio Testi's Enrico, our hero, is a complete stiff, regardless of his sinister, Richard Chamberlain-ish good looks. Karin Baal fares better as his frigid wife, and Christina Galbo is okay as Elizabeth, the girl he wants to woo. But, let's face it, these aren't actor's movies, and even if they were, the practice of dubbing everything would torpedo any good performances that managed to escape. On an up note, this has an Ennio Morricone score, though it's one of his minor works.





Current tally:

9 Films

7 First-time viewings.

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