Sunday, November 11, 2018

Monsters During Wartime

Mathilde Ollivier and Jovan Adepo in Overlord (2018)

Some years ago, the Criterion people produced a disc for a forgotten film from the 1970s called Overlord by a director named Stuart Cooper. That film was assembled, documentary-style, from footage surrounding the build-up to the D-Day invasion of Europe and wove in new footage relating a haunting love story. The new film bearing the title Overlord (2018, directed by Julius Avery) bears absolutely no resemblance to that previous film other than its title and that it takes place just before the invasion of Normandy. I can see some gorehound horror fan ordering the previous film by accident and wondering what the hell some black and white art film was doing on his TV or some film snob becoming completely appalled by the newer film. The difference is stark. The new film, for its part, doesn't aspire to art, though it may accidentally stumble over it from time to time. It's the kind of horror film that you just have to follow over the cliff as it careens off the rails. If you can't do that, you're in for a rough time. It's that kind of film.

Overlord follows a platoon of American paratroopers jumping into France on the night before the landings in Normandy. Their mission is to take out a Nazi radio jamming tower built on a church a few kilometers from the beaches. Their jump takes a disastrous turn when their plane is hit by enemy fire, and only four members of the platoon survive, including the green Pvt. Boyce; the hard boiled Cpl. Ford, who is a demolitions man and veteran of Italy; Pvt. Chase, a photographer, and wise-cracking Pvt. Tibbet. While regrouping after their disastrous arrival, they encounter Chloe, a French woman scavenging loot from bodies. They take her prisoner and she agrees to take them into the town and hide them. Chloe is caring for her eight year-old brother and her invalid aunt, though her aunt's ailment is mysterious and horrifying. Tibbet and Chase are sent back to the rendezvous point to see if any more of their squad have survived, while Chloe gets a visit from Wafner, the local SS commander, who is taken with her. Boyce intervenes to prevent Wafner from raping Chloe, and they take Wafner prisoner, much to the consternation of Ford. Still, Wafner has his uses, and Ford beats the crap out of him to get him to disgorge information about the Nazi installation. He sends Boyce back out to retrieve Chase and Tibbet, but he gets side-tracked by the spectacle of the Nazis burning living bodies with a flamethrower and gets chased by a dog into the back of a truck carrying more bodies into the bowels of the facility itself. There, Boyce discovers that the radio tower is the least of their problems, because there is a laboratory underneath that is experimenting on human beings. Boyce finds squad mate Pvt. Rosenfeld among the victims of the experiments and rescues him. He also grabs a syringe full of some mysterious fluid that the Nazis have been injecting into prisoners. Wafner knows what it is, but he doesn't tell the Americans what it is until after they have cause to use it on Chase, who has been shot by Wafner during an escape attempt. "A thousand year Reich requires thousand year soldiers," he tells them, and makes good his escape soon after. He's been grievously wounded, though--shot through the face--so once he makes it back to his HQ, he injects himself with the serum in preparation for the American's attack. And not just himself...

Wyatt Russell in Overlord (2018)

There have been plenty of movies about wars that have depicted combat in ways that are horrific beyond the reach of fiction. The opening act of Saving Private Ryan is a particularly ghastly (and gratuitous, I think) example. So is most of Come and See. And Das Boot. And Fire on the Plain. A filmmaker attracted to horror films doesn't actually need to include the genre elements of horror to make a horror film. The details of the horrors of World War II which are this film's purview are so grotesque that genre elements are redundant, and maybe even a little bit obscene. And yet, there's something about that war in particular that inspires filmmakers to go beyond the details of the war itself. The fact that the Nazis were engaging in actual mad science in real life provides a license of sorts to speculate about what their ultimate aims actually were. And not just the Nazis. The Manhattan Projects was mad science with horrific real-world consequences, too, and look at the vein of genre that opened up for storytellers in the years since. Its almost as if the catastrophe of the war can only be confronted in symbolic ways, through the agency of fantasy, something even the lowest of culture engages in. It's not for nothing that the most persistent way that the Japanese confront the atomic bomb is through giant monsters.

Jovan Adepo in Overlord (2018)

And the Nazi scientists were a peculiar and horrifying kind of monster. In another reality, they would have been the stuff of potboilers and melodramas and penny dreadfuls. That's what this film provides. It's a fantasy version of WW II, one unhitched from historical facts and riddled with anachronisms that mark it as a variant of an ahistorical horror movie land setting where monsters dwell, rather than any place real. The fact that the film's protagonist is a black man in a mixed company with a black sergeant marks the film distinctly as a contemporary fantasy rather than as anything that resembles history (the US armed forces did not integrate until 1948, well after the war). So undead Nazi super soldiers are of a piece, I suppose.

Overlord (2018)

This starts off with the war, though. The opening sequence of Overlord is viscerally terrifying, as Boyce's plane is ripped apart by enemy fire and he's thrown out into space with fire and death all around him. This scene, which is a long, uninterrupted take aided by state of the art special effects, is a marvel. It's more frightening than anything else the film has on offer. The film it reminds me of most is David Twohy's Below, which postulates a ghost story on a submarine, but which gets its best terror effects from the details of submarine warfare. As I've already noted: war as a real phenomenon is fucking terrifying. But even here, the film is more an allegory for war rather than something that deals with war. More, its vision of war is filtered through decades of Hollywood mythmaking and stereotyping. Other than Boyce, the characters in this film are cliches: Ford is a variant on Tom Berenger's monstrous Sgt. Barnes in Platoon, even down to the characteristic facial scars, while Tibbet is a wiseacre you can see in literally hundreds of other WW II movies. Ditto the tenderfoot photographer, Chase, and the weedy Jewish kid, Rosenfeld. These serve a purpose, though. Fantasy is about power, after all, and good fantasy is about the powerless finding power within themselves. Ford is nominally a hero, sure, but he's a bête noire to Boyce none the less, and a Nietzschean example of someone who has stared too long at the abyss. Chase and Rosenfeld and Tibbet, by contrast, are Sam, Merry, and Pippin to Boyce's Frodo. Chloe, too, is a cliche, as the French girl representing The Resistance, and the turn of the plot that compels her to follow our American heroes into the bowels of hell is more or less the same as the one that compels Ripley to confront the queen alien in Aliens.

Pilou Asbæk in Overlord (2018)

The concept of invincible super soldiers is not new. They are descended from a long line of similar horrors extrapolated by other filmmakers and other films, from Shock Waves through Castle Wolfenstein through Dead Snow through Frankenstein's Army. This is a horror movie version of Captain America, after all, complete with its own version of the Red Skull. The horrifying visage of Wafner as he turns to the camera after injecting himself with the serum might even act as an allusion, though a punning one if it is. As a signpost during the experience of watching this film, though, this particular moment is when I knew I was riding this film over the cliff. When Wafner's mangled face smiles at the camera, I started to giggle. I kept laughing at this film's brazen absurdity for almost an hour after I headed to the parking lot to drive home. I say that with a certain amount of admiration. The only way this could have been more fun than it is is if they had somehow had the wit to cast Jeffrey Combs as the head Nazi doctor and made the reanimating super soldier serum a glowing green instead of a tomato soup. "Parts. I've never done parts!" I heard in my head as the Nazi doctor in this film exclaimed to Wafner that they'd never tested the serum on a living human being before.

I can fault Overlord for a lot. It's almost too easy to catalogue its faults. I can't fault it for its entertainment value, though. This is a film of low pleasures, but those pleasures it does surely provide.

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