Friday, November 30, 2018

Beating the Devil

Errementary (2017)

Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (2017, directed by Paul Urkijo Alijo) is based on a fairy tale with deep Indo-European roots, one known in one form or another across most of Western Asia and Europe. This film interprets the story in Basque, one of the only European languages that doesn't have Indo-European roots. Given that this film was produced by Spanish enfant terrible Alex de Iglesias, I can only assume that this is one of the ways in which the film is trolling the audience. This film is both a rich Gothic and a droll comedy. It's one of the year's best horror movies, and this year has not been short on good horror movies.

Note: this contains spoilers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sighs and Whispers

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (2018)

The most instantly noticeable difference between Dario Argento's original Suspiria and Luca Guadagnino's 2018 cover version is the way each film chooses to decorate itself. Argento's film often seems intent on burning the viewers' retinas right out of their eyeballs. Many of its best effects are accomplished through abstractions: color, stained glass decor, the pulsing electronic Goblin score. Guadagnino's film, by contrast, is a grey, bleak affair, taking its cues from the dismal world of Fassbinder's 1970s Germany. Both films start with a woman seeking help in a driving rainstorm, but where Argento's opening orchestrates a world of peril and chaos, Guadagnino's opening is a portrait of misery and defeat. It wouldn't be right to claim, as some have, that Guadagnino's film is "artier" than Argento's, because Argento's films from the 1970s are all art objects to one degree or another, both as objects unto themselves and in their contents. Argento made films in which art is dangerous, in which art can be used as a weapon. It shares this theme with the new film. They just have different ideas about art.

Note: this is heavy on the spoilers.

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.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Mystery and Manners

Good Manners (2017)

Good Manners (2017, directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra) is the best werewolf movie anyone has made in the last 37 years. This is, admittedly, a low bar to clear, given the preponderance of Howling sequels that form the backbone of werewolf cinema during that time frame, but it's better than the Ginger Snaps movies, too, and those are pretty good. It might even be better than those two pillars of werewolf cinema from 1981, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, but I won't swear to that. Like Ginger Snaps, this is a distaff horror movie that finds some of its horror in the biology of women, and some more horror in the social roles women often occupy, salted with problems of class and race.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

New Flesh for Old

James Woods in Videodrome (1983)

Although the real world caught up with Videodrome (1983, directed by David Cronenberg) a long time ago, in the late 2000-teens, it seems especially prophetic. What is the work of Russian bots and Cambridge Analytica and Fox News but the exact same "philosophical" signal as the one behind Videodrome? The Videodrome conspiracy is a right wing authoritarian fantasy made flesh as gooey cyberpunk hallucination. The real world version is, perhaps, even scarier and more insidious, one that has already wormed its way into every corner of the world's media. One lone assassin is never going to take it down, though our real-world Videodrome continues to manufacture assassins all its own. Sometimes on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Still More of the Night HE Came Home

The Shape in Halloween (2018)

When last I bothered with the Halloween movies*, with Halloween: Resurrection, I lamented that the folks at Dimension films had only themselves to blame for its failure. It committed two cardinal sins: first it killed off Laurie Strode in the prologue, a callous fuck you to anyone who might have become invested in her character over the years. Second: it was released in July. You DON'T release a movie with the word "Halloween" in the title in the middle of summer. You just don't. The makers of the new film, simply titled Halloween (2018, directed by David Gordon Green) don't make either mistake. They've ignored all of the continuity between John Carpenter's original film and their own, so Laurie Strode is still alive and Michael has not been burned alive or beheaded as the case may be, and their film has a late October release date (when it is on track to make a shitload of money).

This film represents the rubber match between Laurie and Michael: Laurie "won" the first match in Halloween H20 when she took off his head with an ax, Michael "won" Resurrection when he killed her at the mental hospital. The retcon here doesn't really bother me, given that the history of the franchise is littered with retcons. Dr. Loomis was killed at the end of Halloween II (as was Michael), but that didn't stop him from coming back in Halloween 4 and 5. Laurie Strode seems a different character in each of her subsequent appearances, too, all suggesting differing timeline branches from her teenage encounter with Michael. In H20, she was a college professor with Josh Hartnett as a son. In Resurrection, she was a mental patient. In the new film, she's a doomsday prepper, a la Sarah Connor, no longer possessed of a son, but of an estranged daughter and granddaughter. This is a series that doesn't give two fucks for internal continuity. And so it goes.

Note: what follows contains spoilers.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stephen King's America

Bill Skarsgård in It (2017)

Whenever you have a massive breakout success in the horror genre, there is usually some underlying social force at work over and above the relative quality of the film. It's not just that, say, Get Out is a crackerjack thriller. There are plenty of crackerjack thrillers that are at least as good as Get Out that never find a wide audience. But Get Out appeared in the social ferment of Black Lives Matter and a conversation about race in America that wasn't happening four years earlier. It hit a window in the zeitgeist that provided it with the exact moment to become a monster breakout success. You could probably say the same thing about the new version of Stephen King's It (2017, directed by Andrés Muschietti). As a movie, it's good enough. It's well-made. But merely being "well made" isn't enough to explain its success. Director Andrés Muschietti's last film, Mama, was "well made," but that only got it modest box office, not the gaudy success of It. As I write this, It has become the highest grossing horror movie ever made. Its success is the stuff of summer blockbusters, not autumn horror movies. You might think that this is a matter of kids who grew up in the nineties latching on to something from their childhood, but I don't think that's it, or, at least, that's not everything. Its brutal view of what childhood entails (not just in the 1980s) goes a fair way to debunking pure nostalgia as the author of the film's outsized financial success. There's more to it than that.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Life of Illusion

Scott Bakula and Kevin O'Connor in The Lord of Illusions

I was caught up in the hype when Clive Barker's short stories first started to make the rounds in the 1980s. The first three volumes of The Books of Blood made the kind of splash in the horror genre that comes around once in a generation, completely changing the rules of the genre and becoming one of the founding texts of what would become known as "splatterpunk." The cover blurb on the American paperbacks (which had completely horrible covers and not in a good way) read, "I have seen the future of horror...and it is named Clive Barker" and was attributed to Stephen King, who would know about such things you would think. Initially, it was worth the hype, too. The stories in the first three volumes were vivid and angry and genuinely original. No one had read anything like them before. Some of them were repulsive. Some of them were funny. Some of them were both at once. Some of them were decidedly queer and closeted queer me responded strongly to that. It was the one of the first examples of queer lit that I had encountered in a form that appealed to my own literary appetites. I love a good horror story. Barker often built his stories around images rather than around plots, which worked marvelously in short stories. It didn't work as well at novel length, as I discovered when his first couple of novels, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, appeared. It worked even less well on a movie screen. The first feature film based on one of Barker's stories was Rawhead Rex, which is a masterclass in how to botch Barker's ideas. It rendered images that are terrifying and transgressive on the page ridiculous and vulgar on the screen, not helped by an atrocious monster that looks to have escaped from a Halloween rubber mask store. Watching this monster piss in the face of an Anglican vicar wasn't transgressive so much as it was just tasteless. Moreover, the film was boring, something I rediscovered when I re-watched the film earlier this month. Barker himself was a filmmaker, though, and he parlayed his literary success into a film career. His first feature film, Hellraiser, is much closer to his literary aesthetic, but it is still plagued by the literal nature of the filmed image. It's undone by dodgy special effects, particularly at the end of the film in scenes that are as ridiculous as they are confusing. Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is arguably more effective, though Barker ceded the director's chair to Tony Randel. Barker's second feature, Night Breed, was plagued by producer interference, and although it has memorable imagery (particularly David Cronenberg's serial killer psychiatrist), it has some of the same flaws as other Barker adaptations. His third film, The Lord of Illusions from 1995 is more sure-handed. Adapting a story from the sixth volume of The Books of Blood, Barker had a bigger budget, better actors, and access to then-state of the art special effects. The result is Barker's best feature as a director. But it's not an unqualified success.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Dream Within A Dream

Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

My local art house is running a series of classic (or "classic") horror movies for Halloween this year. The first in the series was Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which plays pretty well to an audience of young people even today. Most of the audience I was with was under thirty. A large part of it was under 20. Teenagers, it seems, never get tired of seeing other teenagers massacred on screen. It was a good time at the theater, though I admit that Nightmare is not a film of which I am overly fond. But, whatever. I don't get to make the canon and it's a film whose place is firmly established.

Craven conceived of Nightmare after reading about a number of refugees from Southeast Asia who had died in the throes of nightmare from unexplained causes, and formulated the character of Freddy Kruger after the model of the song, "Dream Weaver," by Gary Wright. Craven, a magpie for ideas, incorporated a number of other influences as well, but the idea that if you die in your sleep, you die in real life is the spark behind the film's ideas. The central theme of Nightmare is the tenuous boundary between reality and dreams. At its core, it's an epistemological film shaped in the form of a slasher film.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Fearless Vampire Hunter

Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)

Blade (1998, directed by Stephen Norrington) didn't seem like a landmark film at the time of its release, but time has been kind to it. It remains a shock that this film and this character were the first foundations laid in what has become the Marvel Entertainment empire. Blade never had a comic book of his own prior to the movie. He was a supporting character from the long-forgotten Tomb of Dracula series in the 1970s. And yet was the first Marvel Comics character to become a big screen success after previous attempts--famously Howard the Duck, less famously The Punisher and Captain America--crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. But more than that. Blade ushered in both a cinematic idiom and design aesthetic that would spread like wildfire throughout cinema. The Matrix movies were the immediate inheritors of Blade's fetish-attired action look, but you can see it in the Underworld movies, too, and in the Resident Evil movies, and in countless vampire films and television shows littering the backwash in the film's resulting wake in the myth pool. Pick up any given "urban fantasy" romance novel these days and you'll see an echo of Blade's influence right there on the cover. Guaranteed.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

What Big Teeth You Have

The Company of Wolves

Although it came during the cycle of werewolf movies of the early 1980s, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) doesn't have much in common with The Howling or An American Werewolf in London and their imitators. Apart from a taste for gory transformation effects, The Company of Wolves comes from the tradition of arty European horror movies from a decade or so earlier, indeed going back to the likes of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Like these films, The Company of Wolves reinterprets the Gothic through a modernist lens, influenced as much by surrealism and by the various European New Wave movements as by the then-contemporary norms of the horror movie. Its director claims that it's not a horror movie at all, but there is a whiff of self-interested deflection in that pronouncement. And besides, Jordan has made several other horror movies of a similar bent, so it's not like a horror movie is out of character for him. But in some ways, he has a point. There is certainly an otherness to The Company of Wolves that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018


I have to give Wolfcop (2014, directed by Lowell Dean) some credit: it showed me something I've never before seen in a movie. During its first transformation scene, we start not with the hand that's turning into a paw, nor with the face that is sprouting hair or distending into a snout. No. That is for "lesser" werewolf movies. We start, instead, with our titular hero's penis, as he's pissing. It expands and becomes harrier as it transforms into a wolf cock. I admit that I laughed my ass off at this because there's still a ten year old lurking somewhere in the back of my brain. This scene tells you most of what you need to know about the artistic aspirations of this movie.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Careful With That Ax

Nicolas Cage in Mandy (2018)

The day after I saw Mandy (2018, directed by Panos Cosmatos), I posted a knee-jerk reaction on social media to the effect that it was "the movie you might get from a couple of stoner kids after snorting crank off the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal, which might be interesting if it was even remotely watchable. Unfortunately it's not." Or something like that. I forget the exact wording. I should probably expand on that, because I'm usually not that out of patience with movies. I'm not even usually out of patience with Nick Cage at his most deranged, either--I loved Mom and Dad, which has performances so broad that it's a wonder any of the scenery remained intact, and even stuff like Season of the Witch and Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Mandy, by contrast, rubbed me the wrong way. It's a film that conceals a dearth of ideas with suffocating style, which can work sometimes, but which here usually conceals the basic images of its shots.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kingdom Come

Chris Pratt and friend in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Juan Antonio Bayona would not have been the first name on my list to direct a Jurassic Park movie, and yet we have in theaters this summer Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom (2018), a film that is surprisingly close to Bayona's established cinematic personality. Indeed, you could view it as a melding of three of Bayona's other films. The first part of the film, in which a volcanic eruption destroys Isla Nubar and the remains of the Jurassic World theme park (already a wreck after the events of the previous film) recalls The Impossible and its terrifying depiction of the Christmas Tsunami. The second part of the film, set in the gloomy gothic mansion of Benjamin Lockwood, who has financed a "rescue mission" for the dinosaurs to prevent their extinction, is a classic "old dark house" scenario, territory that Bayona covered in his breakout film, The Orphanage. And, of course, you have monsters, which was the subject of Bayona's last film, A Monster Calls. This could almost be called an auteur's film, were it not a cog in a multi-billion dollar franchise. It certainly has a different personality than its predecessors. It even manages a note of tragedy once or twice. I like it better than its immediate predecessor, which is faint praise after what I said about that film.

Note: this contains spoilers galore.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

More Scenes from the Singularity

Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade (2018)

I'm surprised that Upgrade (2018, directed by Leigh Whannell) actually made it into theaters. A science fiction/horror hybrid with a modest budget, it's exactly the sort of thing that Netflix and other streaming services have been gobbling up of late. It's good enough to justify the theatrical release, but in past years, this is a film that would have found its audience as a perennial inhabitant of the back shelves of mom and pop video stories. It has a 1980s feel to it. It has films like The Terminator, Robocop, The Hidden, Screamers, Total Recall, and Videodrome in its DNA. And yet, it's contemporary, too. It's a film about post-humanism, trans-humanism, and the Singularity, and as such it's entirely of this moment in time. It's a pulp fiction version of Ex Machina, with echoes of Moon and Under the Skin. It is not a film that reinvents or thinks deeply about the themes it inherits from these sources. Like many genre films, this is a film that's focused mainly on story. It doesn't linger on anything that doesn't drive its narrative. But some of the things that do serve the story are more food for the mind than one normally expects from a pure genre film.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Hard Femme

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

When first we see Jen, the heroine of Coralie Fargeat's blood-soaked rape/revenge fantasy, Revenge (2017), she's the very picture of a sex kitten, done up like Sue Lyon in Lolita and sucking provocatively on a lollipop. Just a few minutes later comes a scene in which she goes down on Richard, her rich, married boyfriend. And then further scenes of her playing the cocktease to Richard's hunting buddies, who have shown up a day earlier than expected. Jen is high femme, dressed in crop tops and sexy underwear and a dress that is cut down to her belly button and gaudy star-shaped earrings. She is an avatar of the kind of girl/woman our culture expects to be raped. Our culture despises what she is: a construction of girly femininity that's designed to titillate the male gaze. If the rape in this movie had played out as it might in "real" life, the defense attorneys for her rapists might have asked, as a legal defense, if she was asking for it and a jury might have decided that, yes, she was. Women like Jen aren't allowed to say no.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Death and the Maiden

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

Somewhere in the middle of A Fantastic Woman (2017, directed by Sebastián Lelio), I began to get irritated at the miseries heaped on Marina, its titular heroine. In my head, I began to ask of the film: "Is no one going to be kind to this woman?" Is being transgender such a mark of Cain that it encourages everyone in Santiago, Chile to view her as a punching bag? There's a certain level of hopelessness in this depiction that is suggestive of the reasons trans people attempt suicide at such appalling rates. This, in spite of the fact that Marina is not a stereotype. She doesn't fall into the specific fallacies of transgender depictions. She is never shown putting on make-up even though she wears it (you have no idea of how much of a relief this is, o cis reader). She has a profession that is not serial killer or sex worker. She even has someone who loves her as the movie begins. This does everything "right," or as right as you're probably ever going to get from a filmmaker who isn't trans. Certainly, star Daniela Vega's fingerprints are all over this. She was originally hired for the film as a consultant on the trans community before director Sebastián Lelio realized that she was the perfect actress for the role, so there's more to their collaboration than what is usual between a trans actress and the director. There is certainly a level of rage involved that might elude a cis actor in the role as an equivalent collaborator. Speaking as a trans person myself, I found the film deeply infuriating, which is admittedly part of the film's design. It also made me deeply unhappy, which is probably not part of the film's design. I suggested on social media that a more accurate title for the film would be "Fucking Cis People!", but I'm sure that would be a provocation that's more headache than it's worth. Eventually, the film relented on its version of the story of Job and did allow someone to be kind to Marina, and then someone else, but it so front loads its whips and scorns that by then, it almost doesn't matter.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Grant Mystique: Enter, Madame!

Cary Grant and Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

From a perspective eighty years later, it's surprising to see Cary Grant second billed to Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame! (1935, directed by Elliot Nugent). Grant is so obviously the only bona fide movie star in the whole production that you wonder what they were thinking. Elissa Landi was only ever a minor star, even coming off successes in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Sign of the Cross (where she is completely blown off the screen by wicked, wicked Claudette Colbert). The rest of her output is mostly obscure apart from a supporting role in After the Thin Man. She retired from movies soon after. I don't know how her films did in their day; I can surmise that they were successful given the order of the billing in Enter, Madame! Charitably, Grant wasn't the supernova he would become a mere two years later and Paramount was hardly Warners or MGM. And he was second-billed behind his leading ladies in a couple of  his other 1935 films, too. In spite of all this, the billing seems weird to me.