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.