Saturday, October 31, 2020

End of the World Blues

Starfish (2018)

The thing about doomsday is that it's always the end of somebody's world. "Eschatology" is a big word for a commonplace experience that comes for everyone eventually. As I write this in the dwindling months of 2020, huddled away in my house like I'm taking refuge from a zombie apocalypse during a plague year that is this generation's great calamity, I've been feeling that old millennial unease settle into my bones. The world really does feel like it's winding down, like the people I know are the last generations of humankind before pestilence and climate change wipe the world clean with fire and hurricanes and Covid-19, to say nothing of the other man-made ills that afflict the planet and the body politic. As always, the horror movies of the present moment reflect and interpret this reality, presenting apocalypses both small and personal and cosmic, with a range of flavors in between.

One such film is Starfish (2018, directed by A. T. White). It plays like an indie drama gone slumming in genre-ville, but it circles around the end of the world throughout its running time, embracing the end in terms that are personal, cosmic, and meta-cinematic by turns. It provides red meat and monsters for the horror crowd, but it's wrapped its narrative in layers of grief, regret, and redemption. It's an ambitious film for a production of such modest means, so it can be forgiven if it loses its way in the end.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Cuts Like a Knife

Knife + Heart (2018)

Knife + Heart (2018, directed by Yann Gonzalez) begins with one of the horror genre's better visual jokes. The slasher film and the giallo mystery before it are notorious for their use of knives as the weapon of choice for their mad killers, presumably for their phallic symbolism. Knife + Heart takes this out of the subtext and makes it literal by hiding a stiletto in a dildo. It's right up front, too, at the start of the movie. It would be pretty funny if the murder involved wasn't so nasty. Knife + Heart is a movie that connects the fetishy nature of the giallo mystery with their black-gloved killers and posh bougie chic fashions with the equally fetishy world of gay porn, all while taking the "bury your gays" trope to such a height that it collapses on itself in the end. It works surprisingly well, mostly because satirizing and deconstructing the slasher/giallo movie isn't all that it has on its mind.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Doing the Islands

Sweetheart (2019)

Sweetheart (2019, directed by J. D. Dillard) is a model contemporary low budget genre film. It's efficient, it provides all the genre thrills a horror movie requires, and it even makes a stab at psychological depth, all inside a compact eighty two minute running time. Its first act is laconic. There's barely any dialogue. Its storytelling is conveyed entirely through the actions of its heroine, who must carry the weight of the narrative for the duration of the film. Depending on the actor, this kind of gamble can fail spectacularly. The filmmakers have chosen wisely in Kiersey Clemons who is more than up to the challenge, but anyone who has seen her in other films knows that already.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

An Unwanted Heirloom

Relic (2020)

There's an old interview with director David Cronenberg that has stayed with me in which the interviewer asked Cronenberg what scared him. Cronenberg said, "When I go to pick up my kids at school and they're not there waiting for me." That something so mundane would scare a man whose business was scaring people is telling. Most of the things people fear are in the everyday of their lives, not big sweeping things like zombie apocalypses or robot uprisings or mutagenic television signals. Most really good horror movies connect with something that real people actually fear from day to day. Sometimes, they do it in abstract ways. Sometimes they do it pointedly and on the nose. The challenge is in finding something that enough people fear to pull it off and in making that fear real for an audience. A surprising number of horror movies fail at this, either from a failure to face that fear head on or by burying it too deeply under the tropes of genre. This isn't a problem for Relic (2020, directed by Natalie Erika James). It puts its finger on a set of existential terrors that real people face every day that are close to universal, then follows them to their logical conclusion. It's an unsettling movie.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

I Could a Tale Unfold...

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.

I wish I could have seen The Mortuary Collection (2019, directed by Ryan Spindell) in a movie theater with a big crowd of teenagers. Alas, the Covid-19 pandemic put the kibosh on that even if the realities of contemporary distribution wouldn't have accomplished the same thing. I am green with envy for the Fantastic Fest audience that saw the film in September of 2019, but that seems like another world from this distance. In any event, The Mortuary Collection is an audience film if ever there was one, and I feel like the world is all the poorer for having to view it on Shudder in the solitude of our living rooms, however nice our home systems might be. It's a fun film, with set pieces designed to goose an audience but good.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Departmental Politics

Weird Woman (1944)

In 1943, Universal Pictures teamed up with the then-popular Inner Sanctum radio show to brand a series of modest low-budget thrillers. There were six of these films in all, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney was Universal's bell-cow horror star in the 1940s--or, at least, he's who Universal wanted to be their bell-cow star after showing Lugosi and Karloff the door. Chaney had made his horror debut in The Wolf Man in 1941, and in short order had played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein and Dracula in Son of Dracula and Prince Kharis, the Mummy, in The Mummy's Tomb, in addition to his more lycanthropic duties in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, et al. Prior to his career in horror movies, he had been a bit player in Westerns, and had played perhaps the role of his career as Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Chaney was not a natural fit for horror movies, and after the horror boom had ebbed in the late 1940s, capped off by Abbott and Costello, Chaney went back to Westerns both on the big screen and the small. Even so, horror would follow him for the rest of his career. That's what comes of being the son of Lon Chaney.

The Inner Sanctum mysteries are clearly influenced by the Val Lewton films at RKO. Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie had been a gigantic hits on minuscule budgets, and Universal must have reasoned that they could do that, too. They were the home of horror movies, after all. It was their bread and butter. In Weird Woman (1944, directed by Reginald de Borg), the second of the Inner Sanctum mysteries and today's topic, even borrowed one of Lewton's stock player in Elizabeth Russell, who memorably played the woman who approached Irina in the cafe and asked "Moya sestra?" in Cat People. Weird Woman takes its source material from Fritz Leiber's novel, Conjure Wife, a story that is tailor made for the epistemological ambiguity and mounting terror in which Lewton and his directors specialized. Without Lewton's guiding hand, the results are less than satisfactory.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Burning Down The House

House of Usher (1960)

According to his autobiography and many many interviews over the years, Roger Corman made the first of the Poe films, House of Usher (1960), out of a sense of exhaustion. He had been making three and five day wonders like Little Shop of Horrors, The Creature from the Haunted Sea, and Bucket of Blood for a couple of years at that point and he was tired of the go go go nature of that kind of filmmaking. He wanted to slow down. More, he wanted to make something that was aesthetically a cut above the films he was making. Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, Corman's nominal bosses at AIP were amenable. The kinds of films Corman had been making were starting to play out to diminishing box office and they were keen on the next big thing for the drive-in theaters that were their primary market. To hear Corman tell it, they weren't keen on Poe, but Corman was persuasive. They gave him a shooting budget of $200,000--a fortune compared to their usual budgets, but modest compared to the industry--and let him have his head. That's the official story, anyway. I think what actually happened was somewhat different. I think Corman, Arkoff, and Nicholson looked covetously at the box office returns of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula and decided that the Gothic horror movie on the Hammer model was the next wave and acted accordingly. They weren't alone in this, either. Filmmakers in Europe and America were already eyeing a Gothic revival and Gothics came to dominate the horror marketplace during the first half of the 1960s. Don't think Corman wasn't aware of this. He was quick to poach Barbara Steele for his second Poe movie. Whatever the actual origins of the Poe movies, Corman started work on House of Usher in late 1959. It took him fifteen days to shoot it in January of the next year for a summer release. It was a huge hit.

Friday, October 02, 2020

The Saw is Family

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, directed by Tobe Hooper) was always likely to be a fiasco over and above the inevitable comparisons to the unrepeatable original film. It was a troubled, unstable production, one whose budget ebbed and flowed depending on the box office of whatever films the feckless Cannon Films had in theaters at the time. Tobe Hooper was a reluctant director who originally intended only to produce the film before landing in the director's chair when no suitable director could be found for the money producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were willing to pay. Golan and Globus wanted a very different film from what Hooper wanted to make, too, and were horrified when he delivered not the intense bloodbath they expected, but rather a pitch black comedy. Even so, Hooper leaned into the original film's unearned reputation for extreme violence, resulting in a film that had to either accept an X-rating from the MPAA or go out unrated. Cutting the film wasn't even in the discussion. The film's problems with censors were a worldwide mountain to climb. Cannon was stuck with marketing a film it did not like or understand, but even so the teaser trailer was killer ("After ten years of silence, the buzz is back!") and the one-sheet was hilarious. Critics, like the producers, expected something else and excoriated the film for it.

And yet...somehow, the film managed to make a profit in its original theatrical run and slowly developed a cult following on home video. Rob Zombie has been trying to reverse engineer the film for years with indifferent results. For myself? The first time I saw it I knew it had more on its mind than its sick jokes and elaborate gore gags--though the sick jokes and elaborate gore gags were occasionally inspired. To quote another cult film from the 80s: it had a philosophy

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Tools of the Trade

Toolbox Murders (2004)

I've been thinking about the career of the late Tobe Hooper this month, in part prodded by Catherine Stebbins's yearly top ten project which had many nice things to say about Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion for her 1990 edition. The last of Hooper's films that I wrote about, apart from his Masters of Horror episodes, was his remake of Toolbox Murders at my old web site in 2005. Here's that review--somewhat revised--to kick off Halloween season. I haven't changed my mind on any of this upon re-watch, so there you go. I'll be visiting with more of Hooper's films as the season goes on.

Toolbox Murders. 2004. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Angela Bettis, Brent Roam, Brent Travis, Rance Howard, Juliet Landau,

Synopsis: Nell and Steven Barrows have taken advantage of a "remodelling" special to move into the Lusman Building, a crumbling Hollywood apartment building with a dark history. Pretty soon, they discover that not all is well at the Lusman. Some of their neighbors have been disappearing. Nell hates the place and would do anything to break her lease. She's quick to note that something is very wrong in the building, and gets a reputation as a kook when she calls the cops on a scene she misinterprets as bloody murder. But bloody murder IS happening around her, and as she investigates the building's sinister past, she gets drawn through the looking glass into a world of horror she could scarcely imagine...

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Grant Mystique: The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

In some ways, Cary Grant was a more interesting actor before he cultivated the movie star persona. There's an intensity in some of his early roles that mostly vanishes from the polished perfection of "Cary Grant." While it's true that Grant sometimes vanished behind his co-stars in his early films, struggling to find a cinematic identity, there are a handful of them where this is not the case. The Eagle and the Hawk (1933, directed by Stuart Walker and Mitchell Leisen) is one such film. The Grant one finds in this film is one that almost entirely vanishes after Grant left Paramount in 1936. Grant plays a World War I tail gunner, who is partnered with a pilot he despises. He's the film's principle antagonist, a character who is callous and unpleasant and brutal. It's one of the film's bitterest ironies that his character is the one most suited for the enterprise at hand. He doesn't buy into the romance of being a flying ace, and because of this, he's most likely to survive the war.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Caged Birds

Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)

Olivia De Havilland died this week at the age of 104. It sometimes seemed to us film fans that she would live forever. She was the last of the great actors from classic Hollywood and with her, an era that recedes farther and farther from living memory comes to a definitive ending. I remember her best for her films with Errol Flynn and for her horror movies in the sixties and seventies, but she won a pair of Oscars after her collaboration with Flynn ended. Her feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine, seems to finally be at an end. I haven't written about many of her films, but I'm probably going to watch a fair dozen of them this week. I wrote about Lady in a Cage in 2006 for another venue. I'm reprinting that piece here, only slightly rewritten for clarity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

True/False 2020: Lingering Traumas

Sunless Shadows (2019)

This year's True/False Film Festival brings a couple of films about the lingering effects of trauma. This is a constant well of subject matter for documentary filmmakers which doesn't speak well to the world we live in, but it makes for compelling drama.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

True/False 2020: Tales of Two Cities

Mayor (2020)

The annual True/False Film Festival went on as scheduled this weekend in my fair city. There was a whistling-past-the-graveyard feeling to this year's proceedings, given the spectre of a global pandemic that hung over almost every conversation I had with other attendees, particularly once the news hit that South by Southwest had canceled their festival and it was increasingly likely that True/False would be the end of the road for this year's festival season. Here in Columbia, Missouri, currently untouched by the pandemic, the show went on. Even lacking the pandemic, though, many of this year's films were grim, reflective of a world out of balance to an even greater degree than usual. I know that the selections at this festival aren't intentionally picked so that they rhyme each other, but it happens often enough. And so it was this year.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Now You See Him

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (2020)

One of the enduring challenges facing horror movies is finding things that really scare an audience. Most horror movies fail at this, or abstract it in a way that an audience can sidestep their fears and take them out for a walk without any risk. A horror movie that can lay those fears bare and weaponize them against an audience is a rare thing and is likely to alienate a mass audience. The things that scare people are so personal that it's hard to find something that will reliably scare a large audience. Better to offer a thrill ride. I say all of this because the new version of The Invisible Man (2020, directed by Leigh Whannell), is legitimately scary and not in a fun, thrill-ride sort of way. It finds a raw nerve and it exploits it without mercy. What this film plays as a fantasy is all too real for so, so many women who are the victims of abuse. The varieties of abuse are all there on the screen: physical, mental, financial, institutional; the whole of a society geared to dismiss the suffering of women comes under scrutiny of this film's clinical examination. It's like a slap in the face.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Island Reveries

Fantasy Island (2020)

I suppose it was too much to hope that a new version of Fantasy Island (2020, directed by Jeff Wadlow) would be something other than a bunch of moralizing twaddle. Moralizing twaddle was baked into the DNA of the old TV series. It's what made the show popular with the old ladies who were its primary audience. My grandmother loved the show, although that might also reflect her crush on Ricardo Montalban. There's a certain poetry in the original show's position as the follow-up to The Love Boat, given that it takes the privileged bourgeois characters of THAT show and holds up a mirror to their moral failings. That could work even today. It's not too surprising to see it re-imagined as a horror movie, either. The original 1977 pilot for the show had more than a little horror woven into it, particularly that weird Gothic ambience unique to 1970s tv movies. Horror tropes abounded throughout the series original run from the outset. The pilot featured a riff on The Most Dangerous Game and another story about a woman who wants to attend her own funeral, after all. It was a sunlit variation of The Twilight Zone at Rod Serling's most didactic. So the new movie, which includes both the moralizing and the tired horror tropes, is at least recognizable as descended from the original show.

Saturday, February 08, 2020


Mackenzie Davis in The Turning (2020)

"But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped." --Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

If you fall down the rabbit hole of genre taxonomy,* one of the things you'll discover is how fuzzy and indistinct the borders between genres really are. Nowhere is that more evident than in trying to draw an outline around what constitutes the horror story. If you look too hard at horror as a genre, then it evaporates before your very eyes, with its component parts ordering themselves either as dark fantasy and psychological suspense. Horror, as has been said by sharper horror scholars than I, isn't really a genre at all, but is rather an emotion. An emotion can come from anything. The things that scare and disturb us are protean and idiosyncratic and cannot be contained within the boundaries of a literary genre. It seems to me, though, that there is a horror genre composed of a common pool of archetypes and narrative tropes and that you can't fractionate those generic elements based on whether or not something is supernatural or naturalistic or however you want to order things. The corpus colossum that unites the various lobes of the horror genre is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw with its famously ambiguous unreliable narrator. Is it a supernatural ghost story or a tale of ordinary madness? The story is cryptic on this matter. This is a challenge to later interpreters, particularly to filmmakers. Jack Clayton's The Innocents is more or less successful at straddling this divide, but not every version has the kind of blue-blooded cinematic bona fides that that film has. The latest version in the cinema (as opposed to the one that's coming as a series to Netflix) has no such pedigree. The Turning (2020, directed by Floria Sigismondi) attempts to split the difference. Literally.

Spoilers, I guess.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Sophia Lillis in Gretel & Hansel (2020)

“Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?” -- Kenneth Patchen.

Many horror movies take place in what I call "Horror Movie Land", which is some non-specific time in the past, usually in middle or eastern Europe but sometimes in France or the UK or even early America. The time period can vary from the late middle ages all the way up to the early 20th Century (the automobile in Hammer's Kiss of the Vampire is a giveaway, for one example). What they have in common is that these settings are nowhere real. They are, rather, archetypal landscapes, the land of dreams and nightmares conjured up by the Gothic imagination of the Romantics. Think of the bleak landscapes painted by artists like Caspar David Friedrich or Otto Runge, or the Europe of Melmoth the Wanderer or The Castle of Otranto. Almost all horror movies that are set in Horror Movie Land abstract their settings for effect. There's a level of theatricality in all such movies, whether they're shot on a soundstage, as Corman's Poe movies were, or in the landscapes favored by Hammer and Amicus. Osgood Perkins's new film, Gretel & Hansel is set in a more abstract version of Horror Movie Land than usual. The locale is doggedly non-specific (the Hansel and Gretel story is German, but this film doesn't seem particularly Germanic), and the time period seems to exist outside of a historical context. Given the film's origins in a fairy tale, it's entirely appropriate that it exists inside an archetype rather than in a specific time and space. It makes for a strange mood.

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. Its 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.