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.