Monday, October 15, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 9: Ben (Phil Karlson, 1972)


Some movies are remarkable for being good, some movies are remarkable for being bad, and some movies are remarkable just for being.  One movie such movie is Ben, Phil Karlson’s 1972 to Daniel Mann’s 1971 Willard.  Willard is most pretty excellent and fairly straightforward 70s gothic about the sort of pleasant but unremarkable young man who populates much American cinema of the late 60s and early 70s, and who either finds himself or finds himself circling the drain somehow.  In Willard, it’s the latter, as the film’s titular character befriends an army of rats who he uses to off his tormentors, and at whose paws he ultimately meets his demise.  Call it a horror film, call it a character study, or a psychological drama, it’s an odd premise but it exists in a consistently realized style that mimics, more-or-less (the day-to-day drudgery of Willard’s life more, his army of rats, less) in am approximation of the real world, or a real world in which this sort of thing could happen.

Ben, this time named after the leader of the rat army, who is about the size of a possum and seems able to communicate, verbally or perhaps psychically, with humans who are pure of heart, has no such pretense of realism.  Ben bounces between genres, tones and stylistic contrivances enough to feel like there are several different movies happening at once, or perhaps one film interrupted by brief invasions of other films or genres or ideas that stick around for a scene or two and then depart.

First off, while Willard is a generally adult film- not especially gory or horrifying, but a movie about grown people and their general concerns, concocted on a level that would probably be mostly appealing to adult or young adult viewers, Ben makes the decision to be a children’s movie.  It’s focus is on little Danny Garrison, a bright eyed young boy with an unspecified disease that keeps the adults around him worried and other kids at arms length, and is depicted as something between asthma and a heart condition.  Now, a movie about a kid doesn’t have to specifically be for kids, but Ben is told very clearly from Danny’s point of view.  Even when he’s not present, the film takes on a somewhat childlike view of the world, with the adults drawn in broad strokes- they’re very concerned about things!  Or scenes of rat mayhem played more or less for laughs, such as an elaborate, and extremely tonally inconsistent, slapstick attack on a lady’s spa, a scene entirely predicated on the stereotype that women scream when they see rats, extrapolated into the idea that if women scream when they see rats, dozens of women seeing dozens of rats would mean exponentially more screaming.

Danny, alienated from other kids and fussed over, but not befriended, by adults, naturally encounters Ben, the surviving rat leader from the previous film, and befriends him.  One of the childlike aspects of the films, and further evidence that it’s told from Danny’s point of view, is that we’re supposed to find this relationship heartwarming, when Danny’s protection of Ben, who leads an army of rats who are terrorizing the community, is heartwarming and admirable, and that it’s not at all selfish of Danny to put the health and wellbeing of an entire community at risk so he can have a rat friend.

In Willard, it’s easier to sympathize with the rats, as Willard is surrounded by people who are cruel and grotesque, and his revenge is cathartic if not entirely justified, and also because, in a way, Willard is victimizing to rats as well, using them to his advantage but willing to kill them when things start to get out of hand.  Here, aside from one Bully who picks on Danny, the rats are mostly terrorizing regular, everyday people.  Maybe they don’t have the childlike wonder and whimsey of the misunderstood and lonely Danny (though his sister, played by Meredith Baxter, later the mom on Family Ties, is kind and self-sacrificing and dotes on him), but they’re certainly not monsters, and some, such as a truck driver driven to tears when an obscene amount of rats invade his truck, are really just working people trying to do their jobs and get home for dinner.

Some animal attack films of the 70s attempt to explain their antagonists’ aggression by pointing to the ecological indifference of humans, wether it’s pollution or indifference, or greed that leads to the destruction of nature.  This would have perhaps grounded Ben in something more tangible, but as it stands, in this movie, there are just tons and tons of rats, and they attack people, but it’s cool, I guess, because a little boy loves them.

The schizophrenic nature of Ben’s tone feels like it’s from the point of view of a child as well, something that might have been brilliant if done with intent, but in all honestly feels like the work of an unfocused filmmaker trying to cast as wide a net as possible.  The result is a movie with kid antics, scary rat attacks, occasionally slapstick rat attacks, some very hokey sentimental scenes and a couple of musical numbers and a puppet show thrown in for good measure (if nothing else, Ben is notable for having an excellent theme song that helped launch Michael Jackson’s solo career, which inspires a silly, but effective scene in the movie where Danny composes the lyrics to the song- Ben, the two of us need look no more, etc.- and later serenades his rat with it).

All that said, Ben is not at all a bad movie, or at least, it’s not not a good movie.  It’s fun and goofy and cute, occasionally gross, and Danny is a likable kid, even if he’s also a selfish little dumbass.  Though it’s not really a worthy sequel to Willard, which is genuinely interesting and effective film, it’s also still a movie about rats, which is cool, and though tonally inconsistent with much of the rest of the film, the supermarket attack is really pretty exciting.  I don’t know that I’d really call it a horror movie, but it’s not really consistently any other kind of movie either, so, yeah, I guess watch Ben.





Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 8: Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995)

31 days of Halloween day 8: Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995)

There was a period, in the early-to-mid 1990s, when there just weren’t a ton of good, mainstream, American horror movies being made.  The cycle of modern horror that had begun with Night of the Living Dead in 1969 had more-or-less run through its lifecycle, with the slasher film dominating horror for much of the 80s, but running out of steam as characters like Freddy and Jason became more camp than scary in their latest incarnations.
Around the same time, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs- a slick, intelligent, gorgeous and gory horror movie (from a Roger Corman protege no less) in thriller’s clothing- kicked off a cycle of psycho-thrillers, basically slasher films for adults.  They were both a by-product of horror audiences growing older and more mature, and the rising public awareness of and fascination with serial killers in the wake of the very public Ted Bunny and Jeffrey Dahmer trials.
Psycho-thrillers tended to be stylish and self-serious, and though the genre eventually wore itself with repetition and, later, an overindulgence of style over substance- a cynicism standing in for substance- in films like Seven and its many imitators.  As the psycho-thriller went into decline, proper horror films experienced a resurgence in the mid-to-late 1990’s after the success of Scream.
Personally, I love the psycho-thriller.  There’s something comforting about their pallid tones and earnest detectives always two steps behind a mastermind killer who, more often that not, turns out to be some gross regular schlub.  Such is the case with Copycat, directed by Jon Amiel and written by Ann Biderman and Davis Madsen, possibly my favorite of the genre.
Despite its high production value and impressive cast, Copycat is, itself, a copycat of Silence of the Lambs (and to some extend its sort-of-prequel Manhunter).  Holly Hunter plays the Jode Foster-esque earnestly tight jawed detective on the trail of a killer who turns to a damaged, traumatized mentor (ala William Peterson as Will Graham in Manhunter, here played as an agoraphobic professor by Sigourney Weaver) and the guidance of an imprisoned killer (obviously Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, here played a bit over the top but grimily enough by Harry Connick Jr.).

There are some twists- the killer emulates murders committed by famous serial killers of the past, and some fleshing out of the characters- Hunter’s friendship with her partner, played by Dermot Mulroney, is especially nice, and underrated character actor Will Patton has a good turn as well as a protective colleague and former boyfriend.  
What sets Copycat apart, though, isn’t really any of its more sensational elements.  You can watch the movie and forget about the Copycat angle of the killings, forget about the similarities to Silence of the Lambs, forget about a lot of the more conventional elements of the film because its the rare thriller- really the rare mainstream genre film in general- where you really care about the characters.
Some of it is in the script, but most of it comes from the actors.  Hunter and Weaver- already two of the best actresses of their generation- bring life to characters who might not have registered, or come off as phony or even insulting, by broader and more histrionic performers.  The film is theirs (though Hunter and Mulroney play off each other fairly perfectly and make a pretty irresistible pair) and they command it with believability and a lived-in sense of wary comradeship.

With its women protagonists, a sympathetically portrayed gay supporting character and an underlying theme that unassuming young white men can be the most dangerous threats of all (and that the greatest horror often comes wrapped in the most banal package), Copycat may play better today, or at least resonate stronger, than it did when it came out more than 20 years ago.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 7: Wolf Girl (Thom Fitzgerald, 2001)

31 days of Halloween day 7: Wolf Girl (Thom Fitzgerald, 2001)



Sometimes, as a horror movie fan of a certain age, it starts to feel like there’s nothing new under the sun.   That is, once you’ve run through the classics and gotten into the deep cuts, there’s a certain point at which you’re stuck with the dregs, scouring Netflix or Amazon Prime for anything that looks like it might be kinda good, but usually isn’t.

Every once in a while, though, you chance upon a movie you’ve never heard of before, give it a shot and find yourself pleasantly surprised.  Such was the case with Wolf Girl, a slight-yet-endearing 2001 Canadian-Romanian co-production with an unusual cast and just enough style to set it apart.

The story, about Tara, a wolf girl (Victoria Shanchez) in a carnival sideshow who befriends the nerdy son of a depilatory-obsessed scientist and starts mainlining a formula that makes her hair fall out but also may make her more violent, is probably best left under-interrogated, and is mostly secondary to the carnival atmosphere that is the film’s main focus.

Taking its cue from Tod Browning’s Freaks, Wolf Girl portrays the sideshow as a tight knit and supportive community, while “normal people” are embodied by a group of teenage bullies who push things to far in their torment of Tara and face the brunt of her vengeance as the serum escalates her violent tendencies.  Delightfully, the carnival is led by Tim Curry and includes Grace Jones as a half-man-half-woman, and both have multiple musical numbers (ribald musical numbers, no less).


Wolf Girl may not be especially scary or offer anything too new and exciting, but it’s watchable and endearing and wholly within the spirit of the Halloween season.  There are worse things you can do with 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon, y’know?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 6: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (David Greene, 1991)

31 days of Halloween day 6: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (David Greene, 1991)

I don’t have anything too deep to say about the 1991 made-for-tv remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  starring Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave.   This is the type of film that’s tailor made for me- I love TV movies, and especially love TV movies with a good hook or camp element (or anything true-crime or “ripped from today’s headlines!”).
While the performances are excellent, the style of the movie is fairly low key, certainly compared to Robert Aldrich’s original.  Never a subtle filmmaker, Aldrich brought a certain mania to the original that this remake, directed by David Greene (one of the directors of the original Roots), avoids, perhaps wisely.  If you can’t replicate the successful elements of a great film, and you don’t want to parody them, then it’s probably best to forge your own path.  The result may not knock your socks off immediately, but the slow burn approach really pays off in the end, both when the delusional Jane (Lynn Redgrave) has her hope of a comeback destroyed when she discovers what she thought was her cabaret showcase is actually a campy drag show (possible metaphor for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in the original film, and their later careers in general, there) and the final confrontation between the two sisters, on the beach, Jane completely out of her mind, constructing totems out of beach refuse on the sand covered body of Blanche (Vanessa Redgrave, of course), who is too tired and tortured to fight back at this point.

Though the ending is fairly spectacular, the somewhat draggy middle portion of the film is thankfully stolen by the great John Glover, playing a seedy manager who meets Jane while she’s trying to find her movies in the video store where he works (they’ve never been released on video- no interest) and sees an opportunity to exploit her delusions of grandeur to cash in on her celebrity, at least in part to pay off a pair of twins he seems to be involved in some underage porn scheme with- no joke.  It’s there’s a worthy heir to Victor Buono, who played the role in the original, it’s Glover, one of the great unsung character actors.  Nobody quite does seedy, sleazy and insincere as well as John Glover, and it’s kind of a shame he’s never really gotten the recognition he’s deserved (now would be a great time to revisit his Trump-esque mega mogul Daniel Clamp from Gremlins 2, though to be fair that character, despite his oiliness, is infinitely more likable than the real thing).  Perhaps he embodies unpleasant characters a bit too well- it’s not surprising, looking at his imdb page, that he’s played the devil at least twice.
Anyway, yeah, come for the reasonable remake of a classic that pays off emotionally in the end, stay for John Glover, playing somebody that would make any normal person uncomfortable, totally at home in the off-kilter world of fading Hollywood stardom in the film.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 5: Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)

31 days of Halloween day 5: Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm is one of the first horror movies I can remember being aware of, mostly likely from the ads announcing its first television airing, back when it was a big deal for theatrical films to be shown on TV, and you might catch a horror film like Phantasm, Friday the 13th or Happy Birthday to Me on primetime television on one of the local UHF stations.  Though it would be around a decade before I actually saw the film, its imagery was already imprinted on my brain- the eerie marble hallways of the mausoleum, the flying bladed sphere and of course Angus Scrimm as the terrifying Tall Man.
Phantasm is also a horror film that many people seem to have a deep, personal connection with.  As a teenager, a friend told me it was one of the movies that helped him through his parents’ divorce, and at the screening of the film’s 4k restoration I attended the other night, director Don Coscarelli (a mensch) told us that he’d heard from many people who’d lost a sibling or parent for whom the film really resonated.
Watching the film, not for the first time, but for the first time on the big screen, and looking better than it probably has since its first run, I was struck by several things.  It makes sense to me that the film strikes an emotional chord for many viewers.  It’s not just that it deals with mourning and loss, but also that it has a kind of emotional reality that is fairly rare in horror movies.
Most horror films tend to take place in a state of heightened reality, and much of what we see from the characters is in response to the situation at hand.  They tend to be sketched broadly and without much nuance.  This is even the case in many of the best horror films- Night of the Living Dead and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre don’t really suffer from the limited scope of their characterizations, but they also aren’t movies that resonate in the same way that Phantasm (or Halloween or Carrie, two other films of the era that have a kind of emotional reality to them) does.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this comes from.  There’s not a ton of exposition in Phantasm, nor is it an especially talky movie.  There’s something in the essence of it, though, in the atmosphere and performances, that comes through and registers as real.  Both the friend I saw it with this time and I, independently of one another, noticed during the screening that there is something very literary about Phantasm, and again, it’s not really in the dialogue, but during the viewing, I found myself responding to the movie almost as though I were reading it in a pulp horror novel.  It’s in the sense of character and the sense of place.
One other thing I noticed during this screening was how unlike any other movie Phantasm is.  Even the most surprising, exciting and otherwise original horror films tend to be grounded in some aspect of the horror tradition, or make allusions to other horror movies.  If Phantasm has an influence, it seems to be more literary science-fiction than anything in horror, it’s simply a wholly original concept, visualized and constructed in a unique and visionary way.
I mentioned before that I know of many people who have an intense emotional connection to Phantasm, and I have to admit that up until last night’s screening, I did not.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love the movie, or that it didn’t move me, I just didn’t connect to it on a personal level (my parents never divorced, I had no siblings to lose and none of my close relatives died until I was much older).  Last night, though, it struck home- so much of everything the past couple of years, both personal and political, feel permeated with that sense of loss and longing and sadness and abandonment- and I feel like I may want to revisit again sooner rather than later, and perhaps more often than once every few years.  

Thursday, October 4, 2018


31 days of Halloween day 4: the past week
I’ve had many nightmares, and I’m sure this is probably a common thing, where I need to scream or saying something, but when I open my mouth, I have no voice.  It’s a similar anxiety that runs through many horror films, where the protagonist tries to warn others of an imminent threat, but can’t get anyone to believe them, whether it’s Kevin McCarthy running through the streets at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or little Andy trying to convince the adults that his doll is a killer in Child’s Play.



This feeling has been especially acute during the Trump era, where we know we’re being lied to- we’re not even being lied to very well- and we know bad decisions are being made, both morality and common sense have been cast aside in favor of an agenda of profiteering and ego gratification for a small but powerful group of people.
Watching the Kavanugh hearing last week felt like a horror movie.  The moral and common sense solutions are clear- this is not someone who is fit to serve on the Supreme Court, if not for his alleged sexual assault (and I believe Christine Blasey Ford), then for his partisan rage, paranoia and numerous instances of lying under oath.  From the outside, it seems so simple, and yet, like the slasher movie victim who goes to investigate a noise when you’re screaming at the screen to run like hell, the people making the decisions can’t seem to get it right- or in this case, refuse to get it right. (And, as an aside, wasn’t it surreal to see Alyssa Milano sitting behind him the whole time, during his ridiculously entitled and self-indulgent tirade and subsequent testimony.  I’ve always liked her and I’m glad she turned out to be one of the good guys.)
We saw the same thing in the 2016 election.  There was no way Trump could be elected- until he was.  And since then, many of us- perhaps most of us- have felt like varying degrees of Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or perhaps Veronica Cartwright at the end of the 1970s remake- looking for signs of recognizable humanity, only to find herself staring into the dead eyes of betrayal).  It just feels like the truth is obvious and the lies so transparent, but reality never seems to take hold, the consequences of greed and ignorance and dishonesty never seem to come.  It’s the true definition of evil, yet everyone seems to be acting like everything is normal, even when when say, again and again and again, “This is not normal.”  It’s the banality of evil- we don’t get the obvious menace of a Dr. Doom (though to be fair, Trump and some of his lackeys are cartoonishly grotesque), but the misplaced righteousness of Lindsay Graham, using his powers, which could be used for so much good, to defend privilege and mediocrity.  



It’s not a great movie (it’s actually a pretty bad movie), but I often think of a line in one of the later Hellraiser sequels, Hellseeker, where Pinhead confronts his victim, saying, in that deliciously evil way Doug Bradley has of saying his Cenobite-isms, “Welcome to the worst nightmare of all…reality.”
That’s what 2018 feels like.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 3: Hereditary & Sharp Objects

31 days of Halloween day 3: Hereditary & Sharp Objects
As human beings, we fear a seemingly infinite number of things, and yet horror movies tend to focus on just two of these fears- the fear of death and the fear of losing control of one’s own body.  These preoccupations make sense, they’re two of the big ones, most everybody faces them in some form or another, and they’re both pretty hard to bounce back from.
Still, I often wish there were horror movies that dealt with our other fears, fears of loneliness or abandonment or mediocrity.  One of my favorite novels is a Hungarian book called Metropol, by Ferenc Karinthy.  It’s not a horror story, at least stylistically, it’s more of a darkly absurdist comedy in the vein of Franz Kafka, and yet its scenario- a traveling linguist falls asleep on the wrong plane and finds himself in a country where he does not speak the language, and cannot figure it out- is among the most horrifying I can imagine.  Death, at the very least, promises an ending, even if its an unhappy one, while the torment of loss, of misunderstanding, can haunt and hurt for decades.
So many of us have anxiety about money, and yet the number of money-related horror films is relatively small.  The Australian film Wake in Fright is one of the only movies I can think of that’s explicitly about money (its protagonist finds himself broke in a unknown town, at the mercy of the locals for just about everything), and the Purge movies are among the few that deal explicitly with class warfare, while many haunted house or home invasion movies have money lurking in the background, whether its James Brolin desperately searching for a lost wad of cash in The Amityville Horror, or Bill Paxton finding his yuppie lifestyle upended by a literal specter of poverty in The Vagrant.

A film and a TV show released in the past year both invoked another fear many of us face, and many others have to live with- parental ambivalence.  Although my parents have never been anything but loving and caring towards me, for years I had reoccurring nightmares where they told me they hated me.  The need for parental love of some kind of another runs so deep in so many of us, the fear that it’s not there is the ultimate rejection, and yet horror films tend to present ambivalent parents in the same light it does other monsters, though in reality the terror they promise is not that of death but of a life lived incompletely, an unfulfilled longing, an empty and unfillable space.
The first of the films that brought this to mind was Hereditary, which is of course a more-or-less conventional, albeit above-average, horror movie.  In a film full of startling and unnerving moments, a film driven by a pervasive sense of loss and dread, perhaps the most startling moment comes when the film’s protagonist, grieving mother Annie (played by Toni Collette) admits to her surviving child, Peter (played by Nat Wolff), “I never wanted to be your mother.”  Although all the characters in the film have more gruesome fates awaiting them, death seems almost merciful compared to a long life lived with that knowledge, both for the son and for the mother, a broken bond that could likely never be repaired.
A similar moment comes in the TV mini-series Sharp Objects.  Like Hereditary is grounded in some of the generic standards of the horror film, Sharp Objects is very much a conventional mystery, in which a newspaper reporter, played by Amy Adams, returns to her hometown to cover a series of child murders and in doing so must also confront some of her own personal demons, especially familial ones, and especially especially her mother, played by Patricia Clarkson.  
Again, the pivotal moment in Sharp Objects comes during a mother-child exchange.  The relationship between the two has been mercurial, bordering at times on hostile, and though we see moments that suggest tenderness or at least concern, the edges that separate the two are so jagged as to make reconciliation seem impossible- and yet, this being a fiction, we still hope for the possibility of a happy ending.
The moment comes about 3/4 of the way through the story and for a moment, it seems like this is going to be the big reconciliation between the two.  Both characters play their emotions very close to the vest, but it seems, briefly, like maybe they can open up to one another and bridge the divide.  The moment is broken, however, when the mother admits, almost offhandedly, and even more bluntly than Annie in Hereditary, “I never loved you.”
That the statement is not meant to wound makes it perhaps even worst that if it were said in anger.  Clearly the mother has struggled with this, and lost the battle.  Sharp Objects continues with more revelations and a number of shocking moments, but none has quite the impact of this confession, and it hangs over the rest of the story like a dark cloud.
I’m not really building up to anything here, mostly I just wanted to express a desire for a horror cinema that goes beyond what we traditionally think of as the elements of horror, and to cite these examples of horror that goes a little deeper into our fears.  After all, what most killers and creatures in movies threaten is a relatively quick death, but an unfulfilling life can torment someone on and on and on etc.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 2: Piercing



A problem I have with internet-era film criticism is how much it relies on hype and hyperbole.  Everything always seems to be the best movie ever made or so bad it invokes rage in the reviewer.  In truth, for me anyway, most movies are pretty average.  They inspire no great heights of emotion or insight, inspire no strong feelings one way or the other.  For the most part, if a movie doesn’t bore or offend me somehow, I more or less like it.  I’m not bowled over by style as much as I once was, in fact style, even a style I like, without anything substantive to back it up, can be more irritating than pleasing, especially if it feels like a film is hitting the notes it thinks it knows I want it to hit, for the sake of crowd pleasing, fan service or whatever.

That said, the middle of the road is not a terrible place for a film to exist.  The world is full of three star movies I’d happily revisit (and often do) before more challenging and intellectually or emotionally rigorous movies that are also more rewarding.  Some of my favorite movies of all time I’ve only seen once or twice, but I’ve probably watched Friday the 13th part 6 once every other year or so for at least the past 15 years.  Life itself is very challenging, sometimes I prefer watching films that are less so.

I doubt I’ll add it to the regular rotation, but Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing, based on a book by Ryu “The Other” Murakami, is a film that falls really comfortably into this middle ground.  It’s neither a great movie nor a terrible one, it’s good points balance out its weaker ones, and I mostly enjoyed watching it while having some issues with it.

Much of the film’s strength and weakness comes from its overabundance of style.  It looks great and borrows some of its visual aesthetic, as well as most of its soundtrack, from giallo films of the 1970’s, a style that’s generally pretty pleasing and very much in vogue right now.  The problem is that the style is fairly discordant with the story.  Piercing isn’t a mystery but rather more of a cat and mouse thriller, with the tensions not coming from who the killer is, or what their motivations are, but whether one of the film’s two protagonists will kill the other, and which one, and when.  It’s the thinnest of plots driven by the vaguest of motivations, and as a result, for all of its good looks, Piercing feels kind of empty, and perhaps even emptier because it doesn’t narratively justify the use of the giallo style- it simply isn’t that kind of movie, though perhaps the movie itself doesn’t fully realize that, or realize that much of the power of the Euro-trashy aesthetic is interwoven with narratives of the films from which it originated.  As much as lushly appointed modernist interiors and the music of Goblin and Stelvio Cipriani are hallmarks of the 70s Italian horror film, so are red herrings, the odd motivations and out-of-left field plot twists.  

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that giallo isn’t the only stylistic pose that Piercing adopts.  There are also, perhaps even more inexplicably, exterior shots of buildings that are very clearly (intentionally clearly) paper models, as well as a long hallucination sequence, in some ways the film’s centerpiece, that feels very digital and modern, replete with a CGI sort of rat/bug creature, which is well-rendered and even kind of cool, but feels totally out of place in a film that is largely otherwise draped in plush red velvet.  Perhaps if there was something in the story that tied these disparate visual threads together, they could work, but since Piercing is so plot-thin, it just feels like a filmmaker trying to doing something “cool,” whether it suits his movie or not.

Still, despite its inconsistencies, Piercing is not a bad film, or at least it’s not a boring film, and occasionally its stylistic flourishes work, such as a sequence in which the film’s protagonist, a would-be serial killer played by Christopher Abbott from It Comes at Night and Martha Marcy May Marlene, pantomimes his proposed crime to get the timing right (complete with grisly sound effects).  Abbott does a good job as someone who is not evil but has evil inclinations, an everyman killer who may be in over his head, and even better is Mia Wasikowska as his would-be victim, who may be a killer, or at least capable of killing, herself.  Wasikowska takes what feels like a mostly underwritten role- we know almost nothing of her character’s motivations or intentions, even after she seems to have turned the tables of Abbott, and yet she brings an unpredictable, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes sexy, sometimes frightening, sometimes charming energy to the role that mostly makes it work, or at least keep us guessing- does she want to kill Abbott?  Does she want to be killed by him?  Is she detached from the situation, victimized by it or in control?  We never really know.  (I guess she’s kind of a manic piercing dream girl, which might count as a demerit for the film)

Because I don’t have strong feelings about Piercing, it’s hard to come to much of a conclusion about it.  Did I enjoy watching it?  Yes, mostly.  Do I recall it fondly a few days later, right now, writing about it?  Yes, mostly.  Does it mean anything to me?  No, almost not at all.  Then again, maybe it’s good not to care too much about the things that you like, or the actors, or filmmakers or anything.  It’s easier not to be disappointed that way.

Monday, October 1, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 1: Lords of Chaos (2018)



I’m going to try to write a movie review for a horror film every day this month.  It’s been a while since I’ve written anything and it’s been a while since I’ve followed through on anything I said I was going to do, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ll abandon this, like, tomorrow, but for tonight, I’m writing.

Over the weekend, the Alamo in Brooklyn screened several films from this year’s Fantastic Fest.  Among the few that I saw was Lord of Chaos, a fictionalized account of the murder of Norwegian black metal Euronymous, of the band Mayhem, by Varg Vikerenes, of the band Burzum.  Directed by Jonas Akerlund, himself a member of the metal band Bathory in the 80’s, and now primarily a music video director, Lords of Chaos is a bad movie, and as such I have very mixed feelings about it.  I like bad movies, the worse the better.  Most days I’d rather watch a good bad movie than a genuinely good movie.  Bad movies can be entertaining in their ineptitude, but they can also be challenging and revealing in the same way that art films are.  I have respect and even admiration for movies that are bad in certain ways, if there is a sense of true vision behind them, or such an utter front of cynical commercialism, that they wind up having something to say.  

I love bad movies and Lords of Chaos is a bad movie, but I did not love Lords of Chaos, and it did not wind up having something to say.  It wasn’t boring, and I had fun watching it, and I have to admit, with some awe, that it is the rare bad movie that manages to get just about everything wrong, from its tone to its casting to its narrative structure etc.  I know this makes it sound like something worth watching, but the whole film is tempered with such an extreme aura of averageness.  Among the first things you seen onscreen in the film is the logo for Vice Media (which immediately elicited laughter from the audience), and if you’re at all familiar with the Vice aesthetic, that pretty much tells you exactly what you’re going to get- an exploitable story, told without depth or insight, punctuated by some sex and violence, a couple of wild house parties, some casual Nazism, a total disinterest in any of the story’s female characters (or, to be more accurate, female character- only one woman has any significant screen time, all the others are glimpsed briefly during montages of Varg having sex, or are the other characters’ mothers, often only heard from offscreen) and a general, all-pervasive smirking smugness.  

From the first moments of the film proper, it is clear that the tone is all wrong.  The whole story is driven by Euronymous’ voiceover, in a style that very much recalls Goodfellas and its many imitators, and just doesn’t feel right for a film about Norwegian black metal.  It would have made sense for the film to try and capture some of the tone of the historical moment it portrays, or if not, then to juxtapose the inconsistently light-hearted tone of the movie against the dark, somber pretentiousness of the metal scene, but the tone of the voiceover seems to be done without any critical intent- it’s just the way Ackerlund seems to feel a movie like this should be made.

The inconsistent, discordant tone might be more forgivable if the film gave us anything of depth to hold onto, but that’s not the case.  The characterizations are especially weak, with Rory Culkin’s Euronymous driving the film by charisma alone.  Emory Cohen as Varg hints at the resentments and insecurities that might have led him to his crimes, but the film doesn’t offer much to back them up, other than a scene where Culkin makes fun of him for wearing a Scorpions patch.  Also hinting at something more, but not given enough screen time to do much with it, is Jack Kilmer as Dead, one of the early members of of Mayhem who helped form the band’s image (and the image of black metal in general), and whose suicide probably would have meant something more in a film where the other characters had more of an emotional life (here, it’s relegated to a few jump scare flashback’s that seem to indicate discovering Death’s body affected Euronymous, though exactly how is not made clear).  Most of the other characters are entirely interchangeable, so much so that when one of them, Faust (played by Valter Skarsgard- a lot of famous last names in this one) wanders into town to murder someone, it’s entirely unclear why, and afterwards, how it affected him.  

In addition to the glib tone and underdeveloped characters, Lords of Chaos fails to find significance in two of its most fundamental elements- the setting and the music itself.  The idea, presumably, of Norwegian black metal is that it couldn’t really come from anywhere other than Norway, that it is drawn from the country’s atmosphere, its history and its temperament in a way other major cultural moments could only originate from a specific time and place.  None of this is present in the film, which (admittedly in part of the mix of accents of the actors) could take place almost anywhere, at almost any time- it doesn’t really capture the sense of taking place in the 80s-90s, but feels uncomfortably contemporary (or perhaps more accurately reflects the early 00s heyday of Vice as a masthead of party culture).

Music, meanwhile, feels oddly absent from the film, though we get one fairly strong concert scene early on with a Dead-fronted Mayhem, that quickly devolves into a gross-out scene of self-mutilation.  Metal tends to be a music that its fans connect to on a deep, emotional level, and Euronymous was a music nerd to the core, seen in the film going to a Motorhead concert and later relaxing to a Tangerine Dream record, while fronting his own band, record label and record store, yet the film doesn’t seem to care much about the music at all (ironic in a film where the characters are overwhelmingly concerned about “true metal” and who’s a “poser,” Lords of Chaos tries to capture some of the black metal aesthetic without having any real feeling for the music), and as a result, feels ultimately empty.  If we don’t care about the characters, or the world in which they exist, or the thing (music) that brought them all together, then why are we watching this movie?  What’s the point in telling this story?    

And the truth is, in the end, there is no point.  It’s a “fucked up” thing that happened, and now there’s a movie about it.  I really don’t like to be snarky or hyperbolic about movies I don’t like, so I’m not going to say watching Lords of Chaos was the worst thing that ever happened to me, because it wasn’t, and I can’t even really say I hated it, because I laughed throughout the whole film (a somewhat non-plussed Culkin, who was at the screening, told us afterwards, “We didn’t realize it was funny while we were making it,” suggesting that the laughs were largely unintentional, and making the movie seem even worse- the thought of a movie this camp meant to be taken seriously is almost enough to make me feel little angry about the obliviousness of the filmmakers) and had a long, fun conversation with my friends about it afterwards, which is honestly more than I can say for a lot of movies I liked a lot more than this one, or at least felt had more to offer, but as I sit here now writing about it, thinking about Lords of Chaos makes me feel kind of sad, less about the movie itself than about the world it reflects, the real world, where a murderous neo-Nazi like Varg Vikerenes can attract a cult following and where Vice (itself co-founded by a neo-Nazi, something nobody in the company cared about until it threatened to cost them money) can parlay casual hipster racism and sexism into a multi-million dollar media empire with a more-or-less unchecked culture of sexual harassment, exploiting unpaid labor and contributing a sort of blandly unfounded cynicism to the culture (doing it for the luls, etc.), while managing to displace a wide swath of Brooklyn’s DIY scene in the process.  In this respect, I guess Lords of Chaos is truly a film for Trump’s American, loud yet bland and empty, sexist, flirting with Nazism without the courage to admit it, confused about the purpose of its own existence, shallow and kind of fun to watch in a way that makes you feel worse about yourself the next day.