Monday, October 22, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 11: The Howling 3- The Marsupials (Philippe Mora, 1987)

31 days of Halloween day 11: The Howling 3- The Marsupials (Philippe Mora, 1987)

If there was ever a horror film that didn’t need a sequel, it would be Joe Dante’s the Howling.  It is a film that feels complete, with any ambiguities left by the ending serving to strengthen the overall sense of horror in the film, rather than leaving unanswered questions.  It’s also an auteurist work- a perfecting of the mix of satire and horror, a collision of b-movie atmospherics with the mundane and middle-class, from Dante and screenwriter John Sayles’ previous collaboration, Piranha, which the director would bring to all his later films, especially Gremlins and it’s sequel, The ‘Burbs and Matinee.  

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it (the Howling was financially successful, generally well-received and has gone on to be considered one of the classic horror films of the 80s) there have been something insane like 7 sequels to the Howling.  The only one of the sequels that even attempts to tie into the events of the first film is Part 2, alternately known as “Your Sister is a Werewolf” and the less elegant “Striba- Werewolf Bitch.”  The Howling 2 is just awful, despite the presence of Christopher Lee (in new wave sunglasses) and Sybil Danning (also in sunglasses, and fur).  Gone is all the humor and charm of the original, gone is the satirical edge, gone is the winning cast and parade of beloved b-movie character actors, gone is any sense of suspense, gone are the ground breaking special effects.  If the Howling 2 is remarkable for anything, it’s for being a sequel that entirely abandons almost everything that’s notable and cherished about the film it follows.

The Howling 2’s director, Philippe Mora, returned for the next sequel, Howling 3: The Marsupials, set in his home country, Australia.  Perhaps it’s because he was playing on his home turf, perhaps it’s because he was working off his own screenplay, perhaps it’s because a few years had passed and he’d become a better filmmaker (though Mora already had a number of interesting documentaries under his belt, as well as the narrative film Mad Dog Morgan, one of the quintessential Australian films of the 1970s), but the Howling 3, even if it does rise to justifying the need for a Howling sequel in the first place, at least manages to be a considerable improvement over the previous film, and brings back some of the humor and style that made the first film so special.  

Part of what works about the Howling 3, but also part of what doesn't work, is that it’s bananas.  The action is moved to Australia, and, as the title suggests, the werewolves are marsupials with wolf-like mandibles and kangaroo pouches.  As in the original film, they live in an isolated community, but here it’s a backwood in the outback, called Flow (get it?), led by the hulking Thylo (played by Max Fairchild of Mad Dog Morgan and the first two Mad Max movies).  The film’s protagonist, Jeroba, escapes the colony for some reason and makes her way to the city, where she more-or-less instantly meets a man who casts her in a low budget movie and also falls in love with her.  Also, there’s a government agency and an anthropology professor who have discovered the existence of werewolves and are closing in on them, with the help of a defected Siberian ballet dancer who may or may not also be a werewolf, I can’t totally remember.

All of this is like the first 10 minutes of the movie and you’d think with that much loaded up front, Howling 3 would be able to sustain a narrative, but it manages to peter out like 3/4 of the way through and start going off in a new direction, only to abruptly abandon that and flash forward several years for an ending that ties everything too neatly, somewhat mercilessly turns the up-til-now sympathetic lead characters mean for no particular reason, and ineffectively ape the ending of the original Howling.  For a low-budget film, Howling 3 is full of ideas, the problem being that none of them are particularly developed.  There’s a whole section that satirizes the production of a low-budget horror movies, but, like, why?  Part of it are funny, and Frank Thring (from Ben Hur, King of Kings and Mad Max 3) has what might be the film’s best role as a Hitchcock-inspired b-movie director, but it’s not really clear what the movie is going for here. The original Howling was satirical of the self-help movement and the early days of the “me generation” with its new age health cult turned werewolf colony, but here we’re not really given any meat to chew on, other than the supposed inherent novelty of poking fun at b-movies in a b-movie.

Still, it’s this kind of attempt, however undeveloped, that keeps Howling 3 watchable.  Otherwise, it’s hard to put a finger on just what this movie is.  Other than the presence of monsters, it’s not really a horror movie, and though there’s humor, it’s not really consistent enough to be a comedy.  The government conspiracy angle is undercooked, as is the movie-set satire, and the depiction, later in the film, of the werewolf colony as a kind of off-the-grid utopia doesn’t really go anywhere, nor does the tacked on ending etc. etc.  So, yeah, this might be the best Howling sequel  by default, and it’s not the worst movie you’ll ever see, but it might have benefited from being realized on its own, without the specter of a much better movie to live up to.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 10: The Evil (Gus Trikonis, 1978)

Gus Trikonis’ The Evil is an unusual film.  For most of its running time, it’s a pretty unremarkable haunted house movie in the mold of the Haunting, and it’s really only notable because it came out a year before the Amityville Horror, which does some of the same things much better (this film feels like it should be a knock off of that one, despite being made first), and several months before Halloween, as this has a kind of stalk-and-slash vibe (though it’s a house doing the slashings and not a dude).  So, despite behind a little ahead of the curve, the first 70 minutes or so of this film has Richard Crenna (with a beard that, again, makes me feel like it should be a ripoff of James Brolin’s look in Amityville Horror, but still isn’t.  He also looks almost exactly like Bryan Cranston in the last season of Breaking Bad, almost uncannily so) and his boring friends trying to fix up the dumb old haunted house they bought and interrupting long stretches of not much happening with getting killed by ghosts, or whatever.

It might be somewhat instructive to compare The Evil to a film that feels somewhat structurally similar, but achieves a lot more- Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which was released a couple of years after this.  Both films feature a string of deaths related to a passageway to hell in an old house, and both lead to a sort of metaphysical journey for their protagonists at the end, an unwitting crossing over of mystical boundaries.  The Evil is very much like the beyond blanched of all style and atmosphere, if you can imagine the drowsy pacing of a Fulci film without any of that filmmaker’s distinctive distinctiveness- the over-the-top gore, the lush atmospherics, the dreamlike tangents or the general feelings of otherworldliness and dread that Fulci brings to films that are not especially narratively developed.

It would be easy to write off The Evil completely as not much more than an adequate time killer for a rainy Sunday afternoon were it not for the film’s ending, in which Crenna discovers the portal to hell in his basement and follows it to an encounter with the (or at least a) devil, played the great Victor Buono.  If ever there was an actor to play a droll, world-weary devil, it’s Buono, best known for his role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and as King Tut on the 60’s Batman tv show.  Much as in The Beyond, hell here is a white, misty wasteland, and Buono’s devil (listed in the credits as simply Devil) sits in a white throne, wearing an all white suit.  The scene is so strange and fun and comes so out of left field in what’s an otherwise fairly dull film, it makes it almost worth recommending, though in some ways it paints the rest of the movie in an even more disappointing light, knowing that there was a kernel of mostly untapped creativity that existed in the film’s conception but wasn’t applied to the project as a whole.

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.