Archive for October 2018

Halloween (2018)

October 28, 2018

halloween-new-photo-h47lk753b8 Funny how the new Halloween seems to unfold in a present trapped in the past. Old Haddonfield, the site of the original 1978 Halloween’s horrors, looks pretty much the same now as then. The movie’s lead character, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), looks plausibly like a woman the original film’s Laurie would have grown to become in forty years. (This wasn’t true of Laurie’s appearance in 1998’s Halloween: H20, where she rocked a tres ‘90s pixie cut.¹) Laurie is so haunted by her past she’s destroyed any relationships she’s had, including with her grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer), although her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) keeps in tentative touch with Laurie.

Funny, too, how I should lead with this stuff about the past and family and not, say, how scary the new Halloween is. That’s because it isn’t, particularly, but in this case that’s not necessarily a demerit (it does pack a few good wallops for those who came for a horror movie). Halloween 2018 is a far different animal than Halloween 1978 — not better, not worse, but different. At times, the sad sight of the gray-haired Laurie wielding a shotgun in readiness for the violence she can never escape makes this feel very weirdly like a slasher version of Unforgiven. In writing the first Halloween, John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn’t put anything under the hood except what was needed to make the thing go. (And it went like a rocket.) This one seems to have all kinds of stuff under the hood. And that may be partly because something like this, a forty-years-later sequel that’s in tight continuity with the original while denying any other sequels happened, hasn’t quite been done before. It’s unique and strange — certainly the oddest duck to top $125 million at the box office in ten days.

While being transferred from one facility to another, the franchise’s Boogeyman, Michael Myers, causes the asylum bus to crash, and he escapes. Laurie has been waiting for this to happen — longing for it. In the new canon, Laurie is no longer Michael’s estranged sister (as was revealed in 1981’s now-nonexistent Halloween II). She was just a high-school girl who happened to catch Michael’s notice. Maybe she reminded him of the sister, Judith, he’d killed as a boy. The new Halloween doesn’t assume or require any knowledge outside of the first film; you don’t need to have seen Halloween 4 or 5 or Halloween: Resurrection (all equally consigned to canonical oblivion now, and good riddance) to understand this film. I wonder if you even need to have seen the first film (although of course you should), because its story is such a part of the shared American cultural fabric by now. Carpenter’s film may have become one of those touchstones everyone knows the story of even if they haven’t seen them, a foggily remembered Grimm fairy tale.

And what about the new characters? There’s a “new Dr. Loomis” who demonstrates what can happen if you become obsessed with one patient without having Loomis’s rock-solid morality. (I guess that’s why he’s there. His character is more intriguing to think about later than to watch; his actions resonate more as subtext than as text.) There’s Laurie’s family, three generations of strong, smart women trying to pull violence out of their DNA by the roots. Aside from a hilarious young actor named Jibrail Nantambu as a kid being babysat by one of Allyson’s friends, Jamie Lee Curtis owns the movie. She doesn’t make the mistake of playing a PTSD sufferer realistically; she gives Laurie a rigid righteousness that comes from years of dealing with having been singled out by the Boogeyman for no reason that makes sense to her. She thinks the shadows are full of predators and ghouls, and in this case — and not just about Michael — she’s right. (The movie begins with two dumb-ass podcasters whose presence in a plot sense seems boringly utilitarian, but they work as another kind of parasite on Laurie’s pain.)

The director/cowriter here is David Gordon Green, who has had one of the more peripatetic careers in recent cinema — he started off eighteen years ago as a Terrence Malick acolyte with George Washington, and has done various dramas (Joe) and thrillers (Undertow) and stoner comedies (Pineapple Express) and biopics (Stronger, Our Brand Is Crisis). Now this. Green, who wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, has been circling the idea of bell-bottom-horror remakes for a while; he almost made the current Suspiria redo. Green’s Halloween (some jagoff will probably nickname this Hallogreen the way Rob Zombie’s two entries are known in derisive quarters as Zombieween) comes off as one fine director’s tip of the hat — of respect, of appreciation — to another. The images have an autumnal fullness and richness that recall Dean Cundey’s cinematography on Halloween ’78, though the editing here is much antsier, the compositions more jumpy. I felt that this is what the miserable Laurie’s Halloween would look like forty years on. It’s full of betrayal (even Allyson gets cheated on and then almost macked on by a drunk guy friend) and men who go off and die stupidly while the womenfolk hole up with their guns; it’s full of bashing violence. It all expresses Laurie’s worldview of death-filled shadows, but those shadows can be lit up, and the evil inside them turned to ashes — by women.

¹Not to dwell too much on Jamie Lee Curtis’s hair, but the way Laurie’s hairstyle in ’18 looks pretty much the same as it did in ’78 suggests that in some ways Laurie was stunted forever on that Halloween night. 

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Code Name: Dynastud

October 22, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 4.50.29 PM “My penis was a lethal weapon,” narrates the titular hero of Code Name: Dynastud, “and I had a license to thrill.” This is the sort of freewheeling dialogue you can expect from this movie and from many of Richard Griffin’s movies in general. Griffin is the Rhode Island bad boy responsible for making serious films (Long Night in a Dead City, Flesh for the Inferno) and queer-positive farces (last year’s Strapped for Danger and definitely this movie). Sometimes the sharpest response to a repressive situation is laughter, and in Dynastud Griffin gays it up bigly in the face of a regime that just announced they’re looking to redefine transgender out of existence, and whose vice-president gladly speaks at the anti-LGBT hate gathering Values Voter Summit.

Griffin’s comedic grab-bag approach, with nods to everything from James Bond opening-credits sequences to Dune to Moby Dick, probably won’t win over any more bigots than a more sober-sided Oscar-season appeal to tolerance would, but it’s a lot more fun. (Some may recall that Strapped for Danger was supposed to be Griffin’s swan song; fortunately for us, he changed his mind.) Griffin’s story here (cowritten with frequent giggling collaborators Duncan Pflaster and Lenny Schwartz) involves a scrawny farm-raised lad who receives superpowers and becomes Dynastud (Anthony Gaudette), both blessed with fabulous good looks and cursed with the tendency to make his sexual partners’ heads explode when he achieves orgasm. Dynastud’s new partner in crimefighting — the Robin to his Batman, if you will — is Bart (Derek Laurendeau), a bespectacled dude punished for the crime of being gay in 2024 by being married off to the avidly horny daughter of the senator being groomed as the next president.

Despite the intentional clownishness (the bad dubbing in tribute to Enter the Ninja) and the continued thirst for vibrant colors (courtesy of cinematographer John Mosetich), Griffin’s radicalism here makes Bruce LaBruce’s callow outrages look like a kid’s armpit farts. Code Name: Dynastud imagines an America left incredibly worse post-Trump — this may come to be recognized as the first post-America film. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic work, with the emphasis on “cheerfully.” The performers come to party, with the most vivid fun-makers being Bruce Church as the gun-toting, hateful senator and Candace Sampson as his randy spawn. I’m always happy to see Aaron Andrade barge into a Griffin shindig, and here he busts in as a MAGA agent and puts on a hilariously lofty accent. He cracked me up every time.

It’s probably no accident that Griffin is hijacking traditionally macho genres (and movies by typically macho studios like Cannon) to tell lasciviously gay stories. By the same token, gay lust and affection are about the only things that don’t come in for ridicule here; by rewriting/rewiring hetero fantasies, Griffin is showing the hetero audience what their unquestioned hetero entertainment looks like to everyone else. I sometimes wonder what Griffin’s wilder films will look like in thirty years (assuming anyone will be around to watch them) — whether their method of flipping the script will be viewed as something that was sadly necessary in the dark ages of 2018. There may be a future in which films like Code Name: Dynastud will be seen not as gay parodies but as parodies. Part of Griffin believes in that future and works towards it. And part of him laughs in rage at the present. There’s the soul of an artist in these schlock homages Griffin does, with all their jokes about schlongs and jizz.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

October 14, 2018

notld Fifty years ago this past October 1, George A. Romero invented what we know today as the modern zombie — not the previous voodoo kind, but a reanimated, cannibalistic corpse. Throughout Night of the Living Dead, though, the word “zombie” is never spoken. The mysterious aggressors are referred to as “ghouls” or, at one point, “flesh eaters.” Romero also laid down the first rule of zombie stories: The danger lies just as much with your fellow human survivors as with the zombies. This dictum has served zombie cinema well in the subsequent half-century, from Romero’s own five sequels to The Walking Dead.

In Romero’s later zombie films, especially 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he used the genre as a Trojan horse for social satire and commentary. Here, though, any commentary is more or less incidental. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones), is African-American, because Jones was the best actor for the part — Romero never intended to be subversive, even when Ben is slapping hysterical white woman Barbra (Judith O’Dea) or beating up jerkwad white man Harry (Karl Hardman). Nobody really seems to take notice of Ben’s race; he’s simply a smart, resourceful man who has the better survival instincts. (The depiction of Barbra as a useless, frightened girl is another story; in the 1990 remake, written by Romero, Barbra is far braver and tougher, and is played by stuntwoman Patricia Tallman.)

The movie remains unsettling after all these years because of its bleak simplicity. Everything is distilled down to these people’s struggles to survive in a remote house Ben, Barbra, Harry, Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sickly daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who has been bitten by a zombie, and a young couple who seem to be there as an afterthought. It’s the ultimate Z-budget bottle-episode movie, and it has a chiaroscuro ghastliness the more expensive color sequels lack, as engaging as they often are. The seething black-and-white grain of the images makes the horrors seem caught almost on the fly; sometimes the action is artfully composed, sometimes the camera eye seems dead, as if we were watching through zombievision.

The most gruesome moments, when the zombies have a midnight snack on two of the more expendable characters, have a casual nightmarishness backed by a doomy electronic pulse on the soundtrack. The 28-year-old Romero, already a veteran of local TV commercials (and short films for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!), threw a lot of stuff at the wall, and fortunately most of it stuck. The mood is dark and near despair, but there’s a spirit of play in the filmmaking, a spark of on-the-cheap expertise. Romero’s first Dead trilogy (rounded out by 1985’s Day of the Dead) were all claustrophobic, isolated affairs, but his second trilogy (2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and particularly 2009’s Survival of the Dead, Romero’s swan song) got out into the air and the world a bit more.

Here, though, we have a haunted house haunted from within by distrust and hostility, and threatened from without by ghouls that can’t be reasoned with or appealed to. Once a dead person becomes a zombie, that’s it, there’s nothing personal, they’re going to eat you whether you’re a stranger or their relative. Social norms become meaningless. Some of them come in suits, some naked. All are bodies interrupted en route from life to dirt or flame, and become the Nightmare Life-in-Death, the neither-nor, death devouring life. Romero wasn’t thinking about any of this, though; he was just riffing on I Am Legend. Subtext gathers around this stark, pure story; analyses leech onto it; but in the end it is a classical horror film that seems to exist above what we say about it.

Suspiria (1977)

October 8, 2018

suspiria A little over an hour into the classic fever dream Suspiria, a killer comes after a frightened young woman we’ve grown to like, intending to dull his straight razor on her. She locks herself in a room, and the razor slides through the door opening and jiggles the latch. Jiggle, jiggle, for quite some time, as she stares at the blade with dread. We can see that the killer could easily flip the latch up with the razor, but that wouldn’t serve the purpose of the scene, which is twofold. The plot-centered purpose is simply to scare the woman into fleeing through a window into another room, where an even uglier surprise is in store. The second purpose is purely aesthetic — the film’s cowriter and director, Dario Argento, loves to draw out the suspense for its own cruel sake. We stare as if hypnotized as the woman backs away, backs away, at a crawl, futilely. Whether she moves fast or slow, death is still coming for her, as another character says in a different context later on.

Suspiria, whose modern remake arrives in American theaters next month, is probably Argento’s masterpiece. The first in his Three Mothers trilogy — followed by 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears — it seems to encompass everything he holds dear: art, music, architecture, elaborate death sequences. It’s a death ballet, really, with various crescendos that function as nightmare logic. I mean, when we’re talking about a drizzle of maggots falling on unsuspecting young women, the movie can try to explain it away as the headmistress (Joan Bennett) does, but Suspiria is no left-brain experience. I see, for instance, that I’ve made it some 300 words into this piece without mentioning that the movie takes place at a ballet academy, and that the star, the mildly agreeable Jessica Harper, is the school’s new American student Suzy Bannion. Thinking back on Suspiria yields sense memories, electronic haunted-house sounds, stylish and outré brutality. It’s possible to forget Harper is even in it, but it’s not possible to forget the opening salvo of operatic violence, perhaps the only gory slasher kill that also wreaks collateral damage.

Argento throws in maybe two quick scenes of dance practice, but ballet isn’t really what he’s interested in. He sets the movie in a ballet academy because it has dozens of comely young actresses to terrorize (and is run by older women who may or may not be witches). It’s simplistic to call Argento a misogynist based on the baroque ways women are killed in his work. I believe him when he says he’s trying to show how horrible violence against women is (despite his disconcerting habit of “playing” the killer’s hands in his movies). I also think the murder scenes, the spikes in the heartbeat, can’t help being beautiful and exciting. The extremely loud and almost cartoonishly ominous score by Goblin (Dawn of the Dead) and the hyper-rich, Disney-inspired color scheme by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli turn the violence into myth, fairy-tale, illustrations in some fiendish old leatherbound book of stories.

Argento is an artist and his art, like that of Hitchcock and Peckinpah, is the shock of sudden death, the blood and guts of mortality. Suspiria runs on spooky virtuosity that both confounds sense and forges its own internal sense. There’s a room at the academy that’s filled with barbed wire for some reason — sure, why not. I imagine Suspiria is also not the kind of movie that plays well with snarky modern audiences; there are just too many weird infelicities you have to agree to overlook, like the usual uncanny-valley Italian dubbing — the worst example being Udo Kier, dubbed in the U.S. release with an American accent, even though Kier is a German actor in a film set in Germany. The apocalyptic finale makes about as much sense as anything else; it feels right, though. The movie plays best when it comes off like a little kid telling a scary story, skipping around, giving you over-the-top gross-outs. It’s less convincing in scenes where Harper goes around like a detective trying to get to the bottom of the strangeness. She won’t, because the strangeness of Suspiria is bottomless.