Archive for October 2019

3 from Hell

October 20, 2019

3fromhellSo it turns out that Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding was the corroded soul of Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” films. Haig, who went to the great grindhouse theater in the sky this past September 21, was front and center, a leering psychotic ball of greasepaint and rage, in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). In the new, much-belated third film, 3 from Hell, Haig has one vehemently defiant scene early on, and then ol’ Captain Spaulding gets the death penalty. (Haig was supposed to have a much bigger role, of course, but his health forbade it.) Although the striking Richard Brake takes over what would have been Spaulding’s grisly activity and is perfectly fine at it, Haig is dearly missed.

Given the choice of having Haig for a matter of minutes or not doing the film at all, I don’t know which I would have chosen (nor do I know if Zombie had the option to pull the movie’s plug). I do wonder, though, why 3 from Hell was made, because the rotgut masterwork Devil’s Rejects was a perfect, hard, diamond-like finish to the story of the Firefly family, rounded out by Spaulding’s daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who makes Mallory Knox look like Mallory Keaton, and her hellbilly adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). At the end of Devil’s Rejects, it certainly seemed as though Zombie had given them a Viking funeral and Peckinpah send-off all in one, but they survived the police onslaught (“twenty bullets in each body,” we’re told here), and Baby and Otis spend ten years in prison.

Cut to 1988. Baby is up for parole (hilariously) and Otis is sprung from a road crew by his half-brother Foxy (Brake). Soon enough, the three are on the lam, menacing enemies and strangers alike, and we get the depressing feeling we’ve seen this before. Baby does her drifty, swaying-cobra routine that snaps into lethal focus, and Otis drops pompously demonic pronouncements like a dinner-theater Manson. The usual gnarly sadism, vintage needle-drops, language that would make a Marine blush, and rather offensively offhanded nudity follow. (I am not as convinced as Rob Zombie apparently was that a Firefly victim, courageously played by Sylvia Jefferies, needed to be stripped naked and then be knifed to death in that state on someone’s front lawn in pitiless daylight. The death, and her suffering, would have had equal impact if she’d been allowed to stay clothed.)

I’ve only seen the unrated cut of 3 from Hell, so I’m not sure what bits of grue (a gory woman blubbering while her flensed face hangs on a tree; intestines out where we can see them; the results of arrows, machetes, and bullets versus flesh) made it into the R-rated version — but who, given the choice, is going to opt for watered-down Rob Zombie, anyway? The thing is, Zombie has already freaked us out with most of this violence before; even the bit with the disembodied face is a variation on a much stronger scene in Devil’s Rejects. Zombie probably wanted to get the old gang back together for one last bloody ride, and that’s understandable (as long as it is a last ride and we don’t see another of these goddamn things in 2025). Zombie has gifts; he really does. And I’d rather see him using them with fresh material than repeating himself, which is what he did to some extent in 2016’s 31 and also here.

Zombie, 54, will probably never change. If he lives to be 80 and he’s still able, he’ll still be making second-generation grindhouse fare in his jittery greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic — I don’t expect to see Zombie’s Ikiru or Fanny and Alexander. But B-movie integrity can be as much of a trap as insincere Hollywood romps; past a certain point, both approaches start to feel inorganic. The Devil’s Rejects felt like a story Zombie just had to tell, and a story that nobody else could tell so sharply. 3 from Hell doesn’t. Again, it seems to have no urgent reason to exist, except perhaps to give us a last glimpse of Captain Spaulding (if not Sid Haig, who will still appear posthumously in two more films by other directors). So, hooray for Captain Spaulding. The rest of these motherfuckers, not so much.

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Midsommar

October 13, 2019

midsommar Whether it was curiosity or masochism that led me to Midsommar, the second feature by Ari Aster, I’m grateful to whichever it was. I more or less hated Aster’s debut, the high-pitched horror Hereditary, but this one’s the real deal — it sets a brittle but menacing tone early on and sustains it for well north of two hours. Midsommar feels like a hard shot from the source of terror — an allusive work of art, admittedly built out of earlier art. It will be (already has been) debated and discussed in perpetuity, and it’s the sort of film as comfortable on the front cover of Fangoria magazine as it will be as an eventual spine number in the Criterion Collection. When you hear Martin Scorsese or someone else going on about cinema, Midsommar is what they mean. It doesn’t just shock or spook. It unsettles.

The set-up is almost comically thorough and bleak. The leads, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), are in a relationship that looks to be circling the drain. Something traumatic happens that makes sure they stay together (thinking back on it now, I wonder who or what is ultimately responsible for the tragedy), and they find themselves accompanying a friend back to his home turf in Sweden, specifically a remote commune where dwell an ancient band of pagans called the Hårga. The Hårga are awfully sunny and polite and friendly, and if we’ve seen more than one movie before we mistrust them on sight. But as directors as disparate as Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) knew, the horror doesn’t only lie in the “foreigners” our onscreen avatars find themselves among; it’s also in how “we” change, or don’t, in relation to them or in response to them.

It is true that Midsommar gets a couple of mean creepy moments out of a disfigured boy, the result of inbreeding in the Hårga clan, but he doesn’t do anything bad — he’s elevated as an oracle in the society. Besides, Aster has louder and wetter disturbances in store. I should probably say that the reported level of violence and perversity in Midsommar — likely from viewers who don’t see many horror movies — has been overstated. When it comes, though, it’s a sharp jab in the chops, all the more ghastly for unfolding in broad, shadowless daylight. At certain points some of the characters take psychedelic drugs, which in the world of the Hårga is really gilding the lily. Pugh and Reynor add a prickly, precarious vibe to the festivities; they’re neither good nor bad but realistically flawed, and they don’t always act nobly or wisely.

If we “liked” any of the protagonists in a simplistic manner, it’d be harder to see what Aster is truly going for. At many points, we have a god’s-eye vantage point on the action; the script keeps us in the dark about the Hårga and their motives, while the filmmaking (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves awards) is all blue skies and open air. The camera eye is neutral, showing us the primal, alien rituals without editorializing. Even the Dani’s-eye, psilocybin-soaked visions are like, hmm, that’s odd. (There’s actually a character named Odd.) At one point the outsiders loudly berate the Hårga for “just watching” as gore makes rainbows in the sunny air. We agree, yet we’re also just watching, and this is what we came to watch, whether or not we knew it.

Midsommar is an immersive and illogical experience. There’s a director’s cut, for now available exclusively from Apple, that runs 171 minutes and fleshes out more of the relationship between Dani and Christian. It’s not necessary, though, for us to see ourselves in them or vice versa. We identify with the outsiders only sporadically (especially not the idiot who accidentally micturates on a sacred dead tree), and the minds of the Hårga are as obscure to us as the mind of a spider. Ari Aster has a distinct voice — he seems to take for granted that people are invariably going to be difficult and self-defeating — though maybe not the most steady control of his effects yet. There are still, as in Hereditary, a few too many moments wherein we’re not sure if we should laugh, or whether Aster means us to laugh. Consistency may never be his strong suit. But he has delivered, in this cult epic, a powerfully paranoid mood piece. Time will tell whether Aster can function without hellish covens and nightmarish attempts to re-assert gender primitivism, but I’m certainly ready to tag along with him and find out.

Wallflower

October 6, 2019

wallflower1-jumbo This past weekend, a film opened. You may have heard about it. Controversial in some quarters, it tries to enter the head of a man headed for a breakdown. His life is miserable; he wants to connect with women but doesn’t know how. He tries to fit into a community that will accept him, but it doesn’t work. Eventually his implosive anguish — we may as well say his toxic masculinity — expresses itself in explosive violence. Some commentators have said the movie sides too much with this man; others see it differently, as a depiction not glorification of anomic savagery.

Joker? No, Wallflower, a much smaller independent film based on a real-life tragedy. In 2006, a 28-year-old loner named Kyle Aaron Huff spent some of an evening at a rave in Seattle, then at an after-party. The next morning, he returned to the site of the after-party with a shotgun and a handgun; by the time he was done, seven people were dead, including Huff, by his own hand. Five years in the making, and funded on Kickstarter, Wallflower was cowritten and directed by Jagger Gravning, who’d known two of the victims and who wanted to divine meaning in the entrails of the massacre. Who was Kyle Aaron Huff (unnamed in the film, and played by David Call), and what drove him to his actions? Gravning offers some clues, and shows a few revelers trying to reach out to the killer, but sometimes fellowship isn’t enough. What would have been?

The glowering loner has his small arsenal in his truck, and at one point he acts as though he means to take his guns into the party at its peak, when the sun is still down. But he seems to think better of it — temporarily. Maybe he wants someone to change his mind, to touch something in his soul; maybe he wants to fall in love. He knows he won’t, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, we meet various players at the after-party: Link (Connor Marx), an affable anarch whose house it is; Strobe Rainbow (Atsuko Okatsuka), a lesbian cartoonist going through an acrimonious breakup. Strobe and the killer actually have a couple of things in common, but they may be too alike in the wrong ways. She seems to sense his bad vibes, and seeks to repel him from her group.

In this way do former outcasts ostracize current ones. It’s not Strobe’s fault, of course, nor does the movie come close to suggesting it is. But these are all people who — the film implies — escaped a small-town life where they were considered strange, and found a community of the likeminded strange in the rave scene of Seattle. The killer himself is originally from Whitefish, Montana, where he has a history of small dust-ups, including shooting up a moose statue. He came to Seattle, he says, because it was “close by.” He wanted to run away from home, but not too far. (The actual Huff moved there with his identical twin brother; the movie doesn’t mention a brother.) David Call does quietly pained work as the killer seems to pass an internal point of no return. Symbolically castrated and ejected from the group, he walks sadly to his truck.

Gravning has some definite chops as a director. Whether out of financial necessity or out of respect for the dead, he doesn’t show much of the carnage as it’s happening; we get a few aftermath glimpses. The style of the filmmaking is subdued and mildly doomy even during the bouncy rave sequences, when the killer is never far from the camera’s gaze, leaning against a wall staring in morose incomprehension at the ravers. A couple of the stoned conversations are as dreary as they are in real life, but mostly Wallflower walks a fine, unsteady line between keeping the narrative engaging and somehow making the story “entertaining” (exploitative). The narrative itself is splintered, nonlinear, reflecting the killer’s own cluttered headspace. By the end, attention is also paid to the continuing PTSD and coping of the survivors, and I found myself indifferent to how true to the letter of the real story the movie was. It feels true enough. Many, many fewer people will see Wallflower than saw Joker in its opening weekend, alas.