Archive for the ‘horror’ category

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.

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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 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.

Mandy

September 23, 2018

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

Hereditary

September 3, 2018

hereditaryA strange bird, Hereditary is. This shrill and unhappy supernatural drama starts off as a sort of psychological character study and ends up in the wild hinterland of sulfur and vile spirits. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary has duly been likened, but the more useful comparison might be to Darren Aronofsky’s genre-smashing, audience-polarizing mother! I deeply admired that film’s art and intensity while admitting I didn’t have a great time at it — not all art is meant to be entertaining. Is Hereditary another case of a wooly bully of cinematic expression, destined to dazzle the elites while displeasing the mundanes?

In this case, I have to stand with the mundanes. Director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, wants to bowl us over with Hereditary. He reaches into a big dusty box and hauls out every trick he can find — there’s one embarrassingly “look, Ma, I’m a director” shot that puts a character upside down in the frame as she runs, and then the camera follows her and rights itself. It’s a disorienting shot, and it calls attention to itself needlessly, as so much else does in the film. I could go spelunking thematically and justify the narrative quirks, but I don’t want to. It’s an effectively made bad movie. It plays fast and loose with logical expectations, but not in a way that especially illuminates anything other than its own facile twists.

For the longest time, the movie seems to be about Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose mother has recently died. Annie had and has a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother, and she’s well on her way to raising two neurotic kids, the brooding stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro), even though her husband and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is usually a soothing source of calm. The movie starts to seem as though it’s concerned with the derangement of grief and trauma, especially when Annie meets a fellow in bereavement, Joanie (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to contact the dead.

There’s more than a hint of “The Monkey’s Paw” here, and Pet Sematary and all the other spooky pop culture that advises us not to mess with the occult: “Sometimes dead is better.” Eventually, as the omens and freaky scares add up, it becomes clear that this is all the movie is going to be about; and yet it touches on annihilating despair, and asks its cast (particularly Collette, but also young Alex Wolff) to lower themselves into an emotional meat grinder in a way that the film, I say, does not earn. I did not need to see a sad body part seething with ants on the side of a godforsaken road in the morning light, and I came to resent Hereditary and Ari Aster for making me look at it for no reason other than effect. Speaking of effects, there are a few scenes featuring the fakest-looking swarm of flies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Another scene involving a screaming character engulfed in flames is just high-pitched stupidity, as is another scene in which someone flips out in a classroom.

I called Hereditary effective, which it is; an incident at about the half-hour mark pulled a loud gasp out of me, and not only because the hopes we’d placed in an intriguing character were suddenly cut off. Ari Aster has some chops, but he uses them to make us feel, well, bad — on edge, more irritated than frightened. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie dawdles at a few points, including an early shot that tracks into one of Annie’s impossibly detailed miniature houses until it comes to a stop in Peter’s bedroom — his real bedroom. Is Annie’s art relevant to the movie thematically or narratively? No, it’s meaningless, and so is she. Pretty much anything we came close to caring about in the film is thrown away for the insipid climax, during which a character opens her mouth and cheese falls out — “Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars.” At which point the viewer is either rapturous at having been so bamboozled or heading for the sweet release of the exit. Some will love Hereditary. I understand why, but I don’t understand them.

A Quiet Place

July 8, 2018

quietplaceJohn Krasinski proves with A Quiet Place that he has the chops to direct a tense horror movie — his previous two films as director were more indie ensemble drama pieces — but please, please don’t insist that he now make nothing but horror. It’s clearly not what he’s interested in. A Quiet Place is a family-values fable and a slightly elongated Twilight Zone episode in which, as in Signs and parts of War of the Worlds, the mind-blowing and epic reality of an alien invasion of Earth is whittled down to the experiences of one family surviving out miles away from everything. The ferocious, carnivorous aliens here are blind but have hypersensitive hearing, so any humans hoping to survive have to listen hard and keep quiet. Fortunately, this family already knew American Sign Language — the eldest child and daughter is deaf (and played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds).

Krasinski rewrote a script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and maybe we have him to thank for the softer touches, when the family — father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan, and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) — try to maintain some moments of leisure and normalcy in this post-apocalyptic world of enforced silence. The kids play Monopoly with crocheted game pieces that won’t make noise; Lee and Evelyn dance to Neil Young via shared earbuds. If you can’t play and dance and hear music every so often, the movie seems to say, what’s the point of survival? This puts it one up on grimmer dystopias whose motto might be Talking Heads’ “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no foolin’ around.”

There certainly has been some foolin’ around, since Evelyn is pregnant and soon to deliver. How this is supposed to work in a defensively soundless world, where the usually loud exertions of childbirth and the shrilling of a newborn would spell death, is best left unpondered. Wikipedia informs me that Lee is an engineer and Evelyn a doctor, neither of which identity is pointed up very much in the movie proper, although we have to assume Evelyn has some medical knowledge and Lee knows his way around electronics. (Most of the film takes place over a year into the alien occupation, yet the family home still has electricity, thanks, we assume, to Dad the Gyro Gearloose.) A Quiet Place is a combo of a fable about a family banding together and a technical exercise that works the nerves, and it worked mine while it flickered in front of me, but it has left me with sense-memories of being jostled and worked over and not much else.

At least M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs had a subtext (loss of faith) and some juicily tormented acting by Mel Gibson. A Quiet Place is technically superb — although Krasinski doesn’t make as much use of sound design as he could have — and its storytelling as well as acting is pared way down. This is, I guess, The Family persevering against The Threat, whatever The Threat is, and The Threat can be whatever you want it to be in these bifurcated times. The movie is as apolitical, finally, as Get Out was political, which is fine, or would be fine in times that didn’t demand that people of conscience take sides. A Quiet Place just takes sides against The Alien, and when you consider to what depressing metaphorical use that could be put by some viewers in this particular atmosphere, you may sigh and conclude that Krasinski has, perhaps shrewdly, made his Threat readable emotionally as something either side of the divide fears.

Krasinski thinks A Quiet Place is “an allegory for parenthood,” and it seems to run on trust that we, collectively, have raised our children to make good decisions and to know what to do when the monsters come. Let’s all hope so. Despite the cathartic tragedy during its climax, the movie has unwavering faith that brains and bravery will win the day. Bonus points for presenting a disabled character who is not “inspirational” but complicated, unhappy, self-blaming — a typical teenage asshole in a lot of ways. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, and A Quiet Place has been overpraised by those who see more in it than is there. Ultimately it operates on the old homely Hollywood bromides that have been sold to us as jes’-folks values since there have been movies. Work the land. Keep to yourselves. Keep your head down. Keep quiet.

Annihilation

June 17, 2018

annihilationThe legitimately unnerving sci-fi horror film Annihilation is, of course, about more than its events. It uses alien life and mutation to reach a sidewise view of human alienation and depression. Which may not make it sound like a hoot and a half, and it isn’t — the movie is humorless in a way that tends to inspire either derision or protectiveness. I fall on the protective side: Annihilation is the real deal, doing what science fiction and horror are supposed to do, speaking dark truths about our condition while planting seeds of dread in fertile imaginative soil.

Its writer-director Alex Garland, liberally adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer with elements of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” and other works, also gave us 2015’s Ex Machina, which probed artificial intelligence and the lack of humanity of the humans who develop it. One might conclude Garland doesn’t like us as a species very much, but I think he values our flaws, which make for good drama. Annihilation is informed as much by the disease-sympathizing ethos of David Cronenberg as by anything else; in Cronenberg, a disease that kills a human is only trying to live and thrive. The alien atmosphere, a rainbow barrier known as the Shimmer brought here by a meteor, makes odd and colorful tangles of the landscape and mutates the local wildlife. “It’s not destroying,” says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). “It’s making something new.”

Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has come back from the Shimmer seemingly an empty husk, soon hemorrhaging badly. Kane has been MIA for a year, and Lena volunteers to accompany a group of scientists into the Shimmer. The mission is to reach a lighthouse struck by the meteor and come back — if they can come back — with some data. The team, led by psychologist Jennifer Jason Leigh, is all-female; much has been made of recent distaff reboots of sausage-fests like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11, but Annihilation sort of gives us a stealth all-woman The Thing. (Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny’s geologist round out the group.) Some of the wild and elaborate redrawing the Shimmer does to humans rivals the taffy-pull aesthetic of Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking effects for The Thing with a side order of H.R. Giger’s tortured biomechanics.

So, yeah, Annihilation may be made out of used parts, but it’s Garland’s thematic emphasis that sets the film on its own track. Lena has spent a year wallowing in grief, deflecting the advances of a colleague she eventually sleeps with. The inclusion of this man (David Gyasi), from the strict perspective of “moving the plot forward,” seems extraneous, but emotionally it feels right. Portman’s Lena is sometimes prickly even in the relatively happy flashbacks we see of her with Kane; she isn’t a natural hero or an easy one, and all her teammates also have demons — addiction, self-harm, bereavement, cancer. Annihilation is partly about self-annihilation and all its forms, and what this means for the cast is that they all get to tear into complex, wounded female characters. Needless to say, the film also passes the Bechdel Test eight ways to Sunday.

Is the movie also anti-human, casting us metaphorically as invaders who deform everything around us? (Remember The Matrix and its humans-as-virus speech, or countless others.) As I said, I think Garland prizes us warts and all; you can’t tell stories about the intersection of humans and AI, or humans and alien life, without the humans. Garland, though, also wants us to consider the hopes and dreams of the interloper, the tumor, the invasive depressive thought, the non-belonger who shapes its surroundings until it belongs. The movie illustrates the difference between xenophobia and understanding. It is human, I suspect, to fear the other, to the point of kidnapping and jailing the other’s children, perhaps. Annihilation and its themes appear loudly relevant right now, but in truth its concerns will always apply and it will be evergreen.

The Night of the Virgin

June 10, 2018

night-of-the-virgin-film-review-spainish-564x264The gleefully repulsive Spanish horror-comedy The Night of the Virgin is what used to be called a party movie. You put it on late in the evening and watch all your friends either dig it or file out ashen-faced one by one. The virgin of the title is Nico (Javier Bódalo), barely out of his teens, who goes to a New Year’s Eve party looking to shed his V. He encounters Medea (Miriam Martín), a mysterious woman who has about three decades on him. Medea takes Nico back to her scummy, cockroach-infested apartment, and she wants to do something about his virginity, all right, but nowhere near in the way he expects or wants. There is, for example, a goddess named Naoshi who must be appeased.

Up front I should mention that the version of The Night of the Virgin that did the film-festival rounds for a couple of years ran almost two hours (and a common complaint was that you could feel the two hours). The version that I saw, and that will presumably be hitting video-on-demand soon, weighs in at about fifteen minutes shorter, though it looks to these eyes no less grotesque. Various bodily fluids still become buoyant, ready for their close-ups. Director Roberto San Sebastián and scripter Guillermo Guerrero may or may not be digging for metaphorical gold here — who knows? Most of it seems like a roughhouse gorehound reversal of that well-worn exploitation trope the violation of the virgin, who here is male. “Evil Has No Gender,” the tagline informs us.

This is the sort of film with character names like “Chica Vómito,” “Sodomita Pasivo” and — of course — “Sodomita Activo.” For all that, the sex in the film (in this cut, anyway) isn’t particularly graphic; and for all the liberal use of “maricón” to describe our hapless, horse-faced young protagonist, the movie seems driven by an absolute horror of hetero sex. No, the main event here is the volume of gouts, shpritzes, puddles and Pollock drip-painting of dark, syrupy blood, accompanied by comedically precise foley work on the various assaults on the flesh — enough wet squelching sounds to keep David Lynch chipper for days. The action is mostly limited to Medea’s ghastly apartment, the drama essentially a three-character play (Medea’s ex-boyfriend, played by Víctor Amilibia, makes an appearance about halfway through, eventually beseeching Nico through the locked door to sacrifice his virtue for the greater not-so-good).

What can make an antic splatterthon like The Night of the Virgin bearable and even fun despite its icky unpleasantness is some evidence of irrepressible personality on the part of its makers. When I saw Bad Taste all those years ago, could I — or anyone — have predicted that Peter Jackson, the man responsible for its farcical carnage seemingly inspired by Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days,” would go on to become Tolkien’s obsessive film liaison with a row of Oscars on his shelf? Likely not, and the same goes for Guillermo del Toro, who took his own golden boy this past winter. Oliver Stone got his start with the z-budget horror Seizure. And so on.

That’s not to say that Roberto San Sebastián will be invited to the Dolby Theatre in the next ten years — but it’s also not to say he won’t. What he brings to the slimy party here is a certain sportive sadism. I’ll be curious what else San Sebastián does, what else interests him — is The Night of the Virgin the debut of a new genre star, joyfully coating the squares with bodily goo, or is it a calling card for someone who, having gotten the chaos and gunk out of his system, would now like to adapt Ibsen or Murakami? Again, I’m not sure if the events or uglinesses here are meant to represent anything larger than themselves, the way the pre-Black Knight spurts of blood through armor in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac indicated a need to strip the heroism out of the Arthurian legend, but I’m pretty sure this will be the only review of The Night of the Virgin to mention Bresson.