Archive for the ‘horror’ category

They Remain

February 18, 2018

theyremainA slow-burn psychological thriller like They Remain requires patience. It seems to be more about mood and paranoia than about plot or easy scares — kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing but more minimalist, if that’s even imaginable. Most of the movie is a two-hand exercise, showcasing two actors — William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — as scientists and former lovers who spend several weeks in an isolated woodsy area, measuring this and that, reporting on their meager findings. The woods, precisely photographed by Sean Kirby, amount to a third character, although we meet a sardonic pilot who interacts briefly with the scientists while picking up some evidence. The area is of interest for two reasons: animals are acting oddly, and the site was once home to a murderous cult. They may have left unfound corpses in the woods; some of the cult members may still be out there somewhere.

Ah, yes, Out There Somewhere, that time-honored horror trope. They Remain, adapted by writer/director Philip Gelatt from a story by Laird Barron, takes pains to maintain its ambiguity. Aliens? Demonic possession? Minds cracking under stress and isolation? We’re kept in the dark for a long time, and despite the film’s small footprint on the afternoon, it feels like a long time. The pace is obviously glacial for a reason, and achieves what Gelatt is going for, a meditative freak-out that runs partly on the scientists’ experience of boredom and repetition. Its ornery long-take rhythm may attract a small cult audience that zones out blissfully on draggy sci-fi (2001, Solaris, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner 2049).

Might this have been happier at half the length as an X-Files episode? The scientists, particularly the man, get more and more fearful — the story is told through his eyes, so the woman becomes more and more suspect. Given that these characters could be of any color (or gender — they could be former gay male or female lovers), are we to place much importance on the identities of the male as African-American and the female as Caucasian? One could engage in quite a chunk of racial theorizing if not for the possibility that, like Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the best actor for the role also happened to be black. Whether the various racial subtexts were or weren’t placed there, instead of cropping up on their own, we can’t quite help viewing the relationship and its attendant conflicts and rapid devolution through this filter, even though the text yields no drama about, or even acknowledgment of, the man’s race.

There sure is acknowledgment of the woman’s gender, though; at one point the man unleashes an existential howl of “Bitch!” The text, elusive as it is, doesn’t seem to disagree. But here I am, calling the movie a “text,” three times now. An artsy patience-tester like They Remain (named for some association with It Follows?) seems to demand to be read. The mood is all, and Gelatt is on point there, weaving a tapestry of curiosity and dread out of its Malick-esque visuals and its oddball score (by Tom Keohane) — he tries to make this underpopulated, one-location movie cinematic. The quietude is sometimes broken, too, by the characters’ nightmare visions of the cultists drifting around the trees and performing barely-glimpsed offenses to decency.

The land itself seems to be demonic, infesting its inhabitants with bad self-annihilating vibes. The soil contains secrets and mysteries, among them skeletons a hundred years old. We could say this cursed earth is America itself, built on the bones of the indigenous and the captured, and the text …. There we go again. Could They Remain be after something so banal as a built-on-Indian-burial-ground story, wrathful ghosts pitting black against white, woman against man, even in the hermetic context of a remote laboratory in a field? It’s worth asking why Carpenter’s Thing, which theoretically should attract lots of academic woolgathering, seems to exist completely outside of interpretation. Carpenter just said “These guys don’t trust each other” and that was that. The image of a black man and a white man facing each other with affable nihilism at the end of The Thing, with neither us nor them knowing who was human, doesn’t seem to mean anything outside of itself. That sort of thing sure seems to mean something in They Remain. But what?



October 1, 2017

inhumanwich“In Soviet Russia, sandwich eats you!” is not a joke featured in the retro sci-fi/horror tribute Inhumanwich! (pronounced IN-hyoo-MAN-wich), but there are plenty of other jokes. The movie, shot in golden-oldie black and white, concerns an astronaut whose sloppy joe sandwich combines with radiation to turn him into a rapidly growing monster made of meat. This is the kind of knowingly daffy premise that can go south — and sour — but writer/director David Cornelius strikes a light tone early on and delivers, as I said, a tribute to schlock of the ‘50s, not a callow put-down. If you’re too hip for ridiculous big-monster movies, why put in the years of work to make one? To show the world you’re better than the movie you just made? Cornelius, in contrast, is not too hip for those movies or for his own movie. He loves them as I do, and his affection is infectious.

I don’t know for sure (but he’ll probably tell me) exactly which creature-double-features Cornelius is referencing, but I’ll take a stab and say Inhumanwich! is The Blob by way of The Incredible Melting Man (or, if you want to be fancy, First Man into Space), with elements and tropes from however many hours of snowy TV young Cornelius sat in front of. (There also seem to be fun nudges in the ribs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the infamous Arch Oboler radio play “Chicken Heart.”) Astronaut Joe Neumann (amiably played by Jacque “Jake” Ransom before he turns into a blob of beef) terrorizes the Cincinnati countryside after his rocket crash-lands, and it’s up to the usual team of soldiers and scientists to stop it before it engulfs the planet.

Cornelius and editor Matt Gray keep Inhumanwich! sprinting (and short — the film crosses the finish line at an hour thirteen, including credits). As the old-timers who made stuff like Them! and Tarantula knew, you don’t want to give the audience a lot of time to think during your movie about killer turnips or whatever, and Cornelius also knows what the soul of wit is. (Look for his uncredited cameo as a Jordy Verrill-type gentleman who encounters the monster in the woods.) The scenes are clipped to punch up the punchlines; this good-hearted comedy boasts a good deal of technical savvy, of the sort that’s invisible when it’s working. There’s a bit about a character who repeats everything she hears during a phone chat, which would make a goofy sort of sense if we were just hearing her side of the conversation and we were getting exposition from it; but we also see the other side of the talk via split screen, so the redundancy becomes a surreal joke. It’s one of several gags in Inhumanwich! that you just know started with Cornelius watching some forlorn excuse for a movie with buddies and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”

The performers are mostly encouraged to mimic the unhip flatness of ‘50s sci-fi actors. The movie doesn’t confine itself to any one era, though; some of the signifiers announce themselves as from the ‘50s, some from modern times. To that end, Jake Robinson’s stogie-chewing, growling General Graham seems to channel John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso and the uncouth soldiers of Day of the Dead, moreso than the rigid military men you’d find in antique schlock. He seems to be of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whereas a later character (Brad Nicholas), whose competitive abilities might be of some use against the monster, seems of more recent vintage. Cornelius mashes up the decades as if to say that some things in the universe remain constant, such as humanity’s response to a killer pile of ground beef. Inhumanwich! is just the brand of inspired nonsense we need at the moment.


September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.


September 17, 2017

leatherface-teaser-750Fans of Mary Harron’s 1996 biopic I Shot Andy Warhol might want to know about Leatherface, the umpty-umpth chapter in the seemingly deathless Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. In the earlier film, Lili Taylor played Valerie Solanas, the disturbed woman who committed the titular act, and Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol “superstar” who took Valerie under her wing for a while. I imagined Taylor and Dorff — once possibly the queen and king of ‘90s indie cinema — laughing it up together between takes on Leatherface, in which they reunite as two people on severely opposite sides of the law. Here, Taylor is Verna, matriarch of the cannibalistic Sawyer family, and Dorff is Hartman, a Texas Ranger driven around the bend when his daughter suffers a cruel death at the hands of the Sawyer boys.

The thought of Taylor ribbing Dorff on set about how good his ass looked in a dress twenty years ago is funnier, and more entertaining, than anything in Leatherface. Which is a shame, because for the first time, possibly, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there are actual accomplished directors at the wheel and not schlock non-entities. The French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are known to international horror fans for their debut, the gore-drenched thriller Inside. Their next two features played at a couple festivals over here but didn’t otherwise make much of an impact, and they contributed a segment to The ABCs of Death 2. Oddly, all of those projects featured the fearsome actress Béatrice Dalle, but alas, the diastematic diva doesn’t figure in Leatherface, perhaps because the movie would then have to explain what a French woman is doing in Texas backwoods. (Or actually Bulgaria standing in for Texas.)

Inside had a relentlessness, a hungry gaze into the abyss, that made me hopeful for Leatherface. But the Gallic duo are strictured by the movie’s R rating; the body count is high, and blood becomes buoyant, but the movie cuts away from a clear look at the carnage almost spitefully, as if the directors resented having to stay within MPAA bounds. Instead of going goreless, like Tobe Hooper’s original masterpiece, Leatherface teases us with how bloody it could be but isn’t allowed to be. Still, these filmmakers have an eye, and much of the movie looks like some foul dark fairy tale with flesh-eating goblins and homicidal woodsmen. Set mostly in 1965, the film plays with 20th-century archetypes — the killer romantic pair, the kindly nurse, the sensitive boy in a dysfunctional family. The young man who will become the inarticulate, flesh-mask-wearing chainsaw killer Leatherface escapes from a corrupt mental institution along with aforementioned nurse (Vanessa Grasse) and sicko lovebirds (James Bloor, Jessica Madsen).

The psychos-in-love are so far out there they work a rotting corpse into their carnal routine. The nurse is as pure and blameless as you could ask for. That leaves the relatively good-hearted (though violent if necessary) inmates Jackson and Bud, the former stoic and smart, the latter hulking and inarticulate. I think which one ends up becoming Leatherface is supposed to be a surprise, so I won’t spoil it. At times, mostly in the dynamic between these damaged boys and the nurse, there is the slightest whiff of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, but just the stale aroma of a blown opportunity. Why not — Leatherface pays homage to everything else, never becoming its own movie.

The recently excused Tobe Hooper is credited as an executive producer on Leatherface, a probably-honorary credit. Hooper’s Chainsaw is often imitated, never duplicated (or bested, say I), a sui generis sweatbox odyssey that seems to owe nothing to any other film before it. Leatherface feels properly respectful, made by filmmakers who idolize the original, and that’s also its weakness: it’s a jumped-up fan film, and because it’s meant to be a prequel to Hooper’s movie it’s locked into whatever happens in that movie. It can’t deviate from what we know, and can’t truly surprise us, though I will say that Drayton Sawyer sure ages a hell of a lot between 1965 and 1974, and that we’ve now seen a Mama Sawyer but still haven’t seen a Papa. And two decades after co-starring in one of the defining mid-‘90s indie films, Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff ended up in Bulgaria yelling at each other and getting covered in sticky Karo syrup and having more fun, I hope, than I did.

Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

Get Out

May 28, 2017

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

May 14, 2017

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.