Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Shivers

October 16, 2016

shivers-1975_022Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.        

This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).

The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.

Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.

You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?

 

 

31

October 9, 2016

31We get it by now: Rob Zombie loves the grotesque excesses of the grindhouse flicks of his youth, and he has dedicated his filmmaking career (and a good portion of his music career) to genuflecting to the disreputable gore, T&A, and general nastiness of those films. He’s sort of a Tim Burton wearing a blood-soaked wife-beater, paying homage again and again to the monsters and psychos that shaped his imagination. In 31, Zombie’s latest act of devotion, the spasm and stink of his style haven’t changed. Past fifty now, Zombie will likely be making movies in this same stubbly flea-pit mode well into his autumn years. The question is whether he’ll run out of stories to tell in that mode — or if he has already.

31 is an arch bit of diabolism in the tradition of Saw and your choice of and-then-there-were-none slaughterhouse entries. Five carny workers are kidnapped and brought to a place (hell) presided over by powder-faced aristo-Brits (including Malcolm McDowell), who give the five victims twelve hours to survive in a dank and dripping maze of pipes and chain-link fences. Our protagonists are trapped in there with a variety of killers, one of whom is played by the gaunt and leering Richard Brake, who seems to embody Zombie’s whole hellbilly, grubby-guignol aesthetic — the role Sid Haig used to fill. If Hollywood is serious about having another go at Stephen King’s The Stand and they need a Randall Flagg, they could do a lot worse than Brake; the movie could have used more of him.

Part of the problem is that after a while, 31 devolves into a predictable survival action film, with the structure of a video game (Brake’s character, Doom-Head, is like the final boss) and more than a few endless fights between people wielding axes, crowbars, knives, chainsaws. Zombie falls back on unreadable editing to suggest rather than depict carnage; I understand that the movie was rated NC-17 twice before being whittled down to something with the less restrictive R rating, and that Zombie plans to release an uncut version on disc, but I don’t expect the action to be very much more comprehensible. The shakiness of the style, in which the camera jerks from side to side even to capture a reaction shot, will always be part of the film’s, and Zombie’s, DNA. Sometimes it works, sometimes it frustrates.

That’s true of the movie in general. A crowdfunding effort, 31 is cast almost exclusively with actors Zombie has worked with before —McDowell, Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, E.G. Daily¹ — alongside various faded icons like erstwhile porn queen Ginger Lynn (thrown away in a mean-spirited scene) and former Sweathog Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (slipping into a Jamaican accent and performing smoothly). This isn’t the kind of movie that’s built for actors, and Zombie’s antagonistic yet orotund dialogue doesn’t help; people are either spitting clotted mouthfuls of blood and vituperation at each other or just carelessly scattering F-bombs like rusted pennies into a fountain. Only poor old bedraggled toothless Tracey Walter gets to bring some sozzled warmth to a scene, though Meg Foster’s trademark blazing eyes come close to declaring her the movie’s star by visual default.

Zombie obviously can’t make movies any other way — even his Woolite detergent commercial a few years back is hilariously gnarled and in-your-face — and anyone who knows anything about artistic instincts can’t fault Zombie for this. 31 is set on Halloween of 1976 so that Zombie can engage in a few vintage needle-drops (Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and nods to the films that fed his fire (at one point a fight is backed with music that sounds suspiciously like Goblin’s score for Suspiria). For some artists, a particular mode or visual/sonic emphasis is like a sore tooth they can’t stop tonguing, an itch they go crazy if they can’t scratch. Zombie scratches his itch here until it bleeds, but is the scratching pleasurable any more for anyone other than him?

¹Daily plays Sex-Head, a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl who reminded me of Harley Quinn, which then led me to imagine Rob Zombie’s Suicide Squad.

 

 

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

September 18, 2016

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

Cell

July 3, 2016

cellWatching his friend George Romero make his zombie films, Stephen King may have thought it looked like such fun that he decided to write his own, in the form of his 2006 novel Cell. Ten years later, it is now a legit zombie film, co-scripted by King himself, though it hasn’t turned out to be much fun. King’s premise is that a cell-phone frequency has turned people using the devices into marauding killers. They’re not quite zombies, not as we’ve come to define them; they’re more like the rage-filled berserkers in Romero’s The Crazies, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, or Garth Ennis’ comic book Crossed. In short, they don’t eat flesh, but they do enjoy making more of themselves.

The first reel or so of Cell packs a spiraling, whoa-man-what-the-hell-was-that punch in the gut. We meet comic-book writer/artist Clay (John Cusack) at a Boston airport, with everyone glued to their cell phones. Fairly rapidly, and with no explanation or preparation, the situation goes pear-shaped. People start frothing at the mouth and attacking anyone they look at; Clay barely escapes to the subway, where he meets operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to beat feet out of the city in search of his little boy and his estranged wife. Now, nobody in Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead needed a sappy motivation like I Gotta Find My Kid; it was sufficient that they merely wanted to stay alive, and they were wrought well enough that we agreed that they should.

Cusack and Jackson also co-starred in 1408, an earlier King adaptation; the consensus is that 1408 is the better film, though I hardly see how it could be worse. Cell swipes every po-faced survivalist horror template — much walking around, picking up other survivors (including Isabelle Fuhrman as a teenager who had to kill her own cell-afflicted mom), searching houses, finding guns aplenty, none of which is locked up. Many of the attack sequences, ineptly staged by director Tod Williams, are hyper-edited into frenetic image salad. Our heroes keep meeting weirdoes like Stacy Keach as a headmaster who delivers a nice juicy infodump and Anthony Reynolds as an ice cream van driver delirious from sleeplessness who keeps something quite different from ice cream in his vehicle.

King loves his mysterious Manson-esque avatars of evil, here giving us an off-brand Randall Flagg in a red hoodie who seems to be the leader of the “phoners.” This Walkin’ Dude appears in everyone’s nightmares and seems to have manifested in Clay’s graphic novel. Do I have to read the book to find out why? The movie is little help. Cell doesn’t hide much under the hood, no commentary on how everyone’s umbilically attached to their phones (not even any on-the-nose satirical snarks like the ones in Dawn of the Dead about the mall being an important place to the zombies). It’s just another cut-‘em-if-they-stand, shoot-‘em-if-they-run splatter movie with a techie twist, and not even a cautionary twist.

Keach’s headmaster hypothesizes that the “phoners” are the next evolutionary step, the sort of dumb-ass thing you expect eggheads in this kind of movie to opine. We never do get a decent explanation for why this is happening now, what started it, and what the “phoners” and their leader want aside from milling around in flock-like circles. Cell is empty and meaningless, though it’s gloomy and slow-moving enough to feign some philosophical weight. Jackson files one of his quieter performances, while poor Cusack is stuck in a role with almost no humor or charm. As I write this, Cusack has just turned fifty. Once a quick and forceful kickboxer, he seems to have slowed down quite a bit — there’s a shot of him running that made me worry about his lumbar region. I want to see him in movies for years to come — just not in movies like Cell.

Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.

The Witch

May 15, 2016

witch1

In The Witch, out this week on DVD, writer/director Robert Eggers drops us into the 17th century and leaves us there. We spend our time with one family, whose patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) has been banished from a New England town for “prideful conceit.” William, whose sharp features and bushy beard recall Chester Brown’s visualization of a dour and angry Christ, brings his wife and four children (with a fifth on the way) to a bleak, arid-looking patch of land, surrounded by looming, frightful trees. This place is kin to the unfriendly, uninhabitable woods found in The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist. Nature itself conspires against William, killing his crops, rotting his corn.

Is there an actual witch in The Witch? For a long time, Eggers operates in darkness and ambiguity. These people fear God and also fear women (the women do, too, having internalized the gynophobia). Fear of witches is essentially fear of female wrath — and fear that one might have done something to incur that wrath, such as fearing a male god. The religious folk in The Witch trap themselves in misery, shame, terror. Everything can be blamed on Satan, but would Satan have been summoned if not for your impurity, your impiety? William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) look agonized and spiritually crushed, especially after their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother to the outskirts of the woods and he disappears. Who did it? A witch? Satan, in the form of the family’s black goat, named Black Phillip?

What’s refreshing, and frightening, about The Witch is that Eggers allows no modern consciousness (scarcely any comic relief either) to intrude upon the anguish. We are not encouraged to feel superior to these antiquated people and their beliefs. We’re there with them. At times the movie is unnervingly intense and severe. I give it the highest marks as a cinematic inquiry into faith and fear, but even I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief when it was done with me. The filmmaking itself is harsh, Puritanical — we almost feel guilty for sitting there idle, when we could be milking a goat or doing something useful.

Eggers did years of research into folk tales and witchcraft, and the family’s house was built using the methods of 1630. Big whoop, you may say, but the verisimilitude pays off, and not in the showoffy manner of something like The Revenant. We believe in the people and, more to the point, in the ghastly space they occupy. Eggers was a production designer before turning to directing — The Witch is his feature debut after a couple of shorts based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The atmosphere of dread and despair is immaculate. I’d say this is the strongest American debut expressing an utterly and stubbornly personal perspective almost entirely through image, sound and mood since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

That aside, is the movie “scary”? Not in the sense in which moviegoers usually mean “scary” — there’s little blood, no jump shocks. It is, however, disturbing and disquieting and many other words with the prefix “dis,” including “disgusting” at certain points, as when an apple makes an unexpected appearance, or when a witch smears herself with infant blood. Does she really, though? We return to the earlier question, is there a witch here? The literal horrors we see may not be quite so literal. As Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker, people who believe so devoutly — and so literally — in a god may be subject to a kind of collective hysteria or hallucination; thus the Salem terrors. Their imagination manifests as clearly-seen demons, phantasms, debaucheries. (In interviews, Eggers has also advised us not to ignore the detail of the rotting corn — i.e., ergot poisoning, to which some modern scholars have attributed the madness in Salem.) The intriguing suspicion also arises that the horrors are real, and that the family’s fear, not its sins, is what summons the blood and sulfur (as per Jaime Hernandez’s masterwork “Flies on the Ceiling”: “It’s not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you”). What The Witch does best of all is to whisk us back to a completely alien-to-us sensibility and the world that it interprets. The daylight is gray and chill, like the withheld love of a disappointed god, and the nights are as dark as the absence of their god.