Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

August 16, 2015

valerieweekofwonders2Grown-ups want to scare kids away from having sex too soon. Fairy tales are loaded with this agenda, and so are any fable-inflected movies about a young innocent’s fearful introduction to adult sexuality — David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Marielle Heller’s current Diary of a Teenage Girl. To this list we might add Jaromil Jireš’ Czechoslovakian surrealist gem Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which shares with Stephen King’s Carrie and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps a certain menstrual dread: when the girl becomes a woman, blood flows, and not just the expected blood.

Valerie, like the actress who played her at the time (Jaroslava Schallerová), is thirteen. She lives with her grandmother (Helena Anýžová) and pursues an odd relationship with a young man (Petr Kopriva) who may or may not be her brother. There is a horrid-looking vampire skulking around called the Polecat, and Grandmother seeks to sacrifice Valerie to him and become a vampire herself so as to gain eternal youth and get back together with her former lover, a repulsive priest who tries to molest Valerie. This bedtime story, with its knife-edged sexuality and nightmare logic, is decidedly not for children, though it uses what we would call adult themes to illustrate what children know instinctively anyway.

The visuals are positively swollen with metaphorical import, starting with the early image of a daisy dappled with blood. At one point, Valerie comes right out and says she’s asleep and dreaming, but that just seems like a reassurance to the more insecure viewers in the audience. Why do we demand that everything in a movie, especially one as elliptical as Valerie, make literal sense? Sometimes a movie is a story; sometimes it’s a song or a poem or a sketch. The story at the heart of Valerie is somewhat emotionally convoluted, premised as it is on yearning and dread. We may fear for Valerie, but she seldom fears for herself; she tells herself she’s dreaming, and therefore none of this is “really happening” to her, but she also could be aware that she’s in a fairy tale.

One thing Valerie knows, that all children know and grown-ups wish they didn’t, is that adults can’t be trusted. This is why Grandmother is all too willing to sell her granddaughter’s soul, and why the priest wants Valerie’s body. The movie isn’t saying anything as boring as “all grandmothers and priests are bad”; it’s more that grown-ups have their own angels and demons, incomprehensible to children on their side of the sexual equator. (In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, adult male sexuality is likened to the chittering of chthonic insects.) To understand grown-up madness is to cross over into it forever and to lose the magic of childhood, symbolized perhaps by Valerie’s enchanted earrings, which she’s always in danger of losing or having stolen from her.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and it’s full of nightmarish supernatural creatures and bizarre human behavior. Sexuality here grins and feeds and infects. It drives adults crazy, makes way for the sleep of reason that literally produces monsters. Valerie is a horror film, sort of, in that it touches on carnal terrors, but for Valerie herself it’s all a strange but wonderful journey — hence Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not Her Week of Trauma. The world surrounding Valerie is populated by corrupt men and weak women, who drain each other’s lifeblood figuratively. Valerie hasn’t quite entered that world yet; she sees it through a scrim created by being half in childhood and half in womanhood, so therefore she sees it as we see it through the film — jumbled and chaotic yet serenely menacing and darkly erotic. We see it all through Valerie’s unfrightened gaze. Like the best fairy tales, Valerie is voluptuously suggestive, a bit dangerous, and perfectly legible on its own subterranean terms.

What We Do in the Shadows

July 19, 2015

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The secret of the great mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which comes to DVD this week, is that it would almost be as funny if it weren’t about vampires. But the vampires here, along with various werewolves, zombies, and the occasional human, are written so sharply and with such pungent idiosyncrasy that the comedy goes far beyond what you’d expect from a supernatural farce at this late date. The movie was written and directed by New Zealand comedians Jemaine Clement (of the musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, who also play two of the vamps, and their approach is generous, even affectionate. Everyone in the movie is allowed to be interesting, to seem as though they have inner lives and experiences outside the film.

Clement’s Vladislav is your typical lordly, disdainful goth vampire, but with odd insecurities and frailties that take him down a peg — since going up against a nemesis he calls The Beast, Vlad has never been the same. Waititi plays what could be considered Vlad’s opposite, Viago, an affable and conciliatory vampire — Michael Palin forty years ago would’ve played Viago to the hilt, and Waititi has some of Palin’s bluff friendliness, which in the context of vampirism is hilarious. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest of these vamps, who all live together in a grungy flat; Deacon used to be “a Nazi vampire” and is now stringing along a human familiar (Jackie Van Beek) who yearns for eternal life. Finally, there’s the hissing, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham), who’s eight thousand years old and exists in the flat’s basement.

The movie’s joke — that these vampires are essentially just idiot flatmates like the blokes on The Young Ones — deepens when regular guy Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is turned into a vamp by Petyr. Nick can get the other vamps into nightclubs they previously couldn’t get invited into (a great detail), but they prefer the company of Nick’s human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford), who works in IT. For some reason, the entirely boring Stu charms practically every supernatural being he comes across, and one can’t tell when he’s been hypnotized into being oblivious to unearthly events and when he’s just too dull to respond to them. The more often we see him, bland and potato-like, in the background of shots featuring bloodsuckers and zombies, the funnier Stu gets.

Yet this isn’t a hip, cold comedy: Because our vampires care about Stu’s safety, we do too. What We Do in the Shadows pokes gently relentless fun at the mope-rock self-seriousness of vamps, goths, self-styled outsiders, without really attacking what they are. The sensibility is Christopher Guest’s democratic mockumentary vibe by way of the self-parodic pomp of Morrissey. The unsmiling Vladislav actually has reasons to be gloomy, but that doesn’t seriously affect the fun. The budget was obviously low, but the few visual effects always pack a witty punch, particularly when two of the vamps get into a “bat fight.” If you thought it was no longer possible to mine the vampire film for fresh laughs, and even for unexpected pathos, you have a treat in store.

L.A. Slasher

June 7, 2015

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The horror/satire L.A. Slasher is the kind of film that has no character names, just generic labels: The Actress, The Reality Star, etc. They don’t matter as people, just as abstract concepts symbolizing how TV is ruining culture and society. Well, not if you don’t watch it, but never mind. The eponymous villain dresses all in white and an emotionless, androgynous mask, and he goes after people famous for being famous. There’s The Heiress (Elizabeth Morris), who hangs out with The Socialite (Korrina Rico). Both are abducted to add to the L.A. Slasher’s collection, along with The Teen Mom (Tori Black) and The Reality Star (Brooke Hogan). There’s The Actress (Mischa Barton), whose best friend is The Stripper (Marisa Lauren).

The filmmaking, by debut feature writer-director Martin Owen, is woozy and candy-colored — aggressively trippy overall, with many Dutch angles, swimmy camerawork, and general indifference to coherent action. When a character is run over by a truck, I couldn’t tell whether the murder’s awful staging is due to low budget or to directorial ineptitude. Another character seems to be drowned, but later shows up alive, just in time to be axed to death. The movie doesn’t like any of the victims, so we don’t either; in fact, the movie seems to agree with the L.A. Slasher that they deserve to die. As I’ve said of similar films in the past, it redefines “black comedy” as a movie in which people die and we don’t have to care.

The closest thing to a hero is The Actress, by virtue of not being openly obnoxious. Like a lot of performers here, Mischa Barton is asked to draw from some degree of personal experience in playing The Actress, who has a history of drug problems. Doofus pop star Drake Bell, most noted lately for an unkind tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, plays The Pop Star, a doofus. Eric Roberts is around for a few minutes as The Mayor, who drinks and whores around, in case you started to think the movie’s contempt was strictly female-focused. Even so — and throwing in The Producer (Tim Burke), a scuzzy casting-couch type — the film does relish the torture and bloodletting visited upon the women far more than that upon the men. I point this out merely to discredit the film’s stance that everyone in it gets what’s coming to them — they do, but some get it in a much more sadistic manner that belies satire and sidles up to misogynistic wish fulfillment.

L.A. Slasher is fairly awful and useless, with a fixation on the ’80s (including a soundtrack full of real or fake ’80s music) that doesn’t do it many favors. Slasher movies, after all, were less pretentious and more fun in that decade; they didn’t pretend to make heavy statements about the media and its various parasites. Worse, the killer talks, going on and on about L.A. and its menagerie of freaks and poseurs, and the voice belongs to none other than Andy Dick. At least we don’t have to look at him, but we still hear his tinny mocking honk as the Slasher, and it severely challenged any attempt on my part to sympathize with the devil. I may agree with some of the Slasher’s jaundiced commentary, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the Kardashians or Snooki tortured, and the experience becomes rancid and mean. Even Danny Trejo and Dave Bautista as two drug dealers (credited as, yes, Drug Dealer #1 and #2) can’t redeem it.

It Follows

March 15, 2015

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It Follows is a slow-burn, reasonably creepy horror film with an unusual premise that promotes subtext to text. Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, has sex with her boyfriend. Soon afterward, he tells her he has passed some sort of supernatural entity to her. She can only get rid of it by passing it along to someone else via sex. Otherwise, the thing, which changes appearance and can only be seen by its victim, will follow her slowly but implacably until it kills her. Mostly, the movie is a stylistic calling card in which its writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, shows how scrupulously he can ape John Carpenter. The comparison only holds sporadically, though. Parts of It Follows are so determinedly slack, and the performances so unaffected bordering on deadpan, that it seems like a mere exercise, not something that trades on legitimate fear.

Carpenter himself isn’t doing old-school Carpenter style any more, so I understand why this movie has been overpraised. It attempts to look and sound different from the usual contemporary horror. Any and all elements of it that make the viewer shiver — its stark widescreen images, its straight-backed slow-walking fiends, its synth score by Rich Vreeland — are pinched from vintage Carpenter, particularly Halloween. So it’s nothing original cosmetically, though it does play at times like a commentary on the have-sex-and-die motif that many pilloried Halloween for popularizing. The terror here becomes so linked to sex it’s practically venereal.

With the occasionally efficacious help of her lackluster group of friends, Jay hides from the following it, or tries to ward it off. Mitchell doesn’t waste much breath on exposition, or explaining the rules of this thing. It’s invisible to all but the person it’s following, but it can touch anyone and be touched, and it can be hurt, possibly killed. In a less laconic movie, we would’ve gotten a five-minute planning scene about how the teens scheme to electrocute the thing in a swimming pool, but here we just watch them setting up the trap with no preamble. How they know that electrocution might even work is left unspoken. The thing also has no backstory. It’s not getting revenge on anyone; it’s not stalking a long-lost sister or observing a holiday. It just exists and follows and kills.

Is it a metaphor, then, for sexual guilt? As I said, the usual subtext of slasher films here becomes text, so it’s tempting to take it back to subtext, but not much seems to be going on under the hood. Mitchell can set up tense and satisfying sequences, but the thing he hasn’t understood about Carpenter in his prime was the way Carpenter started out low-key, to lull us into a voyeuristic rhythm, and then gradually ratcheted up the suspense. Mitchell goes from a scare scene to a slack scene; the result isn’t a tightening grip of horror or a downward spiral towards confrontation, but an alternating jostle of brake and gas pedal, brake and gas pedal.

The movie begins to feel padded out, and not one but two boys offer to take on Jay’s burden, which might have come across as a witty commentary on horny teenage boys nobly volunteering to take one for the team, but doesn’t. Most of It Follows is humorless except for a fart joke early on and the washed-out dialogue between the kids. (Parents are mainly absent here.) We get quotes from Eliot and Dostoyevsky, but no particular insights into the characters, other than an anecdote about the kids finding porno mags in the woods. The movie unfolds in a universe with little or no adult supervision, and the police can’t help; we might have been encouraged to feel the kids’ frightened isolation and helplessness, but instead we just passively observe them while the Carpenter-copy soundtrack goes bloop and zhoom and other noises. I wish I had better news about It Follows, but really, don’t get your hopes up.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

January 11, 2015

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Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.

As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).

I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.

This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking Naté Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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Horns

October 19, 2014

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It’s rare, but some humans do grow horns. They’re called cutaneous horns, are made of the same stuff fingernails are composed of, and are usually harmless. The sufferers of this malady have enjoyed two heroes at the movies this year: Maleficent, of course, and now Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the tormented protagonist of Horns. Ignatius, or Ig for short, faces a dilemma similar to that which befell Ben Affleck in Gone Girl: Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did it. As if to solidify everyone’s suspicion, Ig wakes up one hungover morning with the beginnings of horns on his forehead. These horns make people want to burden Ig with confessions of their darkest desires. If this might work to make Merrin’s real killer spill the beans, so much the better.

In his continuing successful effort to break away from a childhood spent as Harry Potter, Radcliffe swears and drinks and smokes and fornicates; Ig is not most people’s idea of a spotless hero even without the horns. Radcliffe brings out a harrowed decency in Ig, though, such that we don’t question his innocence even if we haven’t read the source material — Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, of which the movie is a considerably streamlined (but author-approved) variant. The evil here has its roots in adolescent triumphs and traumas, an area familiar to Hill’s father, one Stephen King.

Because of this story’s very human foundation for supernatural chills, it may be the best work of the French director Alexandre Aja, who previously has amused himself in the grindhouse section of the video store (he made Haute Tension, remade The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and produced the Maniac remake). Aja’s work has been impressively bloody, but the blood was cold, hip, self-aware, concerned primarily with technical efficiency. Horns draws out a heretofore unseen compassion in Aja, who dials the grue way down and focuses on the terrific cast he’s hired. For instance, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan turn up as Ig’s outwardly supportive but secretly doubting parents, and David Morse stops by for another of his affecting portraits of stoic anguish as Merrin’s grieving father, who thinks Ig killed her.

Ig isn’t so sure himself, at times, that he didn’t do it. In a world where a man can sprout horns and make others tell him their least lovely stories, who’s to say Ig didn’t kill Merrin — after all, the last he saw of her was when he was about to propose to her and she coolly broke up with him — and compel himself to forget it? Or what if he’s in Hell already? Well, he more or less is there mentally, anyway. Ultimately, Horns works out not as a grindingly literal demon show but as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. If David Cronenberg’s The Brood was, as Cronenberg said, his bent version of Kramer Vs. Kramer, then Horns may be Joe Hill’s warped take on Moonlight Mile, that undeservedly forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he deals with his girlfriend’s death. Straight-up horror can deal with mundane human dramas more cleanly and sharply than even pulp like Gone Girl can. This month is the best time of year to reiterate that.


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