Archive for the ‘horror’ category

The Transfiguration

March 26, 2017

transfigurationMilo (Eric Ruffin), the African-American teenager whose struggles animate The Transfiguration, is enamored of vampire movies. He has a stash of them on videotape in his bedroom closet, and he prefers the “realistic” ones — like George Romero’s Martin or Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Milo might also enjoy The Transfiguration, because it, too, is realistic — vampires don’t burn in sunlight, and they definitely don’t sparkle. They just go around preying on the vulnerable, punching a hole in their carotid arteries and slurping up the gore. When I say “they,” though, I really only mean Milo, in the literal sense. The movie is full of metaphorical bloodsuckers, stealers of innocence, abusers and sociopaths. Such is life in New York City.

Since the movie isn’t religious at all — Milo would no doubt be unaffected by a crucifix or holy water if they were used against him — one might wonder why writer-director Michael O’Shea titled it The Transfiguration, other than that it sounded cool and dark. Nobody is really transfigured here in the Christian sense, although some might say the movie itself transfigures schlock into art. It’s funny about vampire films — they lean into the artsy mode, the elegant and the expressionist, far more easily than, say, werewolf films or zombie films. Just recently we had Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and O’Shea’s film joins their number, reveling in the glum goth mood, the awkward silences, the gurgle of blood in the dark.

Milo meets a newcomer to his building — Sophie (Chloe Levine), an abused girl almost as affectless as Milo is, though she’s quicker to laugh. Milo is almost always clenched and blank-faced, but around Chloe he loosens up a bit. For a while, hanging out or watching violent videos, they seem well-matched, one’s psychological/emotional blank spots complementing the other’s. Milo’s even more dour older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an Army veteran, is at least happy to see Milo comfortable around someone, even if she’s a white girl. That fact makes Milo even more of an object of derision for the local gang, who enjoy tormenting him.

Milo’s connection with the gang doesn’t end up where you’d expect it to in a vampire film, and his relationship with Sophie doesn’t, either. The Transfiguration is bound to be called a cross between Martin and Moonlight, though it’s not as erotic as those films. What it seems to have under the hood is something about how inhuman conditions can produce inhuman people (or, as Stephen King would put it, “this inhuman place makes human monsters”); almost everyone we see exists in some spiritually null zone. There might also be something about how black teenage males are demonized, made the monsters of the media narrative. Milo might be the result of generations of neglect benign and not-so-benign. He doesn’t seem to have much race consciousness, though. He’s too deeply into his vampire fixation — like Martin, he believes he is one, so in terms of effect he pretty much is one.

The performances are uniformly natural and unaffected; O’Shea understands that quiet desperation speaks louder than hysteria. (He also has the wit to give cameos to Troma schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and art-house horror auteur Larry Fessenden, whose disparate styles influence this film’s.) People will sit together on the side of the wide frame, isolated yet united. The compositions are thoughtful, though always a little jiggly. O’Shea takes his time and creates an allusive atmosphere whose meanings are up for grabs. The Transfiguration could have snapped into sharper focus; it remains a bit thematically diffuse, a little underdone. But at its most haunting it earns its place in that bedroom closet next to Martin and the rest.

We Are the Flesh

January 15, 2017

wearethefleshEvery so often you need a movie that’s so defiantly uningratiating (and often unpleasant) it seems to clear the air, like an especially intense thunderstorm, and demonstrate that art doesn’t always play nice. The surreal, sexually explicit Mexican art-house horror film We Are the Flesh unfolds in a cruel universe occupied most of the time by only three characters, bringing in other people only to feed them into the meat grinder (figuratively — or maybe literally; it’s that kind of film). It is steadfastly not for everyone, yet I feel it’s important to note such work; it is also heartfelt about the point it seems to be making about the soulless squalor of society — or at least the society it depicts, which may not have a lot to do with society as we know it. Art doesn’t always play fair, either.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter sets up a scenario that sometimes feels like an Off-Off-Broadway play. It appears to be the days after apocalypse. A mysterious man named Mariano (Noé Hernández) lives alone in what seems to be an abandoned asylum, building things or taping up liquids into large drums or obtaining food through a tray in the wall. Two siblings, Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), break in to rob him. Instead, he dominates them and makes them have sex with each other — something they warm to after some (not much) initial resistance. During his onanistic oversight of these events, Mariano dies, but then is reborn through a slimy tunnel in the wall. The siblings, especially Fauna, seem altered by Mariano’s influence.

In a way, We Are the Flesh is a contemptuous fulfillment of what voyeuristic audiences claim to want from entertainment. It’s full of sex, drugs (a substance in an eye-dropper), and violence. But these things are presented in an aggressively weird, anti-audience manner; it gives you what you want in ways you didn’t want it. The movie isn’t completely devoted to Funny Games-style game-playing, though. On another level it seems quite sincere about its message of madness, and admirably committed to it. It has an addled purity, and the purity extends to its rigorous if sometimes chaotic use of cinema to express inexpressible states of emotion. The camera trembles, spins, lurches, zooms, and other times stays pristinely still or lingers. The color scheme begins with despairing grays, the shades of a corpse, but then the corpse gradually wakes up until blood flushes its skin with red.

The movie’s very context itself is untrustworthy: what’s real and what isn’t? There’s no baseline of sanity here — it begins on a savage and dimly intelligible note and keeps playing that note. Faced with nonsense, the brain seeks the solace of allegory. Everything comes to seem abstract, everyone a representation rather than a person. That’s also how a brain can shield itself from onscreen atrocities, and there are a lot of them as We Are the Flesh winds down. Maybe it’s best simply to say we’re getting life as seen through the filter of an outraged, terrified artist, a heightened, gory reality presided over by demons.

Is Mariano the devil? Or is he a construct to give the siblings license to sin — much like God and Satan? Noé Hernández plays him as a man delighted by each potential of perversity, each corruption of innocence, he happens to run across. Mariano doesn’t go out and recruit souls; he mostly stays holed up, and the souls come to him. Is Emiliano Rocha Minter saying that we hold our souls so cheaply we’ll simply offer them to Satan? Or, in this context, is Lucifer more of a chaotic-neutral agent, happily flouting hypocritical moral codes? We Are the Flesh could inspire evenings of fervent disputation and interpretation, but first there needs to be an audience for it, and for this? I’m not so sure. There was once a time, though.

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.