The pains of being The Caretaker: a video essay

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Precious few horses remain as pleasurable to flog thirty-years-dead and bloated as they were when alive. One of these is The Shining, a film whose concurrent simplicity and opaqueness renders it eminently watchable, re-watchable and mysterious to the point of inspiring an insidious type of obsession. Having been subjected to decades of analytical dismemberment and identity-reassigning theories of the kind documented in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, Kubrick’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece of modern horror’ will once again find itself at the mercy of a personal ‘reading.’

Like a surfer who has just missed an elusive wave, this little piece may have benefited a touch from some Halloween momentum. Then again, that may have been an unnecessary pairing seeing as they – the video and the associated ‘personal reading’, that is – aren’t necessarily concerned with The Shining’s pedigree as a fear-mongering scare fest. Which is not to say that the aim is to reclaim The Shining from the horror genre and rebrand it as social commentary first and foremost. That being said…

…revisiting this picture on the back of a recent Blu-ray upgrade brought into sharper definition (pun intended) several elements that had hitherto gone relatively unnoticed: the significance of the term ‘caretaker’ in relation to Jack Torrance and his predecessor O’Grady, being white American males; the demographic statuses of the film’s three main protagonists, Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann (if Jack is the chief antagonist); the sly associating of American history,  violence and privilege. Jack’s insecurity and seething resentment seemed – on this particular viewing – to stem from a place far beyond his failings as an aspiring writer. His was, is and will always be the rage of a failed son, a disappointing heir; a man all too aware of his being unable to live up to his birthright of supposed superiority.

Like most fanciful takes on the film The Shining, there may have been zero conscious intent on the part of the creators to comment on any of the above, but one can never be sure. Certainly not when a film seems to contain evidence for and against any theory or reading that one chooses to throw at it.

 

The horror…: “Dead of Night”

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Ealing Studios film Dead of Night is no more a horror movie than is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is not at all meant as a slight against either but more as an expression of the fact that the general aim of both the television series and this 1945 portmanteau picture seems to be to evoke that viscerally ticklish, goosefleshy sensation one gets when pleasantly terrified in bite-sized doses, like sitting around a campfire and being told a ghost story which would not be particularly terrifying if not for the fact that it is cold, dark, you guys are in the woods and that failing to be scared or at least to appear scared would be kind of a spoil-sport thing to do, or not do. It would be surprising if a viewer departs this film significantly more conscious of the possibility of malevolent forces being present all around them. For those who seek out horror cinema for jump scares and screams, there are few if any to be found here; but for those who prefer to be mildly unsettled but constantly so, then Dead of Night may very well hit the spot, at times.

Architect Walter Craig (played by Toby Jones lookalike Mervyn Johns) is summoned by acquaintance/client Eliot Foley to a house in the country where a small group of guests is already casually gathered, talking and sharing a drink. Within the first few minutes it is established that Walter is plagued by what seems to be a particularly nagging spell of déjà vu and is convinced that not only has he been in this exact location with this exact set of characters (or at the very least dreamt it), but that the night does not end well, least of all for the individual he believes he will end up murdering. Of course, his assertions are subjected to a range of responses from teasing curiosity by most, to overly huffy skepticism by the resident rationalist Dr Van Straaten whose explanation for everything seems to be that ‘it is not uncommon.’ In support of Walter, four of the characters take turns narrating their own experiences – firsthand and otherwise – with the vaguely paranormal. The doctor eventually succumbs to the mood and narrates his own experience of being boggled. What follows are five Twilight Zone-y episodes (culminating in a somewhat bravura freak-out climax), the most famous of which features Sir Michael Redgrave from The Lady Vanishes as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught between a fellow voice-thrower and the man’s puppet, Hugo, which may or may not have a consciousness of its own, and a malicious one at that. This particular episode’s renown is probably justified, but more so for what it promises to be, whether or not you feel that it delivers on this. There is a tantalising quality to these tales. They dare the viewer to wonder whether or not these ‘paranormal’ experiences will eventually prove to be some silly dream, an illusion of sorts or perhaps the result of a moment of madness. You could commend the filmmakers for their restraint and their investment in the viewers’ sense of imagination, or you could accuse them of falling shot, copping out, or displaying a poverty of creativity if you dare go that far.

Dead of Night, enjoyable as it is, raises the question of how effective horror and comedy can be in partnership. This is not to say that the film is a capital ‘C’ comedy, but that there is a distinctly light touch to it, as though the creators are making a conscious effort to acknowledge that these are nothing more than interesting sketches, pieces of whimsy that really have no bearing on reality, which can’t always be the case, at least with regards to some of the strange experiences the movie dramatises. Horror-comedy combinations have always seemed like a somewhat parasitic relationship in that laughter can result from broken tension, or perhaps in response to morbidly unbroken tension. But does the converse occur? Maybe so. Perhaps comedy stretched to certain extremes can end up exposing the horrors inherent in whatever subject is being made light of, but in the case of Dead of Night, neither is the case. The elements of dread and humour seem to exist despite each other and sometimes the result is that what is on screen is neither funny nor frightening, for example the golfing episode which is quite possibly the weakest, a title it shares with the second tale, that of the boy ghost. In all honesty, are anthology films ever intended to be particularly hearty single courses as opposed to tasting menus designed to entertain the tastebuds fleetingly?

If there is one terrifying aspect of the human experience that is repeatedly touched upon by all of the episodes in Dead of Night it would have to be isolation. Whether it is the newly married man tortured by the possibility that he is being driven mad by the mirror his wife purchased for him as an engagement gift, or the ventriloquist who can’t seem to convince anyone that his puppet is alive and kind of an ass, the fear of being completely alone in experiencing something is a constant theme throughout the film. We all know, on some level, that the commonalities all humans apparently share may actually be subject to more variation than expected. What hunger is to one may not be what hunger is to another, but at least both can agree than hunger isn’t exactly pleasant and that it tends to be eradicated by food. But the idea of seeing something that no one else can clearly see…or hear or feel or touch or taste or know, this can be truly unsettling, and Dead of Night captures this well. If only directors Cavalcanti, Hamer, Crichton and Dearden didn’t choose to erase the aftertaste of this by ultimately highlighting how much of a constructed, matinee romp the film actually is. On this note, it would be appropriate to mention this film’s status as a classic not only of the horror genre but of British cinema overall. Cited as something of a landmark and highly regarded by everyone from Time Out London to Martin Scorsese, Dead of Night is the kind of film one would hope to find exciting and instructive yet which, for reasons not exactly easy to articulate, feels a touch wanting and somewhat undeserving of its high praise. It seems that being alone in one’s indifference towards Dead of Night may be even more unsettling than the picture itself.

The horror…: “Angst”

June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

At first it might be somewhat surprising to think that this little known Austrian film from 1983 – little known probably on account of it having widely received X-ratings in most jurisdictions and maintained them for so long – isn’t more frequently cited as one of the greats of the horror genre, because in many ways it is. But it only takes a second’s recollection of what it’s like to actually sit through this supremely unsettling work to realise why it’s not featured on more ‘top however many’, ‘greatest’, and even ‘best you’ve never heard of or seen’ lists. Even perennially revered – and rightfully so – films like Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist” have elements of perverse excitement to them and moments that are bound to thrill. The former evokes a very grindhouse, very drive-in, so-wrong-it-must-be-right sense of fun while the former is scandalous in a prestige way that would have surely found audiences leaving theatres talking in hushed but excited whispers, saying, ‘oh my God, did you see what she did with that crucifix?!’ Plus the outstanding art direction in “Chainsaw Massacre” manages to wring a garish, primal kind of beauty from the ugliest subject matter, acknowledging that Leatherface is – like it or not – an artist of the macabre. Fact is, even the most artistically ambitious of horror classics – those that would stand up as great pieces of cinema period – even these would get a bunch of friends excited for a weed-laced re-watch session. But not for a second viewing of “Angst”; surely no one can get excited for that…unless maybe intellectually. In a literal sense, few movies could possibly be expected to approach the level of pure horror that this piece, directed by Gerald Kargl, manages to reach. It would not be at all shocking if it turned out that Kargl’s feature filmography is so tiny on account of him descending into a prolonged nervous rut after having made this movie, which would certainly not bode well at all for the actors, especially not Erwin Leder who plays the lead and who hopefully received a good long debriefing at the close of shooting. Sure, there are piles of movies – especially of late – that are quite content to drown a viewer in violence, gore and dementedness, but the trick to these and the reason that they can be digested by scores of blank faced teens who groan-laugh/laugh-groan ironically at each gratuitous kill is that there are formal elements to these scenes which actually end up blunting the potency of their unpleasantness, or at least distracting from them. It’s the same reason big-budget action tent pole releases that involve scores of people being mowed down with automatics are deemed fit for consumption by thirteen year olds whereas a film like “Irreversible” is quickly shuffled into a containment chamber as though it were Bubonic Plague. In short, presentation is perhaps more important than content when it comes to determining how said content is received, and with “Angst” the presentation is downright nauseating, in the most bravura way possible.

The aforementioned Leder, almost Nosferatu-like in the way that he skulks, plays – with troubling brilliance – a convicted murderer on the day of his release from prison after serving a decade long stint for ending an old lady. Adopting a drolly confessional voice-over narration reminiscent more of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” than something more sordid, the film follows this nameless individual whose first instinct on leaving prison grounds is to find someone to off. He is not only unapologetic and relentless in his pursuit, but he does not display any signs of self-questioning, any indication that he wonders why exactly he has these urges and what purpose submitting to them might serve. Almost as a knowing dig by the filmmakers at the rehabilitation/correctional process in which incarceration is supposed to play a major part, Leder’s character mentions off-hand that prison is where criminals are meant to learn how to be better people, which he says while clearly anticipating his just-got-out-of-prison celebratory slaying. For the next seventy minutes the viewer is subjected to a uniquely photographed portrayal of what it may be like to submit oneself utterly to a force so powerful it might seem like a divine calling, or a curse. Watching this film, it makes complete sense that the man who directed “Enter the Void”, Gaspar Noé, reveres this film alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shot by Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Angst” features immediately distinct use of very high-angle tracking shots, almost god’s eye (or devil’s eye) views of the main character as he walks down the street and around and through buildings. These shots basically pre-empt the kind of visual aesthetic utilised in certain role-playing games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or even “The Sims,” the kind used to emphasise how much of a pawn each character in the game is; how much they exist to satisfy the entertainment desires of the gamer. Then there is the virtuosic use of a camera mounted on the actor himself – the kind used to such memorable effect in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, virtuosic here because the camera is a great deal more mobile that would be expected for a piece of apparatus fixed to a moving body. It (the camera) seems to swivel around him, as though the viewer is invited to assume the position of some demon that hangs around like a fly, attracted to the junkie-like desperation evident on his face and in his manner. In combination, these two techniques create a powerful sense of, well, many things: that this man’s physical body is at the utter mercy of his psychological obsessions, that he may be subject to out-of-body-experiences, that he may in fact be the tool of evil forces and spirits, that he is so removed from statistically normal human psychology that the ‘usual’ shots simply won’t suffice. But all this visual artistry, unlike other films in the horror canon, does little to shield or distract from the oppressiveness of the sequences being presented. “Angst” is simply not fun to watch despite wall-to-wall admirable visual flourishes, but it is plenty powerful and it is horrific through and through which is more than most supposed horror films can claim with sincerity.

So is “Angst” some sort of psycho-killer apologist statement? Probably not. There is – on display in the film – evidence that the filmmakers are curious about what exactly it is that enables someone to commit and recommit such acts of staggering violence with diminishing levels of awareness and an inability to view their behaviour in a context outside of their own needs and fantasies. Ultimately, there is the implication that the killer in this movie and similar individuals are in the throes of some kind of debased anxiety disorder, or that their pathology at the very least has strong components of anxiety of the kind that plagues true obsessive-compulsives who feel that they simply must do this or that in order to alleviate the overwhelming sense that all will not be well unless they carry out this or that. It’s terrifying to think that there are people in these particular psychological prisons, and perhaps more terrifying to think that – if faced with such an individual who has it in their mind that they must kill in order to simply feel…okay – nothing could in fact be done to dissuade them from stabbing you into oblivion. It should be said, however, that Leder’s unnamed character is perhaps more than just a victim of his vices. There are clear indications that he enjoys and cherishes what he does, though there are also moments of clear self-disgust and repulsion, for example his bout of dry retching after he has absolutely skewered the young lady and lapped up her blood in a deeply sexual manner in what must be one of the grimmest, most repulsive scenes of violence ever committed to film. The movie which comes closest to “Angst” in capturing the frankly sickening, ‘everyday’ quality that murder might have in the eyes of someone whose life is dedicated to it is “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an inevitable comparison and a film that probably supersedes its Austrian counterpart on account of it simply being far more watertight and practically perfect. Where “Angst” falls short of undisputed horror ‘glory’, if that is even the right word, is that portions of its apparently famous score (which is said to be more well-known than the movie as a whole) seems to be attempting to express a panic and disorientation that the visuals on their own suggest fairly successfully. There are two of three moments in which this drum-heavy stretch of cheeseball-80’s-action-score music appears, but these are mercifully few in a film that does not dish mercy out all that generously (at least not to humans, though adorable brown Daschunds seem to be an exception) .

 

The horror…: “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night”

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.

In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape. It might be fair to assert that post-war American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.

The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.

From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.

 

The horror…: “Torso” aka “I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale” or “Bodies bear traces of carnal violence”

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

If there exists a club wherein sexually frustrated straight men curl up in the corners of rooms and angrily decry all those ‘bitches’ who won’t put out, “Torso” would be the initiation film shown to each new recruit. This is not to say that the male makers of this 1973 giallo film, director Sergio Martino being chief amongst them, would themselves be members of this club, but that woefully misguided male-centric sexual frustration is nonetheless the fuel on which this movie and its central killer run; that and the leering gaze which would go hand-in-hand with the rage of the entitled male who can’t get laid nearly as easily as he believes he should. Now, it would be a gross oversight to think that this sense of frustration makes “Torso” unique. The great majority of slasher films post-“Psycho” are similarly sexually-charged and many of the best and worst entries in the subgenre involve a man emptying his vast reserves of wrath on the female gender, whether consciously or not, only, in “Torso” the killer explicitly verbalises this sense of frustration and the kind of illogical misogyny that goes with it; the kind that finds a guy calling a girl a slut because she’s not interested in sleeping with him. This pre-climactic moment of reiterating one’s motivation – as though to fend off the creeping sense that zero logic therein resides –  is deeply ridiculous from a simple narrative perspective and deeply cheap from a psychological standpoint, but it at the same time highlights the senselessness of his crimes by showing the disparity that exists between the nature of the childhood ‘trauma’ that haunts him into becoming a murderer and the nature of the butchering by which he is presumably attempting to restore some sort of cosmic gender justice. The fact that his campaign of terror is terminated by the reckless valour of another leering male – albeit a non-malicious leerer – crowns the picture with a very paternalistic cherry. This being said, the film seems to demonise the very sexualising, womanising gaze that it itself assumes by portraying most of its male characters as horny and lewd and with sex on the brain. The camera almost seems to say, ‘mmm, yeah, look at that sexy ass, see how it moves…I’m sure you creeps out there would love to tear those shorts right off.’ How hypocritical. Within the first ten minutes, several men, by way of their apparent desire to absolutely devour the women around them, are posited as potential suspects. The only men who don’t come across as a little dirty in the mind are the police and the professor whose lecture opens the film proper.

It’s Perugia in the early seventies; summer is in swing and the university is buzzing with students, which means that sex and drugs abound. Someone has begun killing people, mainly students, and the focus of the violence seems to be on the female victims, on their breasts and their eyes both of which tend to be mutilated. Initially it seems that the film will follow an Argento-esque procedural/investigative narrative mode, but “Torso” is far more lurid than that, quickly losing interest in law enforcement and instead becoming enamoured of a group of sexed-up young students and their adventures while dropping in on the gloved killer whenever a kill is around the corner, always forewarned by a slow (and genuinely creepy) keyboard motif. The opening two and a half minutes waste no time whatsoever in positioning the film firmly within the realm of tits and ass exploitation, only a little classier that its grungy American counterparts. To be honest, these luridly staged images of threesomes that may or may not be depictions of a porno shoot or a decadent sex party or both – while recalled in the film’s final sequence – have no real narrative place. Yes, some of the eventual victims are seen in this opening credits sequence, but the where the killer actually fits into all this is fairly unclear. Admittedly, this is not the kind of film that is interested in having its plausibility challenged or proved. One can simply assume – after the fact – that it takes place from the killer’s point of view and let it rest there. In any case this brand of giddy expressionistic abandon confirms, at the very least, that this film “Torso” will provide the visual swagger, the directorial peacocking by which Italian giallos and their direct predecessors stand apart from other forms of slasher flick.

Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and other mid-2000s horror pictures and a name partner in what could be called the ‘Tarantino-Rodriguez-Roth grindhouse geek-out club’, considers “Torso” to be a masterpiece, not that his word means particularly much, though it means enough that someone should heed his recommendation, see the film and write about it. In favour of Roth’s ‘masterpiece’ assertion, towards the end of the film, is a fifteen/twenty minute stretch of near-peerless filmmaking that is bound to excite any filmgoer who appreciates assuredly visual storytelling. The sequence in which Jane, disabled by a sprained ankle, wakes from her sleep to find herself locked in a large country villa and surrounded by three dead friends is probably worthy of praise similar to the kind heaped upon the opening ten minutes of “There Will Be Blood” or the celebrated heist in “Rififi.” Admittedly, these two examples are far more powerful than anything Martino manages to achieve in “Torso”, but within the film itself, the sequence is a standout block of cinema, partly because of its technical execution but also because this type of movie often seems more invested in providing scares and blood splatter than it is in sustaining tension. On this note, the film’s first murder already hints at the fact that suspense is as important to this director as payoff. The patience, the timing and the way in which Martino’s framing in this sequence seems to withhold and conceal visual information, Suzy Kendall’s refreshing, breath-holding portrayal of the rare character in a horror film who actually has intelligent instincts, and the relative absence of the relatively bombastic score, all these add up to produce what is arguably the scariest sequence in a film that doesn’t ever feel quite as sordid or gruesome let alone as frightening as either title would suggest.

The horror…: “The Entity”

March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

‘The attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue.’

So state the final words of the texted epilogue that brings Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 film to a somewhat lumpy-throated close. The movie’s last real ‘beat’ (screenplay terminology for a moment of emotional, thematic or narrative significance) arrives seconds before the aforementioned coda and shows single mother Carla Moran (played excellently and with force and commitment by the admittedly always forceful-looking Barbara Hershey) being told by the spectral malevolence that has been tormenting her and her children, ‘welcome home, cunt’. She responds to this obviously male-sounding guttural utterance with a resolute but pained smile, as though she has prepared herself for a future in which she will always and indefinitely be at risk of being violated but is determined to lives as normal and happy a life as she possibly can in spite of it all. Paired with the previously quoted sentence, “The Entity” could probably be read in several ways: as a lament for the reality that male-against-female sexism and violence is still alive and kicking (as much in 1982 as is depressingly the case in 2015); that sexual exploitation can still hide in plain sight; or it could be an expression of the fact that an art form that has for so long seemed to take perverse pleasure in subjecting female characters to the physical and emotional wringer will continue to do so if only for the fact that art reflects human experience and that this kind of human experience shows little sign of becoming ancient history. Of course, it could also be reminder of the fact that there are individuals and families out there – wherever ‘there’ is – who have been and may still continue to be victimised by forces that few can corroborate, fewer can explain and from which nobody can truly protect them at present, as may be the case with Doris Bither and her family, wherever they are. All three readings are dire, either in themselves or by implication, and it would take a pathologically glass-half-full kind of person to find any satisfying element of positivity in this final statement, that ‘the attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue’

Carla Moran is the fictionalised version of the aforementioned Doris Bither, a single mother and resident of mid-seventies Culver City, California, who was the main focus of relentless emotional and sexual violence at the hands of unseen forces (poltergeists?) and whose life and home were at one time subject to the gadgets and psychobabble of paranormal investigations before she upped and moved to Texas where, as the coda states, the occurrences failed to cease if they did abate to some extent. Hershey’s Moran is doing what she can to move up in the world, ‘up’ being a better job and the ability to make rent on time, for example. She is a character of will, with a decent store of pride and a sense of self. There is also significance to the fact that she is attractive because this informs the way in which her interaction with the men in her life comes across on screen, which is to say somewhat seedily and furtively sexualised, from her boyfriend Jerry to her paternalistic, potentially boundary-crossing psychiatrist Sneiderman. Unfortunately and out-of-the-blue, as is the case with Doris, Carla finds herself being held down and raped in the supposed safety of her own bedroom, in her bathroom, in her living room and in the presence of her children who themselves are not off bounds as is certainly not the house, the windows and everything in it. The most frightening thing about the events depicted in this film is the force of the violence and the strange sense that this force, this entity, wants Carla to suffer, to be scared, to be ever uncertain of her safety.  Her ghostly assailant evokes the same eerily oppressive male rage that emanates from drunken football hooligans out for opponents’ blood or inarticulate mobs of men who seem to be out to destroy simply because they must, a phenomenon explored chillingly in a masterpiece like “Wake in Fright.” In fact, for a certain portion of this film, “The Entity,” the possibility of the perpetrator actually being human, or that Carla is suffering post-traumatic symptoms from previous or ongoing acts of violation, still looms. Maybe director Furie and Co had decided to adopt an expressionistic approach in order to suggest that sexual violence is more about the violence than the sexual contact between two people, more about the horrific impact on the victim than the mechanics of the act. There is also the fact that these atrocities could just as easily be committed by an individual or group of individuals who decide to break into her house for one purpose only. In this sense, the film is most effective as a communicator of horror in its earlier moments when the focus is on Carla’s violation, confusion and fear as opposed to its subsequent fascination with electrical discharges, demonic apparitions and micro-gales that explode through homes; the horror is most potent when its basis is in the reality that any woman, any child, maybe even any man, could find themselves violated in the place that they naturally feel most safe. It’s the same reason “Psycho” hit such a nerve back in 1960, preventing travellers from checking into lonely motels or utilising said motels’ showers. As with most films from the genre, the ever present desire of filmmakers to eternalise the source of danger and the root of fear only works to diminish the significance of these things.

This of course leads to the question ‘what is there to be gained in witnessing the silly and exploitative sight of Carla Moran’s prosthetic breasts being fondled by invisible hands, especially once the rapes have already been so powerfully represented with much less explicitness?’ One can probably understand the filmmakers’ desire to prove to an audience, as well as to Carla’s flaky boyfriend Jerry, that these acts are in fact the result of a supernatural presence, and to show off their effects chops which may or may not have been lacking even by 1982 standards. Maybe if the effects were themselves less obviously fake it wouldn’t seem as though the film were making light of something that is inherently heavy. To give credit where credit is due though, on the whole, each incident does bear some sense of significance, narrative or otherwise, and it can’t really be said that the depictions of these are generally gratuitous (it’s always sad when the quality of something is based more on the absence of demerit than on the presence of merit.) As for the men in the film, the range of portrayals is not as caricatured as some might make out. While the supernatural and initially unprovable nature of Carla’s attacks is a nifty way to acknowledge the culture of denial and victim-blame that exists where violence against women is concerned, there are men in the film who seem to be on Carla’s side even if their interests range from scientific conquest to establishing the superiority of their supposedly rational understanding of the world. Dr Sneiderman, the psychiatrist who loses Carla’s trust as the film progresses, is of particular interest. When he first appears on the scene in a hospital consulting room after Carla is nearly murdered in her own car, there is a slimy awkwardness to his very doctorly matter-of-fact questioning. It’s a first impression the character cannot overcome and it simply creates the sense that, belying his obsession with helping Carla and ensuring that her ‘delusions’ are not fed into by the parapsychological researchers that set up shop in her home, he is somehow attracted to her or at least to the fact that he knows so much about her sexual experiences. He quickly becomes the face of chauvinism, a man whose good intentions hardly conceal his desire to dominate emotionally and psychologically, one of which he himself may not be completely aware. To risk being sensationalist, Sneiderman could be seen as the titular entity’s human co-perpetrator, only that he is more focused on exerting emotional power though much less successful at it than his phantom counterpart.

In general “The Entity” is a pretty good film, maybe even a touch underrated, but it has some nagging problems, the most disappointing aspect of all being Furie’s decision to go ‘big’ towards the end such that ‘the entity’ comes across more and more as some sort of hulking gargoylish demon, which in a strange way negates the gender elements or at least files them down to a small pile of dust which can nonetheless get into one’s eyes and cause fits of coughing and sneezing. While one might blame this Michael Bay move on a culture that began – from only a few years prior to this film’s production – to overvalue flashing lights, big noises and mayhem over subtle thrills, there is the creeping sense that the ‘demonisation’ of the entity was a conscious effort to prevent the movie from seeming like a feminist or anti-male statement or at least to steer away from as much of a political reading as possible, which ironically makes the film seem only more exploitative: ‘woman fondled and raped…by cantankerous fantastical fiend!’ when the fact is that violence of a sexual bent is much more likely to be perpetrated by a woman’s father, her partner, a workmate, or the guy she thought was a friend. It’s simply disingenuous for a film to take as its premise the real-life story of Doris Bither, only to decide halfway that it is unwilling to tread the inevitable political minefield. Funnily, in attempting to run away, Furie and friends end up stepping on a whole lot of mines.

The horror…: “キュア” aka “Kyua” or “Cure”

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crime procedural, released in 1997, would make for the perfect subject in a debate that seeks to determine how exactly a thriller differs from a horror film and which of these two genres “Cure” fits into. Any adjudicator with a lick of sense would be biased in favour of it being a horror film for whatever the label is worth, but humour both sides for a moment:

Those in favour of “Cure” being a thriller might argue that ‘the horror genre is exactly as it states, a genre; and what is a genre but a compendium of conventions and tropes which one can chose to adhere to or which one can choose to subvert? The point being that these conventions form the core of a genre and must be observed, whichever fork one ultimately decides to go down creatively. Many films contain moments that chill, that frighten, that disgust, that haunt, but does this make them all horror films? Could every film that contains a humorous scene or two be reasonably labelled as a comedy? For this reason, any film that hopes to be considered a genuine entry in the horror genre must adhere to this genre’s chief criteria, one of these being that the primary aim of the film should be to evoke the fear response (which in itself can be tricky to prove), and another being that the premise must involve a classic element of horror. Murder is not a classic element of horror, nor is crime in general, or blood, or fear. Actions and themes are not elements of the horror genre, entities are. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, demons, witches, goblins, gremlins, assorted monsters…all the traditional expressions of humanity’s desire to comes to terms with a malevolent universe. Then there is the modern era of horror where humanity itself can be a representation and extension of said universe, being inexplicably wicked in ways that make it – make us – seem supernatural or abnormal: serial killers, tyrants and sadists, and remnants of the occult. Now, this is not to say that a film like “Schindler’s List” does not depict unspeakable horrors, but the central entity is far too vague, far too diffuse, despite stemming from one misguided, moustachioed mind belonging to perhaps the one  human being closest to attaining the status of supernatural monstrosity. Which is why a film like Dreyer’s “Vampyr” at which and during which many contemporary audiences would probably find themselves yawning and falling asleep is technically a horror picture whereas a film like “Blue Velvet”, while it can cause the heart to race and the mouth to go dry, is probably more of a thriller. Frank Booth may be crazier and more violent than the original on-screen Nosferatu, but he’s ultimately just a scary gangster who’s into rough stuff and kinky shit.’

In response to the above, those in favour of “Cure” being a horror film would argue that ‘the aim of a horror film should not be to simply scare but to evoke horror, and that scares can be and often are momentary while horror can and often does linger far longer. Where fear will trigger the sympathetic response of a galloping heart, a peaking blood pressure, dilated pupils and cold sweating, horror works on a more intellectual level, affecting and informing one’s worldview and emotional landscape long after the instance of acute terror has been and gone. There probably was a time when people lived in dread of supernatural entities, but for modern society, horror art only truly came into being when that which presented itself in the pages of books and on screen dragged itself out of the theatre and into people’s homes; when the focus of fear was not on that which most people believed to be hocus pocus but on that which everyone was aware could be very well living around, with, or within them. Is “The Shining” horrific because of the elevator gushing with blood or the vision of the two dead twins in the hallway, or is it a touchstone of modern horror cinema because it hammers home the idea that you could be married to ‘evil’ or fathered by it? In the same way, “Cure”, ostensibly a police procedural that follows Tokyo Detective Takabe and his psychiatrist colleague Sakuma as they endeavour to solve a spate of seemingly ritualistic murders committed by a disparate array of perpetrators, none of whom can remember let alone explain their terrible actions, finds its horror in domesticity, in the drab, the daily and the usual. The investigation eventually leads to an enigmatic and apparently amnesic young man who may or may not be inciting these murders by hypnotic suggestion. Silly as the premise might sound, the approach taken by Kurosawa ensures that any skepticism regarding the plot’s plausability are kept at bay during the film’s runtime, and by the time the end credits roll and one begins picking apart whatever improbabilities and inconsistencies might exist, the creeping horror that the film creates would have already seeped into the subconscious and began working at it. So while it might take the shape of a thriller structurally and visually and adopt the pace of a psychological drama, “Cure” is probably more worthy of being labelled a horror film than the 101 so-calleds that seem to premiere every month, trashy pictures featuring cheap scares and gratuitous gore that will barely trouble the soul once the popcorn tub hits the bottom of the bin at the theatre exit.’

As previously stated, a sensible adjudicator would give the victory to the latter. But why? What is the horror that “Cure” evokes and why is it so potent? The fact is this: while Kurosawa’s movie contains images that may very well belong in a horror film – faces being peeled of skin and a disturbing mummified monkey – most of it is generously paced and photographed in a stately manner and with an autumnal palette. But it is this very gentleness that gives the film its pervasive sense of dread, the sense that violence is not always cognizant of its existence, like a wolf in sheepskin that thinks it’s actually a sheep. If these murders are being incited by a process of hypnotism, and if they are always carried out against individuals that bear some significance to the perpetrator, what deep, untapped reserves rage exists within even the most benign-seeming individuals? An elementary schoolteacher, a general practitioner, a low level cop…folks who would be generally considered average, by-the-by people are shown here to harbour feelings so deep and so malevolent that even they may not be aware of these until they manifest in the act of killing. But the horror is not so much that any old person could, out of the blue, pick up a knife and carve a giant ‘X’ into their partner’s throat, but that subterranean deposits of resentment exist at all; that they are there regardless of whether or not they ever show themselves. An early moment in the film touches on this: while picking up his dry cleaning, Detective Takabe finds himself standing next to a man who is muttering angrily, violently to himself – totally unaware of Takabe beside him – only to switch on a dime, almost unaware, and politely receive his dry-cleaning with a smile and genuine-seeming word of gratitude. How aware is this man of this rage within him, and if so, how much does he know about it? Does he have the slightest inkling what he may or may not be capable of?

The young man, Mamiya, who is likely at the centre of this strange homicidal ‘movement’ keeps asking people who they are. At first it seems that his amnesia is the cause of this until it becomes clear that the question is partly rhetorical and wholly existential. Most people appear to be thrown by the question, as though it is something they have never ventured to consider. Perhaps herein lies the true horror: the idea that one can live with someone by virtue of being that very person while not knowing even the tiniest bit about them, being completely unaware of that which informs their behaviour and their thoughts and that which slowly eats away at their souls. The way in which “Cure” paints this picture is subtly terrifying. It could be said that the film’s final stretch leans a little too heavily on elliptical storytelling as a way to utterly disconcert viewers emotionally, leaving them to wonder whether or not Mamiya has somehow found a way to plant murder in the minds of Takabe and/or Sakuma. Kurosawa should perhaps have trusted more in the robustness of his film’s psychological pull, but however much “Cure” might lose its footing in the last ten or so minutes, the very final shot finds the heart trampolining briefly up into the throat. Where a person could easily watch a zombie movie, yelp a handful of times and walk out into the night completely relaxed and not in the least bit jumpy, it would be kind of surprising for someone to walk away from “Cure” without feeling even vaguely, non-specifically uneasy.

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