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 of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII 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.

 

Blindspot: “そして父になる” aka “Soshite Chichi ni Naru” or “Like Father, Like Son”

April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

As the camera gently drifts outwards and upwards until the sunset sky begins to impart a pinky orange hue on the cluttered skyline of a low-rise city district as though revealing the soul of urban Japan, it become startlingly clear how perfectly this closing shot somehow manages to almost summarise/encapsulate the preceding two hours that were spent in the rightfully hallowed directorial hands of contemporary maestro Hirokazu Koreeda. Not only does this moment highlight the fact that Koreeda’s cinema lives and dies on framing and pacing more than perhaps any other techniques available to him, it also echoes the way in which the stately modesty and surface simplicity of “Like Father, Like Son” gives birth to a narrative far more psycho-emotionally complex than a film this tender has any right to be. By this I mean to say that the film quietly, gently burrowed its way deep into the heart of its themes so much so that I found myself blindsided by a ton of profundity and emotional resonance three-quarters into the movie. Even the title which sounds like a pun, film unseen, reveals itself to be far richer, being ironic in one instance while a painful affirmation of poor paternal legacies in another. Premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and wowing jury president Steven Spielberg so much so that it nabbed that year’s Jury Prize and Spielberg himself purchased the rights to a US remake (for those unable to read subtitles), “Like Father, Like Son” – without any indulgent foreshadowing or attention-seeking histrionics – sets up the story of two families burdened with the news that a grave error was made in a certain hospital nursery and that for the last six years they have been raising another couple’s son as their own. A more conventional film would most likely have featured not one but two pairs of discordant father-son pairings so as to ‘balance’ the centre of emotional gravity. It may also have overplayed the socioeconomic disparity factor, which I suspect the US version might very well do, post-Occupy and all. But this original iteration of the picture has its eye on deeper familial and social dynamics, and while Keita Nonomiya, played by the most adorable little boy this side of anywhere, may be too much of a meek, underachieving six-year old in the demanding eyes of Ryota, his workaholic architect father, their counterparts in Yukari and Ryusei Saiki display no evidence of discord; at least nothing worth centring a narrative around. Now this may very well have everything to do with the fact that the Nonomiya trio – mother Midori, father and son – is Koreeda’s main focus as a writer. But this lop-sidedness feeds into some of the movie’s prime concerns i.e. (a) the importance of the hereditary ‘blood’ link in determining the depth and tenacity of a relationship, (b) how socioeconomics impact one’s fitness for fatherhood (and parenthood in general), (c) how one’s own upbringing influences their parental philosophy, and (d) the curious timeworn phenomenon of the mother-son connection. I find that I cannot quite wait for my next encounter with Koreeda.

Brief impression: “Force Majeure”

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s just a ‘simple’, straightforward rear tracking shot of a seemingly archetypal upper-middle class Western European family – mother, father, daughter, son – skiing steadily down an iridescent, perfectly manicured white slope at the Les Arcs ski resort in the Alps, but it’s a moment of magic, visual, technical, thematic…all of it. One by one, the four Swedish holidayers cruise into frame in gentle swoops and dips until they, as a group, have established themselves as the focus of interest, which can’t be that hard in so bland – though prettily so – an environment. As if floating on the arm of a Steadicam attached to an operator firmly strapped to a snowmobile with the most exquisite suspension system, the camera then calmly follows them for what seems like several minutes of tracking perfection: not a jiggle, not a blur. At first there may be the slight anticipation of something dramatic happening to disrupt this very sedate picture, but it becomes clear that this won’t be the case and the eyes are suddenly drawn to the way in which the skiers weave in and out of each other’s paths, at times threatening to drift apart but always remaining comfortably in reach. There’s something hypnotic, something reassuringly monotonous about the whole thing, and one can only assume that this sense is shared by the people on screen. But at the same time there is something oppressive about the way Ebba, Tomas, Vera and Harry seem to orbit each other, or maybe disrupt each other’s trajectories, as though their adherence to a certain cultural concept of what a functional family unit looks and feels like ultimately limits each member’s individual potential. They’re like electrons circling some unseen nucleus, moving according to their own intrinsic energies but unable to escape altogether, the result being an internally discordant but externally cohesive whole. In fact, only a few minutes of film time prior to this scene, the classic foursome is being coached by a resort photographer on how to appear happily familial and natural about it. Needless to say, the results are awkward, which only works to inform the dynamic that will be suggested in the tracking shot to come.

In a wonderfully astute interview of writer-director Ruben Ӧstlund by Film Comment magazine’s Violet Lucca, the Swedish filmmaker makes mention of the mid-twentieth-century concept of the ‘nuclear family’ and how it may have been – may still be – a sad evolutionary step in Western humankind’s move towards a more individualised (narcissistic?) approach to living,  and with this particular shot it’s as though director of cinematography Fredrik Wenzel has enabled Ӧstlund to craft a pretty direct visual pun with regards to the ‘nuclear family’, one which smartly and  succinctly forestalls what may very well be the core concern of “Force Majeure.” But it’s the film’s showstopper scene – the one which sets the dramatic ball rolling and the one everybody simply can’t not talk about – that highlights the fact that this movie is interested in exploring the inherently unstable human tendency to try to find a harmonious sweetspot where the primal and the aspirational can meet, or at least collide under controlled conditions.

Ebba, Tomas and their two prepubescent children are on a five-day skiing trip which – Ebba explains to a fellow holidaying Swede that she meets on day one – is a rare opportunity for busy breadwinner Tomas to focus his full attention on the family for whom he apparently works his ass off to win bread. The interesting thing about this particular ski resort is that ‘controlled’ avalanches are a regular part of maintaining the generous snow cover that makes for a comfortable, gentrified skiing experience – as well as doubling as some sort of sideshow spectacle. So while lunching outside, one of these ‘controlled’ avalanches occurs and the diners and onlookers all turn to watch or raise whatever video-capable device they own, Tomas included. Something then occurs which anyone who has seen Julia Loktev’s marvellous “The Loneliest Planet” might be able to guess. The beauty of this scene – apart from its purposefully spare composition and thrillingly detached execution, proof that restless filmmaking is not the only way to preserve and present the visceral power of a moment – is that it is a near literal face-off between two examples of mankind’s desire to somehow exercise a degree of dominion over forces of nature that often prove to be more difficult to subjugate or manage than expected: instincts of self-preservation, maternal drive, the basic physics of a tumbling mass of snow, and fear, amongst others. It’s the perfect point from which to launch into what is a fairly on-point examination of a particular type of western lifestyle (heteronormative but gender-progressive, monogamous, nuclear) and how the social structure supporting this mode of living is almost a kind of containment chamber which keeps certain elemental but undesirable human tendencies in check, albeit tenuously. In a way, “Force Majeure” has a certain kinship with a novel-film duo like Lionel Shriver/Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin” which dares to skewer, or at the very least question, the generally held expectation that all mothers embrace motherhood without there being any room for feelings of resentment, self-loss and frustration. Likewise, “Force Majeure” takes to task the expectations placed upon certain roles within a tightknit social structure and, in doing so, insidiously disassembles the illusions upon which a very pervasive mode of western living seems to be founded. Are Tomas’s actions during the avalanche unnatural or are they just undesirable within the social construct of which he has chosen to be a part? When Ebba is chatting up an acquaintance in the hotel restaurant only to learn of this acquaintance’s open marriage and consequently killer sex life, does her indignation stem from a sincere belief that marriage should be strictly monogamous, or is she desperate to defend the conventional marital approach that she has (presumably) adhered to in spite of her actual attraction to and desire for the alternative that this lady has offered up? It’s interesting to note that the tension between Tomas and Ebba only truly escalates as a result of his denial of his actions/lack thereof. Does this imply that somewhere, deep down within her, Ebba believes that her husband is simply a ‘normal selfish white alpha male’, and that she is okay with this? Or does Tomas’s shocking behaviour simply concur with her already held impression of him lacking dedication to his family? Perhaps this shattering of Tomas’s image enables Ebba to momentarily acknowledge (in her own mind) that she may in fact be tired of him sexually/emotionally, and that she craves some kind of respite even if in the shape of a Brady Corbet toy boy, which she will of course never permit herself to enjoy. Either way, it’s only after Tomas’s sadly humorous catharsis on the hotel room floor that he and Ebba decide to resuscitate the marital image that they came so close to losing. As is the case in “Gone Girl” in which Mr and Mrs Dunne – after Amy Dunne’s Machiavellian viciousness is made evident to Nick and Nick Dunne concedes his douchebaggery to Amy – conspire to continue their toxic marriage in the interest of who knows what (image? Security?!), in “Force Majeure” it’s only after Ebba bears witness to the true wretched confusion residing within her husband’s soul that she can presumably forgive him and allows him to reprise his role as Protector and Provider, the role he has to-date so poorly played, if only for the sake of their children and their enormous superegos.

With his 2011 film “Play” and this 2014 follow-up, Ruben Ӧstlund seems to be working his way towards a place amongst a select group of filmmakers who in one way or another utilise cinema as some sort of hypothetical social laboratory or model, constructing situations with specific stresses and specific parameters and then tossing in a bunch of human characters in order to observe how they behave. Accordingly, the director takes a steadily observational approach that favours longer takes, fewer cuts, spare camera moves and dialogue that oscillates between the incisive and the evasive. One filmmaker that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of cinematic social experiments is Luis Bunuel (“The Exterminating Angel”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ”) with Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos and maybe even Lars von Trier being more contemporary examples. This assertion, as much as it is a way of praising Ӧstlund’s directorial chops and his socially relevant approach to cinema, also brings with it the burden of disapproving audiences who are wont to decry any film that they consider cruel to its characters, mean-spirited or unsettlingly distanced. The image of a misanthropic creative intelligence needlessly and gleefully ‘torturing’ fictional humans, which has often been attached to both Haneke and von Trier (though certainly not Leigh), may not haunt Ӧstlund just yet, at least not on the basis of his filmography to date. While “Force Majeure” is all too aware of the painful hilarity of its proceedings (as evidenced – for example – by the belly-tickling use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer”, a piece which would be instantly recognisable to fans of HBO’s Larry David vehicle “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and while it indulges in this very comedy for both its entertainment value as well as for its social commentary potential, it never does so inconsequentially and certainly not haphazardly. It’s all very…controlled. But if, for whatever reason, Ruben Ӧstlund’s directorial career does not take flight and soar in the way that a work as consummate as “Force Majeure” would suggest, he should consider finding work at an alpine ski resort like Les Arcs, sending snow a-tumbling down mountainsides with perfectly-timed explosions in order to terrify, thrill, and occasionally tip a nice, well-off, heteronormative family into a necessary state of crisis, the crisis that they simply need to have.

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