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.
October 31, 2014 § 1 Comment
How interesting it would be to conduct a study in which audience responses to 2001 low-budget horror film “Session 9” are grouped according to whether or not a viewer has previously seen “The Shining” and then compared. It’s always nice to approach a picture respectfully, appraising it on its own terms knowing full well, of course, that no movie is an island, or at least that very few are. Artworks are born these days into a complex post-modern referential lattice wherein a creation can draw upon scores of influences some of which the creator(s) may not even be aware. But this film, “Session 9”, directed by Brad Anderson and featuring not one but two alumni of the “CSI” TV series – David ‘Sunglasses and Canted Neck’ Caruso and Paul Guilfoyle – has too much in common with the 1980 Kubrick classic for the similarities to be a mere coincidence. For a start, both films run on the premise of a large, ostensibly haunted building with a tragic history having some strange parapsychological effect on one or two or all of the core characters and by turns everyone that comes in contact with them or the building. If the commonalities stopped here there may be very little need to even bring up “The Shining” at all. But in addition to the ‘haunted house as psychological battleground’ theme, there are strong whiffs of domestic violence, uxoricide and filicide in “Session 9”; the wife of the film’s iteration of Jack Torrance is called Wendy; there are elements of paranoia, psychosis and multiple personalities (think Tony) which makes sense considering the central building once housed a psychiatric unit; the line between voices of actual ghosts and voices of the subconscious is distinctly blurred; both films pay particular attention to the passage of time and use title cards and looming establishing shots accordingly; disorienting and claustrophobic depictions of a physical space are used to brew fear by way of unfamiliarity; the very last word of “Session 9” is ‘Doc.’ While some of these examples might seem a tad nit-picky, combined with each other their significance simply has to be a little more than purely happenstancial.
“Session 9” depicts several days in the professional lives of five men who comprise an asbestos elimination crew that has been handed the possibly impossible task of stripping a sprawling, long abandoned Victorian-era hospital – Danvers State Hospital, namely – of the noxious fibre in a mere week. Headed by Gordon, played by Brit actor Peter Mullan – Mullan who was so watchable in Jane Campion’s 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake” – and managed by Caruso’s Phil, the outfit is a tense one from the get-go, partly on account of Hank (Josh Lucas) having pinched Phil’s girlfriend and partly because Gordon just seems off, and this tension plays a considerable part in creating the ominous sense that violence will almost certainly occur, if not at the hands of spectral forces then at the hands of one of these humans ruffians. Early on, as is the case with “The Shining,” the building’s unsettling history is briefly outlined – with special focus on the case of Mary Hobbs and the tragedy that befalls her – by Mike (co-scripter Stephen Gevedon), who then conveniently stumbles across material pertaining to Mary Hobbs and spends the remainder of the film diligently listening his way through nine sessions of recorded audio when he should actually be peeling asbestos from ceilings, hence the film’s title. In reality, this kind of confidential material would have been incinerated or at least gotten rid of once the hospital was shut down, but this is no realist tale and accordingly the film needn’t be judged by this. There is clearly meant to be some parallel drawn between what happened to Mary Hobbs (as per what Mike hears on the tapes) and what is slowly happening to the asbestos crew. How directly these two interact, however, is a bit of a mystery.
Now, it’s one thing for a film to reference another, either as a gesture of reverence on the parts of the filmmakers or from a more academic/canonical standpoint. Is it possible, though, for a movie to outsource its horror beats to an older, superior colleague, which is to say: for those who have seen and been affected by Kubrick’s “The Shining”, if “Session 9” turns out to be acutely scary or just chronically unsettling is it because it recalls/invokes the earlier film in a weirdly Pavlovian way? When ‘Tuesday’ appears starkly in the middle of the screen, backed by a relic of a building somehow reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, is a unit of terror being uploaded from some store of cinematic memories and played back in a new context? How much of “Session 9” is actually scary on its own merit? Which is a silly question, silly because it is unquestionably silly to assume that someone who has never seen a horror film in their life would not be frightened watching this. Every film should be judged on its own terms, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, there is a creeping sense of mediocrity about “Session 9” which does not help dispel the idea that it is deeply indebted to another movie. This mediocrity is most evident in the last fifteen minutes during which director Anderson and his editing team show how lacking in faith they are is in the film’s powers of suggestion and inception that they feel compelled to confirm – by way of the fractured ‘brain spasm’ expository technique so common to low-budget indie thrillers – that the character who is most clearly losing his marbles throughout the film is in fact the character that ultimately loses his marbles and submits to murderous urges. What a disappointing thud it is, realising that the mystery was never really that mysterious and that the tapes that Mike so religiously listens to are narratively deceiving though thematically consistent; McGuffins really. This depends, of course, on if you consider the building to be haunted or whether you think there is simply something about the physical space that trips a switch in the susceptible character’s brain.
Perhaps, the one thing that renders “Session 9” distinct from the baroque symmetry of “The Shining” is its flat, digital look, as though it were shot partly on one of those pro-sumer cameras which it very well may have been. In some ways this only works to enhance the clanking claustrophobia of the dilapidated setting – which is a positive –, and also injects into the film the kind of verisimilitude that forces the atmosphere of dread to traverse the screen and cross over into our world, for the duration of the movie at least…also a positive. But rather than embracing the stark, stripped feel of the visuals so as to construct a certain mood – as is the case with “Primer”, “Pi” or “Following” – Anderson aims for some sort of psychological grandeur to which the film’s form simply cannot do justice, like a man stepping into a baby onesie or a baby adorning a labourer’s overalls. The low-fi look makes the film’s foray into psychotic expressionism seem like an amateurish stretch, as though it were made by students who desperately wished to prove their ambition, perhaps too soon. Alternatively, the unfulfilled narrative ambition on display might give the impression that the filmmakers either lack resources or lack the technical skill to realise their vision. The latter is much less likely seeing as the number of filmmakers capable of technical virtuosity seems to greatly outnumber those with the gifts required to elevate mere virtuosity to the level of notable art.
“Session 9” is considered by a considerable few to be one of the better if not one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Watching it, it is easy to glimpse the makings of a great film seeing as it bears elements of a certain Kubrick film that has been mentioned here ad nauseam, as well as hints of Carpenter’s “The Thing.” But it seems as though the things which could have made this film truly great are too closely tied to the reasons for its various failings. “Session 9” is like an isomeric mixture: the best parts are the worst parts and vice versa.
PS: Happy Halloween!