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…: “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.

 

The horror…: “[REC]”

January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Fear is a highly infectious thing, as virulent as the nameless contagion that decimates an entire cast of characters over the course of an hour-and-a-bit in this standard-bearing found-footage horror film. Actually, fear is far more transmissible than whatever it is that is turning the residents of a small apartment block somewhere in Spain into rabid beasts, because while the fourth wall quite effectively protects viewers from being attacked and devoured and zombified, the desperate terror and burgeoning hopelessness that gradually reduces “[REC]’s” chief protagonist to a hysterical mess radiates/permeates through whatever screen the film is being viewed on, almost unfiltered. Bearing witness to the sheer intensity of emotion (not simply fear) that overtakes this group of people – the genuine panic and confusion and aggressive survivalism that descends upon them as it slowly becomes evident they are doomed – only works to heighten the effectiveness of the film’s primary elements of horror which are (a) simple jump scares and (b) constant dread punctuated by sharps bursts of weird sorrow. It’s a very surprising feeling to watch this film and realise that a great many characters that populate as many horror films – a lot of them audience surrogates – are pretty poor communicators and expressers of fear. Yes, they scream, they moan, they raise hell and portions of purgatory as they fight to live, but if one really sits down and analyses the degree to which their emotional stress as a viewer is dependent on the emotional stress displayed by the characters on-screen, there would almost certainly be a disparity. It sometimes seems that makers of horror films focus on their characters’ fear just enough to create an illusion of verisimilitude (i.e. a person who is being attacked would most likely scream, thus character A screams when attacked by character B), but when it comes to inducing in an audience the same fear that these characters are supposedly experiencing, the focus often seems to be on the timing of scares, the ebb and flow of tension, and levels of blood and gore as opposed to the whole ‘I scream because you scream’ phenomenon; call it sympathetic fear, if you will. The genre is perhaps much better at depicting crafty and smart survivalists like Jamie Leigh-Curtis’ character in “Halloween” or individuals trying to make sense of the bizarre i.e. the Christie/Sutherland couple in “Don’t Look Now” or Mia Farrow as Rosemary. The weakest aspect of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, the element that contributes least to its potency as a horror film, is the lip-service screaming and shrieking of the Marilyn Burns character as she is being pursued by Leatherface, even though the scene itself is nail-biting, more on account of everything else: the snuff-film graininess of the visuals, the shocking speed and bloodlust of the kinda plump assailant, and the disquieting sense of isolation. What the makers of [REC] get so right is that they manage to understand that there is no point in adopting the found-footage form if the key to its horror potential is not utilised, the key being the idea that what is being witnessed actually occurred to actual people and that this should ultimately evoke a heightened degree of viewer sympathy as compared to something presented as being clearly fictional. One of the official taglines for the film was indeedExperience Fear.’ Accordingly, the performances in [REC] make the movie; not the effects (which themselves are first-rate) or the visual authenticity (which is fairly spot-on), but the skilful way in which the true horror of the characters’ experience is conveyed, not just by the fact that the camera’s shakiness is an obvious expression of chaos. It’s unnerving to watch an initially lively, somewhat gutsy protagonist succumb so severely to terror.

The character of Angela Vida (embodied with bratty verve by Manuela Velasco), essentially the main protagonist of “[REC]”, is presented from scene number one as a go-getter of sorts, fearless in the way that one would assume journalists to be: unafraid of asking hard questions, keen on getting in people’s faces and demanding the truth, but more likely a scoop. She is the host of a television show called “While You’re Sleeping” which presumably provides the average TV-watching populace a peek into the lives of those who are awake, alert and at work across Barcelona while everyone else is drooling into their pillows. On this particular instalment, she and her practically unseen cameraman Pablo, whose point-of-view the viewer assumes, are attached to a pair of firefighters who are called out to an apartment block at night to free an old woman who is locked in her unit; an old woman who turns out to be rabid and cannibalistic, the cause of which becomes increasingly conspiratorial as people in hazmat suits cordon off the building and seemingly stand back so as to let nature take its course and let the darn pestilence destroy itself. For a good portion of the first half of the crisis, Angela insists that proceedings be caught on camera for the sake of justice and transparency, but it’s hard to pinpoint the moment in which all of her dedication to the fifth estate leaps out the window and her survivalist drive assumes control, reaching a frenzied pitch. For the viewer who takes emotional refuge in Angela’s gutsy, confident personality and her youthful sense of invincibility (which should be many if not most, because the character is arguably fashioned by the filmmakers as not just an audience surrogate but as some sort of audience oasis), watching the magnitude of the situation gradually establish itself in Angela’s mind is a slowly unnerving process.

Another core narrative element that drives the engine of fear on which this movie runs is its use of verite techniques and the sense of faux-reality that this creates in combination with a phenomenon whose cause is unexplained. For a large portion of the runtime of “[REC]” there is a constant and palpable uncertainty which in itself feeds into the overall atmosphere of dread. Are the characters under threat from some highly virulent pathogen i.e. is this simply rabies or a rabies-like disease, or is this something a little stranger? Do the authorities who so quickly cordon off the building, trapping the TV crew, the firemen and the residents in a cauldron of blood and death, know exactly what it is they are protecting the rest of the public from, or are they as hopelessly clueless on the outside as are the poor souls on the inside? The beauty of “[REC]”, as it exists within zombie movie canon, is that the characters within the universe of the film have no real reason to expect that they are in the presence of zombies, whatever zombies are. It is much more likely that they would fear some sort of outbreak which – as the recent Ebola mini-epidemic illustrates so well – is enough to terrify the shit out of people. So, rather than going into ‘zombie-mode’ and strapping on as many weapons as they can so as to mow down the next wave of moaning, flesh-hungry corpses, the characters in this film remain confused and fretfully instinctive in their behaviour. There is no concerted effort to calculatedly eliminate the rapidly growing population of undead within the building, only a concerted effort to stay alive enough to escape into the outside world, which once again smacks of verisimilitude. Unfortunately, the ending is marred by a suspiciously obligatory attempt at explaining what exactly might be happening in the apartment block, when this very lack of information played a large part in breeding fear up to that point. This is not helped by the fact that the tentative explanation provided is far less plausible than whatever air of implausibility the film might have initially given off.

Now, as for whether “[REC]” as a horror film has much on its mind, there is a fairly clear undercurrent of social consciousness running through it, but of the kind that is less interested in discourse and debate than it is in reinforcing awareness. As previously mentioned, a key theme of the film is transparency and the idea that those in seats of knowledge and power are responsible for ensuring that the masses are informed. “[REC]” also questions or at least ponders how dispensable the individual is in the face of the greater public interest. Both of these actually enhance the horrific nature of the scenario by tapping into a latent distrust of authority that has suffused the public consciousness – and certainly cinema – to varying degrees since Watergate at the very least. The film also alludes to the idea that crisis can expose both the best and the worst of humanity or at least the best and the worst of a particular society, and the elements of racism and classism that pepper the narrative suggest that Spanish society is somehow being examined by means of a hypothetical crisis. But for all the half-hearted intellectualisation being made here, one sure assessment is that “[REC]” is at its core an unprecedentedly successful combined revision of two heavily utilised horror tropes, one a decades-old staple and the other an increasingly tired modern fad.

The horror…: “Session 9”

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!

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