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) .
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.