Thursday, December 8, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: let's scare jessica to death

(1971. dir: John D. Hancock) The turning of the sixties into the seventies gave us a fascinating moment in horror cinema: Woman v. The World. Highlighted by Rosemary's Baby and the Stepford Wives, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is another in a series in which an ordinary woman finds her everyday world transformed in eerie, almost imperceptible increments, until it seems like a malevolent conspiracy and she cannot tell whom she can trust. In fact, in these films, she can trust no one. Even those who sincerely want to help her are powerless to do it, and the husband who seems at first benign and well-meaning always fails her colossally before the end. The question at the heart of the mounting tension is always this: am I crazy, or is the world conspiring against me?

Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a significant entry in the category for a few reasons. First, maternity is never mentioned. Even in the Stepford Wives, mostly concerned with connubial matters, there is a sense that our heroine might escape but is held back by thought of her children. A movie like this one about a couple trying to piece their marriage back together after a crisis in which children or the prospect of parenthood never comes up is a treasurable oddity. The other lovely factor is Zohra Lampert in the lead. Her performance, which we view largely in close-up, is mesmerizing. The director wants us inside her head, keeps us there throughout, where we hear audible voices, voices which only she and we hear, and which may or may not be her hallucinations.

And,in fact, we are left in the end with an uncertainty. Those other two classic movies leave us in no doubt as to the breadth of the evil mesh closing around our heroine, but this one is different. From the title, we go in with the assumption that we know something: someone is trying to drive the woman back into the madhouse. By the closing credits, we're not so sure. Which things we've seen are real, and which are hallucinations? Is there a conspiracy? The scars on all the locals are an eerie touch. Why are they all bandaged and wounded? ARE there vampires?

You could call it a lost classic, rounding out a trilogy with those other, unforgettable two. It was a movement rising directly up out of the feminist uprising, giving expression to the new uncertainty and angst in the feminine subconscious as we relinquished our "safer" roles and moved out into the places of greater potential power in the world. It may, in fact, be time for a new wave of such films, as American women woke on November 9th to find our country had banded together overnight to declare us second-class citizens, not only unworthy to make our own reproductive decisions, but unworthy even of basic human respect, as amply demonstrated by our sociopath-elect and his contempt for our gender. Our government, for the next four years, will be defining "human" as white, heterosexual males with, preferably, at least one million dollars in the bank and a cupboard full of guns. Because horror is always the bellwether, the genre in which the black bile and dread spew first from the collective underconscious, this might be a useful path. Although we often see women as the brutalized protagonists in modern horror, we tend today towards the physically tough, ridiculously resilient and resourceful grlz, leaving those of us who are normal women, with no super-strengths and no instinct for fighting or gun-play, without proper mirrors.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

belated and truncated halloweenfest: a double feature of christmas grue

A Christmas Horror Story: (2015. dir: Steve Hoban, Grant Harvey, Brett Sullivan) Revisiting the classic "anthology" format, here's a foursome of holiday chillers bound together by a shared locale and a drunken DJ playing a Christmas music marathon as all hell breaks loose outside. William Shatner is wonderfully droll as the the DJ, and the performance values are high all around. There's a troll changeling, wickedly funny zombie-elves, the ghost of a mistreated convent girl, and it all culminates in a showdown between Santa Claus and Krampus. Or does it?

Krampus: (2015. dir: Michael Dougherty) Viewing this before and after the election are two very different experiences. When it came out, Krampus was a well-executed, twisted moral-fable fashioned from the darkest humor and exaggerated versions of every American's modern experience of the holiday. Mobs draw blood and show no mercy for the privilege of paying too much for products which will be stuffed into a closet and forgotten the day after Christmas. People you dislike crowd into your home and criticize your way of living, and you let them do it, because they're "family". The cynical and ruthless bully those dreamers who have not given up hope, and once the bullies have won, once we have all given into ennui and despair, that's the invitation to Krampus, and Santa Claus stays home that year. Toys turn into monsters: teddy bears grow jagged teeth, tree-top angels morph into translucent harpies, gingerbread men lure children onto hooks and into chains, and you don't even want to know about the jack-in-the-box.

Now, post-election, this movie leaves a newfound chill, a hideous reminder of how hellishly low we have sunk. It is, believe me, exactly the Christmas movie deserved by a people so fucked up and cynical they'll elect the embodiment of self-serving, capitalist pig-dog evil into the highest seat of power.

Keep the fire burning hot in the hearth, kids. Krampus is coming.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: the devil's pass

(2013. dir: Renny Harlin) Sucker that I am for horror films inspired by True Fortean Incidents, the most interesting aspect of a Fortean Incident is its inexplicable nature, and movies, perhaps necessarily, strip away that layer, rarely providing anything more interesting in its place.

This one rises from the mass death in the Dyatlov Pass in 1959. It starts out as the Blair Witch Project, almost weirdly so, becomes a video game later on when the characters are exploring the underground bunker, and ends with a cheap trick. Along the way, it references the Philadelphia Experiment and the Mothman Prophecies, but doesn't shed any particular new light on the mysterious story of the dead hikers (except for one moment when they realize the "strange orange lights" that were reported in the sky the night of the calamity may have been flares sent up in desperation).

This is a "found footage" movie which cheats, just a little, just at the end. A group of American hipsters are retracing the dead Soviets' steps (although when the main girl claims to be a student at U of O but says it's in YOO-jeen AW-rygun, you know for a fact she's never been anywhere near the place), and the acting is, at any rate, better than the script. I tend to enjoy some things about Harlin's work. The best thing about this one is the easy rapport amongst the hipsters before the hellishness breaks loose, but that's a mighty weak peg to hang a thumbs-up on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: i, madman

(1989. dir: Tibor Takacs): And, for a change of pace, toss on I, Madman, a good-hearted, unpretentious slasher film built around beloved 80's-diva Jenny Wright as a girl who works in a used bookstore and finds herself menaced by characters in the dark fictions she reads. None of it makes much sense, but it doesn't matter, because the details are so engaging: an avalanche of misplaced books acting as a dream-quicksand obstacle, seamless travels from life into fiction and back again, twisting staircases and flashing neon. It's also bookended by the Art and Dotty Todd rendition of "Chanson d'Amour", a truly great song which evokes in detail an entire, lost era in one bouncy, repeating chorus: absolutely brilliant.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: deliver us from evil

(2014. dir: Scott Derrickson) A return to form for the Catholic Horror genre. As has become de rigeur in the past twenty years, the Catholic priest is allowed to wear a white hat only if he is a) sexy and fit, b) fully indulgent in harmless sins, such as smoking and drinking too much, c) obviously lustful after beautiful women, and, most importantly, if he d) fell into his calling only after "real life" so devastatingly disillusioned him as to drive him into it. This priest, played sexily by Edgar Ramirez, doesn't even wear the collar, working, as he puts it, "under cover", allowing hot chicks to hit on him in bars.

It's an exorcism film, and a good one, delivering some genuine frights and three-dimensional characters (including one obvious red-shirt who I really, really didn't want to die). Eric Bana gives his usual greatness as a tough New York cop with a talent for sensing the supernatural. Among other dark delights, the movie offers a sly joke about the instinctive association we make between cats and devils.

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: alone in the dark

(1982. dir: Jack Sholder) An overlooked classic from the eighties, it's a slasher movie, a home invasion film, a lunatics-escaped-from-the-asylum story. It's got a satirical message to deliver about the violence of society, and, although it's a little heavy-handed, its wry sensibility and near-flawless cast sees it through.

A blackout frees the most dangerous lunatics (termed "voyagers" by sensimilla-smoking head-shrink Donald Pleasence, uncomfortable with the connotations of "psychopath", a man whose laissez-faire approach leads him to allow matches on request to a pyromaniac) from an asylum and they target the family of a new doctor, convinced that he has murdered his predecessor, whom they respected. Imagine the joy of an underplayed (!) menace by looney-in-chief Jack Palance, truly glorious, or the infectious glee of Martin Landau's butcher-knife-brandishing preacher roaring, "Vengeance is mine, saieth the Lord!" It's got all the tropes, the punished-by-death teenaged-babysitter sex, gruesome murders by crossbow, cleaver, and baseball bat, and a creepy, neon-lit dream sequence to open the festivities.

It doesn't shirk the blood, guts, rising tension, or jump-scares, enjoying itself thoroughly the entire way.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

horror triple feature: devil, plus one, enter nowhere

Devil: (2010, dir: John Erick Dowdle) This is an M. Night Shyamalan story from beginning to twist-end, just directed by someone else, and it fucks up and loses me in the exact same way that Signs did: with the cut-and-dried theophany, the indisputably straightforward workings of God in the lives of men.

Divine Grace is never cut-and-dried, never indisputable, not to the eyes of humans. It may be that His works make all kinds of perfect, symmetrical sense from the god's eye-view, but we can only see the limited pieces set in front of us, and from the vantage-point of the groundlings, Divine Grace always looks partial, or sloppy, or half-baked, or maybe like an accident. One human might have an epiphany, might, for one short moment, be able to encompass the fullness of a Divine Act, but it will rub so contrary to the grain of everyday human existence that even keeping hold of the memory of it will require a stubborn contrivance of faith and courage.

And that's why M. Night bugs me. Theodicy is not simple, and this guy tries to tell us it is, and that the evil which God "allows" is all for our own good.

Plus One: (2013. dir: Dennis Iliades) A meteorite strike causes a wrinkle effect in time and a Harmony Korine party of hedonist kids find themselves partying with their doppelgangers from moments prior. What might have been an interesting idea turns out to be a post-adolescent masturbatory power-fantasy when the main guy uses the anomaly to win back the girl who dumped him and then murder her other self. The girls shed their clothes at the drop of a hat and the smartest of them spends the evening making out with herself. Too bad.

Enter Nowhere: (2011. dir: Jack Heller) It begins as "No Exit" for three lost souls trapped in a cabin in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, then turns into something more interesting before the end. When it all comes out in the wash, it’s a moral fable about how the secret to living a good and healthy life is to be raised by the woman who gave birth to you: accept no substitutes! The acting is solid enough, including Scott Eastwood (yes, he looks just like his dad only handsome) as the audience surrogate. No gore, no chills, just a strange, twisty storyline that, although ultimately unsatisfying, is enough to keep you watching.