31.10.13

It's Alive...It's Alive. It's Alive!: Frankenstein (1931)

Well it was purely serendipitous, it is nonetheless fitting that my last blog post for the horror marathon this month is devoted to the phenomenal and eerie mood piece that is Universal's 1931 Frankenstein.  Coming out the same year as the company's other famous monster movie Dracula the two depict the highest ends of their genres possibilities, particularly for the era.  Both look sumptuous in their recent high definition upgrades, seeping off the screen and asking viewers to consider how and what shocks them about the cinema going experience, a rather intrusive act for a time when sound had just begun to emerge within filmmaking.  Frankenstein is most certainly on no level with its follow-up Bride of Frankenstein, however, comparisons between the two would be foolish, particularly since the later is one of the highest achievements ever reached in film.  Here under James Whale's direction the pieces of the film come together in wildly inventive and engaging ways, wholly equating to every aspect and understanding of how a film should exist on screen, combining stunning performance, inconceivably evasive lighting and cinematography and enough of a breaking away from the literary material to still provide it with a sense of permanence, while being accessible without having read the text.  It also goes without say that Boris Karloff steals the show here, sure it, as is the book, is only minimally concerned with the experiences of the monster, but the screen time he does possess, including one of the most infamous moments in cinema history are timeless and evocative, made all the more so by the crisp and cinematic new transfer.  I found myself thinking while watching the film that this work has all the audacity and cinematic inventiveness of the most recent critically-acclaimed blockbusters, taking no less a risk with technology than say Gravity, or being no less meticulous in its composition than Inception.  Yet, where in the previous two films, less so for Inception, story and genuine emotion are lost in the overt visual and psychological exploitation of the film, Frankenstein is work on a much purer and more rewarding level of reactionary filmmaking, explaining how it and many of the other Universal monster movies have managed to attain and continually retain such a degree of timelessness.


Frankenstein begins not in the story, but with an unnamed gentleman stepping through a curtain and warning audiences that the cinematic experience they are about to undertake will be unlike anything they have previously encountered, something that will both shock and terrify.  This act draws upon the theatricality of it and the medium of film in general, only to constantly push away from it once the film proper begins, with images of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunch-backed assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) prowling about a graveyard late at night in search of a recently deceased human brain, passing on a hung suicide victim due this broken neck threatening the value of the brain.  After obtaining a brain from a medical school, Henry's fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) becomes concerned with his constant involvement in experiments, thus recruiting the help of Frankenstein's old professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help deter his preoccupation with the creatures of his experiments.  Arriving at his laboratory, Waldman, Frankenstein and others discover the scientist feverishly at work attempting to reanimate a corpse that is comprised of various body parts and a brain obtained from Waldman's classroom.  Through the use of natural technology, Frankenstein is able to do so, bring to live his Monster (Boris Karloff) a barbaric beast that, nonetheless, has a considerable degree of intelligence, as well as a desire to destroy, after it is made known that the brain implanted into the monster was one of the abnormal, therefore having a much higher desire to harm.  After a tough but valiant effort to subdue the Monster, Frankenstein leaves his laboratory and promises to place all his care into preparing for his wedding, completely ignoring the presence of the Monster in favor of Elizabeth.  This choice proves foolish as the Monster eventually breaks free and begins to roam the countryside, at one point meeting a girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris) who instantly befriends the Monster, teaching him how to make flowers float in the water, but when the Monster mistakes his trick for something that can also work on Maria, the results are dire, resulting in his being chased by an angry town mob.  Frankenstein returns in an attempt to again subdue the Monster, although it proves unsuccessful and the Monster is ultimately burned to re-death in a fiery windmill grave, while a recovering Frankenstein is left to focus fully on him upcoming wedding.


The great question in literary theory since the release of Shelly's classic novel is as to what exactly Frankenstein's Monster is intended to represent and many readings have emerge from the historical approach to the outwardly psychoanalytic, all pulling from various sources and making astute and plausible arguments to its metaphor and implications.  I want to entrench myself within the camp of the late Alexander Doty and suggest that one must read the text, in particular this film, against the grain and lift from it a narrative of queer identity and its violent suppression, wherein the Monster represents the young Frankenstein attempting to draw attention to his queer desire only to have society (i.e. his father, professor and fiancee) suggest that such desires are not only bad, but literally monstrous.  Keeping this in mind then, the navigation of the Monster, whose "abnormal" brain purportedly causes him to act out differently really proves to be quite similar to humans, whose reactions to being caged up and taunted with fire would, in all likelihood, be quite similar to the frustrations of the Monster.  In this reading it is also important to remember that Frankenstein functions far differently than other horror films, first because Frankenstein is only minimally about the Monster, and second, when the Monster does emerge it is in an almost ephemeral manner, as though to be a passing reminder of some threat to others' livelihood.  This is no more obvious than in the scene when the Monster scales a wall to enter into Elizabeth's room, only to have her arise from her bed unannounced before it can strike her.  Extending the queer metaphor, the Monster is present, but Elizabeth chooses to play ignorant to the fact, instead seeking solace in heteronormative constructs, hoping that the Monster, like Frankenstein's queerness will magically disappear.  The laboratory that Frankenstein resides in becomes his safe space, adding a tense, but present, layer of the homosocial bond between himself and Fritz, one that takes on a bizarre servant master element as well.  Of course, Shelly's novel, as well as Whale's film exist in a time when homosexuality, and any non-normative sexual identity were not only socially condemned, but also deemed scientifically disturbing, so queerness in such a context must be destroyed and in the case of this film it is in the most violent and fiery of manners, moving the film into a final moment of the idyllic, emphasized by a return to natural soft lighting and a private domestic space where Frankenstein is not only the object of his fiancee's affections, but a bevy of attractive nurses as well.

Key Scene:  The Monster's encounter with Maria in all its latent tragedy still manages to be one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema.

I just picked up a great deal on the Universal Classic Monsters bluray boxset.  Keep an eye out for it to go on sale again, it is as worthy an investment as one can find.

30.10.13

They're Eating The Guests, Sir: Piranha (1978)

Liminality is a word that gets thrown around in a lot of theory circles to discuss that space in between one thing and another, some sort of impossible space that can only be occupied in a transitory phase.  Think of a doorway as an appropriate metaphor to this idea.  I bring up this idea because I can only describe Piranha as a film that exists in the liminal stage between good and bad, in so much that it cannot be quantifiably described as either.  In some cases this sort of enigmatic existence can prove to make the film absolutely captivating, demanding a constant reconsideration of how and why one categorizes a film, whether it be for performances, cinematic value or narrative considerations, even moving on to look at how less quantifiable elements might affect ones relationship with the film.  Indeed, the opening scenes of this film were actually ones that, upon viewing, took me back to childhood having seen the film on some late night screening, much to my surprise considering the use of nudity and violence.  Yet, even in this flittering moment of curiosity I could not get over how middle-of-the-road this film ended up being, at times excelling at its execution, particularly in the use of stop motion early in the story and at other times completely lacking any sense of continuity and structure, jumping from one point of action to another with a less than appropriate edit.  I want so desperately to pick up on the elements that make it a cult classic, but despite a great soundtrack and an overabundance of mocking directed specifically towards Jaws, for which it is clearly ripping off, there is none of the earnestness or absurdity warranting it such a status.  Sure the alcoholic lone man character coming in contact with the doe eyed young investigator has shades of implausibility and humor, but these are not backed up by any sense of creating a narrative arc that plays upon this, even in an uncomfortable and ill-conceived manner.  Piranha is some sort of either/or film in that it is either atrocious or brilliant, but does not carry itself in a way to suggest that it wants to be investigated as such, instead being a work that unfolds in an underwhelming tale of river travel, summer camp coming-of-age discomfort and what might have been a backstory involving corrupt politics.


Piranha begins with a young couple sneaking behind the barriers of a restricted area in order to go skinny dipping in a lake, while their initial endeavor seems harmless if not gross for the area appearing to be a sanitation, when the young man is dragged under the water by an unseen creature, the girl panics swimming away, only to also be captured by the creature, thus beginning the film proper, as a young woman named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies-Hurich) enters the area of Lost River Lake, hoping to uncover exactly what happened to the teens from the opening portion of the film.  Knowing that she is unfamiliar with the space she attempts to recruit the help of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) a river guide whose recent divorce has resulted in him forming an absurd degree of alcoholism, one that includes drinking liquor directly from a canteen.  Despite his problems, he agrees to help Maggie and the two immediately investigate the blocked off area, planning on draining the water to see what has happened.  In the process of doing so they are momentarily stopped by Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) a man who explains himself as an employee of the military that had been working to create a particular breed of flesh eating fish for warfare purposes in the Vietnam, the hatchery just happening to be in Lost River Lake and Maggie and Paul's meddling has unleashed the population into the space of the river, threatening to attack campers and the community alike, all who use the lake as a point of enjoyment.  Indeed, the damage these creatures can cause becomes apparent when one of Paul's friends is attacked while fishing on the dockside resulting in the man's grandson joining in the group as they attempt to evacuate the lake and stifle the infestation of the deadly piranhas.  Paul is also doubly concerned about rescuing his daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) whose own past fears of the water become manifested when the attacks occur at her camp, proving her somewhat of an asshole camp counselor Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel) wrong in his criticism.  Simultaneous to all this is the attempts by individuals like Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) and Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) to poison the river, hoping that it will kill the fish, although past attempts at such methods have proved equally futile.  Attempts to flood the water prove futile and although the spreading of the fish into the ocean occurs, Mengers goes on the radio to claim that the problems are over, a statement that is countered by the shrill sound of piranhas in the closing shots of the film.


I guess if anything the film was attempting to be a take on the, then, still burgeoning environmental horror film.  Of course, as noted earlier it is blatantly an attempt to counter the status and power of Jaws, often blatantly mocking the film either in subtle ways through soundtrack cues, or more obvious moments as is the case with the Jaws arcade game being shown early on, a notion of child's play being attached to the former, albeit far superior film.  Nonetheless, Piranha flails to make connections between the way in which nature has rebelled against the pollution and degradation enacted by humanity, whether it be political or military oriented, in the clear and blatant ways.  Yet, filmmaker Joe Dante also draws attention to how these groups are far from the only ones engaging in destructive actions, considering how something assumedly beneficial like a summer camp might also double as a look at capitalist desires and overpowering the space of the natural only to be replaced by docks, cabins and other manmade places intended to, ironically, get closer to nature.  This pollution or environment degrade also takes on metaphorical elements within the film, as the individuals who desire to find purity through water (the opening scene skinny dippers) are not only made to be foolish, but also destroyed in their actions.  The act of attempting to harness the environmental to be used in a destructive manner against others, here in the militaristic sense, is also critiqued, shown to be so dangerous that even the concern for justice by one group could result in the annihilation of a river or in a worse case the entirety of humanity.  It takes on a decidedly more poignant, but probably accidental, narrative when it is suggested that these ferocious piranhas were to specifically used in Vietnam, a space of warfare that was particularly troublesome for American troops who found the natural world impossible to navigate, often dying as a result of the fungi, diseases and general lack of basic necessities in the space as opposed to actual violence.  Finally, pollution takes on an interpersonal level with an individual like Paul who seems to want to pursue a Thoreau like return to the natural, but cannot get over his own frustrations and find a space of natural enlightenment, thus becoming a point of personal pollution through his alcoholism.

Key Scene:  The stop motion elements which become arbitrary in the convoluted plot are really quite amazing and lovingly hearken back to films like the low-budget wonder that is Equinox.

This is on Netflix Watch Instantly, it is more a curiosity than a necessary viewing, but to be fair it is also a major work in the narrative of genre film, so watching it for a sense of completist viewing is not illogical.

29.10.13

I'm Michio Hiyazaki, Too: Doppelgänger (2003)

When Christopher Nolan released the audacious and interwoven narrative that was Memento he created a piece of cinema that not only demanded a full viewing by those engaging with the work, but required it in order to truly understand the complexities of what he was trying to do in regards to the frame of storytelling, as well as in consideration of the frames of cinematic space.  When people went nuts about his more recent Inception, I kowtowed to it being cinematically sound but also silently remembered that his earlier work was far more engaging, entertaining and deconstructive in regards to what the traditional film could do despite having a relatively minuscule budget.  I say all this because it is a rare feat for film to be so different and demand that those watching it give it their full attention, but more so to be rewarding as a result.  In most cases, such as something like 13 Tzameti, the film will take an idea and flounder it in its own sense of pretension and self-aggrandizing glory failing to see the message beneath its push for grittiness and non-narrative constructs.  Doppelgänger, hereafter Doppelganger for the various search engines, is from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and in its quest for an understanding of how one categorizes the self in relation to a larger social other, he manages to push not only to the level of the puzzling Memento but well beyond its limitations, breaking down even more cinematic conventions in the process, even if doing so required the simplest of camera tricks and editing techniques, and while the currently available transfer of the film is far from stellar, it is better than not having this work readily available to American audiences and the particular sects of fan boys that see Inception or anything Nolan puts out as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, in which case most items are far from reaching (Inception is quite good I am willing to accept its having merit).  I included Doppelganger in the month of horror movies, partially because it is wildly revisionist, but too because it demands viewers to reconsider what is truly scary in life, positing that an encounter with one's self in all its impossibility would prove far more challenging to the self than any degree of horrendous other, because it breaks down the very dichotomy in the process.  This has the same chilling effect as it does in Primer, but here with even more of a confrontational intensity.


Doppelganger focuses on the work of Michio Hiyazaki (Koji Yakusho) an engineer who is working on a machine for disabled persons that is both incredibly mobile, while also possessing the finesse to properly crack an egg into a bowl, a task that is considerably difficult given the still clunky movements of even his high end robot prototype.  Caving under the stress related to such a project, doubled with a deadline, Michio's day is made all the worse when he discovers that a duplicate version of himself has begun occupying all the same places he does, specifically a coffee shop, but eventually meeting him in his own house.  Knowing of the ancient folklore that one who sees their doppelgänger is assuredly moments away from their death Michio begins to panic even more, actually ignoring his work in the process, even when it prove successful at an expo of the product.  Frustrated, Michio begins to mount all his efforts into confronting the doppelgänger  who while similar in looks is the complete opposite of the repressed and reluctant Michio, using all of his will and power to exert himself in the world in a wily and destructive way, going about killing individuals and sleeping with women, much to the demise of Michio who fears that they will mistake the engagements as actions undertaken by himself, leading Michio on a frivolous quest to prove the difference between himself and his identical doppelgänger  only able to convince a few that he is actually a twin brother, thus explaining his questionable actions and problematic ways.  Yet, when Michio comes to discover that the doppelgängers destructive attitudes are actually helping to relieve stress from his life, he begins to embrace its presence, allowing his particularly rampant and carefree attitude to wash over his previously troubled body, playing into blind ignorance in favor of allowing himself a continually stress free state of existence.  Yet even in these moments of joy, the actions of the doppelgänger prove to get a bit too out of hand and Michio must step in and correct the actions of his other self, one that ends in even more violent results than before, but not prior to an absurd set of events that take place in an abandoned building, one of which includes a giant disco ball careening out of control.


The self and the other prove to be the great divide in terms of privilege and oppression in pretty much any system of hierarchies in the world.  Doppelganer, absolutely destroys any possibilities of quantifying these two opposing forces, instead; suggesting that the self/other divide is entirely an internal construct created by one to define and set up an existential understanding of how one should engage with the world.  Now this becomes tricky when the self must create a tangible other in the real world, whether it be through creating a sense of higher moral standing based on religious/philosophical ideals, or in an oppressive sense through suggestions of inferiority that are always ungrounded and often predicated upon some seemingly miniscule genetic difference.  Again, Doppelganger manages to tackle both of these as constructs by showing that when extended to consider an identical body this becomes impossible to assert, let alone conceive, affirmed by Kusosawa's splitting of the screen into multiple spaces to consider how and why a person would demand a separation from one's self, here in a very literal sense.  What makes Michio's doppelgänger distinct is its seeming lack for moral conviction or sense of restraint, giving it a very id-like quality that he initially attempts to suppress, however, when it becomes evident that these actions speak to his internal frustrations Michio is willing to overlook such problems in favor of his (the self's) higher advancement.  Indeed, by throwing the genetic variations out the window, it also causes Michio to consider his own points of power and lack, drawing upon his own failures by having to face himself in a mirror of sorts, one that constantly haunts his every move.  By seeing his own loneliness on display through an other version that seeks harmony, Michio begins to fall apart at the seams, but this is not before the other, or perhaps the self, takes it upon itself to engage in a destructive path, one that is never truly reprimanded, for Michio has managed to exist space as both the self and the other, throwing any sense of authority or hierarchical structure out the window.  Kurosawa breaks the conventions of cinema in order to show that rules and guidelines are foolish when the very signifier that have caused them power are duplicated, subverted and invariably undermined.  This is a bold and forward thinking piece of cinema that demands to be viewed fully and critically.

Key Scene:  The first of the filmic space fracturings is so pleasantly unexpected as to set the pace for the remainder of the film as it grows exponentially more bizarre.

The transfer of this film currently available is a bit underwhelming, as such a rental will make due until a bluray is made available.

28.10.13

Next To Food And Music, This Is Mankind's Greatest Invention: TerrorVision (1986)

I have become rather enthralled with discovering some of the real classics of 80's genre film, encountering the very obvious classics and affirming their place in my own adoring film cannon, making specific space for things like The Fly and An American Werewolf in London.  In other situations I have come to discover a film out of sheer curiosity and he result is nothing short of a revelation, the most notable example of this was the wonderfully zany Earth Girls Are Easy, and were it not for my viewing of TerrorVision last night I would have labeled it the most underrated film of the decade.  TerrorVision, made aware to me by a fellow cinephile with excellent tastes, is everything somebody could hope for in the genre comedy, although this one in particular takes the act of satire to an inconceivable level, committing to making everything a scathing critique of that specific moment in American culture.  Full of zealous acting, one of the most ambitious set designs ever conceived and enough goo and gore to make its rating understandable, despite shying away from any consistent use of profanity.  One cannot deny the film having a dated look, but where this is usually the death of a genre picture, TerrorVision becomes a wonderful time capsule of a singular moment in society, where everything could be this wildly absurd without in turn becoming an indictment of the blind depression existing within the dysfunctional suburban family.  Indeed, more contemporary works, including American Beauty which grows more underwhelming with each year detached from its release, pale in comparison to something like TerrorVision, despite having a higher budget and a more purposeful critique.  TerrorVision goes big and does so with a degree of earnestness and surprising finesse as to suggest the work of a seasoned filmmaker, yet it was released by little known filmmaker Ted Nicolaou who would go on to have a rather underwhelming career, seemingly predicated upon the critical and box office failure of this film.  I am hoping that I can help with my limited breadth of readers to revitalize this lost classic, if not for the genuine genius at play in the film itself, then for the the theme song which is a god damn revelation.


The narrative of TerrorVision centers on the "normal" American family of the Putterman's who are lead by their pseudo-tech savvy and hyper-expressive father Stanley (Garrit Graham), as well as the surprisingly authoritative health fanatic mother Raquel (Mary Woronov).  Their children the post-punk valley girl Suzy (Diane Franklin) and the militaristically inclined Sherman (Chad Allen) are headaches in their own right, apparently existing only to interfere with their parents desire to be swingers, hoping to bring people back to engage in various forms of debauchery in their aptly named Pleasuredome/house/room, complete with a jacuzzi and satellite television.  Alongside this is Grampa (Burt Remsen) a conspiracy theorist who sees the world coming to an end rather soon, blaming much of this on the attachment to television on the part of the youth.  The entire family, however, is decidedly engaged with what comes out of their satellite, a Do-It-Yourself 100 model, which after a few technical flaws proves quite a nice piece of machinery, even picking up a midnight horror show with the comically busty Medusa (Jennifer Richards). Yet when Stanley and Raquel leave to find some swingers things take a weird turn, as the satellite begins picking up an unusual feed of a tentacled monster that simply stares at the screen, as well as another feed of an alien warning about the dangers of satellites and creatures attacking.  Confused as to the "boring" nature of the film, the family members ignore its existence, only to have the monster move out of the screen and into the Putterman's home/pleasure palace, attacking Grampa first and then consuming the other members of the family.  It would appear for a considerable amount of time that Sherman, Suzy and Suzy's boyfriend O.D. (Jon Gries) might be capable of overtaking the creature, tricking it into believing it is a pet and not a hungry space monster.  However, when they accidentally startle it back into anger via a cop arriving to chastise Sherman, the creature goes into full consume mode.  The alien sending the warning arrives via the television, providing a last hope at saving the day, yet when Medusa arrives in hopes of partying at the Putterman house, her instant reaction to the martian results in his death and a certain failure to slay the Hungry Monster, suggesting in the closing moments that his consumption will expand well beyond the space of the Putterman house.


In the equally delightful making of documentary that comes along with TerrorVision, one gets the sense that Nicolaou had the desire to make a film that was wholly in the vein of absurdism.  To a degree this is exactly the product that viewers receive, however, I would posit that under the pretense of complete absurdity lies a rather well-executed and pointed critique of mass media culture that, at times, becomes rather prescient, if not outwardly prophetic.  The film seems to revel in the possibilities of television to serve as a form of mass communication that extends well beyond the space of a home, city or even global space tapping into the farthest depths of the universe.  Whereas, the gore cinema revelation that is Videodrome revels in the possibilities of pirate television, TerrorVision suggests a reality of intergalactic discovery through the same technology.  Considering recent advances in technology and a reality where a robot can navigate Mars while sending back footage with relative quickness, the science fiction idealism of this film become a truth.  This is not where it becomes interesting to look at TerrorVision, however, because Nicolaou does not stop there.  He suggests that the very way in which capitalism and individualism have infested the American psyche results in such high degrees of self-involvement that any hope of appreciation for the scope of communication available is ignored in favor of tunnel vision for personal interests.  Indeed, this is where I find TerrorVision to be tapping into something brilliant, perhaps by accident.  In a more contemporary setting communication has become a tool used with a degree of instantaneous fervor, helping to spark revolutions, or instantly identify terrorist attacks, it is a inconceivably profound tool that when used properly can make for exceptional communication and information dispersement.  Small bits of dialogue within TerrorVision, however, remind viewers that these extensions in communication are merely used to further close off one's idea of the world, whether it be Suzy's love of MTV or Raquel's desire to only watch fitness videos, the collective issue of a destructive alien invasion is overlooked in favor of individualized personal desires. Nobody wants to watch the same thing, but they collectively want to ignore what is important.  While TerrorVision is, undoubtedly, about television and its affects of the familial structure, it manages to remain as pertinent as ever in considering how a society uses technology in a consuming manner, rarely considering how the world outside of the visual space can and is affected by what is portrayed. TerrorVision is definitely meta in its composition, it is a matter of how many layers it goes that proves worthy of consideration.

Key Scene:  There are so many.  The jacuzzi attack sequence and the feeding of The Hungry Monster are two highlights, also it is worth reminding readers about the theme song.

Scream! Factory a subsidiary of Shout! Factory has managed to save this film from literal obscurity, meaning that for thirteen years it went without a formatted release, and their bluray makes the stylized and intricate details of this film pop in new ways, most noticeably in the bizarre art adorning the walls of the "pleasure dome."  Also if you missed it this film features a young Uncle Rico of Napoleon Dynamite fame.

27.10.13

Your Guy's Got A Camera. Mine's Got A Flamethrower: C.H.U.D. (1984)

A lot of the cinema I encounter defies any sense of my logic as to how it exists in a final form, one that suggest that it was actively pursued and produced with the intent of expecting great success.  For example, while I was washing clothing at the laundromat this morning I noticed that the Hallmark Channel (one of the television staples of this particular establishment) was playing The First Daughter, a particularly underwhelming and indeed quite terrible piece of cinema whose release should never have seen the light of day.  Glancing at the film while far more intrigued by my book on the history of Technicolor, I noticed that everything about the film was half-assed and clearly rushed, exploiting outdated racial stereotypes and the most derivative of romance genre tropes.  The First Daughter should not cinematically exist, but the reality is that it does.  In another world completely is a film like C.H.U.D. whose cult status is undenied and certainly grows over the years, even being the subject of a delightfully irreverent Criterion April Fool's Joke, complete with an "analysis" of the film's many meanings that puts some of my overanalyzing of films to shame.  Watching C.H.U.D., one becomes aware almost instantly that the film is completely and undeniably bad, both in the ways evident of most 80's genre films, but also in terms of very basic filmmaking skills and visual narrative cohesion.  When watching C.H.U.D. I felt very much aware of this factor and kept wanting to dismiss it as one of the failures in regards to the varied viewings I have encountered so far during this, my second, horror film marathon.  Looking for a way to write the film off, I realized that as the creatures began to emerge and as Daniel Stern's acting slowly became more fractured and what could only be described as clear inspiration for Matthew Lillard that I was enjoying the very implausibility of C.H.U.D.  Indeed, even if I were at the point of writing the film off, the emergence of a young John Goodman into one scene pretty much assured its lasting viewing power.  While I gave C.H.U.D. a rather unimpressive three stars on Letterboxd, I still adore its endearing crappy qualities.  It is not a "so bad its good" type of film, but one so terrible in its execution as to allow a degree of schadenfreude to occur in watching it unravel completely.


The film begins with a woman walking her dog down an alley, only to be grabbed and drug into the sewers by the hand of some green creature, thus setting up a film about a monster attack by creatures known as Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, or C.H.U.D. The creatures, however, are not the main focus of the film, but instead looks at a group directly affected by the emergence of these green fleshy humanoids.  Firstly there is the tense relationship between photographer George Cooper (John Heard) and his model girlfriend Lauren (Kim Geist) one that seems to be a challenge of creative establishment and sexual authority.  Occurring in line with this narrative are the experiences of a police captain named Bosch (Christopher Curry) who is attempting to uncover a string of murders where the bodies of the victims are appearing in the sewers of the town.  Knowing that his best source of information comes from A.J. Sheperd (Daniel Stern) whose work providing food and shelter for the homeless has resulted in his being labeled as The Reverend.  When Bosch explains the situation he is adamant that it is not the homeless population engaging in the attacks, but instead; a group of deformed humanoids who are the result of chemical dumping by the NRC, a group whose work directly ties to nuclear engineering.  The evidence emerges at it is clear that the creatures are indeed former humans whose exposure to toxic waste has led to them becoming neon-eyed monsters bent on violent revenge.  Despite apparent restrictions, the NRC continued to dump the waste, although the leaders continue to deny it as a fact, even when footage and eye witness accounts blatantly suggest otherwise.  Bosch, whose wife died at the hands of the toxic creatures, seeks to bring justice to the NRC, as well as his late wife, whose body is discovered in the mix of the corpses underground.  A.J. begins confronting members of his homeless community who have come into contact with the C.H.U.D.'s while Lauren has her own above ground contact with one of the fiendish creatures, all leading up to Bosch finally confronting the owner of the NRC, in a battle to expose the truth whose results, with the aid of A.J. and George have some rather fiery results.


C.H.U.D. is a film that clearly caves a bit under its own metaphor, hoping that by going for an idea in a big way that the important elements will exist underneath with little or no need for detailed elaboration. This, unfortunately, is not entirely the case and the film becomes almost about a lot of things and never fully about anything, and I certainly do not mean that in the way it has been endearingly appropriated to talk about Seinfeld.  Furthermore, in a perfect world I could write about this film with the same detached absurdity that Criterion did with their faux-release of this film, but they delivered it with such an earnestness that I would be foolish to step on its perfection.  So what could one make of the various almost realized social narratives.  Well there is a rather clear, albeit on-the-nose, connection made between the spaces that become victim to nuclear dumping, usually associated with impoverished spaces that are dangerously close to urban dwellings.  In C.H.U.D. dangerously close means underground, suggesting that cities exist on the exploitation of those below, or those with the least amount of class mobility, even becoming monsters in the eyes of the exceptionally wealthy and association that is, in turn, internalized by those without.  The creatures who occupy the space of monster in the film are clearly a creature within the filmic narrative, but they also carry along with them a metaphorical representation of the desire to attack the oppressive hegemonic structure, as well as the hegemony's own assumption that the lower class is so barbaric and uncivilized as to literally be a bug-eyed monster whose only desire is to blindly destroy the structures and well-established ways of society, never mind that these structures are based solely on economic privilege and social standing.  It is no less noticeable that the figures in the film who most sympathize with the figures of the C.H.U.D. are contingent on their relational attachment to privilege, whether it be Bosch and his particular frustration creatures primarily as a result of his wife's death, but also indicative of his relation to enforcing authority for the hegemony.  In contrast is A.J. whose empathy for the creatures is considerably higher, even when faced with a threat on his life, because he seems to accept and understand that their grotesque nature is very much the result of ill-willed politicians and corporate leaders who have knowingly destroyed the bodies of humans in the name of their own capitalist endeavors and their assured success.

Key Scene:  The what would now be called a cameo on the part of John Goodman.

This is and has been on Netflx for awhile, should you be looking for a late night future, this is certainly a worthy consideration.

26.10.13

The Sign Outside Does Not Say Possibility of Vacancies: Bug (2006)

I will navigate toward a film if it involves a variety of things, some of these include specific details like the acting of Michael Shannon, or the incredibly engaging post-structuralist cinematic leanings of William Friedkin.  In more general terms I am always intrigued by a film that decidedly limits itself in terms of cinematic space or revitalizes what one would assume to be a genre focus that has been wrung dry of any critical possibilities.  Imagine by elation when I discovered that all of these elements were on play simultaneously in the 2006 film Bug, which for a variety of different reasons appears to have come and went with little to no flair, despite it being a rather stellar work in not only the genre of horror-thriller, but also a rather well-executed exercise in narrative filmmaking that works within a linear framework, but still manages to reject any degree of normalcy.  I would even boldly assert that while, Friedkin has always been one to push the cinematic narrative conventions within the real of traditional industry filmmaking, Bug is a work fully entrenched within the experimental and to a degree the avant garde.  Perhaps this films  biggest injustice was its being marketed as a horror film, something that is, undoubtedly, true about its existence and is certainly what led me to engaging with it in the first place, only barely making the cut for inclusion this month, but it is so much more that simply a genre piece with well-delivered elements.  Friedkin's Bug is a very thought out and pin-pointed working of the cinematic tool and its ability to capture the human psyche, particularly one whose fracturing extend not only outside a singular body, but might even occupy multiple versions of self-hood within even a single extension.  Friedkin's film makes sure not to flail about with some of the traditional narrative establishment elements, instead choosing focus his time on the hyper-specific elements of his two main characters, resulting in allowing Michael Shannon to shine, as is usually the case, however, much to my surprise, once the usually underwhelming Ashley Judd does find her footing within this film she manages to exude her own very respectable performance, culminating in a film whose veneer is so thin that realizing one is watching a revolution in cinema practices unfold is only one of its many fantastic elements.


Bug centers on the character of Agnes White (Ashley Judd) an apparently down and out on her luck woman who has holed herself up in the walls of a motel room, avoiding the calls from her recently paroled ex-husband by engaging in heavy consumption of alcohol and self-medication through a lethal cocktail of various pills and narcotics.  While visiting a friend at her job one night, she tangentially meets Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) a ex-military soldier who is considerably soft spoken, but, nonetheless, quite nice to Agnes who takes a quick liking to his simple earnestness.  After an string of incredibly open discussion about their pasts and personal opinions Agnes invites Peter to stay in her place, if only for a non-platonic comforting figure, a notion that seems to parallel Peter's own desires as he ends up spending the night sleeping on the floor at the foot of Agnes' bed.  When Agnes awakes she discovers, not Peter, but her ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) in her house she panics, but again the reemergence of Peter seems to save the situation, his calm attitude diffusing the situation with Jerry. It is not long after this encounter, however, that it becomes clear that Peter might not be as well of as it would suggest, admitting to paranoia surrounding being bitten by bugs, after the two awake during a bed bug attack after a night of intercourse.  What begins as an innocent consideration of a person who is really picky about what things touch his skin, unfolds into something far more complex as Agnes realizes Peter is deeply invested in notions of conspiracy theory and his own body being a vessel of experimentation for the American government, causing him to begin invasion proofing the house with a combination of insect killers and eventually lining the place with aluminum foil, even going so far as to attack a man claiming to be an advisor to him when he was allegedly in a mental hospital, this reaction part of what Peter believes to be a larger conspiracy.  After the murder of this man, Peter questions the loyalty of Agnes one last time, before the two complete an ultimate cleansing from the invasion of bugs, in that they burn the room down, self-immulating themselves in the process.  A snippet in the middle of the credits, however, suggest that a world of normalcy exists somewhere after the plot has ended, perhaps even the possibility that nothing truly occurred in the first place.


I cannot even begin to fathom what I might consider in terms of the critical theories and themes running throughout this movie.  There are the obvious approaches which consider the film for its varied and violent depictions of a particular sect of paranoid schizophrenics whose fears lead to layers of self-mutilation that in its most intense forms extends onto other posies. A sort of Münchausen by proxy in an extreme cinematic form.  Another reading could also look at the ways in which this segments the body horror film into a very small space, looking at two individuals personal identity struggles and the ways in which the outside world is infesting its demands and purportedly "ideal" way of existing upon them, while they react in an allergic and grotesque way.  I could also attempt to tackle the psycho-sexual issues at play in this film, particularly those considering the paternal and maternal in relation to a lost youth or childhood.  All of this is working within Friedkin's Bug and to great success I might add.  Where I think another narrative might emerge is that the film also carries a degree of addiction narrative about it, both in regards to Agnes and Peter, who seem to constantly be either consuming or injecting things into their bodies that are far from healthy, each shade deeper on this scale resulting in their falling apart as humans in very real and tangible ways.  For Peter his decaying is in a much more psychological way, although this fracturing from reality also leads him to remove teeth from his mouth again also a possible result of unseen drug use.  Agnes' own fractured identity as a result of addiction seems somewhat more apparent beginning with her blatant alcoholism and her deep depression induced at the reminder of losing a child, although its factuality is always up for debate, perhaps being a direct result of her alcoholism in the first place.  The narrative, as such, becomes an issue of two addicts coming together and feeding off one anothers' drive to destroy, ultimately, doing so not only to bodies that are completely healthy and trying to help, but to their very space of living, as if to break from the confines of existence itself.

Key Scene:  Michael Shannon and teeth.  Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd talking about variants of insects.  Michael Shannon doing anything.

This is a cheap enough DVD to buy, I assure you it is worth the minimal investment.

25.10.13

You Cannot Escape Destiny By Running Away: Nosferatu (1922)

I had originally slated an adaptation of F.W. Murnau's magnificent silent horror film in that I had intended to look at Werner Herzog's work, but when a local up and coming independent film screening group in my town decided to do a Halloween film double feature I knew where my loyalties lay.  Beginning with Carnival of Souls, one of my top five favorite horror films, and following the screening up with Nosferatu, accompanied by a live scoring made me look back and realize that while I had certainly seen the film before, it had never graced the pages of my blog, although Murnau had certainly received love.  I would have lovingly written an entirely new blog post about Carnival of Souls, but, unfortunately, school kept me from attending the full screening and I am trying to commit to a rule of never repeating posts here, after all, there is a ton of cinema I still need to encounter and hopefully, blog about, regardless of whether or not it receives a ton of hits.  All this introspection and reflection on my previous posts aside, seeing this decidedly cleaned up and stunning looking copy of Nosferatu was a wonderful experience and a great reminder of the ways in which Murnau's film, released in 1922 was, and in many ways still is, ahead of its time.  Between some clever use of film cutting and stop motion and negative prints, Nosferatu takes on a considerable degree of otherworldliness which is at times quite haunting.  Of course, it fails to possess the same sense of cinematic dread and fear induced by The Phantom of the Oprea, but where it is lesser in this aspect, Nosferatu manages to make up in one of the more narratively engaging of the era's films, even composing itself in such away to contain moments that are quite humorous and clever.  Max Schreck's disturbing turn as Nosferatu, combined with Murnau's mastery of the cinematic technique make for one of the most significant of horror figures, despite Nosferatu remaining one of the most criminally under seen films of the German expression movement.


Nosferatu, very much falls in the same narrative vein as Dracula, for which the opening credits note its story originating.  In this version, however, Hutter (Gustav von Wagenheim) an up and coming expert in the field of estates is expected by his employer Knock (Alexander Granach) to travel to Transylvania to meet with one Count Orlok (Max Schreck).  Doing so despite the concerns of his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), Hutter travels to Transylvania and quickly discover that the space of Count Orlok's mansion does not necessarily follow the rules of logic, whether it be the bizarrely fast speed by which Orlok is able to transport himself about the roads on his land, or the intensely vivid dreams which haunt his nights.  Writing back to Helen, Hutter even notes the odd symmetrical nature of two mosquito bites on his neck.  Overarching these events, is the rhetoric of the emergence of a plague in the area leading to the locking of Hutter's hometown down from incoming ship traffic.  This realization leads to Hutter realizing that he must spend considerably more time at Orlok's castle, a fact that becomes highly troubling when Hutter catches Orlok in the evening transformed into the scary creature known as Nosferatu, a vampire intent on devouring individuals' livelihood through a sucking of their blood. When Nosferatu becomes aware of Ellen, he notes her particularly tantalizing qualities and takes it about himself to mount a ship ride to Hutter's town to find Ellen.  Using a series of crates, masked as vessels of dirt used in scientific studies, the elusive Nosferatu is able to live off of the crew members destroying them one by one sustaining himself through the travels, all the while the distraught Hutter attempting to stay a few steps ahead of the vampire whose feverish pace leaves little time for side stepping or hestiation.  When Nosferatu arrives in the town his presence comes simultaneously, if not purposefully, with a new layer of the plague, almost taking the lives of Ellen and others, yet when a maddened Knock reveals the secrets of Nosferatu's life power, Hutter and others are able to exploit his desires as a means to tempt him into the sunlight and destroy himself in the process.


I can only imagine the various literature that has been written on Nosferatu both from a historical production and film theorist viewpoint, which is appropriate considering that the film is not solely a technical marvel, but also one that exudes points of well-reasoned critique, whether it be on the nature of power and desire or more intricate philosophical endeavors if not the semiotics and signifiers associated with a notion of good and evil and how such descriptions can change with new information or situation relationships.  These are all things to be applied to the film, as well as constant reconsiderations of the ways in which the production of the film is key to its understanding.  What is perhaps the most interesting to me, however, is the possibility to read this film as a queer text, even if doing so requires one to do an anachronistic, against the grain, consideration of the film.  There is a rather clear element of this occurring in the initial longing desire for Hutter on the part of Nosferatu while he is still passing as Count Orlok, wherein his very act of passing can double as his attempting to negate any associations with his queerness through appropriating a socially normative identity in the count, leading to the somewhat socially oblivious Hutter seeing him as a non-threatening figure despite the signs evident in haunting dreams and the generally emaciated look of Nosferatu.  Indeed, his desire is something that is to be repressed and when Nosferatu does act it out upon Hutter through the neck biting, Hutter's perceptions of him change considerably, or to be more specific his associations with queerness emerge and he is now a literal monster to be feared for such attributes.  This leads to Nosferatu becoming a vengeful figure, one who feels it necessary to violently enact his frustrations upon the figures around him, either by purposeful attacks, particularly regarding the men on the boat, or his constant carrying of a large coffin, despite its undoubtedly heavy nature. This means that Nosferatu's ill-fated attempt to consume Ellen takes on another layer of the problematic, since it is the heterosexual figures who use Ellen as a ruse for the queer Nosferatu, one that leads to his ultimate death through repressed homosexual shame.  A too in-depth reading of the film, perhaps, but not one that is entirely impossible .

Key Scene:  The carriage ride sets up a tonal shift in the film that might be one of the most marked in all of early cinema history.

Often times patience can be a huge pay off, it is certainly the case with the bluray impending release for this film.  As it is from Kino it should prove excellent.

24.10.13

Some Boys Run Away, But I Wouldn't Advise It: The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Including a Guillermo del Toro film in a month of horror films is almost a giving, considering that despite his movement through a few different genres, he manages to perfectly entrench himself within the horror film tropes, often using them in wildly inventive and engaging ways both in terms of pulling from a classical understanding of Gothic style horror, while also infusing it with his own understanding of the supernatural as it emerges within Mexican culture.  Indeed, at this point one can even begin considering the particularly auteur elements of del Toro since it is possible to pick up visual and narrative themes between something like Cronos and his much larger, yet equally engaging Pacific Rim.  Furthermore, I had all but convinced myself that del Toro's masterpiece was Pan's Labyrinth one of my earliest emerging cinephile experiences, and quite possibly the work that pushed me into an understanding that film could be something much larger than the traditional three act structure and move a viewer towards a more profound understanding of the themes at work.  I was, as such, surprised when The Devil's Backbone, his 2001 offering began to unfold in front of my eyes, because what I was viewing was not only excellent, creepy and indicative of all things praised aside del Toro's name, but it was miles ahead of the stunning and near perfect Pan's Labyrinth.  In this film, which doubles as a consideration of the Spanish American War through a paranormal metaphor and orphanage setting, becomes a clearly sentimental, albeit in a somewhat unsettling way, film that possesses a view of the world that could only exist through the eyes of somebody who understands the innocence and, at times, ignorance of youth.  Yet, del Toro realizes that his films are not at all intended for a young audience, although I am sure he revels in the thought of them encountering their oneiric, surreal feel, thus fusing his films with a high degree of psycho-sexual tension, doubled in wild ways through the steam punk world he has come to embrace.  This particular composition never allows for viewers to feel a sense of safety, despite it being a visually sumptuous film, often inserting the presence of spectral figures with no warning or non-diagetic cue, to del Toro, the other side of perception is constantly present and to awake to its intrigue and possible threats would be enough to drive a movie comfortably, the fact that there is also a well-developed and engaging storyline is yet another factor speaking to the proficiency of del Toro as a filmmaker.


The Devil's Backbone focuses on the existence of a minimally ran orphanage for boys during the Spanish Civil War, one that exists purely out of the goodwill of its founders Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes).  Growing considerably in age, both Casares and Carmen rely on the help of their groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), as well as his romantic love interest a teacher at the orphanage named Conchita (Irene Visedo).  The boys at the orphanage seem quite content to go about their lives in a rather desultory manner, despite their limited space, always minding the presence of a ghost they purport to exist.  Indeed, when a new child arrives named Carlos (Fernando Tieve) they make sure to bully and haze him into encountering the presence of the ghost named Santi, although they are unaware that the hyper-prescient Carlos noticed the ghost the moment he arrive at the orphanage, marked by its unique possession of a defused bomb sitting in the center of its courtyard.  Despite an initial confrontation with the orphanage bully Jaime (Inigo Garces) Carlos is able to befriend him through proving his trustworthy nature, while also showing a genuine interest in the whereabouts of Santi and precisely what led to his disappearance, or as Carlos and Jaime assume demise.  Meanwhile, it is revealed that Jacinto and Carmen have been in cohorts, the decidedly younger groundskeeper engaging in sexual acts with the disabled Carmen in exchange for the promise of sharing in the large amount of gold stashed away in the orphanage's safe.  This all happens as the Spanish Civil War slowly begins to encroach upon the space of the orphanage, causing paranoia amongst the children, as well as Carmen and Jacinto who see their wealth becoming threatened by the invasion of greedy soldiers.  Furthermore, during a confessional moment on the aprt of Jaime, Carlos discovers that Jacinto is actually the one responsible for the death of Santi, attacking him when he is caught rifling through the safe by Santi who had been spending the evening catching slugs with Jaime.  This leads to an act of vengeance that is jointly executed by the young boys of the orphanage and Santi's spectral presence, but not before the destruction of the orphanage by a vengeful Jacinto.  Yet, considering that Santi proves to be far from the only ghost in the space of the orphanage, the group is able to overpower Jacinto and leave the orphanage to engage in a quest all their own, clearly grown from the experience.


A lot of things could be stated about del Toro movies, doubly so when he clearly situates them within such an event as the Spanish Civil War.  As such, perhaps the most obvious way to consider this film is to look at the way trauma affects a persons bodied identity, especially intriguing within the context of the film being about paranormal presences.  Carlos and the fellow boys at the orphanage reflect a group of children suffering from abandonment, some by their parents choice, while others were drawn to the space when their parents died in the violence of the war.  Not having a means with which to speak to their anxiety and pains of loss, they work actively to reject any sense of oppressive forces or authoritative figures occurring, whether it be through embodying silence in face of authority figures, or acting out violently against one another, whom they deem equal enough to fight, a survival of the fittest mentality kicking in, not because they are animalistic, but because they only understand individualistic survival they faced after loss and abandonment.  Gender embodies itself far more fascinatingly through a figure like Carmen, who herself has become a victim of amputation, although the narrative is far less specific in how this occurred.  What is made clear through her character is the way in which her lack has caused her to feel considerably less worthy as a woman, doubled by her age in relation to Conchita, with whom Jacinto is romantically involved.  Realizing that her power is fading, Carmen asserts power through the incorporation of money and its power, accepting her advancement and bodily privilege must be bought, nevermind that she hides the gold in her already heavy prosthetic leg, the castration element to this metaphor becoming wildly clear.  Ultimately though, the most interesting character is the spectral figure of Santi, whose association with the deformity known as "devil's backbone" causes his already paranormal spatial existence to become a thing of impossibility.  By causing him to be a figure floating through the world, doubled by his blood constantly flowing and rising upward with an airy quality, del Toro infuses Santi, the same sort of wandering nature of the other boys in the orphanage, although where they seek survival and hesitation to bond with others, Santi only wants two things, to rekindle with his friends despite being bodily detached form doings so, while also exacting revenge on the threatening patriarchal figure of Jacinto.  The fact that del Toro adds on scenes of killing and execution happening in the war only make the narrative idea of body, identity and to a degree sacrifice that much more fascinating.

Key Scene:  Carlos' first lengthy encounter with Santi is something fresh and eerie in terms of paranormal horror cinema and del Toro executes it with perfection.

But the Criterion bluray for this film. It is absolutely mesmerizing.

23.10.13

Sin Can Be Caught As Easily As The Plague: The Devils (1971)

I had real trouble picking out a quote for this particular film, because as is the case with this and Altered States, ashamedly the only other film by Ken Russell I have viewed, every bit of dialogue is delivered with a sense of the literary grandiose, made all the more so by it narratively existing in 17th century france, a place rife with religious issues that extend outward to include intense problems in regards to repression of sexuality and a variety of diseases spreading through the country, Ken Russell who taps into such excesses and oppressions with surgeon-like precision excels with the material here.  I am aware that one could certainly read The Devils as being antithetical to all things horror, the theme of the blog this month, and to a certain degree I would tend to agree, however, I am also of the split opinion that The Devils is wholly a work of horror filmmaking, existing in the genre more so than many of the films I have viewed this month that have purported themselves to be fully genre, particularly the atrociously misguided and ill-conceived Hostel.  Russell, who makes it a method of his to question the limitations of human nature in both physical terms and sensorial, managing to extend this movement through spatial and temporal awareness to include the very means by which cinema records such non-linear trips.  A work like The Devils is horrific, in the same way the work of Kubrick, Hitchcock or Jodorowsky are intensely so, never backing down from imagery that is confrontational and though notably surreal, never inconsequential.  I will admit that I was not fully involved with this film, at least in the same sense as I was with Altered States, but that is primarily due to the somewhat lackluster prints of the film currently made available, whose graininess and general lack of cleanliness for a release print can be somewhat off-putting, especially considering that this film is decidedly cinematic, relying on detailed compositions wherein depth of field factor heavily into the interpretations of characters acts and emotions in real and quantifiable ways.  The Devils is a cinematic experiences in the same vein as Salo, becoming a point of reference for later exploitation films, most notably School of the Holy Beast, but in the hands of Russell it manages to extend to its own discordant cinematic world.


The Devils focuses on a religious town in 17th century France overseen by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) a leader hoping to convince a flamboyant Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to change the fortifications of France as a means to destroy a Protestant power move while also assuring his own advance in power.  Louis agrees to these demands but makes special provisions for the town of Loudon, for which he promised protection to its late governor.  The town is now overseen by the well-respected, albeit sexually voracious priest Urbain Grandieur (Oliver Reed) who is the object of affection for woman both in the community and behind the convent walls longing to consummate a relationship with the priest.  Grandieur, undoubtedly aware of his sway, moves through Loudon using his power as a priest to seek confession with various women, eventually settling on marrying a woman named Madeleine (Gemma Jones), much to the frustration of Grandieur's former lover Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) who mounts a religious uprising against Madeleine, wholly a result of her feelings as a scorned lover.  Meanwhile, indifferent to the demands on the part of Louis XIII to spare the city of Loudon, one of Richelieu's men arrives in the city of Loudon intent of overtaking its population.  In the wildness of all this, Grandieur's debauchery is brought to the attention of a higher ranking priest, who mounts an inquisition on the town of Loudon, specifically on the convent in which Sister Jeanne and others reside.  The head inquisitor Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) arrives at the convent only to discover it in a state of absolute lunacy, complete with naked nuns, who are having sexual experiences atop a giant crucifix, while suggestively stroking sacramental candles.  In a false attempt at exorcism, Barre and the others reveal the false state of the possession, but also show the entire act of an exorcism to be equally performative leading to a divide within the groups resulting in the ability of the town to be overcome by Richelieu's men that much easier.  When Grandieur returns to the town, he is called up for heresy and put on trial, alleged to be in league with Satan and despite his refusal to confess to his sins, he is burned at the stake, leaving a lovelorn Madeleine to leave the space of the city, entering onto a literal long and winding road with only the company of skeletons hanging on pikes outside the city.


Russell, as a filmmaker, perhaps most closely associates with the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, in so much as their films, while linear, are only so in very tangential cohesions. Take, for example, the relationship between the experiences of of Richelieu and Louis XIII in relation to Grandieur and the town of Loudon, to a degree they could exist outside of each other, both in a temporal and spatial sense, only really relating because the film denotes itself as a historically-based period piece.  Aside from this distinction, Russell takes as many liberties as he sees fit, moving between showing the most abject of experiences available from the time, whether it be the very real plagues facing the space of France in the 17th century, or the disturbingly oppressive ways in which gender was relegated within patriarchal constructs of the time.  Russell is not attempting to make a wholly disturbing and unwatchable critique of religious wars, but instead; clearly intends to play up the absurdity and frivolity of the entire occurrence, at times overlaying his film with zany music to give even a exorcism a layer of Felliniesque absurdity.  Perhaps the best element of Russell's approach to the period piece, is to accept that a blanket recreation would not drive home the theme of unchecked authority and gendered privilege, thus making a degree of his set and visuals indicative of something within a science-fiction framework, giving the high walls and evasive angles of buildings a certain feeling that Loudon is a microcosm of a large dystopia, decidedly true of this point in history.  At times the film feels as though it could be lifted right out of an Orwell novel, while in other instances one could imagine its visuals fitting nicely inside of Michel Foucault's discussions of panopticism.  Russell is a filmmaker aware of the craft of filmmaking as an inherently fallible craft, wherein other period pieces push and strive for authenticity, without accepting that their very existence rejects a truth of the past, Russell instead uses the space to directly comment upon how past events can draw parallels to current problems, whether it be the on-the-nose references to religious power and the Ku Klux Klan or a more clever suggestion that exoticization and desire thrust upon those in a space of religious piety are far from contemporary issues, everything is working in a constant state of dialogue. Russell, wants his film to be a historical reconsideration, after all most period pieces emerge at a time when their narratives are decidedly relational to contemporary issues, The Devils was such a case, although in a nearly prophetic manner it still proves equally pertinent almost fifty years later.

Key Scene:  The exorcism obviously, whether it be for its pulling from Dreyer or from Fellini, it still manages to be a decidedly unique vision from the world of Russell.

I would rent this film, not because it is bad, but because the print is not ideal.  Hopefully, it will be salvaged by BFI or Criterion into a cleaner print than what is currently made available.

22.10.13

He Doesn't Like You Watching Us: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

For someone who might have either actually read this blog since its inception, or happens to have trolled through all the posts I have made, will know that I am a huge supporter of the original Paranormal Activity film, citing it both as one of the major works in the horror genre, while also defending it as one of the best films of the year of its release.  Now, since then, I have managed to keep up with the franchise, not counting its foreign spin-offs, although I plan to hunt them down eventually and while I did not blog about them due to time restraints, or more likely a lack of an internet source during their respective viewings, I have decided to return to this film, for what I thought would be the final installment in the series, but as I have come to realize there is purportedly a fifth film in the works, one that seems to be focused n a family of color, which is both revolutionary in terms of sub-genre horror filmmaking, but also ripe with the possibilities of poorly executed narrative.  Either way, Paranormal 4 is a moderately successful addition to the franchise, paling in comparison to the original and falling short of the VHS based restrictions of the third film, but certainly trumping the second film which is outright the least realized of the series.  Here, in what begins to be an obvious set up for the next film, viewers are rushed through a narrative that is at times genuinely scary, but still wraps together far too quickly and manages to build upon nothing established in the first films, aside from the continual connections of one character.  The tricks are minimal and aside from a rather visually stunning use of the Xbox Kinect sensors playing heavily into the plot this was a surprisingly simple and predictable entry into the series.  This is particularly a shame since the extra heavy reliance on digital here in this film could have provided for a new level of paranormal invasion, perhaps even a complete destruction on the panoptic, surveillance like look at the movement of evil through a fractured household.  Paranormal Activity is certainly not a bad film, I was thoroughly scared throughout, but in the same sense I was always aware of how uninspired this film proved to be.


Paranormal Activity 4 begins by showing the through line of all the films Katie (Katie Featherson) playing with her infant nephew, whose name in the earlier film is Hunter, also showing her stealing the child before a card explains that the two remain missing to the point where this narrative jumps off.  The film now beginning on October 31st of 2011 looks at the life of a family, most specifically the daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) who is attempting to deal with the fracturing relationship of her parents Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexondra Lee) while also proving a decent big sister to her younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).  Furthermore, Alex is also interested in a neighborhood boy named Ben (Matt Shively) despite his rather obvious one-track mind and the condemnation of his presence by her parents.  When new neighbors move in however, things get a bit unusual when the young boy Robbie (Brady Allen) begins showing up inexplicably at their house at all times of night, first scaring Alex when he appears in the corner of their tree house late at night.  What follows is far more disturbing, when after an accident Robbie stays with the family for an extended period of time.  It is during this time that unusual events occur, things such as weird spectral presences emerging, or Wyatt and Robbie staring blankly for hours before talking to what appears to be nothing.  It is not until chandeliers begin nearly killing Alex, or knives that had gone missing begin falling from the ceiling that the remainder of the family takes notice.  However, at this point, Wyatt has become fully involved with the entity that has invaded their house, a small child that is indeed captured on the laser projection.  When attempting to uncover truth about the events, at the neighbors home, Alex runs into Katie who begins inquiring about Wyatt and his well-being.  This moment leads to Wyatt explaining that he is actually named Hunter, an issue that when brought up by Alex to her parents leads to them chastising her inquiries as being in bad taste, and when she has a final traumatic encounter with the paranormal while her parents are at dinner, things become irreversible as her mother and Ben are attack while she is at dinner with her father, upon returning and discovering the problem, she quickly runs to the neighbors home, only to find things far more disturbing than she could have imagined.


If, as I suggested, the first film is about the fall out of a relationship between two people played out as a metaphor of paranormal haunting, then this the fourth film is the first to truly look at how such a extended issue might affect a child.  Alex is a person suffering from finding an identity and certainty in the face of her parents failing marriage, always hyper aware of how things might affect the sensitive Wyatt, but also using this protection to mask her own insecurities, which are played out rather brilliantly in her relationship to Ben, one that is awkwardly sexualized, but never one of forced consummation.  It is clear that she is initially hesitant to embrace Ben, because he does not support her fears regarding the paranormal invasion of her house, or by extension understand her suffering at the sight of her parents fighting.  With this in mind, it is interesting to see how things shift when Ben is made aware of the reality of the paranormal, or by extension comes to understand the tense relationship between Doug and Holly and is particular witness to the incredibly unhealthy relationship between Wyatt and Robbie.  In fact, the invasion of Robbie into the space of the film, also takes on a shade of the metaphoric as many relationships attempt to fix their domestic issues by adding a child to the equation, here, as is usually the result, the act fails miserably.  The metaphor goes to the somewhat implausible by making it result in incredibly violent events, but this does serve as a nice parallel to the traumas faced by children born into such divisive households, ones where argument and anger prevail out over mild temperament and well-reasoned dialogue.  One could read Alex as the figure capable of doing precisely this, however, her inability to speak against the emotive is double through her being incapable of proving the presence of the paranormal to her skeptical and detached parents, each having their own mocking indifference to her concerns, perhaps because they refuse to validate the existence of the paranormal, or, more likely, because they are far too preoccupied with their own marital sufferings to create a space of dialogue for Alex and Wyatt.  As such, Alex finds herself forced to be a maternal figure to her younger brother a burden that weighs heavily upon her and is evidence very intensely in the last few seconds of the film.

Key Scene:  The real surprise her is how well Brady Allen, the child actor playing Robbie, delivers his performance.  Usually creepy kids rely on looks alone, but when Robbie stares into the camera in this film, it is all the more intense by Allen's great delivery.

This is on Netflix in both an R and unrated version, I am uncertain as to the difference in the two, perhaps a few less boob-based pieces of dialogue.  Either way, watch this and the other films in the franchise, which I believe are all currently available for streaming.

21.10.13

Don't Touch It, It's Just Some Accounting: Office Killer (1997)

It is quite near impossible to find works directed by women in media, let alone a film that is decided entrenched within genre.  Having just read the highly informative and critical essays "Woman With a Camera" and "Woman With a Camera: Redux" I decided to slightly shift my plans for the month and remove an anthology horror film in favor of Office Killer, a horror/slasher directed by a woman.  What makes Office Killer particularly worth consideration is that it is not only a work within the horror genre that is indeed female directed, but the director is none other than Cindy Sherman the prolific and quite fascinating feminist photographer whose series Film Stills, already play upon the conventions of filmmaking at what it means to be a woman both in front of and behind the camera.  Indeed, the set up of the film is very much something that exists in narrative comparison to her earlier photography, using the camera to record events in a very personal way, while also being hyper-aware of the manner in which the camera also serves as a tool of voyeuristic looking, even when in the hands of a female director.  One could look at the IMDB rating for this film and think that it is a film far short of enjoyable or rather bad, but I would mount much of the rejection of this film to its losing out financially by being directed by a woman, something that is inexplicably still off-putting to cinema goers who seem intent on still wholly supporting the male-oriented framework of directorship.  While Kathryn Bigelow is far from the ideal signifier of feminist filmmaking, actually quite far from it, she still serves as an example of the issue, in that despite winning an Oscar and being afforded her own degree of auteur status, she is still less sought out by moviegoers, even considering how profound and well-executed Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of cinema.  There is also another issue at play with Office Killer in that it does not subtly subvert the horror genre, but outright rejects it allowing its protagonist to also be the point of threat in the film, suggesting a wild degree of radical feminism within the context of the film, never once branching into a point of pity and curiosity instead representing the individuals in questions break from sanity to be an understandable action, merely a rebellion against a barrage of socially oppressive forces.


Office Killer is rather straightforward in its title and quite indicative in regards to what occurs, however, the story does have a few layers allowing for it to flow comfortably and succinctly.  The film centers on an office that produces a monthly magazine, facing yet another downsizing, this time leading to employees not being fired, but considerably cut down on hours.  The workers, excluding the big wigs like accountant Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and head editor Kim Poole (Molly Ringwald) seem comforted even in the dire times, Norah engaging in small scale embezzlement with company money, while Kim engages in romantic acts with a higher up member of the company expecting it to assure her safety.  In contrast is Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane) a slightly above middle age woman who has spent sixteen years of her life at the company without an ounce of respect or advancement.  During a night of late work, expected to finish an editorial, despite being cut back on days allowed to work, Dorine and and coworker Gary (David Thorton) attempt to complete the task, despite some awkward sexual advances on Gary's part, yet when an issue arises with some of the computers and Gary gets fatally electrocuted, Dorine hesitates in calling in medical help, instead choosing to drag Gary's corpse back to her home, where she hides him in the basement from her cats and invalid mother.  The narrative then reveals that this is far from Dorine's first experience with a violent death, suggesting that she witnessed, an directly led to what resulted in, her father drive his car into a power line.  This act of passive murder was in revolt, viewers are led to believe, to her father's sexual advances on his daughter.  Regardless, this reawakening of death leads to Dorine systematically planning a means to take out her competition in the office, primarily Kim who constantly berates Dorine, as well as Norah when she eventually realizes that it is her thieving of the company that has led to her underemployment.  Also, mastering the use of email, Dorine is able to pass as various members of the office, tricking higher ups into believing that she is solely responsible for the success of the recent issue.  Accruing a considerable amount of corpses in her basement, Dorine creates an idyllic space in her basement, clearly intended to return to a simpler time in her youth, complete with her mother now dead eating cookies and friends watching TV late into the night.  Given the non-threatening nature of Dorine, the narrative closes with her looking for a new job and a narration warning that she might be emerging at an office near any one of the people viewing the film.


It is this confrontation with the viewer without directly subverting the gaze that makes Cindy Sherman's involvement with Office Killer particularly intriguing.  Indeed, the opening of the film notes that the gaze is a thing well-established, blocking the cameras ability to completely objectify bodies by placing props in the line of view, or by using such wild angles, which constantly, change as to never provide viewers with time to situate their gaze. However, this is only a minimal element to the film, instead, Sherman whose visual ability is undeniable also excels here at drawing out the narrative forms of oppression and Dorine's breaking away from this internalized identity as lesser.  This emerges first in her moving from a woman who constantly keeps her head down, literally focused on her work, ignoring the negative views directed at her by coworkers, yet when she is made aware of the lesser status she is viewed under when receiving the cutback letter she becomes cognizant of the bodies in her office responsible for her exploitation, whether it be the unwarranted sexual advances of Gary or the matriarchal bargaining with patriarchy to achieve a degree of exploitative power, occurring on the part of Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukowa).  It is a literal destruction of the hegemonic power structures, one could argue that Dorine realizes that her assumption that by playing into patriarchal gender roles and established norms she would eventually make it to be illogical.  At this point the film becomes violent in the sense that it undermines patriarchy in a very visceral manner, at times by accident, while at other very purposeful, but is also worth noting that not all of the rejection occurs within the space of violent engagements, indeed, Dorine is able to appropriate technology, a thing traditionally deemed masculine, and use it to undermine her oppressors.  She accrues the bodies, not incapable of objectifying her and making them part of her new post-patriarchal world, although there is something to be said about having the group watch white snow on the screen.  In this reading the only thing that could be deemed remotely problematic would be the murder of the Girl Scouts, which while troublesome play into ideas of infanticide, not out of spite but out of fear for the girls' future in a world of oppression, not justifiable, but certainly understandable coming from Dorine's framework of the world.

Key Scene:  There are a couple of segments where Sherman just lets Carol Kane perform for the camera in strokes of genius, two being her sharpening of pencils, as well as the hand tapping scene, which is only understood when seen.

This is a hidden gem on Netflix right now and it could use some love and a bit more word of mouth, for it is a rather brilliant piece of feminist filmmaking.

20.10.13

Don't Do That Otis, She's Your Sister: Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)

I am constantly in search of a film whose opening shot thoroughly and evocatively establishes itself as something to be taken seriously, and am usually willing to extend this concession to an opening sequence.  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one such film that uses an open shot that pans out disturbingly slowly affording viewers a realization of exactly what they are getting themselves into, followed by a series of back and forth scenes establishing the serial killer narrative which will unfold throughout the film.  In many instances this type of sequence would emerge somewhere in the middle of the front half of the movie to set the stakes for the remainder of the film, but that is not the case here, the stakes are known by the title and the viewer enters into the experience out of a sense of perverse curiosity.  Director John McNaughton's work in Henry is both clearly influenced by similarly abrasive auteurs like David Lynch, Michael Mann and David Cronenberg, while also creating examples of how to make aesthetically pleasing films about the most deranged and debasing of subjects and individuals.  The score for this film which could be easily lost in the violent milieu of on screen body horror and a non-linear, but, nonetheless, temporal diagetic track of the various murders, make for moments that should receive nothing more than abject disgust take on a level of serenity that challenges the viewer to first not find comfort in some sense of beauty, only to critically reprimand any sense of safety that might emerge by jumping back to the violence on screen.  I often find myself having to step back from critically engaging with a genre film, wondering if I am indeed reading too much into the narrative and am in some ways expecting more out of a director in the way of filmic theory.  With a work like Henry, however, I am certain that McNaughton is playing with cinematic conventions both in terms of the meta and the traditional genre as a means to push towards a new understanding on not only how a person reacts to cinematic violence, but, more importantly, how such preoccupations with simulated violence can allow for real societal degradation in the way of murder and rape to become ignored to the point of a troubling collective ignorance.


Henry begins with a series of shots of women, who have been brutally murdered while cutting back to images of the title character Henry (Michael Rooker) going about his rather monotonous daily routine, a clear suggestion arising that he is the one responsible for these murders, eventually verified when a woman he picks up hitchhiking is shown murdered in a living room.  Meanwhile the narrative introduces viewers to Otis (Tom Towles) a ex-convict whose work at a gas station serves as cover for his work dealing marijuana.  Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives at Otis' house in need of a place to stay after the final falling out with her ex-boyfriend, an occurrence that is of little surprise to Otis,who knows of Becky's troubled past involving erotic dancing and bad relationships.  It is then revealed that Henry is Otis' roommate and the two are close drinking buddies.  Becky, intrigued by Herny's silent demeanor and overt sense of good manners, becomes instantaneously enamored with Henry, despite the frustrations and misgivings of Otis who has a rather unhealthy attachment to his sister.  After an intense altercation relating to this realization, Otis and Henry attempt to rekindle their friendship by a night out for some beers.  This night out quickly turns into buying prostitutes, which then involves Henry killing not only his prostitute, but Otis' as well when she begins to panic.  Initially hesitant to let Henry's act go unreported, Otis has a change of heart, realizing first that he would probably be arrested as well, but also because he seems to take a perverse pleasure in the act himself.  This leads to the two going on joint killing sprees, which are eventually recorded on a video camera they bum off of one of their victims.  All the while, Becky continually makes advances towards the apparently asexual Henry, leading to considerable jealousy on the part of Otis, who is suggested to be bisexual, if not outright gay, during a drug selling sequence.  As such, when he awakes at home to find Becky attempting to seduce Henry, he goes into a rage, eventually being shot by Henry, who then suggest that he and Becky leave to start a new life.  During their first night in a motel, Henry does not attempt to sleep with Becky, but merely suggests they go to sleep.  However, the film concludes with Henry driving a car down the road alone before stopping on the side of the road to unload a heavy blue folding suitcase, its contents become somewhat obvious given Henry's violent nature and his penchant for destroying women who are open in their sexual behavior.


Looking, as I have already established in quite a few films here on the blog and even at least twice this month concerning horror films, is something that is assumed to be male and carries with it a degree of objectification.  Other elements such as castration, death drives and fetishism fall into this looking and too become issues within Henry considering that the opening scene is an eye at the center of a screen looking at/confronting viewers, the deceased nature of the body responsible for this stare adds on a layer of death to the entire act.  In fact, every moment of this film possesses a considerable feel for voyeurism, as the cinematic world of Henry suggests one fully involved in the notion of cinema verite, despite being a fictionalized version of real events.  I would argue that through this low-key, realistic depiction of the life in a lower class space, McNaughton establishes a difference between the priviliged viewer (this would certainly have been the case for moviegoers at Indie cinema scapes in 1986) and the othered lower class person.  While Henry and Otis' behavior is clearly to be chastised the way the narrative flows and how the two are established as working class, affords those looking at the film to detach themselves from the still present violence by asserting that it is not something that would occur within their more well-to-do spaces.  It is a vicarious look of sorts, but in the sense that the one looking is hyper-privileged as opposed to longingly desiring an item.  Here, murder and the look upon its occurring is all associated with the primal, wherein, some portion of the psyche of Henry, and later Otis are open to being barbaric and ruthless, because they have not learned the counter to this behavior due to educational lack.  Indeed, one could even consider the gaze to be one of a death drive on the part of a privileged individual who has achieved a higher level on the hierarchy of needs, thus privileging them to look for experiences in the violent for purely philosophical or ethnographic curiosity.  Indeed, as I write this down I realize how similar this film and Steven Soderbergh's stunning Bubble become.  Both look with disconcerting pity on troubled lower class spaces, but where Soderbergh finds attempts at protection and belief in a higher calling, McNaughton discovers a sense of morally degradation.  The larger question, however, is not the ethical problems of the individuals in the respective films, but instead; how one who is given the ability to watch condemns or empathizes with the acts of those on display.

Key Scene:  The metacinematic moment involving Beck and Henry kissing, wherein Henry continually wipes his mouth, is a perfect syncopation of direction, writing and acting and is one of many great payoffs in a disturbing, yet incredibly engaging film.

Netflix Watch Instantly is a great venue to look into this film, although I intend on filling my shelf with a bluray copy in the near future.