Monday, September 15, 2014

Blood Feast: Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control

Watching Suspiria for the first time got me thinking about the value of films that by all rights should have lost some of their power with age. I mean, the effects weren't very good, everything was laughably dated, and there wasn't much story there, but ultimately it didn't matter. In fact, things that might typically be seen as deficiencies actually sort of came together into their own sort of aesthetic, and the film’s utter conviction and unwillingness to wink at the audience really helped what should have been a really cheesy relic of another era get over even today. It might not have been the scariest thing I've seen lately, but it had a certain delirious power to it, and I respect that.

It also got me thinking about another movie from roughly the same time period, one that treads similar ground in terms of its blatant artificiality and explicit violence, but hasn't gotten the critical acclaim or respect afforded to many of the early giallo films. Namely, Blood Feast. It’s cheaply made and incredibly dated, but somehow this makes it more unsettling than I suspect it even was in its day.

The film doesn't waste a lot of time. It’s suburban Florida, land of sunshine and palm trees and really brightly colored clothes. A woman enters her house and turns on the radio. The news reports that another horrible mutilation murder has taken place, and women should avoid going out at night unaccompanied. The woman looks concerned at the things the radio is saying as she undressed to get in the bath.

Needless to say, moments later she is stabbed to death by a man who has somehow appeared in her house (so much for staying safe in your home). The man removes one of her eyes and one of her legs, and leaves as unceremoniously as he arrived, leaving only the woman’s bloodstained corpse, her unread copy of “Weird Religious Rituals” lying unread next to her on the edge of the bathtub.

This film isn't subtle. In fact, I’m not sure this film was made in a world where the word “subtle” actually exists. The story is simple: There’s a man named Fuad Ramses. He runs an exotic catering company, and sells copies of his book “Weird Religious Rituals,” and oh yeah, murders women, removing various and sundry body parts, and assembling them on an altar in the back room of his shop in honor of the ancient Egyptian goddess Ishtar. He’s apparently trying to resurrect her and lots of bloody human sacrifice is necessary. It might seem like I’m spoiling the film here, but really, you piece all of this together in, like, the first ten minutes. After that, it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the weirdness wash over you.

See, by any conventional metric, this is not a good movie. The camerawork is terrible (simple pans and zooms are visibly jerky), the shot composition is static and the blocking awkward (people walk into room, and then stand there, or the shot begins with them already sitting and standing there, and then there is talking), the acting is atrocious to the point of comic in places (visible, noticeable pauses between lines), the writing is amateurish (oh god the dialogue), and the story is basic almost to the point of minimalism. I mean, I already told you the story: Ramses kills people, cops try to find Ramses before he kills more people. There’s a young woman who might get killed when Ramses caters a party her mother is throwing for her. Does she? Well, there needs to be some mystery here. What’s with the book he’s written? Who knows! It’s never really explained! It doesn’t have Suspiria’s riotous set design, or the overheated-to-the-point-of-surrealism dialogue of an Ed Wood movie, it is in all ways that are important a downright primitive movie.

But in this instance, that’s all okay. It actually works somehow, because all of this put together, along with being made in a time and place (mid-1960s Florida) so disassociated from modern expectations for horror, lends it a bizarre fever-dream quality that pushes well into nightmare territory when you add in the startlingly graphic murder scenes. For anyone whose entire experience of mid-60s cinema is more conventional fare (or even some of the oddities features on Mystery Science Theater 3000), this is going to come as a shock, as it must have when it was first released to jaded audiences who thought they knew what they were in for. This was a singular movie back then for being essentially a proto-slasher film, violent beyond what audiences expected, and it's a singular one today for being so utterly divorced from the cinematic language that has built up around slasher films in the intervening years. It doesn’t look anything like what we expect slasher films to look like, and this is a large part of why it has such a nightmarish quality to it.

First off, the sets look cheap and dowdy - it’s not so much the blatant stage-set feeling of Suspiria as a shoestring-budget minimalism. The idol of Ishtar that Ramses worships is a mannequin painted gold, Ramses has a very obvious dye job intended to make him look older than he really is, the entire police station is pretty much a single room that looks suspiciously like somebody’s waiting room. This is combined with what must have been opportunistic location shooting - offices and motels and people's living rooms, the everyday suburbia of the mid-1960s. There’s no atmosphere or mood, just the places in which people actually lived and worked. The only art direction is "where can we shoot?" and it makes the whole film feel cheap, and maybe a little sleazy, It helps create the feeling that this is some strange relic unearthed from a cardboard box at a garage sale or flea market in the part of town that you don't typically visit - a garage sale or flea market that might vanish as soon as you turn around, as if it were never there. It looks like somebody’s home movies, until the moment that everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. The music is a strange mixture of tympani, organ, cello, horn, and piano, but rarely with more than any two playing at one time, so it's as sparse and off-center as everything else. The stilted dialogue and wooden acting add to the overall feeling of unreality as well - the cops discuss a spate of hideous mutilation murders in the same tone of voice that you might discuss your favorite baseball team’s most recent loss. Ramses is a mass of bug-eyed stares and oddly metered dialogue full of long pauses and inappropriate emphasis. His every action screams “I AM AN UNSTABLE LUNATIC” and absolutely nobody notices. It feels very much like something David Lynch might do, all mannered and stylized in the middle of Middle American banality.

And on top of all of that, we have the gore. It's an odd mix of artificiality and verisimilitude, with blood as bright and thin as in Suspiria, but in the service of long, lingering shots of viscera, entrails and the wide-open unseeing eyes of Ramses' victims. Again, due to budget concerns, the killings are oddly inert - there will be a shot of Ramses, a reaction from the victim, and then back to Ramses stiffly pantomiming stabbing. Normally this would just be comical, but then they cut to fake blood and entrails splashed everywhere. It's as much pantomime as anything else, but it's so graphic as to be jarring. Ramses pulls out a woman’s tongue, and holds it in his hand while she lolls and gurgles, and the woodenness of all of it somehow makes it worse. I suspect for most modern moviegoers, Blood Feast will be an utterly alien experience - you can’t take it seriously because it’s so inept, but it’s too bloody and violent to be cute. To me, it evokes the feeling of falling asleep while watching an old movie and waking up to something terrifying, and not being sure if what you’re watching is what’s really going on or if you’re still somehow asleep, watching this strange mixture of the mundane and the horrific play across your eyelids.

IMDB entry
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Unavailable from Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix

Monday, September 8, 2014

Suspiria: Push It Into The Red

I’m pretty secure with my tastes in scary movies, and because I try to approach stuff on a film-by-film basis, it means I don’t often think in terms of genre. Sure, there are some things on which I’m going to be a harder sell than others (not really a big fan of slasher films, for example), but I try to think about movies as individual pieces of work, rather than examples of a larger style, and not get bogged down in not being sufficiently familiar with a particular style or not. That said, I am aware of particular gaps in my horror film education, and as an aside to all the other stuff I do, I’m trying to familiarize with particular genres or periods or directors with whom I feel like I should be more familiar than I am. I don’t purport to be an expert, but sometimes I feel like I should have a better general knowledge of horror film than I do. One of the genres with which I am pretty much completely unfamiliar is giallo, so I thought it'd be good to educate myself by starting with one of the classics. Namely, Suspiria.

Suzy Bannion is a ballerina from the United States, who has been invited to study at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. Upon arriving at the school (in the middle of a downpour), she passes a young woman leaving in some state of agitation. The door attendant claims to not know who Suzy is and tells her to go away. She glimpses the girl running through the woods as she drives away in her cab, and we follow the girl to a friend’s apartment. She’s upset about something - terrified, in fact. She doesn't have anywhere else to run.

As it turns out, this dance academy is full of secrets, and the young woman who ran pays a terrible price for her knowledge.

We pick up with Suzy the next morning as she returns to the academy, and immediately she feels wrong-footed and out of place. Her room at the school isn't ready so she’ll have to stay somewhere off-campus, the students seem preoccupied with money, there’s a lot of whispering and some odd hostility toward the new student. It’s a very gothic film in the classic sense of the word - the mood is generally foreboding and overwrought, there’s an ingenue, and a mysterious, imposing structure (in this case a dance academy), filled with strange people with secrets of their own. What sets this film apart is a level of violence not usually found in gothic stories. It isn't especially realistic violence, but what’s signified is certainly explicit enough to be a departure from traditionally gothic horror. I can see how in its time it would be a potent combination for filmgoers new to the idea.

Where Suspiria really works to me is, in fact the way that realism and restraint is, at every level, pretty much pushed out the window along with the poor girl from the introduction. Everything is pushed to extremes sufficient to place it somewhere in the realm of pop art visually and opera narratively. Everything is shot in garish color and deep shadow, with a lot of vivid reds (and I do mean a lot of vivid reds), blues and greens, to a point that looks blatantly artificial. This movie is deeply, deeply stylized. Every location is ornate and almost overdecorated. Given, part of this might have just been the aesthetic of the time in which the movie was made (Europe in the 1970s), but every location leaps off the screen in some way. Even relatively monochromatic scenes blaze with pattern and texture. It’s so artificial that it almost feels like everything is taking place on a set - not even a soundstage, but almost like a theatrical set, which heightens the sense of unreality communicated through the dislocation that Suzy feels among her fellow students, thrown into this strange situation. Even the blood looks less like blood and more like tempera paint, which both fits the palette and continues to communicate this idea that nothing we see is meant to be taken as literal, everything is just a representation, a signifier.

Against this artificiality, the explicitness of the violence is a little surprising, and the juxtaposition of the high style with gross-out moments of stabbing and throat-cutting and mauling is interesting. It somehow manages to be stylish, gross, artificial, and hysteric all at the same time, not feeling exactly like anything else I've seen, while still making clear to me the ways in which it has influenced other films I have seen. Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio is as much a stranger at sea in a foreign country as Suzy, dealing with equally rude and opaque people, working on a film that itself is cut from entirely the same cloth as this, and Saw begins to make a lot more sense if we think of it as a North American filtering of the giallo sensibility.

The story is a little spotty, but it almost doesn't matter because what there is is communicated so broadly and at such a pitch that the feeling sells it more than any neatly structured plot would. It's made clear by the end what the secret of this academy is, but without really communicating why the specific things that happen are happening. It’s more the case that a lot of creepy shit is happening and hey, here’s why. That the film doesn't seem overly concerned with making perfect sense sort of helps it in a way. It's more just a framework on which to hang a lot of weird shit, and I have to say, despite how dated this film is in terms of its effects work (ameliorated to a degree by the way the fakeness sort of adds to the whole thing), there are some very striking moments. It may not have survived the decades with its original power fully intact, but the way it pushes itself into the red (in all sorts of ways) with the utter confidence that it’s barreling full-tilt towards batshit insane, it's still a singular statement.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Noroi: Convergence

I’m a sucker for horror films with an element of mystery. I don’t just mean stories that are themselves a mystery, but also films that are a mystery to me. I don’t like to think of myself as jaded (which seems to be a pretty popular pose for the horror-film enthusiast to take), and I try to avoid as much information about films as possible once I've made the decision to try and see them. Like, I’ll read a quick synopsis and think “yeah, that sounds like something I’d dig” and then I try to forget all about it so I can go in as blind as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I try to be as open to what any given film is trying to do as I can and judge it on those merits. The less I know, the less I have to expect, the more I’m capable of responding honestly to what I see.

So it’s nice when I run across a film that hits both types of mystery - one that’s about mysterious events, and about which I know next to nothing. I’m deprived of pretty much all of the expectations I've built up from spending hours watching scary films, and every now and then that pays off.

Noroi (The Curse) is, by and large, one of those films. Despite some shortcomings, it’s a well-crafted exercise in taking disparate, seemingly unconnected stories and characters and drawing them together into a horrible conclusion.

The film is presented as a documentary (one that we are warned is “too disturbing for public viewing”) about the mysterious disappearance of a paranormal investigator named Masafumi Kobayashi. He’s host of a Ghost Hunters-type show, where every week he investigates some supernatural phenomenon. And then, a week or so after finishing his most recent episode, his house burns to the ground, killing his wife in the process. Masafumi is nowhere to be found.

All that’s left is the completed last episode, which, in essence, documents his final days.

In some ways, this film follows a similar trajectory to Okaruto - found-footage shot on a pretty low budget, people trying to document the supernatural and getting more than they bargained for, ancient spirits and evil working their way back into the modern world - but I’d argue that Noroi pulls off what it’s trying to do more successfully. Okaruto was in some ways maybe more inventive in how it used the supernatural as the engine for a very real-world horror, but I think Noroi is maybe more narratively sophisticated and doesn’t blow its ending through overreach the way Okaruto did.

We're essentially watching a special about the special - his disappearance is the story, and it is told through the documentary he made about one family's experience of ghostly voices. After some introductory footage, the majority of Noroi is the unaired special which itself combines firsthand interviews with archival footage from various game shows, talk shows, and historical films. So it's nominally a found-footage film, but it’s sort of a nested narrative, with a frequently shifting point of view. It works because for most of its runtime it all seems grounded in the real world, and the end effect is one of having all kinds of seemingly unconnected events (a reclusive woman and her son, a “psychic” who seems more like he’s suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the disappearance of a young girl, unexplained group suicides, strange images and sleepwalking behavior) all converging on a single point. Movement from scene to scene shifts from story to story and footage source to footage source, so it really feels like we’re viewing an assemblage of evidence, rather than one slightly (or very) improbable cameraman following people from plot point to plot point. It’s one of the ways in which I think the found-footage conceit can be most effective.

This approach seems really disconnected at first, but the film does a good job of taking its time putting all of the pieces together, so that new revelations increase the feeling of mounting dread as we see how all of these seemingly unrelated things are actually related and what they suggest about what's going on. Things brought up early come into focus very late in some cases, and not everything is completely explained, but it works - what we don't know we can fill in pretty easily, and our imaginations are probably capable of coming up with worse things than the filmmakers could have given their fairly small budget.

That said, there are a few weak spots - in a couple of cases the filmmakers can't let the creepy things stand on their own, they have to repeat them and zoom in on them. This diminishes some of the power of these moments, especially since the effects don't necessarily hold up to close scrutiny. Sometimes it’s just scarier to let weird shit happen in the background and let the viewer pick up on it, and in at least a couple of places, what could have been really chilling moments sort of fall flat because of rewinding and slow motion and tight zooms. It makes sense for the sort of program we’re supposed to be watching - television specials are going to be as unsubtle as possible for unobservant viewers - but it still compromises the film’s effectiveness. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. Most of it holds up very well, because the film relies more on people, events, and discovery than creepy shit on camera.

Apart from the premise and the budget, it does have one other thing in common with Okaruto, in that it blows the end a little. It’s not to the movie-ruining extent that Okaruto does; it’s just narratively fragmented where it needs to be clear and definite. There's a last-minute new discovery that’s intended to shed light on some things (and takes advantage of a pretty hard-to-believe third-act decision), but it doesn't really tell us anything we wouldn't have suspected given the circumstances and what we've already seen. In a more nitpicky way, it ends falling into the "why are you still filming?" problem attached to any found-footage film. There are a couple of moments elsewhere in the film that are tricky in this respect, but the end really calls attention to it, and what is intended to be the moment when we find out what happened to the filmmaker ends up not really shedding any new light on the subject at all, so it ends with kind of a thud. But everything that comes before it is nicely tense and does a great job of taking all of these scattered bits of strangeness, television ephemera and mysterious happenings, and getting them to converge on one horrible conclusion, pictures in a jigsaw puzzle revealing a terrible whole.

IMDB entry

Friday, August 22, 2014

Oh And Dammit This Just In

So it turns out Nicholas Winding Refn won't be doing the haunted hotel movie after all.


But hey, maybe we'll get some more movies where ghosts look like normal people until suddenly their faces go all distorted and spooky or something. That'd be pretty cool.

Sometimes I Hate It When I'm Right

When I wrote about the promising-only-to-blow-it-in-the-clutch-because-of-the-fucking-obsession-with-franchising exercise in poor real estate decisions titled Sinister, I predicted that there would be a sequel on the way. This was pretty obviously going to be the case, given that a single antagonist was sort of clumsily shoehorned into the third act (to the point that its backstory was still being established by the end credit sequence), and the filmmakers pretty much admitted that they revised their original idea because they were concerned about the franchisability of their story. The story that the film set up initially - although creepy - wouldn't really work for subsequent iterations because it didn't have an identifiable villain or an explanation for its events. These are also the things that made the film fucking scary to begin with. No pat explanations, no mythology, no "rules" for the bad guy, just some extremely weird, dark, disturbing shit that exacts a terrible cost. That's frightening, not some mediocre makeup and jump scares. But if the motivation was to plant the seeds for an endless parade of sequels, well, that just won't do.

And sure enough, Sinister 2 is in the works. A woman with kids moves into the house from the first film (and the kids are twin boys because of course they are), thus beginning the sequence of events again. I'm sure the demon will be summoned somehow, bad things will happen, and we'll learn more about the demon, and we'll learn how to defeat it, so that Sinister 3 can change that up for no good reason or throw in some additional iteration or implausible resurrection of the bad guy after the events of 2, and by Sinister 6: 6ini6ter6, we'll be looking at a bunch of fun-loving college students who move into the house and defeat the demon in its own dimension or some hackneyed bullshit like this because that is what happens when you approach horror films as opportunities to prop the same moth-eaten costumes and cheap cinematic tricks up again and again and again for an audience more concerned with the comfortable familiarity of easy shock than actually being scared, like deep-down scared.

On the other hand, this sequel is being directed by the same dude who did Citadel, another promising-with-problems film, so maybe it'll be interesting to see a non-American sensibility at work.

Oh, who am I kidding. I'll be surprised if this is any good at all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Silence Of The Lambs: Objects Of Desire

(Warning: If, by some chance, you haven’t seen this movie yet, well go correct that post-haste, and know that I’m going to be pretty casual about discussing the story throughout, so spoilers ahoy.)

I've lost count of the number of times I've watched The Silence Of The Lambs, lost count of the number of times I've read the novel on which it was based as well. I know this movie very well, at least in a story-and-dialogue sense. On the other hand, I've never actually sat down and watched it with sort of a critical perspective, and doing so for the purposes of this post, I noticed some things I've never noticed before. However many years and viewings later, I find myself still surprised by this film.

It’s a procedural, about FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. She’s a focused, driven student. She wants to be of service, to do an important job very well, to prove herself even if it’s not immediately apparent to who. She begins the film running through the woods, but it’s a neat little inversion - she’s not a victim or Final Girl. She’s on an obstacle course, pushing herself as hard as possible, to make herself strong. Starling is pulled off the course and summoned to the office of Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science division. These are the people who profile serial killers, who tell the field agents for whom they should be searching. This is what Starling wants to do when she graduates. She wants to come to work for Crawford. With this in mind, Crawford has asked her to run an “errand” - to administer a behavioral questionnaire to a notorious serial killer named Hannibal Lecter. As it transpires, Lecter has no interest in the questionnaire, as much as he does in discussing Crawford’s current active case - the hunt for an entirely different serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” Lecter seems to know something about the killer, and about the case.

Which is interesting, given how long Lecter’s been locked away.

In lesser hands, this would be utterly cringeworthy, and iterations on exactly this premise have been exactly that cringeworthy in what are indeed lesser hands. Serial killer movies often come across as trite to the point of offensiveness, I think, and I think the thoughtfulness with which the filmmakers approached the subject goes a long way toward distinguishing this film from other treatments of the same topic. The larger budget and major-studio clout enabled them to work directly with the FBI, basing their killer on actual case files and giving the setting and the dialogue some procedural realism. The film is also played entirely with a straight face, with a certain quiet and somber gravity about it that makes it feel like something terrible happening in the world we inhabit, not some smirky showoff for a gimmicky murderer or excuse to run an improbably costumed hulk through an abattoir filled with indiscreet teens for ninety minutes. 

And maybe there’s a class argument to be made, here - that this movie is good because the studio gave it the money to be good, and recruited talented filmmakers and known talents, and paid for good sets and lots of research that poorer filmmakers just don’t have. Maybe all the shitty, awful serial killer films aren’t entirely the filmmaker’s fault if you need big-studio budgets to fully realize the idea. Because on paper, this could be a shitty, terrible movie. Money made it good, and that same money and the legitimacy it provides is probably why this film won a shitload of Academy Awards instead getting four stars from some blog writer who goes by the name “Doctor Morbid” or some shit as the height of its critical reception.

But that’s not really why I wanted to write about this film. This time, when I sat down to watch The Silence Of The Lambs, I think I put together for the first time some things that had sort of occurred to me on the periphery before, but had never really crystallized because I was just sort of watching it for the familiar experience of watching it, listening to the rhythms of the dialogue and the events, admiring the neat little narrative fillips. So some of this will probably occur to some of you as sort of a “no shit, Sherlock” sort of thing and yeah, you’re right. But this is what happens when you approach a familiar piece of art with new eyes.

First, women are pretty much entirely objects in this film. I mean certainly, there's the obvious ways, in terms of Buffalo Bill skinning women to make himself a girl suit in an effort at transformation (as if one can appropriate femininity by literally putting it on) and the way he, as a serial killer, depersonalizes Catherine in order to make it emotionally easier to starve, murder, and skin her. So yeah, for Buffalo Bill women (and womanhood) are actually objects, it’s not even metaphorical. But it's also embodied (ha) in the way that people treat Clarice throughout the film - there’s a brief but telling scene where Clarice and her friend Ardelia are jogging and a bunch of male students running the other way look back to check out their asses as they run. There’s asylum chief Chilton's comments to Starling about her looks and the way he hits on her. Sure, we’re not supposed to sympathize with him, we’re supposed to think he’s a creep, but it’s really the obviousness of his sexism - not the sexism itself - that distinguishes him from other male characters. Crawford and Lecter both employ Clarice as a tool, or pawn, or go-between. Clarice begins the film following Crawford’s orders and chasing down Lecter’s clues, and she develops agency over the course of the film as she takes more and more initiative, until ultimately it’s just her on her own, literally in the dark and surviving entirely by her own wits. Even Senator Ruth Martin - a powerful, capable woman - is ultimately there not for her own sake, but as a proxy. Her influence is invoked under false pretenses by the FBI to provide an incentive for Lecter, and Chilton subverts that to wield her authority in service of his own self-promotion, which Lecter in turn exploits. She is, at best, a figurehead throughout her negotiations with Chilton and Lecter, appearing, making pronouncements, and vanishing again into a cloud of government men. And then there’s poor Frederica Bimmel, and the unnamed girl in West Virginia, unseeing bodies examined and documented as evidence, as objects for inquiry.

Second, there's also a strong undercurrent of seeing and being seen running throughout this film. It’s something I think I’d noticed on casual viewing but this time it really hit me how many of the shots in this film are close-ups on faces. Most conversations are shot as alternating close-ups on the two people talking, so it's as if we're taking the point of view of each person in the conversation in turn, and it’s pretty rare to see more than one person in frame at a time. Almost all of Clarice’s conversations with people are shot this way, so we’re focused on her face to one degree or another, with the tightness of the shot sometimes heightening tension, sometimes giving us space to see her react. A lot of her conversations also occur across barriers or dividers - bars, plexiglass, even desks. There’s something in her way, something between her ability to see others and others seeing her. We see Catherine from Bill's point of view, and Bill from Catherine's, and there’s always distance between them, indicating the depersonalization otherwise indicated by Bill’s use of “it” to refer to Catherine. In West Virginia, we see Starling being stared at by a roomful of cops, with the perspective switching from just her to a multitude of eyes pressing down on her. Buffalo Bill performs for a video camera - sort of a desperate loneliness in that he has nobody else to see him, but he wants to be seen so badly. Even his closest interactions with women occur through the mediation of nightvision goggles - he’s always a step removed from the thing he wants most. Framing the majority of the shots this way makes the film very intimate and immediate- we’re seeing everything through the eyes of the people in the film. Lecter even comments on this, asking Clarice if she’s aware of eyes looking her over, appraising her. We first covet what we see every day.

And then finally, on top of all of this, there's what I’ve appreciated about this movie from the first time I ever saw it: Hannibal Lecter, playing the long game. From his earliest appearances in the film, he has an excellent idea of what's going on (after all, memory is what he has instead of a view, and he’s encountered Bill’s earliest work), and he spends most of the film's runtime amusing himself, waiting for everyone else to catch up. In his first meeting with Clarice, he alludes to her good bag and cheap shoes - accessories (often made of leather) that signify the feminine, and he notes the skin cream she uses. There's all of the other quick jabs - allusions to "Simplicity," his remark to Starling about how "you're so close to how you're going to catch him," his catty aside to Senator Martin about her suit. It’s easy to point to the obvious bits about Lecter - his dramatic “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” line, most egregiously abused - but it’s this hidden breadcrumb trail he leaves throughout the movie, purely for his own amusement, that contributes so strongly to one of the most chilling portrayals of villainy in the 20th century. It’s an expression of the same manic glee in his eyes when Clarice comes to him desperate, with time running out, the effortless shift from his animalistic savaging of a police officer to his appreciation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He’s not divided between man and monster, he’s fully at home with both. No real histrionics, no monologuing, just a glint in his eye at some private joke. It’s a pity the character became caricature, as sequels so often allow, but in this film Hannibal Lecter is a vivid monster: An aesthete with the blank, unfeeling eyes of a shark.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Spoorloos: Terrible Knowledge

Something I've come back to every now and again over the course of this thing is the idea of “terrible knowledge,” usually to describe that moment when either the protagonists of a film or the audience put all the pieces together and realizes something frightening or upsetting or disturbing that until that moment was hidden or obscured. Sometimes I call it “the horror of discovery”, but it’s the same idea, the “oh shit” moment when the full implications of a films’ worth of little details and asides and clues converge into a single conclusion. It’s usually a twist ending, a sudden reversal of something we took for granted (what do you mean that guy was only a figment of his imagination?) but sometimes the inevitable, obvious conclusion can carry just as much dread along with it.

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) isn't...exactly about the journey more than the end, but the way it builds to its conclusion by playing on the characters’ (and our own) need to know is masterful.

Rex and Saskia are taking a vacation, taking a long trip in the car from Amsterdam to a small house in the French countryside. There’s some light banter, but some of it is oddly strained. Rex doesn't want Saskia to drive for some reason, even though he’s getting tired. Saskia’s talking to Rex about a recurring dream she has, of being trapped in a golden egg and feeling utterly alone. They run out of gas, and Rex goes to get more, leaving Saskia to get increasingly upset at being left alone. She seems to be terrified of being abandoned, and Rex seems to resent it a little. We don’t know why they have this dynamic, but there it is. Meanwhile, elsewhere, another man - Raymond - packs for his own little trip. He has a sling, a fake cast, a rag, and a small medicinal bottle. It’s not immediately clear where he’s going or what he plans to do, but it doesn't look good, either.

Saskia and Rex come to a rest stop. He apologizes to her, they make up, enjoy some time stretching their legs before they get back on the road. Saskia offers to grab beverages for the two of them and heads into the rest stop, walking right past Raymond, who waits outside with a paper.

Saskia never comes back.

The rest of the film bounces around in time and perspective. Saskia disappears, Rex spends the rest of the day searching for her. Then we’re with Raymond, months before the disappearance. We watch his life, his plans, his little exercises and notes as he prepares for a single day. Then it’s three years later, and Rex hasn't forgotten Saskia. In fact, it’s hard for him to think about anything else. Over the course of the film, these two men orbit each other, Saskia’s absence the nucleus holding them both. Like Raymond, the film is careful and meticulous - everything matters, almost every little detail means something if you pay close attention. It's not gratuitous or some kind of blatant puzzle exercise either, where we can “solve” the movie. It’s really not too difficult to figure out in broad strokes what happened. It’s not a Chekhov's Gun situation where everything exists only to drive the plot, it's more of a case of a singular event emerging from all of the little intersections of fate and chance. This happened because these people were in this place at this time, and this went the way it did, and that went the way it did, and this is the end result. We go through most of the movie before we get a complete picture of the events of that day, with only Rex’s maddeningly incomplete account to go by for most of it. 

But that’s good, that sense of the unknown, of absence, of unanswered questions. Spoorloos is about as far from sensationalistic as you can get, but all the creepier for it. Raymond is careful and methodical, and it's chilling to see how neatly he conducts his life in the face of what it is he plans to do (and then has done). Everything in his life plays a role, everything is a moment for rehearsal, the lies he tells about little indiscretions are there to camouflage even larger, more hideous indiscretions, and the way he moves smoothly from one to the other while still being a husband, family man, and teacher is one of the most disquieting things about the movie. The way he involves his home life without his family’s knowledge is almost monstrous. Raymond doesn't have a mask of sanity to let slip. There’s no slavering maniac here. He holds his life as a husband, father, and provider in perfect superposition with the horrible thing he has done. Rex is tormented by that day, by the way that Saskia slipped through his fingers, and he works tirelessly to try and come to some sort of understanding - he plasters posters asking for information everywhere, he goes on television, he searches photographs and videotape for the barest scraps of clues, and this obsession crowds out anything else that might be good in his life. It's similar ground to that covered some years later by Absentia to equally good effect - the wreckage that a sudden disappearance leaves behind and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

So really, what the movie ends up being about (apart from the capriciousness of fate for all involved) is the idea of knowing something. Rex has pretty much given up his life over the last 3 years, he is driven utterly by the need to know what happened to Saskia that day. Raymond has his own questions, about himself, about his capabilities, about what it means to be a good man and whether or not it possible to be good without the existence of evil. It’s a matter of how far each one of them is willing to go. How far will Raymond go to find out who he is, and how far Rex will go to find out what happened to Saskia. Yes, on paper that's sort of cheesy, “how far will one man go” and all that, but it's played out as a literal journey here as well. The film takes place as a function of travel, the distance between Amsterdam and the cottage, between Raymond’s home and the rest stop, and in the final act, there is a literal retracing the actual steps of that day. Both of them wanted to know something, and for each of them, their knowledge each exerts a cost, and the sickest joke of all might be how much of the movie is foreshadowed even in the first shot. It opens on a close shot of a stick insect - something that hides in plain sight, hiding the absolute gut-punch of an ending in plain sight as well. Like I said, it’s all there, in the little details, everything you need to know.

Unavailable from Netflix
(NOTE: The American remake is available from Netflix on DVD, but it is, to say the least, inferior to this version. Don’t get them mixed up.)