Thursday, July 30, 2015

I Am A Ghost: Samsara

samsara (noun)

1. Buddhism. the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature.
2. Hinduism. the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject.

I’m sort of surprised this never occurred to me before, because it’s hardly a revelation - if we consider especially the Buddhist idea of samsara, the idea that suffering the product of attachment to earthly things, well, you’re basically talking about ghosts at that point too, aren’t you? Films dealing with ghosts and hauntings talk all the time about the spirit being unable to let go of something from their life. Attachment to worldly things is the cause of suffering, and ghosts, by their definition, suffer. They are trapped between. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto something everyone else already knows here. 

But anyway, I am here to talk about I Am A Ghost, which is an impressionistic, understated story of one person’s attempt to free themselves of earthly suffering, experienced as, essentially, an endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths.

Begins with an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem - “One need not be a Chamber / to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The Brain has Corridors / surpassing Material Place”, which neatly summarizes the central elements of the film in a few lines, but I’ll get to that in a bit. This and the title card are followed by a series of static shots of a large, old house, accompanied by an underlying ambient hum, which establishes a certain tension. The emptiness is tangible and pregnant with its own disruption. You wait, and wait, and wait for something to happen. Something has to happen any second now, to break the absolute emptiness and stillness.

When it is broken, it is not by anything horrifying, it is broken by Emily, who is a prim young woman in a white dress reminiscent of an earlier, more modest time. Emily goes about her day - we meet her making her breakfast, as the radio plays old, old news reports and music, she tidies up, goes grocery shopping, and the next day she wakes up with a yawn to do it over and over again, the exact same actions, the exact same way, slotted in a different order. Even within this sort of iterative, permutated Groundhog Day, it soon becomes clear that something is a little off - the oddly menacing way she raises her butter knife at the breakfast table, throwing up at the bathroom sink, her hand bleeding and bandaged.

The thumps and groans coming from upstairs, the voices calling her name.

As it becomes clear, this house, and the things that happen within it, are the limits of Emily’s life, and they occur and reoccur in different orders and variations, one or two new things showing up gradually. Like the poem says, there’s a person, a house, and a mind. Like I keep restating in most of my reviews of haunted-house stories, houses can be haunted, and so can people. Eventually, we begin to discover why this is the case, as Emily begins talking to an unseen woman named Sylvia, and what has been a series of statements and restatements starts to take on new value as we begin to see those familiar scenes from unfamiliar angles, as Emily begins to talk, as we get new pieces to fit into the puzzle, as the picture slowly becomes clearer. Emily is in this house, and there’s something very special about Emily in this house, the way she inhabits its rooms, and as we come to discover, something equally special about Emily’s mind. 

The pacing is interesting - long takes, very understated music and little to no dialogue for the first half of the film, and it’s just the same collection of scenes over and over again, in different rhythms, with variations in order, the occasional new scene inserted. It’s a very artificial approach, but it pays off, because the early tension of the opening dissipates under this relative familiarity, the same things over and over again, and it is only as we first get new bits of information introduced that we started to feel uneasy again. It has the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security and as we find out more about Emily, as the truth is revealed, the tension comes back with a vengeance as the place that has become so familiar is made threatening again by the new revelations, and this makes the endgame a much different experience from the rest of the movie. Just as you begin to wonder whether or not this is actually a horror movie, it kicks in with an almost Lynchian purity and primitiveness. This big, old house suddenly becomes claustrophobic because there really is nowhere to run, for the characters or the audience.

The filmmakers do a lot with very little - the film is almost entirely carried by a single actress, it’s set almost entirely in a single location, and so shot composition and editing (along with the tasteful deployment of split-screen and some unobtrusive effects) do most of the heavy lifting instead of gratuitous musical stings and gore and a lot of screaming. The majority of the film gets over on mood and setting alone, and so when it does branch out into something less restrained, it’s almost cathartic in its intensity. In lesser hands, its premise would have been a complete shambles, the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes so hard they end up in someone else’s eye sockets, but by staying focused and presenting us with just what we need to know to understand what’s happening, it brings it into clarity.

It’s almost a horror film as haiku, distilled to its essential elements to tell the story of one woman’s attempt to break the cycles associated with memory and denial and flight from the truth. Houses are haunted, people are haunted, and when we hold onto something because we don’t want to let it go, or to let it free, we suffer. And when we suffer, we can’t move on. Samsara is the wheel of suffering borne of attachment to earthly things, and until Emily reconciles her earthly attachments, she cannot be free of suffering. Even in the end, which deftly avoids cliché, it isn’t made clear whether or not she truly is freed at all.

Available on Netflix

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Drownsman: Mean Girls

For all of the moral panic surrounding them, slasher films are a deeply conservative expression of the horror genre - they are worlds in which any misstep, from a rashly-made decision to drinking to defying authority to mocking traditional values to extramarital sex, tends to be rewarded by death of varying degrees of violence and ickiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the idea of the Final Girl. In most slasher movies, women make up a decent chunk of the victims. Maybe not all, but most, and it’s typical for the upstanding, virtuous, oh-let’s-just-say-it-she’s-a-virgin  woman in the bunch to be the one who survives and even turns the tables on the antagonist. So the hot take is that women are victims, unless they are “pure,” in which case they aren’t. On top of everything else that might give one pause about slasher films, that the women in them are defined almost entirely by their relationship to men (and their value in patriarchal terms) might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s a problem.

The Drownsman is interesting, insofar as it’s a story driven almost entirely by women, in a genre where that’s hardly typical. Unfortunately, this would probably mean more if their portrayals weren’t so utterly unsympathetic and the story they inhabit so transparently formulaic.

It begins at the end of another movie, - one about a serial killer named Sebastian, who ritually drowns his victims, and the Final Girl who defeats him…or so she thinks. Black screen, panicked breathing, open to a woman lying in a crawlspace terrified as a hulking figure drags her toward a tub. She begs him not to, and when he puts her in the tub, she catches him off-guard by kissing him, then stabbing him with a shard of glass. You know, like women do. But ah, there’s a twist - when she submerges him in the tub as she stabs him, he...vanishes. Gone. It’s just her in the tub. Screams and smash to black.

Then, we flash forward to a different movie, this one, about a young woman named Madison and her three best friends, one of whom, Hannah, is engaged to be married. As they’re out celebrating, Madison has an accident, and falls into the lake…

...and wakes up in some nightmare basement, with a sodden, hulking monstrosity looming over her.

Flash forward yet again to a year later, and it’s Hannah’s wedding night, and Madison - the maid of honor - is trapped helplessly in her room as rain pours down outside. She’s developed a profound fear of water and so, afraid of leaving the house, misses the wedding. Hannah is furious, because God it’s been a whole year and can't she just be over it by now. Never mind that she takes all of her fluids intravenously because she can’t even drink a glass of water, this is Hannah’s night. Madison’s friends - Hannah, Kobie, and Lauren - decide to stage what they think of as an intervention, because as far as they’re concerned, Madison just needs someone to humor her crazy shit for a second and everything will be fine again. The intervention takes the form of sort of a séance-meets-exorcism-meets-immersion therapy, using a woman who has experience contacting the dead, and because we are dealing with the ghost of a serial killer who has a thing for water, shit goes all kinds of wrong from there in a real hurry.

And this is the first problem with the movie - her friends are not just unbelieving, they’re unsupportive to the point of utter callousness. Hannah sets up this “intervention” with the help of a medium, but expects…and even insists…that it be a hoax, a going through of the motions and she’s immediately nasty and dismissive to the medium when she tries to insist otherwise. This goes beyond being a bad friend into psychological cruelty. Lauren blithely refers to Madison as “our crazy friend” and there’s no appearance of any sympathy or goodwill from any of them. If these are her best friends, it’s a toxic fucking relationship.

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to connect emotionally with any of these people (even Madison seems written more as a cringing victim than anything else - and though that isn’t necessarily bad as a way of demonstrating just how traumatic an encounter with the supernatural would be, it makes it hard to really get on her character’s side). This isn’t really a movie about the toll mental illness can take on the friends and loved ones of the sufferer, and though that could be a good movie (The Taking Of Deborah Logan almost gets there sometimes...almost), this film is by no means equipped or inclined to go down that path, so what we have instead is a bunch of really shitty people that we’re supposed to believe are Madison’s friends because they keep saying so, rather than showing it. Contrast this with the complicated-but-believable relationship between the two sisters in Absentia, for example. As a result, we pretty much know right away that this is going to be a movie in which these shitty people get picked off by a vengeful ghost one by one, and that’s exactly what we get. No real surprises to be had on that front, and so the opportunity to feel bad for these people as they die, one by one, is diminished because they’re people who dismissed forces they didn’t understand and who therefore deserve their fate. We’re just marking time between kills at that point.

The Drownsman is, however, notable for being pretty much entirely about and concerning women, though - the antagonist is male, and there’s maybe one secondary male character and, I think, one other speaking part for a man total. Hannah’s fiancée/husband never shows up, and isn’t even really mentioned even when it’s established Hannah’s getting married. Were it not for the bad guy, this film would almost past the Bechdel Test, which is worth noting. But that’s…about it. Because in every other way, it’s really rote. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, that is, it sounds like exposition, not how people actually talk, and the acting is uniformly just wooden enough to highlight the problems with what’s actually being said. The film doesn’t really pay much attention to external logic (sure, just walk in unannounced into a mental hospital in the middle of the night and say you’re there to see a patient, why not? That’s how it works, right?), or even internal logic (without spoiling much, this vengeful ghost plays by a set of rules, like all vengeful ghosts, but they only seem to apply when necessary for the plot). The antagonist is made more monstrous than strictly necessary (he doesn’t just drown women…he drowns them because he stayed in the womb for 19 months as a child and longs for the sound of his mother’s heartbeat…what the fuck?), and the whole thing ends with absolutely no attention to or respect for anything else that happened in the film. I think it’s trying for the sort of last-minute reversal that The Ring pulled off nicely, but because it occurs without context or reference to anything else that happened, it just comes up as something beyond cheap and into cinematic Calvinball territory.

It’s too bad, because its production values are pretty high, and it does have some well-done moments (Madison sitting on her bed, distraught on the night of Hannah’s wedding, the rain pouring down the window reflected onto her was a nice touch), the ghost is handled well for the majority (not entirety, but majority) of the movie, the effects are pretty good, and water is a great hook - it can go almost anywhere, it’s ubiquitous and necessary for life, and drowning, as a manner of death, is certainly less over-done that death by various and sundry sharp things. There’s almost no blood in this movie, and that’s a good thing. But all of this is in service of a story so completely by-the-numbers, assembled with so little insight into human nature, care for plausibility, or sense of anything but a constructed narrative that it undoes any goodwill engendered (ha!) by the things it does right. Ghost stories work because something unnatural and unreal is intruding on the natural and real, and nothing in this film - not the way the characters relate to each other, not the way institutions or social niceties work, nothing - feels natural or real. These are a group of women, propped up as terrible to each other, set up to be knocked down as they move from one setpiece to another, the people with which they interact having no sense of life or even existence outside of the moments they need to be in the movie to move the plot along. And so, in its own way, it reinforces the very status quo - cinematically and in terms of gender representation - that it could have just as easily subverted.

Unavailable on Netflix

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Canal: Going Deeper

One of the critical pieces of any horror film (well, any film, but let’s stick to the subject) is knowing how far you’re going to push your story - sure, it’s all about twisting the knife, raising feelings of dread or fear or disgust or anxiety or whatever, but separate from that, I think, is the sense of escalation - are you going to hinge things on one moment or incident or revelation? Are you going to present the story one way and then throw in a twist or three? Are you just going to plod along with setpiece after setpiece in what I’m coming to call the “things happen, then more things happen” school of storytelling? As things get worse for the protagonists, how much worse are they going to get? 

The Canal is a sharp, unrelenting story about perception and reality, and the way the truth is buried - literally and figuratively. The key here is unrelenting - this is a film that does not stop tightening the screws at all.

David Williams is a film archivist, and we meet up with him and his pregnant wife Alice as they are in the process of buying an old historic home in Ireland, near an old canal. They’re optimistic, happy, and excited about the future. But then, as we flash forward five years, there’s a distinct note of melancholy - David seems a little weary, a little beaten down, and it's clear that in the five years since he and Alice (and their young son Billy) bought their house some distance has grown between them. They love their son, but David spends a lot of long nights at the office, and increasingly, so is Alice. There’s one particular client with whom Alice seems to be spending a lot of time, and it’s beginning to worry David. It’s the picture of domestic discontent. He doesn’t want to believe the worst, but there it is. Into what is already a stressful life comes a new package of old, old police crime-scene footage from the early 20th century that David needs to work on restoring and preserving. It’s grim stuff - films taken at the site of a multiple murder, where a man killed his wife and children before ending his own life. Not the sort of thing a man already at odds with his own life needs to think about.

Especially when David realizes that the footage was shot in his house.

As it transpires, David and Alice’s historic home was indeed the site of a brutal murder, and the knowledge, combined with his own fears about his deteriorating relationship with Alice, begin to haunt David. It all begins with the story of a man whose marriage is failing, and plunges downward from there. There are ghosts here, and like any other good ghost story in recent memory (see also Lovely Molly, Absentia, Oculus), there’s a focus on the ways we can be haunted both by the mundane and the supernatural, and on the merging of past and present, the reliving of old events over and over again. David is obsessed with the house, David is obsessed with his increasing distance from Alice and protecting his son, and the two begin to blur. To that end, the denouement is pretty much what an observant viewer thinks it's going to be (and this really is one of the film's few shortcomings), but what’s especially noteworthy here is the trip it takes to get there. This film is not content to say “oh hey, maybe there are ghosts,” it peels back revelation on top of revelation stirring up all of the hidden muck of secret histories, letting nothing remain unburied, so that we come to realize that the real story behind the house’s past and David’s present is much, much worse than one would expect going in. Even though the ultimate outcome is more or less what we’d expect, the reasons for and implications of that outcome pack a much bigger wallop than they would otherwise. 

It helps that the film is nicely understated for the most part. It relies primarily on briefly-glimpsed things, shadowy visions, and nightmare sequences for most of the heavy lifting, along with well-executed sound design and a keen sense of shot composition that establishes relationships early on, framing things in tight boxes like the old film that provides David's initial revelations, and provides for some truly striking images. As the story progresses, the film bleeds over into David's nightmares, David's life bleeds over into the film, and the present recapitulates the past. In that sense, it reminds me to some degree of Sinister, but where that film took an interesting idea and tried to build a film around it and then build a franchise around the film at the expense of the story they were trying to tell, this film just concerns itself with telling its story, seeing it out to its logical conclusion, digging past domestic tragedy and the horrific and the supernatural into madness and nightmare and evil, leaving the viewer gasping for breath as it comes to a close.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Aaaaaargh, Technical Difficulties

So first it was a serious winter malaise, then it was several months of getting my ass kicked at work, and just as work was beginning to subside, my laptop gave up the ghost. I've got notes on The Canal to write up, and some more thoughts on franchising after watching Never Sleep Again, the documentary about the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Hopefully I'll get the computer situation figured out soon, and get back to writing soonish. Thank you for your patience, and watch The Telephone Book on Netflix. It's not a horror movie, but it's pretty fucking strange.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Digging Up The Marrow: Imitation Of Life

So on the one hand you’ve got film-as-fiction, and on the other you’ve got documentaries. One is a lie, the other is the truth (yeah, documentaries have agendas and what really is the truth anyway, but you know what I mean). In horror (not just horror, but here is where it’s been most profitable), you have the found-footage film, which ostensibly tries to employ the pretexts and filmic devices of the documentary to tell a fictional story that will hopefully feel rawer and more immediate, and maybe bypass some of the safeguards in our brain that keep us from fully engaging with a fictional story. This is all well and good, but found-footage as a narrative device is overstaying its welcome by a country mile. Whatever benefits you might derive from filming everything like it’s been shot by a handheld video camera or surveillance cameras are pretty much swallowed up by “oh Jesus, not this again.” It’s become another form of artifice, as empty a gesture as the most obvious and conventional techniques of film-as-fiction (oh shit there’s a monster behind the door aaaghhhh!).

This leads to an interesting hybrid, where fictional stories are located inside what appear to be actual documentaries, so you’re still watching a work of fiction, but one with more extensive trappings of legitimacy attached to them. It takes the “a bunch of people filming a documentary” conceit of at least 70% of all found-footage films and follows through. S&Man did this and ended up working as a really interesting commentary on the role of specific types of horror film in the lives of their audience, though not so much as an actual horror film (you cannot believe that someone would release a documentary in which they knew they were party to the activities of an actual serial killer).

Likewise, Digging Up The Marrow is an interesting attempt to reconcile the realities of horror film with the idea of actual horror, but it falls flat as a story even as it provides some interesting insights into the nature of horror film, its relationship to its audience, and its relationship to real horror.

Adam Green is an actual honest-to-goodness horror film director, responsible for such diverse fare as Hatchet, Frozen, and Spiral. The film opens as he’s going about his busy life, working on new films, a TV series, doing the convention circuit, the whole thing. He talks about how as a kid he wasn’t frightened by monsters, but fascinated by them, and how it was probably this impulse that got him into horror film...the hope that someday he’d find out that monsters were real and he’d get to meet them. Into Green’s life comes a man named William Dekker - an ex-cop who claims to have spent years investigating the existence both of actual monsters and the subterranean cities they inhabit, a network he refers to as “the Marrow.” It’s Dekker’s contention that throughout history, children born with deformities did not, as thought, die shortly after birth, but instead were guided to the Marrow, where they grew up in a world parallel to our own, beneath and alongside us in births, deaths, marriages, divorces, triumphs, and tragedies.

Green, as the sensible filmmaker he is, is pretty sure Dekker is a kook, but begins documenting his meetings with him nonetheless to see if it goes anywhere. The little boy in him wants to believe. Dekker has sketches of sighted creatures, collected news stories, even maps of potential portals to and from the Marrow, and lucky for Green, there’s one in a public cemetery not too far away.

So, of course, Green and one of his directors of photography go with Dekker to stake the place out. And there’s nothing, and more nothing, and more nothing.

Until there’s something, misshapen, right up in their faces and screaming.

The rest of the film isn’t terribly surprising - Green wants to push for even more proof, his wife and coworkers are afraid he’s becoming obsessed, Dekker’s afraid of them being found out for some reason, and digging a little into Dekker’s background reveals that it’s not really clear at all who he actually is. None of this is surprising, and honestly it all falls a little flat. It’s not dissimilar from S&Man, but that film probably worked better because it was far more naturalistic - it was less ambitious, but the added plausibility gave it an impact that Digging Up The Marrow doesn't have. Serial killers lurking among the denizens of micro-budget direct-to-video horror plays as much more likely than actual monsters discovered by someone with several notches more legitimacy.

And honestly, I think it’s the difference in Green’s role within horror film that ends up being this film’s undoing. It's supposed to be a documentary, but everyone's a little too glib and arch - everything everyone says seems to be tuned as dialogue, rather than how people actually speak, so you're very conscious that what you're watching is a product, a construct intended to signify certain things without being those certain things. (A quick glance on IMDB reveals that, yep, all the dialogue is scripted, and boy is it obvious.) You're never really able to buy it as a documentary that gets out of hand, even though it's grounded in actual filmmaking and uses actual people from horror film to shore up its credibility - again, S&Man worked much better in this respect because nobody seemed like they were acting, for better or worse, and the stakes were more believable. This feels designed from stem to stern and the artificiality works against it.

Likewise, in terms of artificiality, it doesn't help that the practical effects don't really hold up. It feels like a cheap criticism, but practical monster effects are really hard to do well without looking completely unbelievable (or even ridiculous), especially on the budgets most horror movies have. I acknowledge that it’s a really high bar to set, but if you're going to tell me that these don't look anything like practical effects (by having people in the film actually say, out loud, “those did not look like practical effects” they need to not, you know, look like obvious practical effects. The illusion doesn’t hold up. Its narrative premise is that horror is intruding on the real life of people who make fictional horror for a living, but it’s so thoroughly produced and directed and designed that it doesn’t for a second feel like real life. It all ends up feeling sort of pointless. Again, according to IMDB, Green made a point of casting a well-known actor as Dekker so people wouldn’t be fooled into thinking any of this was real. Then what was the bloody point of the whole story in the first place?

In its own way, however, this film is interesting though, even if not for its intended purpose, because horror as it's presented here is so thoroughly created, produced, and marketed. The film is filled with posters and t-shirts for various films Green has made, often recontextualized into cartoons or heavy metal band logos, which indicates the degree to which they've been absorbed into larger pop culture to the point of no longer really being something that’s especially frightening. It’s another product to be consumed. So, really, this film does comment upon the tension between actual horror - real monsters - and horror's commodification. The filmmakers want so badly to believe in real monsters, but their very presence outside the portal to the Marrow threatens to drive them completely away, and when they show their footage to well-known horror movie actor Kane Hodder he cynically can't see it as anything but another creation or construction. His first assumption is that this is one more product to be presented and consumed by an audience wanting more sequels, more gimmicks.

The people most invested in actual horror are the ones most responsible for it disappearing.


IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, April 17, 2015

Calvaire: Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that horror films don’t just evoke horror anymore - dread, fear, anxiety, terror, revulsion, there’s a whole palette of feeling and experience with which a filmmaker can work and still be seen as making horror films. I think this is generally a good thing. I think seeing horror films as a vehicle for scares, shocks, and cheap thrills is limiting and probably a little condescending, and the more moods and shades of feeling available, the more corners of the human condition they can illuminate, and the more possibility there is for horror films to be the art they can be.

That said, it wasn't until I watched Calvaire (Ordeal) that I realized just how rarely horror taps into feelings of sadness, loneliness, and sorrow by comparison.

Marc Stevens is a singer for hire. He does weddings, parties, private engagements. We meet him as he sits at a mirror, putting on stage makeup, getting ready to perform old love songs for a roomful of women at a retirement home. He has a little banner with his name on it tacked to the wall, he comes out in a cape with his name on it. His music is prerecorded, and he serenades a shabby, fluorescent-lit room full of aging pensioners with all the charm and sincerity you could ever want. He’s a hit. He’s been here before. He’s always a hit. He returns to his dressing room to take off the makeup and get ready to hit the road for his next engagement. One of the women comes back to his dressing room, and Marc knows her by name. She’s worried that the next time he comes around she won’t be alive any longer, and she makes a fumbling pass at him. It’s exactly as painful as you’d imagine, and the camera doesn’t look away. Marc isn’t cruel to her in his rejection, but she is cruel enough to herself for both of them. And it’s not just her - one of the nurses at the home, responsible for paying him, buttonholes him on the way out and makes a pass of her own. She seems desperately lonely. They all do. You get the impression that Marc’s visits are one of their few bright spots, and they’ve invested a lot in him. He’s obviously uncomfortable with it as he coaxes his brightly painted van stubbornly to life. He can’t stay. He has to hurry to his next gig.

Well, you can’t have a person on their own, driving through the countryside without car trouble, and sure enough, Marc’s van - which sounded none too healthy when he left the retirement home - breaks down in the middle of a very foggy nowhere, in the middle of the night, after a close call with an animal. He spots a sign for an inn some distance away, and he heads for it. It’s late, but the innkeeper - a man named Bartel - lets him in and makes up a room for him anyway. It’s been awhile since anyone stayed at the inn, Bartel says, but the rooms are clean and he’ll fix Marc something to eat. Bartel tells him he can look at his van in the morning, and he tells Marc that he used to be a performer, too - a comedian. He understands artists, because he used to be an artist too, before he lost his wife, Gloria. Bartel seems lonely too. But he wants to help Marc and enjoys his company.

Just don’t go down to the village, Bartel tells Marc. They don’t...understand...artists there. Not like Bartel does. He understands Marc very well.

Marc reminds him so much of Gloria.

What ensues serves as your basic spiral into nightmares, as Marc learns more about Bartel, the village nearby, and his own role as a fresh face in this very isolated community. It definitely gets bad (it’s called Ordeal for a reason), but what I find especially interesting about Calvaire is that no matter how horrific it gets, it never loses its steady undercurrent of sorrow and loss - the feeling that everyone in this film (perhaps even Marc) does what they do out of some desire to feel love and connection. These people aren’t monsters, no matter how monstrous their deeds, they’re just stunted and deformed by their lack of love and ability to connect to each other in healthy ways. Bartel and the men of the village are mirror images of the women at the nursing home and the nurse there. They are all yearning for the resurrection of their memories, of the fondest recollections of their past, or maybe just for a chance at love and connection in a world that doesn't provide it. In that sense, Marc's predicament is just a nightmarish reflection of his everyday life. Same shit, different day.

And shit is probably a good word for it. The film's palette is a thoroughly dismal one - everything is dingy and shabby and run-down and muddy and squalid and decrepit. The nursing home is clean, but maybe a little frayed around the edges. Bartel’s inn is also clean - mostly - but much older and in rougher shape. The village is basically an unbroken sea of mud and shabby, sickly-lit buildings. Shafts of light break through overcast skies, only to illuminate marshland, wet, churned fields with sparse, stubby tufts of grass peeking out. Everything is dirty, everyone is selfish, nothing is pure. It doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to the terrible things that are happening - there’s no melodramatic music (in fact, outside of Marc's songs and one especially unsettling interlude in the village, there’s no music at all), there is little in the way of obvious camera staging - a mixture of quick cuts and long takes is used to linger on suffering and move things from bad to worse economically. 

And things do go from bad to worse - horrible things happen casually, because out here in the backwoods, life is different from how it is in the cities and towns. Bartel isn't lying when he says the villagers are different - they’re all brutish men, inarticulate to the point of silence, and occupied with strange, unwholesome customs. A lot goes unsaid in this film, but if you read between the lines, the story is really, really not a happy or pretty one. It’s not often you can describe a horror film’s tone as sordid, but that’s exactly how it all feels. What begins as sadness darkens to dread, which descends into grotesquerie before landing at outright nightmarish surrealism as things get worse for Marc who, throughout it all, really does seem blameless. He’s a man trying to do his job the best he can, despite all of these people projecting their need for love, long-lost love, love irretrievable, onto him. By the end, Marc is almost gone, swallowed by all of the dreams and memories people have projected onto him.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Brood: The Mind/Body Problem



a number of young produced or hatched at one time; a family of offspring or young.


to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder:

to dwell on a subject or to meditate with morbid persistence 

to cover, loom, or seem to fill the atmosphere or scene

It’s something that’s been argued over by philosophers and other assorted scholars of human behavior for centuries - what’s the relationship between the mind and the body? Is the mind a product of biological systems (the body) that facilitate consciousness, or the illusion thereof? Or is our sense of ourselves as a living thing - a body - the product of our consciousness? Is the mind something separate? Is it the purpose of the body or a byproduct of it? Where does one end and the other begin? There’s a certain anxiety associated with feeling detached or alienated from your own body, of feeling like this unwieldy meat vehicle is completely out of your control, and horror exploits that through the terrors of vampirism, lycanthropy, zombies, disease, mutation...the list goes on. The mind is too - the idea of “psychological horror,” where the psychology is threats to the mind and consciousness, rather than the body. But there’s something especially squirm-inducing about the intersection of the two, when both the mind and body are warped and the horror of one scars the other.

The Brood may not have aged as well as it could have, but its ideas about modernity’s collision with humanity and the tyranny of mind over body are still potent.

It’s the story of Frank and Nola Carveth. Nola’s in intensive psychotherapy for issues stemming from what appears to have been an abusive childhood, and this leaves Frank on his own to raise their daughter, Candice. Nola’s in the care of Dr. Hal Raglan - a pioneer in a field of study he terms “psychoplasmics” - the externalization of suppressed feelings and conflicts as physical trauma. A young man’s conflicted feelings about his father erupt into boils during a demonstration, and this is apparently cathartic. Dr. Raglan has written a book about his approach, titled The Shape of Rage. Nola is in intensive one-on-one treatment with Dr. Raglan and despite Frank’s protestations, Raglan won’t let him see her, because she’s at a critical stage in her treatment. For example, Nola and Raglan, through the use of psychodrama, work through Nola’s hatred of her alcoholic, abusive mother.

A mother who dies mysteriously, shortly after the session in question. She’s found viciously beaten to death by some unknown assailant, and Nola never left the clinic.

As wacked-out as the idea might seem, there’s precedent in early theories of  psychotherapy - Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis stemmed from an experience he had with a colleague’s patient - a woman code-named Anna O, who had gone spontaneously blind, and later paralyzed, presumably as a response to having to take care of her bedridden father. Freud believed the body was preventing the mind from acting on unacceptable urges. The mind hijacks the body.

More than taking advantage of this tension, The Brood serves, like the filmmaker’s previous Shivers, as another comment on the ways that modern life shapes and is shaped by the body. In Shivers, it was the closeness of modern high-rise living taken to the extremes and the post-Sixties relaxing of sexual mores, and here it references what were at the time new fads in psychology and self-improvement, like EST or primal scream therapy, combined with the narcissism that arose from the abandonment of Fifties stoicism, resulting in the disparaging label “the Me Generation.” People were beginning to talk about their feelings and their struggles and their pasts instead of suppressing them, and though it was probably a swing too far in the other direction, it was an understandable overcorrection, and lead to a lot of quack ideas about self-actualization. Raglan, as an example of one of these many gurus hiding behind a thin sheen of psychology instead of spirituality, encourages his clients to somaticize their feelings and unresolved issues, making the "lancing the boil" or "draining the wound" metaphors literal.

And we get the picture clearly enough with regard to the protagonists - the way Nola's parents conduct themselves tell you everything you need to know about them. The constant refills of drinks, the nips from the flask, the huge gulf between her mother’s recollections and her father’s. All of the trips to the hospital. You can only imagine what her childhood was like, but you know it wasn’t good. Frank is a man in over his head, trying to balance work and being a single father for all intents and purposes, and the father part's going lacking. But it's hard to be wholly sympathetic - there's definitely a strong undercurrent of bitterness that makes you wonder, just as we do about Nola's childhood, what things must have been like between them before Nola went into Dr. Raglan's care. In the middle of this maelstrom of toxic anger and bitterness is Candice, mostly mute throughout, buffeted one way and another by the legacy left both by her parent's marriage and the abuse her mother suffered. And behind all of it the mystery of a body count that seems to escalate with Nola’s distress and target those by whom she perceives herself to be wronged.

It's very much a film of its time, and to the extent that there are indeed monsters in this film, the practical effects go a little lacking to the modern eye, and things that should be viscerally frightening feel more like placeholders because the artifice is too obvious. Nevertheless, it still by and large gets over because of the absolute audacity of the concepts presented here - feelings literally made flesh, the perversion of motherhood, both by Nola and Nola's mother, the way children are constantly at risk - for physical abuse, neglect, and as witnesses to horror - throughout the film. I suspect it'd be very difficult to make this same film today without some folks being really up in arms, and it's that unsparing quality, that willingness to put taboos about the body and society aside to interrogate these ideas, that still gives this film power decades later.

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