Thursday, September 3, 2015

Well, This Is Awkward

So in planning what was supposed to be this week's posts for this thing I write right here, I planned a commentary on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, having watched the comprehensive documentary about them, Never Sleep Again. It's a good cautionary tale about the pitfalls of franchising, neatly illustrating many of the things I described as problems when I used the Saw films as an example. Needless to say, I am not very complimentary in my notes.

And then I decided, since I was already thinking about the Nightmare on Elm Street films, that it might be time to revisit Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which I found sort of dull when I originally saw it a year or two after it came out. And I can't honestly say I did a complete reversal on it.

I planned all of this, and the day before I planned to post the piece based on Never Sleep Again, Wes Craven passed away.

So now...doesn't feel like the time to criticize films he made. Wes Craven made some really important films, and it feels a little unseemly to, now of all times, pick apart stuff he did. So that will be for a later week, after some time has passed. All I'll say right now is that it's a damn shame that nobody since him has seemed to know what to do with the ideas in the first Nightmare film, New Nightmare was a great idea that was hamstrung from reaching its full potential by what were probably commercial considerations, I really need to watch Last House on the Left one of these days, and Scream is one of the few slasher films I really like. R.I.P.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Monsters: Dark Continent: Welcome To The Occupation

(As a heads-up, this one gets a bit spoilery.)

This one’s going to be a bit different from most of my posts. See, usually when I write something up, I’m working from notes that I jotted down immediately after watching the movie. Just enough to capture what I see as the important points before they slip my mind, and then I flesh them out into a post anywhere from 3 to 6 days later depending on my schedule. This one, though, I’m doing completely off the top of my head, two days after watching it, not so much because I don’t need the notes as because it won’t quite get out of my brain. I didn’t originally plan to watch it with a writeup in mind, but it won’t get out of my head.

Whatever I was expecting out of Monsters: Dark Continent as a sequel to Monsters, it sure as shit wasn’t this. And I’m still not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s been awhile since a movie left me this unsettled.

Monsters was the story of a world in which the crash-landing of a deep-space probe returning to Earth ended up infesting Mexico with alien life forms, none of which seem to be intelligent. Some of them were dangerous, and there were deaths. So life went on, much as always, only we built an even larger wall on the U.S./Mexico border, and Mexico is divided by the alien-infested “Infected Zone.” Two people - stranded in Mexico by bad luck and bad decisions - have to make their way north to the border before the U.S. starts carpet-bombing the shit out of Mexico to stop the infestation, and this means making their way through the Infected Zone.

Now, it’s ten years later, and the monsters are just as much - if not more - a fact of the world as they were before. They’ve spread, because apparently carpet-bombing Ground Zero didn’t do jack shit. So we’re...still carpet-bombing them, and the story has shifted to the Middle East, where they’re all over the deserts. And we meet Michael, Frankie, Karl, and Shaun, four friends who have grown up rough in Detroit and enlisted in the military because they really wanted to get the fuck out of Detroit and the fates that surely awaited them there. We meet them on their last day in Detroit before they ship out.

They’re going to go kill monsters.

At least, this is what they think. What they discover is that monsters are few and far between, and life in the occupied zone is much like war always is - long stretches of tedium interrupted by moments of pants-shitting terror, courtesy of the local insurgents. Basically, these are people sick and tired of American bombs missing the mark and flattening villages and killing families in their futile quest to wipe out the literal herds of alien creatures roaming the desert. The real danger here isn’t mammoth Lovecraftian horrors, it’s IEDs and sniper fire and the smoldering hostility of a people who never asked for the armies to come in the first place. I was afraid from the trailers that this would be an ooh-rah action film where badass soldiers mow down herds of aliens, utterly missing the point of the first film, but that wasn’t the case at all. Just as in the first film, the monsters aren’t really the point, nor is the point necessarily how life and people have changed since the monsters came. It’s that really, the presence of monsters doesn’t change things all that much at all.

But the first film was hopeful, ultimately about connection and understanding. I’ve glibly described it to people as “Before Sunrise with giant alien beasts” and though that’s definitely a smartassed take on it, it’s not really wrong. This film, as befits its change of locale, is unremittingly bleak. Our four protagonists aren’t unsympathetic, but they’re not not unsympathetic either. They’re crude and aggressive, guys from a rough neighborhood who have been trained up into killers. They spend their last night snorting coke, drinking, smoking weed, and fucking strippers. They go to a dogfight with an ugly twist - a pitbull versus a small alien. It’s relentlessly ugly and ends with both animals dead, a long unblinking shot on the bloodied corpses, dead for no good reason. This is the world they think they are leaving behind. When they get to Camp Renegade, their base of operations, Sergeants Forrest and Prater explain the situation. They’re going to be spending more time patrolling the towns and trying to root out insurgents and dodge IEDs than they are taking down monsters. And then the mission comes, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one that takes them into heavily monster-infested territory to find out what happened to a patrol that hasn’t reported back.

And it’s this point, as you might expect, as everything spirals into nightmare, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and soon enough, we’re almost inhabiting a nightmare version of the first film - two people wandering through a foreign landscape, among suspicious or openly hostile locals, dodging humans and monsters alike in search of home and some sort of answer. But just as the two people in the first film are drawn closer together by their journey, the two men here are driven further and further apart - from each other, and from their essential humanity, in the service of survival and a mission brief that becomes, as things continue, simultaneously the least important thing facing them and the only sure anchor to certainty they have. And instead of being witnesses to death and horror, they are complicit agents in death and horror. They are the ones leaving bodies behind, not so much the monsters. It’s a static film, with lots of voice overs and long closeups and long vista shots. It’s long stretches of nothing partitioned by moments of blood, fire, and panic. It is corpses upon corpses, the wreckage of our good intentions. And always, the monsters roar in the background, and the jets thunder, and the fire rolls over the dunes, and this dark reflection of the first film leaves me shaken at its unrelenting grimness, at the way nothing is spared. This is just how the world is now, and you are in it. You are bathing in ashes and death, and that will never change.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Exorcist: Iconography and Iconoclasm

I have a confession to make: I have never seen The Exorcist before now.

I know, I know, it’s one of those “what do you mean you haven’t seen it?” movies. It’s so indelibly embedded in popular culture that it’d almost take a conscious act of avoidance to not see it. You’d have to work at that shit. And yet, here we are. I read the novel on which it was based when I was younger (probably too young, come to think of it), so it’s not like I’m totally unfamiliar with the story, it just always fell into that category of “oh yeah, I should watch that someday.” For better or worse, it’s part of the canon, and sometimes when things are part of the canon, it’s harder to muster the enthusiasm for them that you can for newer, more potentially surprising material. But in the process of writing my last post on Asmodexia, I started thinking about my general experiences with demonic possession movies (mostly positive, all told), and part of that was “oh shit, I’ve never seen The Exorcist.” It seemed like it was time.

If by some chance you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of actress Chris MacNeil and her preteen daughter Regan. Chris is in Washington DC shooting some sort of student-protest movie that has her, as a teacher, exhorting students to “change the system from within,” and it’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. The director’s a drunken prick named Burke Dennings, and Chris juggles his lack of boundaries, planning something nice for Regan’s upcoming birthday, and trying to reach Regan’s perpetually absent father. But it’s a pretty sweet gig otherwise - they have a nice house in Georgetown, servants, a driver, it’s all going well otherwise. Until Regan gets sick - fever, nausea, muscle spasms...

...coming downstairs in the middle of a party, telling one of the guests “you’re going to die up there” and then peeing on the rug.

No prizes for guessing what’s happening to Regan, because this film laid the blueprint for an entire subgenre the way Night of the Living Dead did for zombie films. This is where the connection between possession and illness began, the priest grappling with the strength of his faith, the idea that the demon knows everyone’s darkest secrets. And for me, watching it for the first time, this was a bit of a problem. It’s a difficult film to discuss, because it’s so part and parcel of everything that’s come after it. Pretty much any standard story beat we associate with demonic possession movies really began here, and for me at least, that took the bite out of the film. Horror, I think, works best in terms of the unknown, or the process of making the unknown known, and The Exorcist is so well-known that, at least for me, it has very few surprises left. Every moment from this film has become a classic moment - Regan’s head twisting all the way around, Regan puking all over the priest, Regan screaming “your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, it’s all familiar even to someone who hasn’t actually seen the film because it’s been referenced and parodied and emulated over and over and over again. It’s so much a part of our consciousness that there aren’t that many mysteries left. There’s no unknown to fear. So I came away from it feeling kind of cold on the whole experience. Nothing I saw really grabbed me (except maybe Dennings’ casual assholery or the tone-deafness of the film in which Chris is starring) or invested me because I knew what was coming and how it was going to turn out. It’s yielded up all its mystery to the culture, and for me at least that robbed the film of a lot of its power. Now that it’s an icon, it doesn’t shock anymore. It is a monument to itself, instead of itself, if that makes sense. That said, it didn’t end up one of the most successful and critically recognized horror films ever made for no reason - I’m just saying that for whatever reason, the qualities that have brought it so much attention didn’t, for me, survive its induction into the collective pop culture consciousness. 

So what are those qualities? If I wasn’t moved by the film itself, I can still at least try to understand what gives it the power that it wielded over so many viewers over the decades. I think a lot of it is in the pacing. As horror films go, The Exorcist is…surprisingly deliberate, almost meditative, for its first half. I think this was effective because it makes the events of the back half of the film all the more shocking for the naive viewer. There are little hints here and there that things are not right - we open on an archeological dig in Iraq, where a weary-looking man (Father Merrin, the titular exorcist) has located a sinister-looking idol. Back in DC, a statue of the Virgin Mary is found obscenely vandalized. No explanation is offered to connect them, either to each other or to the main story. It’s just there, lurking in the background, this sense that something is wrong. Quiet scenes with Father Damien Karras - a priest/psychiatrist called in to consult on Regan’s case - smash cut to noisy subway trains rushing toward the camera, as if Karras doesn’t know what’s coming for him. Merrin’s discovery of the idol is soundtracked with snarling dogs fighting off-camera, suggesting awful violence contained by the idol’s implacable stillness. As much as the main story seems like the plot to a drama about a woman and her daughter trying to make it without a man in the house (this was 1973, after all) or a romantic comedy about an actress and single mother trying to find love, these small touches curdle the edges of the film with unease until the other shoe drops.

And it’s how the other shoe drops that I think is the other important component to this film’s success, Given that I have to talk about this film in the context of the time in which it was made, what I think made it so powerful then was its iconoclasm - few things are sacred in this film. Chris MacNeil is a single mother - wealthy and famous, yes, but still a single mother during a time well before divorce was considered appropriate subject matter in films - and Regan doesn’t seem especially precocious or willful as we would expect a child (especially one from a “broken home”) in film to be. She’s just a kid, and kids have imaginary friends and play with Ouija boards and we think nothing of it. She doesn’t call attention to herself. There’s no love interest (Dennings is highly unsympathetic by any measure), and our other major figures of authority - Fathers Karras and Merrin - are frail, vulnerable men, wracked by illness and doubt. In fact, men in this film don’t really come off too well in general. They’re largely ineffectual at best and selfish and venal at worst, not a traditional hero in the bunch.

Things really start to spin up with the vandalized statue in the church, a briefly-glimpsed but still pretty startling act of blasphemy to put on screen, and this begins a series of events that ultimately escalates to a 12-year-old girl raping herself with a crucifix, screaming obscenities, and vomiting on priests. Contrast this with the graphic suffering Regan experiences during a battery of medical tests and her obvious physical decline and we’re left with a film that has a casual disregard for rules about the sanctity of religion, childhood, and traditional family values. The law (as represented by the single detective) cannot make it right, mothers are on their own and cannot keep their children from suffering, priests cannot stop evil except through the costliest, most desperate measures, and children say and do horrible, horrible things to themselves and other people. This must have been a lot to take in when this film first aired, in what was still a fairly conservative climate. There must have been a sense that all bets were off, and anything could happen next, and it’s that casual disregard for taboo that I think drives home what the pacing sets up - you are lulled into a false sense of security, and then shit goes sideways to a degree with scant precedent up to that point. It’s an approach that would serve horror films made during the 1970s well, and I think it’s sorely missed today. I have to wonder if that sort of iconoclasm is worth it, though, if it only serves to desiccate the film that indulges it into an icon without its power and vitality intact.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Asmodexia: Revelations

Demonic possession movies do a good, solid line as horror films go. They’re sort of the utility players, never really falling out of favor but never really dominating the slate in any given year. I don’t know that I’m a sucker for them as a type, but I have to admit, I’ve liked a lot of the ones I’ve seen since I started writing this thing, and The Last Exorcism and Ahi Va El Diablo come immediately to mind as two of my favorite horror films. There’s often a real disease or illness subtext to them - The Rite presented us with possession as chronic illness, The Taking of Deborah Logan presented it as degenerative illness, and in most possession films, it ends up being the real cause behind what initially seems to be some sort of mental or physical malady. I guess this is appropriate since one of the earliest explanations for what we now call mental illness was possession by evil spirits. It’s a link forged in history and culture.

So the brief for Asmodexia suggests that its hook is possession as communicable illness. At first I was leery, because that could end up being yet another hackneyed riff on zombie films, of which I am most definitely tired. Much to my delight, it is not that at all. It’s a slow, careful crawl toward dread and the horror of revelation.

The film opens with closeups on a VCR, a videotape marked “Luna,” footage of a mysteriously traumatic childbirth, and a man screaming to a terrified woman, forcing her to look at the child who has just been born. It isn’t at all clear what has just happened, and then we flash-forward to 15 years later. Which, at first, made me sigh, because I am tired of pointless flashback-and-“years later” constructions.

Except that it’s “15 years later...3 days before the resurrection.” Huh.

The body of the film is three basic stories - an old man (the one from the flashback) and his granddaughter, a woman confined to a mental hospital, and two police officers investigating a series of mysterious deaths. All of them take place in and around Barcelona while, in the background, strange things are happening. It’s an unseasonably hot December, it’s coming up on the end of the Mayan calendar, Christian sects throughout Spain are engaging in all kinds of ritualistic behavior, and all over the country, more and more people are exhibiting the signs of what anyone else would call demonic possession. It’s apocalyptic in every sense of the word - the old man and his granddaughter wander from place to place, performing exorcisms as they go, almost like plague doctors treating an epidemic. The woman in the hospital watches as the order of the hospital crumbles around her as more and more of the patients succumb to the supernatural infection. The detectives, always one step behind the old man and his granddaughter, are trying to figure out what the pattern is behind these deaths, just one step behind the chaos beginning to embrace the world. Everything is falling apart.

It’s initially a difficult sell - the structure is clear enough, but the film starts very slowly and is at first a little hard to follow. It’s very elliptical, mostly made up of long, static shots with little interrupting them, or conversations between two people in isolation from everything else. These scenes are broken up largely with dissolves, so it feels like we’re shifting between three different movies without necessarily there being a lot of continuity from moment to moment. It takes a little bit to locate everyone in the story, so the first act especially feels like it jumps around a lot, especially given how little context it has at first with the opening flashback. There’s also sort of an overuse of dramatic music stings and ominous ambient music over what seem like otherwise innocuous scenes - I get that the filmmakers are trying to create an atmosphere of unease, but it’s a little ham-handed in places, and doesn’t always feel like the sound is being contrasted with the image in a meaningful way.

But none of that is really, ultimately, that much of a problem because this is a film that rewards patience and careful attention. It’s not at all immediately apparent how everything and everyone fits together, and so the beginning of the film is a little confusing, but things do cohere - there are connections between the people in these three storylines, and they aren’t always what or how you’d think. Really, the film is a process of revelation - what these people have in common, what they are in the process of doing, what has happened in the past, and what is happening now. It would be a cliché to say that nothing is what it seems, but the appeal of this film is the way it goes about fitting all the pieces together. Even for a movie about possession, everything’s a bit off around the edges, like it’s not following the demonic-possession playbook exactly, and what may seem like quirks at first begin to make sense the longer you watch. The tableaux broken up by dissolves, the weird clashes between sound and image, and a story that seems a little off on the details all contribute to this feeling of dreamlike wrongness. It isn’t really until the last 15 minutes or so that the full implications of everything you’ve seen really begin to click into place, and so the cold, sick, sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach is a strong payoff of everything that came before. It’s the slowest and quietest and coldest of burns. I’ve talked before about the “horror of revelation,” that moment when the awful truth begins to make sense and comprehension is terrifying, and this film is an excellent example of that horror at work.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Nightbreed (Director’s Cut): Where The Wild Things Are

Monsters are, undoubtedly, central to horror film, as the antagonists of some of the earliest and purest examples of the form. We’re afraid of the Other, of what’s in the dark, of what we don’t understand, so that’s one very direct route of the nightmare center of the brain. That said, if monsters are the oldest trirck in the book, the question of who the monsters really are in is at least the second-oldest. Sympathy for the putative “monster” of the film goes all the way back to Frankenstein, and the presentation of the so-called “good guys” as somehow even worse monsters still show up even today in films like 28 Days Later and The Devil’s Rejects. It’s one of the most basic questions we can ask: What makes something a monster?

Nightbreed is an overly ambitious attempt to examine the concepts of humanity and monstrosity, and its reach exceeds its grasp.

It is largely the story of Aaron Boone, a troubled young man who suffers from nightmares in which he runs from unseen pursuers toward an overgrown cemetary, where he is beckoned by bizarre-looking creatures. Horned and spined things who run alongside him but don’t appear to be the ones chasing him. Apprently, this is a recurring thing for Boone, to the point that he’s developed an elaborate mythology around these nightmares, claiming that they concern a legendary city of monsters, an underground world called Midian. His girlfriend Lori suggests he contact his therapist, Dr. Philip Decker, about these dreams, and Decker also thinks it would be a good idea.

You see, Aaron Boone apparently has a tendency toward blackouts, and as it transpires, his last blackout coincided with the murder of an entire family. 

So here we have our first setup - Boone dreams of monsters, and may be a monster himself. Decker wants to help Boone get better, but as becomes apparent very quickly, Decker has an agenda of his own. as psychiatrists in horror films often do. And really, the strongest through-line in this film is the relationship between Boone and Decker, and Decker’s cool, unflappable demeanor provides a nice counterpoint to Boone’s more rough-hewn personality and his connection to monsters. It’s a conflict between the old ways and the modern rationality that seeks to erase it in the name of improvement. And if that were the primary conflict here - modern medicine versus ancient mysticism, we’d have a pretty good movie. But it’s just one piece of many.

Boone versus Decker would be a good movie, the search for Midian would be a good movie, one about one young man’s attempt to reconcile the pull of myth with the real-world implications of his obsession. Hell, even Boone’s relationship with Lori would be a good movie - how much do you worry when the man you love keeps talking about some bizarre inner world he has and people keep dying? - but all of these things end up crammed together in a single film, and as a result, it especially becomes a bit of a mess in the back half. Yes, as it turns out, Midian is a real place, and Boone and Decker are of two minds about what that means. So there’s one conflict, but there’s also Boone exploring Midian, getting to know its inhabitants, who, although monstrous in the sense that they are bizarre-looking, have very human motivations and feelings and desires and mannerisms, which makes them feel less alien than just exercises in makeup effects, for the most part. And then we have Lori looking for Boone when he goes missing, so now we have to divide our time between Boone exploring Midian, Lori looking for Boone, and Decker trying to track down Midian with the aid of law enforcement, which ends up as these storylines all converge, becoming confusing if not downright incoherent in places. 

Once the police get involved on a large scale, the film also turns downright cartoonish in its portrayal of humans as well as monsters. - The local police department are a parody of gun-toting yahoo masculinity, and so the final act of the movie discards any sense of horror or fright or menace to basically become a B-grade action flick with a lot of elaborate makeup effects. That this is still the case in the director’s cut (which adds about 45 minutes back into the film) suggests that it was a problem all along.  At that point, it’s not horrifying, it’s not scary, it’s just action with a different set of rules, and it’s sort of a jarring shift in tone from the first, and even to some extent second act of the film. It’s also not clear how Lori fits in other than she loves Boone and wants him back - at no point does she seem utterly overwhelmed by the monstrosity around her, her entire point in the back half of the film seems to be to just keep telling Boone she loves him as some kind of remedy for everything else, and there’s little attention paid to how she must feel about trying to reconcile the Boone she knew with what he becomes over the course over the movie. She just sort of stands next to him and looks up at him adoringly. 

The problem of ambition and overreach extends to practical aspects of the movie as well. Because it’s a film about monsters, there are a lot of practical makeup effects, and because this film was made in 1990, the effects aren’t espeically believable. It’s really tough to do monster makeup believably, even today and under the best of circumstances and there are so many monsters in this movie that quantity compromises quality. Some of them might have been effective at the time but just haven’t aged well, but some were downright silly even then. Again, this leads to a sharp contrast between the first part of the film, where there’s a real sense of menace, and the second, which verges on bloody slapstick, everyone a caricature.

The strength of creator Clive Barker’s work in written fiction is the way it conveys the idea that there is something mysterious and ancient underneath the everyday world. It’s the idea that just around the corner or behind that door or in a clearing somewhere in the wilderness, the ruins of long-forgotten civilizations and the battlefields of forgotten arcane wars and the keepers of long-forgotten stories and secrets are hiding in plain sight, and our world is basically just a polite, mundane skin over something roiling and ancient and incomprehensible. But telling those stories on the screen requires a lot that his films have pretty much never been given, in terms of time and, frankly, budget (the adaptation of his Lord of Illusions suffers many of the same problems of this film, albeit at a smaller scale). And in some ways, they work best as smaller stories with glimpses into larger realms - Hellraiser (probably the most effective adaptation of his work) is a very contained story about one intrusion of the supernatural into a family’s life. When it’s grounded in the “normal” and we just get peeks into the terror beyond, that’s when it works well. When the terror beyond is the focus and laid out for display, as here, it gives too much away, and then making the whole “humanity are the real monsters” point so blatantly on-the-nose doesn’t help either.

In its attempt to make monsters more human and humanity more monstrous, the depth and feeling of the film suffers and nobody comes off as anything so much as props, exercises in effects and cliche. Old monster movies are objects of derision for the shoddiness of their work, visible zippers on costumes giving the game away. Here, you can see the zippers on the monsters and the people alike.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Beyond The Black Rainbow: Journey To The Center Of The Mind

I think, sometimes, that modern horror film tends to give short shrift to aesthetics. Or, at least, it tends to find one or two that work and beat them into the ground, treating it not as something artistic, used to evoke mood, but as a component, like masked killers or little girls with lank black hair or ghosts whose features distort as a placeholder, as something that says “here, you should be scared now.” I like films that show me the world in ways I’ve never seen it before, and you’d think that’d be something embraced by an ostensibly transgressive genre of film, but like I pointed out recently, horror (or at least some strains of it) are actually deeply conservative. That’s not just something that applies to morality, but also to aesthetics. So when a film goes balls-out to show me something I’ve never seen before, or commits so strongly to an established aesthetic that it becomes something else, I will be right fucking there.

As in the case of Beyond The Black Rainbow, which is an absolutely striking evocation of a particular time, place, and aesthetic. This is less a film you watch than a film in which you immerse yourself.

We open on a title card that says simply “1983.” And then we’re treated to what appears to be a circa-1970s advertisement for the Arboria Institute, a research institute devoted to helping people fully self-actualize through a combination of “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting.” The narrator, Dr. Mercurio Arboria, seems kindly, sort of Timothy Leary by way of Carl Rogers. He’s interested in helping you become your best self, and the Arboria Institute - with its state of the art facility and “award-winning gardens,” is here for just that.

And then we’re introduced to Dr. Barry Nyle, the Institute’s head of research, as he visits with a young woman named Elena. She lives in a featureless white room, and she’s escorted by a stern-looking nurse, and Nyle meets with her through a wall of thick glass. The “award-winning gardens” and warm, reassuring tones of Dr. Arboria are nowhere to be found. It’s just him, and her, and the blank, cold, unfeeling walls.

Elena is apparently very special, and Dr. Nyle has plans for her.

Truth be told, there is very little story to this film, just a series of scenes and images and impressions that we put together to infer a series of events, and not everything is explained. Takes are long and deliberate (or strobelight quick - this is not a good film for people who are vulnerable to seizures), the dialogue (what little there is) is highly elliptical. It’s hard to get more “show, don’t tell” than this. 

And “show” is the key here, because the setting, the music, the colors, the camera work, These are what tell the story. The Arboria Institute is futuristic, for a particular vision of the future common to the 70s and 80s, and the way the sleek, glossy 80s starship interiors of the Arboria Institute clash with the 70s-era hippie-futurist optimism of the introductory video suggest that Nyle has taken the Institute in a very different direction from its original intent. In fact, the Institute seems almost deserted - you get the sense that it really is just the people we see, continuing work long since abandoned. There’s Nyle, Elena, and the nurse, for the most part. This is not a busy place. What actually happens is pretty minimal - Elena appears to have some sort of extrasensory ability, and Nyle has an agenda with regards to that ability. Elena wants to escape the Institute, and Nyle wants to keep here there.

That’s...pretty much the whole plot, but it’s how we learn the specifics of each of these that make up the experience of the film. There’s something not quite right with Nyle, this is apparent almost right after we meet him, but what exactly is wrong with him is only gradually revealed through his interactions with others and a stark, nightmarish flashback that unpacks a lot in just a few minutes. Elena does appear to be gifted somehow, but we don’t realize exactly how powerful she is until something really bloody happens impressionistically out of focus behind her. Nyle’s agenda is revealed in a rapid-fire series of images that don’t stay on the screen long enough to really register, but leave us with an awful, unsettling feeling afterward, like getting a glimpse into an alien mind. Basically, the filmmakers decided to use Stanley Kubrick’s art direction from 2001 to create a tone poem about the dangers of journeying into the center of the mind and prying open the third eye, or perhaps a cinematic artifact, a long-lost 80s science fiction film that straddles the lines between glossy futurism, psychedelia, and body horror.

The whole thing is strikingly shot, with bold uses of color - vivid reds and whites and reflective blacks mark what we see of the Institute initially, and so this palette becomes sort of our visual baseline, and departures from it - to Nyle’s home, to the parts of the Institute outside of where Elena lives, to the world outside - create sort of a journey, reinforcing the idea that Elena is escaping something insular and artificial, as well as telling the story of what the Institute must once have been like. You get the sense that this is something at its end, a dying thing kept barely alive for one purpose, and what that purpose is and what it has taken to achieve it are only hinted at, as are the fates of the story’s major players - what has happened to Arboria, what Nyle has become, what the future holds for Elena. This is not a movie that overexplains, or fills in backstory. This is a film that asks you to behold it, to feel it, and let its strange trip wash over you.

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 is 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.

The film 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.

Unvailable on Netflix