Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Hour Photo: Image Capture

When I first started thinking about the idea of spending an October writing about non-horror horror films, I didn’t really think of it too much in terms of specific themes. It was more just thinking “hey, this is a film that is in its own way scary even though it’s not really considered horror.” But as I’m thinking through the films I want to write about, I’m starting to see some themes emerge. The first is the idea of surveillance.

Horror uses the idea of surveillance as a tool to build tension all the time - shots from the point of view of the antagonist are a time-honored way to signal that something bad is going to happen, and this idea is taken to its queasily logical extreme in the recent remake of Maniac, where it implicates us in the antagonist’s violence while at the same time making us feel helpless - we are seeing what the killer sees, but we cannot intervene. Omnipresent surveillance situations create a sense that your life and fate are not your own, that if every move is tracked, any attempt to escape would be futile. Whether it’s a supernatural creature or a killer or technology is irrelevant. It’s always a monster, ready to rob us of our lives, if only metaphorically.

One Hour Photo is putatively a thriller, so I’m maybe fudging my own non-horror thing here, but it’s by no means an obvious one. It’s a measured, smart take on the idea that appearances are deceiving - which is an easy thing to bungle by being too on-the-nose - and more importantly, the ways in which our apprehension of those appearances are in and of themselves a potential form of violence.

It opens with a shot of a camera, its lens staring back at us unblinking. The shot is held just long enough to make us uncomfortable. Nothing happens, just a single lens looking back at the audience. Even though it's a representation (an image of a camera taken by yet another camera) and not the real thing, that sense of being watched is palpable. It resolves with a video rendering of the actual image it’s seeing. It’s a man, having his mugshot taken. Something bad has happened, though we're not quite clear on the specifics yet.

The man is Seymour “Sy” Parrish, and he’s as quiet and mild-mannered as can be, which makes the detective’s statement that the photographs they took from Sy “aren’t very nice” even more puzzling. What could this man have done, that he’s being held by police pending the arrival of his attorney from Legal Aid? This sets the stage, and the clock is turned back to many days before this moment.

Before this moment, Sy works at Sav-Mart, a large WalMart-type megastore in the suburbs. He works in the photo department, where people drop off rolls of film and he develops them for quick pickup. Sy loves his job and take pride in it. He has all sorts of regular customers, and he pays attention to them. Among his customers is Nina Yorkin, by all appearances a reasonably well-off housewife. Nina is married to Will Yorkin, who runs a design firm, and they have a sweet, sensitive young son named Jake. Sy’s been printing their photos ever since they got married - their wedding, Jake’s birth, anniversaries, vacations, birthdays - all in vivid color. Nina drops off some film, and asks Sy for two sets of prints of each.

Sy prints three sets.

As it transpires, we discover that Sy is a very lonely man. He’s one of the last to leave at the end of the day, and after he stops for a late dinner alone at a diner where the waitress knows him by name, he takes the bus home to his nearly-empty apartment. Just him, a hamster, and the Yorkins’ photographic memories. There’s almost no there there, he’s a desaturated nonentity, and he lives his life through the Yorkins. As time goes on, Sy imagines himself more and more a part of their life, as if he were a close family friend, or perhaps a relative. He’s not a bug-eyed madman, he’s just lonely and doesn’t have much going for him, and the Yorkins’ life makes for a warmer, more colorful alternative. Of course, nobody’s life is as wonderful as it looks - even Sy himself points out that nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget - and as his obsession with the Yorkin family grows, so does the disillusionment as the cracks in their own façade are revealed. Sy becomes angry with them, and starts to come unraveled.

So right off, we know this is a film about appearances, about form. Will works in design - his job is to attend to both form and function. He creates images. Conversely, Sy is a servant to images - it's his job to bring images of other people's lives into the world, and other peoples' lives are what he has instead of a life of his own. His own home is empty, devoid of any identity, save what Sy borrows from others. He hangs on to image the way a drowning man hangs on to a life raft, and over time begins to mistake the life raft for the life it’s supposed to save. When the life he’s imagined for himself fails to match up neatly with the reality of what it means to be Will, Nina, and Jake Yorkin, Sy can’t handle it. It’s all he has.

But that’s the most obvious aspect. Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth considering - Sy and the Yorkin family are largely painted with a great deal of sympathy and humanity, which isn’t typical for a film about someone’s obsession - it’s just not the most interesting bit. It’s not just about image, but also about the act of recording that image. Photographs are documentation, memorialization, but, the film argues, there's a predatory aspect to them too. Even discounting the largely apocryphal stories of indigenous tribes who believe that taking someone's picture steals their soul, think about the language - "image capture", "taking a picture", "shooting.” As Sy observes at one point, "snapshot" is a term taken from hunting. It's this idea that further helps to elevate the story above what could in lesser hands have been a painfully trite story about how not everyone is as happy as they look, ending with an important lesson learned. No, it's this idea of photography as an act of taking that gives One Hour Photo its low, humming undercurrent of tension and dread. We know something bad has happened when the film opens, and the more the film plays on the idea of being watched and of life moments ending up in the hands of someone to whom they don’t belong, the more afraid we are to see exactly where it goes

It's further supported by a strong attention to visual style - it's a film about image and appearance, and what we see communicates who these people are. The Yorkins are shot in warm, soft light most of the time, their ultra-modern house all rich browns and polished metal and tasteful sprays of color from flowers and Jake's art on the refrigerator. Sav-Mart is all sterile, gleaming whites and cold fluorescents, devoid of humanity, and both Sy's apartment and Sy himself are beige and washed-out to the point of near-colorlessness. The only color in Sy's life comes from the photos he has of the Yorkin family. The film is interspersed with photographic montage, recalled moments lit like photographs, replayed in slow-motion as if the moments themselves are slowing down to their final stasis, captured on film. Sometimes the photographs become scenes of their own as the line between life and its documentation, between your life and the life of others, begins to blur.

Even with all of this, though, it could have still been easy to fall into the trap of pat answers - the flip side to "they seem like this" is "but they're really like this" which risks reducing these characters to type, and the film neatly dodges this at several points. We're lead to expect events to go one way, and then they don't - it's not so much a twist as a sidestep. The Yorkins are a troubled couple, but it's never really clear exactly where fault lies - both Will and Nina make bad decisions, each has legitimate grievances, and when Sy's obsession finally overwhelms him and he acts out, the rage you expect from someone in his position is there, but it's shot through with raw pain that comes from a place much older than his fixation on the Yorkins. We expect someone who is obsessed to become angry when his obsession lets him down, but it's unexpectedly human, and the film's final moments unspool for us exactly how Sy became the kind of person who would take solace in the life of another, and feel so in thrall to photography as a way to capture, or take something. After all of the tension and fear and violence that has come before, it’s this awful confession that, in a few sentences, lays the idea that images are a form of violence out for the audience, not just naked, but flayed in its directness.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

It's That Time Of Year Again

Sorry about the relative slowdown in posting activity - technical hiccups and being busy at work have made it difficult to keep up the pace that I'd like. I think that will be changing soon.

Also, now that it's October, everyone's dragging out all the horror-related lists and theme posts and TV channels are running various and sundry horror movie marathons and yes oooh spooky and all that.

As someone who is somewhat willfully perverse about all of this (and who stopped going trick-or-treating when he was 8 because the idea of begging strangers for candy seemed sort of embarrassing), I'm going to spend the rest of October looking at films that are not typically thought of as being horror at all, even by my own relatively loose definition of the term. I mean it when I say I think that horror is a much broader category than most people let on, so I'm going to try and stretch the envelope even further as everyone else is making a beeline for orthodoxy. So, next up: One Hour Photo.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Thousand Cuts: Not As Clever As It Thinks It Is

Self-reflexivity in horror films is some tricky, tricky shit. It is really easy to try for “clever and self-aware” and end up in the land of “smirky and overly pleased with itself.” The first Scream film balanced its whole examination of the “rules” associated with slasher films with being balls-out scary and intense, but it’s a fine line to walk. Horror films about horror films are high-risk, high-reward and when they fail, it’s embarrassing. You’re not just making a horror film, you’re making a film that also communicates a particular view of the very thing you’re doing - it’s easy to be smug or overly celebratory or self-indulgent, and in my opinion, horror films work best when they’re completely sincere.

Case in point, A Thousand Cuts, which tries to be an incisive indictment of a certain type of horror film, but ends up dumb and contrived, oddly unaware of the very thing of which it purports to be aware.

Lance Ross is a successful director, responsible for the very popular and lucrative movies A Thousand Cuts, A Thousand Cuts 2, and ATC3. They’re slasher films, maybe of the type usually referred to as “torture porn” (I still hate that term), and they’ve done him well at the expense of any artistic integrity he once had. He has a nice house, and the film opens as he’s throwing a big party there, with all kinds of Hollywood movers and shakers in attendance. As the party winds on, strange things happen - intermittent power outages, a mysterious message left on the lawn, and finally a bomb threat. This last (combined with one more power outage) gets everyone to go home, until it’s just Lance and Frank, the affable electrician who came out to fix the power problem.

Lance may be a big Hollywood hotshot (from making three slasher films?), but he’s still down-to-earth enough to invite Frank in for a beer. They get to chatting - Frank doesn’t go to the movies much, but he’s familiar with Lance’s work. See, Frank used to have a daughter - a daughter who died at the hands of a killer who copied the method from Lance’s movies down to the last detail.

Out comes the gun and some handcuffs. Frank wants to teach Lance a lesson about accountability, and he’s going to start with Lance’s sister Melanie. Who is not where she’s supposed to be. Instead, she’s someplace where she’s rapidly running out of air.

There's a germ of a good idea here - a filmmaker who traffics in cheap thrills and gory sensationalism being faced with the potential cost of his glib, shallow treatment of violence (especially in terms of serial killers, something about which I've made my feelings clear on multiple occasions). And there are moments in this movie that hint at what this could have been - scenes of interrogatory exchanges between Lance and Frank where there's actually some give-and-take around the idea of responsibility and causality. To outside observers, the film industry can come off as insular and complacent sometimes (witness people who come to the defense of someone like Roman Polanski, apparently tone-deaf to its implications), sheltered from how others live and at risk for mistaking its own value system for one with any relevance at all outside of the entertainment industry. There’s a reason “Hollywood types” are often painted as flakes living in a shiny privilege bubble, and so maybe there's something there worth interrogating. But if there is, this movie doesn't get to it.

Most egregiously, almost everyone in this film is a caricature. The opening party scene is an interminable parade of clichés sketched in ways so broad as to practically be crayon. There’s a wannabe actor whose entire repertoire is impersonations, there’s an obsequious screenwriter hopeful who endures terrible treatment for the hope of getting his treatment read, there’s a female filmmaker who is too smart for the room and a sexist pig of a producer who offers her increasing amounts of funding for every article of clothing she takes off. Lance begins the film every inch the smug, preening asshole, the ultra-successful director who is slightly contemptuous of his own success and far removed from his more artistic and idealistic film school days. None of it feels real because it inhabits a world in which making three slasher films puts you somehow on the level of someone like P.T. Anderson or Darren Aronofsky. Even the most successful directors of this style of horror film do not have that kind of legitimacy or that kind of income. As a result, the whole thing feels like a straw argument against the film industry written by somebody whose entire experience is from the outside, and maybe that of someone who is both weirdly jealous of it and defensive of their own outsider status. It's hard to articulate, but when an agent tells Lance "if you made a movie that got a good review in the New York Times, you would have made a movie that nobody went to go see" it feels like somebody is arguing for populist genre entertainment like the gimmicky slashers Lance makes, but doing so with absolutely no nuance or insight whatsoever, or any recognition that violent horror movies do sometimes get good reviews in the New York Times. It’s a critique completely uninformed by the economic or artistic realities of the movie business.

This pervasive unsubtlety extends to the events of the film proper. Lance and Frank essentially engage in a battle of wills, and Frank sort of has the upper hand, in that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies, and he knows where Lance's sister is being held. All he has to do is keep his mouth shut and not do anything and Lance loses his sister. There's nothing especially wrong with that, but the goalposts sort of keep moving throughout the film - does he want Lance to own up to who he is? Does he want Lance to kill himself? Does he want Lance to go through the torment his own daughter went through? For someone who seems to have this whole thing thought out, Frank's endgame seems to change depending on what needs to happen next in the film. Events occur out of convenience (there are some last-minute reappearances of people that beggar possibility), and things that feel like they should be twists never actually resolve in interesting ways. It starts off going one way and being interesting, but then sort of half-asses the resolution in the most obvious and clumsy ways possible.

So in sum, a lot of potential gets squandered. Frank's own past failings as a parent are touched on a little, but not as much as they could be, and there's the possibility that Lance has some skeletons of his own in the closet that keep him from being exactly innocent too. There’s a repeated idea that everyone in Hollywood is trying to get into the movie business somehow, and stale though this observation is, it leads into questions about who someone appears to be and who they really are, and if it is possible for those two people to merge, which is interesting given that we’re dealing with someone who traffics in the appearance of violence and someone who is a casualty of that violence made real. Lance only has Frank’s word on a lot of things that are going on, and Frank is careful to control the situation, much like a director controls the events of a film. Unfortunately, not a lot happens with this. The whole tension between appearance and reality in general could lead to much more interesting developments than they do, but it ends up being as shallow and relatively thoughtless as Lance.

Which brings me to another thing that stuck in my craw - it's supposed to be a critique of dumb, shallow, violent movies, but it is itself dumb and shallow. It's not especially violent - all we ever get are elliptical suggestions - but if you're going to make a movie that purports to critique a certain type of film, never mind the whole film industry, you should probably be at least as smart as, if not smarter than, your subject. What we get here reads like something a novice screenwriter thought was deep merely by virtue of its self-reflexivity, while leaving the majority of the potential for that self-reflexivity untouched. In its broad, uninformed characterization, relative bloodlessness, and an ending that comes damn close to being some kind of altar call, the whole thing feels like a Christian-entertainment answer to a torture porn film. It’s heavy-handedly moralistic, it nods to ideas it doesn't actually explore, and presents a pat answer of spirituality (or at least abandoning a decadent lifestyle) as the "right" answer, without any of the actual appeal or engagement with dangerous imagery the genre requires.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

In Other Completely Unexpected Sequel News...

...Monsters is getting a sequel.

Not only is it getting a sequel, it's getting a sequel that looks like it's damn near a complete 180 from the original film. Monsters was, as I said in my write-up on it, barely a horror film. It was about two people - strangers to each other - crossing through foreign territory made dangerous by the incursion of extraterrestrial creatures that had already spread across large chunks of the Americas at the time of the movie. It is about two people learning to connect with each other during their trip through a quarantine zone, land given up for lost to the titular monsters. And that's...mostly it. The overwhelming majority of feelings and images that we'd associate with horror came from witnessing the aftermath of the creatures' passing. What little we saw of them, they were if not innocuous, at least not actively predatory. It was sort of a film about understanding, kind of Before Sunrise with tentacles and dead bodies scattered among the scenery.

So it was an interesting exercise in what happens when you take a thoroughly non-horror movie and drape it with the nominal trappings of a horror film. It certainly wasn't very scary - maybe slightly unsettling at best. But the sequel - Monsters: Dark Continent - takes place in the Middle East, in a military setting, and based on the trailer seems to be about a group of soldiers tasked with tracking down insurgents at the same time that they're dealing with the spread of the extraterrestrials to this part of the world. Lots of effects-heavy setpieces in the trailer - heavy artillery and dudes with guns fighting off Lovecraftian monstrosities in the middle of raging sandstorms, gritty dialogue about the mission and trust and "who do you really think you're fighting" are-you-really-the-good-guys-after-all stuff.

It's weird, because it's sort of the last thing I'd take away from the first movie. The first movie was intimate, quiet, and pretty much just a relationship story. This is big and loud and full of action. I mean, I guess the obvious comparison would be the differences in tone and scale between Alien and Aliens, the straight-up horror film and then the action film, but...well, Alien was actually scary. Just...why this property? Because it was available? What's the point?

Well, I know what that point is. It's what the point always is. But I'm having a hard time thinking that someone looked at the first film and said "yeah, people are going to be clamoring for a sequel to this."

It's not another Saw movie, so I guess that's something.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Livide: The Tableau Vivant

I’m sort of in a place right now where I’m really interested in movies that get over (intentionally or not) based on their aesthetics, rather than their story. It seems like it’s not all that often any more that horror filmmakers consciously try to create something that works in terms of design and art direction, rather than plot or premise (or god forbid, special effects technology). I know this is a little old-man-shouting-at-the-clouds, and I’m not saying it never happens, maybe just not as often as I’d like. For a genre so occupied with the territory of nightmares, why not spend more time trying to replicate that particular surrealist landscape, where image and feeling prevail over logic and causality?

Maybe it’s because it’s a really tough sell, not just from an economic point of view (you rarely go broke underestimating the intelligence of an audience), but from a creative one as well. To really drive a movie through imagery rather than story, you need to be damn sure that what’s seen communicates what needs to be understood because you don’t really have the luxury of complex exposition. People have to see something and feel in their gut why it’s bad or wrong or scary without being told, and that’s hard to pull off for almost anyone. It seems to me like a Sargasso Sea of flawed-but-interesting and ambitious failures.

Unfortunately, Livide (Livid) is not going to break that streak. It’s striking, dreamlike, and macabre (a tone that is itself hard to hit), but not as cohesive as it needs to be in the end.

Lucie Klavel has just started a new job, assisting a home-care nurse in her daily rounds. Mostly she assists with medical care - preparing injections and medication, that sort of thing. Her first day on the job with the stern, peremptory Mrs. Wilson starts off uneventfully enough, and ends at the shuttered mansion of Mrs. Jessel, a formerly formidable ballet instructor who, in her old age, persists in a vegetative state. She is a frail, skeletal figure in repose in the middle of a big bed, interrupted by a respirator and an IV tube. Mrs. Wilson tells Lucie that there are stories about Mrs. Jessel having a treasure hidden somewhere in the enormous house, though she herself has never found any sign of it.

And so Lucie takes this story back to her boyfriend, William. He’s kind of a dope - dreams big, but doesn’t take the time to think things through. The kind of guy who decides to steal a TV from a store across the street from a police station. William sees this as their big chance - find the treasure, pay off some debts, live life free of care. He ropes his friend Ben into the scheme. The three of them will sneak into Mrs. Jessel’s house, find the treasure, and then be well-off forever. If this sounds like a stupid, poorly-thought-out plan, well, that’s William for you.

So, breaking into an old mansion belonging to a mysterious old woman to look for a treasure only rumored to exist? What could go wrong?

It’s a very simple story at heart - of course stuff goes wrong. Specifically, a lot of really weird shit happens. It’s a big, dark, old decaying mansion, filled with the accumulated rot and clutter of decades, including moths, pictures of ballerinas, lots of taxidermy, and as it turns out, much worse. The hapless three get separated almost immediately, divided and conquered by the house, its inhabitants, and its history.

The strength of Livide lies, for most of its runtime, in its atmosphere. An odd, dreamlike feeling suffuses the whole thing, even before it gets going. Little moments of strangeness happen in the middle of everyday life with no real build-up or fanfare. They’re just sort of...there, ultimately suggesting that there’s a thin line between our world and the next (even between the world of the film and other horror films, as evinced in a sneaky, contextless little homage scene that worked well both as an isolated instance of strangeness and as a self-aware little wink at the genre), a line that thins, blurs, and is finally erased the further and further the three protagonists move into the house.

The dreamlike feeling is what drives the movie, which - like dreams - relies mostly on striking visuals to communicate what’s going on. The story is simple, and mostly there as something on which to hang the visuals, the specific scenes, the isolated moments. But this is the problem with dreams - lots of striking moments and images aren't necessarily a story, and Livide doesn’t quite commit wholeheartedly to this approach. If you're going to go the imagery-over-substance route, you have to push all-in on the imagery and be willing to forgo plot. This film bothers just enough with a story that it feels more incomplete than anything else.

Mostly it begins to fall down when it attempts to tell the story of Mrs. Jessel and why things are how they are. It's not so much a matter of things not being what they first appear to be, because they sort of are, it's just not necessarily the entire story. Basically, we are given one monster, then another, and then we learn as often we do that some monsters are more monstrous than others. The repeated imagery of moths, clockwork, taxidermy, and ballerinas makes for a strange, haunting experience, and one that does have an underlying logic revealed over the course of the film, but the last act abandons that understated creepiness for something far gorier and it loses something as a result. In its climax and denouement, some moments that seem to be important feel glossed over, and other moments that feel like they should be quick and sharp are unnecessarily prolonged. The end is ragged and inconclusive, leaving you feeling as if you’d missed some important piece of information that would tie it all together.

There are moments where this film effectively combines the beautiful with the unsettling and horrific, but doesn't really connect or build those moments effectively enough to tell a strong story on their own, and the exposition we get doesn’t fill in the gaps well enough. We’re left with tableaux vivants - living pictures, strung together into something that almost coheres into meaning, but doesn’t quite make it.

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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.

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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.

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