Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ESSAY: Terror for Tots: My Adolescent Fascination with Horror

Illustration by Jim Kay, from the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Abstract: A personal reflection on the enchantment that horror movies held over one particular child's psyche during his developmental years. Why did he love monsters so? Was he a monster himself? (Well...) What did fictional monsters teach him about his own life? We reveal that his world felt a whole lot safer with fantastical cinematic monsters roaming around in it, as those creatures were easily vanquished when contrasted with the invulnerability possessed by the mundane horrors of growing up.

This essay features discussion of:
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Wes Craven
The Monster Squad (1987) dir. Fred Dekker
Little Monsters (1989) dir. Richard Greenberg
Gremlins (1984) dir. Joe Dante
Stephen King's IT (1990) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

I can remember the exact moment when I stopped being afraid of monsters.

For most of my early childhood, my parents had been members of Moose International, which invariably meant that on Friday nights they would cart my two brothers and I over to Moose Lodge #644 on East Genesse St. for dinnertime and a couple of the surrounding hours. Typically, my younger brother and I would race through the bar area to the claw crane machine resting against the back wall near the bathrooms. We'd bust open a fresh roll of quarters and then try our skill (or was it blind luck?) at acquiring as many worthless stuffed animals as we could with the time and coins provided. We had a routine.

But one October, the week before Halloween, Moose Lodge #644 underwent a redecoration. When we arrived, we were ushered from the usual entrance to a new ramshackle facade leading directly into the dining area. We were told by those guarding the entrance that the dining area's stage and dance floor (which did indeed feature a disco ball suspended high above it) had been converted for the night into a haunted maze, populated by Moose Lodge members dressed in costumes and waiting patiently behind freestanding walls for the moment to jump out and scare us. The maze was providing tonight's only entrance into the Lodge. Naturally, I was terrified.

Even after being repeatedly reassured by my parents that those costumed creatures waiting for me in the dark were harmless diners and bar patrons whom I saw every week at the Lodge in their human forms, I refused to enter the maze. I'm not sure I knew what specific dreadful thing would happen to me if I did enter the maze, but I was certain I didn't ever want to find out.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Eventually, after much coaxing and probable bartering, a compromise was reached: my much braver older brother would traverse the maze first, soaking up all the scares and asking the costumed volunteers to refrain from jumping out at the next fearful travelers who passed them by. Those travelers were my father and I, with me in his arms, hugged tightly to his torso, head buried in his shoulder to escape the sight of whatever lingering horrors might remain in the maze. As we began our trek through, I was relieved to discover that my brother had done his job: none of the monsters were trying to scare us. After a few jolt-less twists and turns, I had enough confidence in my bear-hugged safety to open my eyes, if only for a brief moment, to examine my frightful surroundings. 

What I saw was Freddy Krueger hiding behind a wall that we'd already left in our wake. He was smiling and waving his clawed hand in a friendly, if somewhat mischievous, greeting. At me.

Deposited safely at the other side of the maze, I was stunned. I hadn't seen any of his movies yet, but, like every kid of the late '80s and early '90s, I knew Freddy Krueger. (Remember, this was the brief era when, even if I wasn't directly familiar with any of Freddy's screen adventures, something as innocuous as supermarket sticker vending machines would have had no trouble informing me.) Sure, I knew this Freddy was just some Lodge member in a cheap store-bought costume. But boy did it look convincing through half-shut eyes in the blood-red lighting dimly coloring the maze. If I wanted to, I could believe it really was Freddy Krueger, and that what he'd made at me was a gesture of civility, signalling peace between my world and the world of horrors he represented.

In a daze, I wandered over to my customary stool at the far end of the bar, near the unoccupied shuffleboard tables. Like he always did, Norm, the bartender, sauntered over and gave me a free Shirley Temple and a bag of Andy Capp's Hot Fries. "I just met Freddy Krueger," I told him, "He was a pretty nice guy."

***

I looked at monsters differently after that night. I'd always enjoyed horror movies, but like most children I harbored a vague fear of the monsters contained within them. Laying in bed at night, I was certain that the Blob was stuck to the ceiling above, waiting to drop down upon me and start slurping; most mornings, I knew for a fact that Jaws himself was swimming in the carpet under my bed, patiently awaiting the moment when I would foolishly stick my foot over the edge. These were far from crippling anxieties, but they were the sort of feelings that kept me at a slight distance from the genre, carefully (if subconsciously) metering out my exposure to these films so as to prevent any more nightmare creatures from entering the repertoire.

Detail of Monster in My Pocket - Monster Mountain packaging
But, soon after Freddy Krueger waved at me, my fascination grew. Horror-- in film, in print, as a feeling-- became my obsession. I'd spend what felt like hours browsing through the VHS box art in the supermarket video store's 'Horror' aisle, imagining what terrific treasures lay within those spools of magnetic tape. I would be glued to the television for most of the month of October, absorbing every Halloween-themed sitcom or commercial that aired. The only childhood birthday party I can remember being thrown in my honor was themed after Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of horror folktales and urban legends. My favorite toys were the small, soft plastic figurines of the Monster in My Pocket toy line. What better evidence of my newfound fuzzy feelings towards monsters than the fact that I'd keep pint-sized replicas of them in my jean pockets at all times? Monsters didn't frighten me anymore; they'd become my figurative security blanket.

***

I suppose it's not surprising that my favorite childhood horror movies were those in which children befriended monsters. In Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad, a group of monster-loving adolescents become friends and allies of Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan) in a prophesied battle against all of the other classic movie monsters (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Gill-man). Little Monsters finds Fred Savage being pulled down into a netherworld of creatures both frightening and friendly by the monster under his bed (Howie Mandel). Gremlins features young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) discovering that his adorable new pet monster has the unintentional ability to multiply and create a wicked horde of more diabolical devils. I think it's interesting that all of these films characterize monsters as beings that are simultaneously both good and evil, and capable of embracing either tendency at a moment's notice. Feed Gizmo after midnight and see if he's still a fuzzy sweetheart. Regardless, there's no denying that my childhood's monsters were demonstrative of a general weakening of the role of cinematic monsters in American culture. As I discovered, even Freddy Krueger was blurring the line between hero and villain in the later entries of his series, with his corny quips and cackling demeanor making him a rather perverse children's icon, worthy of being immortalized as squishy dolls and yo-yos.

What this child-proofing of the monster in late '80s and early '90s American horror cinema says about our culture at the time is probably worthy of another essay, but my affection for this new breed of monster is easily explained: I liked these gentler monsters best, in spite of the latent threat that remained within them, because they were a testament to the idea that the truly horrific could be revised into something more benign. I was never especially terrified while watching the movies containing these monsters; instead, I was comforted. In one sense, these horrific monsters had been tamed, and I knew implicitly that if any of their inherent monstrousness were to be unleashed, it would be adequately dealt with by the adolescent protagonists sometime in the third act, restoring the balance. I understood that these monsters were products of essentially happy narratives, and that any horror they wrought would be converted for me into entertainment or catharsis.

The Monster Squad (1987)
The only problem for me was that this sort of controllable monster was restricted to the VHS tapes that they came to me on. I can still remember the things that actually frightened me as a child. I remember when, in my adolescent desire to become more worldly, I dedicated myself to watching national news programs every night. What I saw was Waco, the Rwandan Genocide, the Unabomber, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the Oklahoma City Bombing. I recall watching true crime television programs like Unsolved Mysteries and being flabbergasted by the depths of human depravity they would detail. The real horrors of my childhood weren't contained in the monster movies I was spending all my time with, but out in the world that awaited me as I grew up, like a monster lurking around a corner in a poorly lit maze, anticipating his pounce.

Perhaps my fascination with horror as a child was a naive form of psychic shielding through fantasy. Maybe I was maintaining a belief for myself that the horror in the real world could be controlled like it was in my movies, that it could be altered to a more pleasant outcome. Trapped in these films, I wouldn't ever have to face those everyday horrors of adult life, both the grave and mundane. I could tune out the news, and pop in my tapes. I could wish all the horror away. At the very least, I could wish it into a more cuddly form.

***

The desire to rid myself of the horrors of reality explains my reaction to the only film that ever really traumatized me as a child: Tommy Lee Wallace's made-for-TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's IT. The film scarred countless children of my generation, and it's not difficult to see why: its villain, Pennywise the killer clown (Tim Curry), is another, albeit more sinister, variation on the alternately comforting and horrifying monster. On the one hand, he's a dancing clown who blows balloons and cracks jokes; on the other hand, he eats children. But his confrontations with a Monster Squad-esque group of kids in a small Maine town play out far differently than the Squad's encounters with Frankenstein and the bunch: Pennywise becomes for the child protagonists a symbol of the horrors of growing up, deceptively personified as that most comical figure of adolescent innocence. As in life, the dancing clown of childhood leads you blindly into the gaping maw of adulthood.

Stephen King's IT (1990)
When I braced myself to watch the entirety of IT, I was thrilled by the climax of the first part, in which the children literally wish the monster away by refusing to believe in him. In that moment, they had the power my subconscious so desperately wanted and that I derived vicariously from all the monster movies I consumed. But then came my viewing of the second part of IT, and I was crushed (for far deeper reasons than the reveal of Pennywise as a giant alien turtle). The children's wishing away of the horror of reality had failed. The monster still lurked out there in the maze of life (or, concretely, in the labyrinthine sewer system of Derry, Maine). Worse yet, I was forced to reckon with the fact that these once so imaginatively powerful children had grown into aimless and depressed adults, living out horrible lives filled with humdrum horrors. One of them even kills himself to avoid facing the reality of his life and his failures. Was this what I had to look forward to as I grew up into the world? When added to all of the very real tragedies and atrocities littering the planet, it didn't seem like I had much to look forward to. It's no wonder I'd want to comfort myself through horror films, to reassure myself that the monsters could be controlled or wished away. Like Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl), I wanted to feed battery acid to the slime of existence, and I wanted it to do permanent damage.

But it's not possible to wish monsters away. I think deep down I knew that, too. Wishing them away is also what Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries on Freddy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and her success doesn't last long either. Freddy would return time and time again in numerous sequels to haunt the dreams of her and others, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it as long as the films kept making New Line Cinema money (another reality of the adult world). Even horror movies with ostensibly upbeat endings had taught me while I was young that there's a certain fragility to the tranquility and happiness achieved in one's life at any age, as if those states have a built-in expiration date. Gizmo can't stay dry forever, the portal that sucked up Dracula will spit him out again in some distant century, and children from Derry, Maine will continue to go missing, even if all the clowns leave town. Given enough time, the monsters always emerge again from the dark of the maze to pounce upon the next weary traveler. And there are always more monsters deeper in the maze, biding their time, waiting to swallow you whole. The trick is in convincing them to smile and wave instead.

A friend.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part III): Berberian Sound Studio (2012) dir. Peter Strickland

Logline: In this 1970s period piece, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a successful sound engineer of English nature documentaries, is invited to Italy's Berberian Sound Studio by the director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to work on his latest film. Though initially excited about the prospect of working on a narrative film with a renowned filmmaker, the meek and mild Gilderoy is soon put off by the complex hostility of the Italian film industry and the grisly tasks he's asked to perform to create the film's sound. What Gilderoy wasn't informed of is that Santini's latest film, The Equestrian Vortex, is a graphic horror film, and thus the sound engineer's increasing complicity in bringing to aural life the sickening images on screen is having a frightful effect on his sanity.

Analysis: Italian horror cinema of the 1970s was, in a sense, the apex of queasy on-screen violence. Certainly, horror films in the decades since have sought and succeeded to increase the sheer level of bloodshed on display, but as the '70s bled over into the '80s and on, what were once startling moments of stylized physical violence (occupying a realm halfway between delirious fantasy and sober reality) transformed into the cartoonish excesses of modern cinematic gore. We necessarily remain at a distance from cartoon violence, but the brutal hacking and slashing seen in Italian gialli like Deep Red (1975) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) was (when compared to that of their international contemporaries) impossible not to feel the visceral effect of. Even today the violence in these battered and aged Italian gialli has the power to shock viewers in a way that the goopiest modern torture porn horror cannot. With an unmatched sleazy ferocity, '70s Italian horror broke the taboos first.


In part, Berberian Sound Studio ponders the effects of such violence on those souls who labored to create it. It asks: could anything but a film industry full of monsters produce this sadistic breed of cinema? This is a criticism that's often been lodged against the likes of Argento, Fulci, and Martino, and it's a possibility that Peter Strickland's film finds fascinating to explore. We watch as Gilderoy feebly attempts to maneuver his way within an industry that is as callous and insensitive towards its financial debts as it is towards cinematic depictions of vaginal rape with a branding iron. When not popping champagne corks in honor of undefined celebrations, those in charge of the Italian movie-making machine are grinding up the human beings in their employ, disposing of them if and when they refuse to be the mere objects they're required to be for the production's sake. If not monsters-- the film appears to argue-- then these films couldn't have been created by anything but desensitized automatons, psychologically oblivious to the carnage they're wreaking on screen.


Yet, what sounds like a rather puritanical blanket condemnation of '70s Italian horror and its producers grows more complex when considered in light of Gilderoy's evolution over the length of the film. Initially, Gilderoy (a stuffy Englishman, naturally) is horrified and repulsed by the images he's forced to gaze at day after day during his employment at the studio. His halfhearted attempts to create the soundtrack to the film's murders eventually give way to outright defiance: Gilderoy can't will himself to be complicit, as if his refusal or failure to provide the required foley effects could spare the on-screen victims their fates. But as his frustration with his bosses and his situation grows, Gilderoy slowly begins to embrace the cinematic violence, insofar that he begins to lose himself in the images of the film. Soon enough, he's watching himself in horror movie situations that play out on the screen in front of him. Reality and fantasy enmesh, and Gilderoy emerges from the collision as another one of those cold-blooded movie-making automatons. (Appropriately, he also emerges magically fluent in Italian.) At the film's ear-piercing climax, Gilderoy sadistically employs his trade to cause violence to another member of the crew for the alleged benefit of the film. Immediately after Gilderoy has sunk to this new low, the camera moves in to find tears crowding his eyes with regret, and we watch as he wanders over to attempt communion, perhaps reconciliation, with the movie screen he's been battling all along. 


Perhaps in the end the film is an essentially moral one, arguing against the bloody misanthropy on display in Italian horror and the potential detriments it might bring into the psychological lives of its makers (not to mention its audience). But, at the same time, the film recognizes the allure of cinematic violence and the inherent temptation we feel to wallow in it: we can't forget that Gilderoy was smiling as he tortured another human being with his deafening sound waves, as if he were one of The Equestrian Vortex's inquisitors "interrogating" an accused witch. The Italian horror film that inspired his psychosis is appalling, certainly, and probably not of the artistic merit that its director claims, but it's essentially innocent. As a piece of lifeless cinema, it doesn't command his actions or dictate his thoughts. Ultimately, Gilderoy's failure is his inability to distinguish the screen from reality and cinematic violence from actual violence. Through negative example, perhaps the film hopes we fair better.


Technical Merits: One would expect that a film about the creation of sound would itself have expert sound design. Berberian Sound Studio does not fail on this count. Though it expresses an occasional affection for the bombastic scores of Italian soundtrack stalwarts like Morricone, Nicolai, and Cipriani (courtesy of the English band Broadcast), much of the film's sound design is deliberately subdued, placing ambient noises (those real, imagined, and manufactured) at the forefront. Thus, sonic tensions run high. Strickland's film has the distinction of employing sound as a physical weapon, both within the film and without.

Humorously, Strickland also undermines our expectations by never allowing us to glimpse a single frame of The Equestrian Vortex, the horror film within the horror film (beyond its stylish, solarized opening credits, that is). We've come to a horror film (of two sorts), and yet we're denied any bloodshed. How rude. Or perhaps not: the film's greatest visual merit is its fixation on the gory remains of the assorted fruits and vegetables that Gilderoy and his assistant foley artists massacre for their sound effects. As the lingering, nauseating closeups of the putrid, rotting husks of melons and turnips remind us, there are real victims of violence here, if not those we expect.


Relevance: If nothing else, the film is indisputably about the production of horror films, and specifically that unique moment in European genre cinema in which entire films were captured without live sound and instead employed the work of gifted sound engineers, foley artists, and voice actors to create the films' post-synced soundtracks. The effort and talent that went into producing all the sound for these countless genre classics have been largely ignored in favor of praise for the delirious cinematography of the era. I think Berberian Sound Studio successfully corrects this oversight by deftly demonstrating how these sound practitioners could manipulate the silliest of audio recordings into the truly horrific.


You might scoff at my contention that Berberian Sound Studio is itself a horror film, but I believe I have enough evidence on my side. In spite of whatever reservations Strickland might have about horror cinema, his film is clearly modeled after the Italian giallo (and his film within the film, The Equestrian Vortex, obviously derived from Suspiria (1977), that supernatural giallo supreme). Impressively, Strickland manages to imbue his film with the mood and atmosphere of a giallo without ever fully slipping into the subgenre's cliches. We encounter shady characters, implied sexual violence, a descent into psychosis, and a late night stalking with a blade, but all of these moments are approached from directions grounded (more or less) in quasi-reality, as if the film were coming at the giallo's tropes sideways. An example: The physical violence, as noted above, is vegetal. It's a humorous employment of the giallo's elements that provides them for us while denying us their full expression. Like the figure we see switching out reels in the titular studio, we sense that a fiend in black leather gloves is running Strickland's projector, too.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part II): Resolution (2012) dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Moorehead

Logline: After being e-mailed a video chronicling the dire condition of his drug-addicted friend (Chris, portrayed by Vinny Curran), Michael (Peter Cilella) resolves to help his long-estranged buddy break free of his dependency by confronting him at his remote cabin in the woods. Michael decides to go the tough love route, handcuffing the stubborn Chris to the wall and vowing to help him through his violent, expletive-filled withdrawal over the next few days and nights. Complications arise when it's discovered that Chris has lost a large supply of his dealers' drugs and that he's actually squatting on a Native American reservation. But worst of all are the mysterious documents and recordings being left around the cabin and surrounding woods for Michael to discover, documents and recordings that begin to reveal the horrific history of the area and eventually suggest the possibility that someone is attempting to revise the story these two friends are living out.

Analysis: Resolution is a film about the demands audiences make and the unfortunate effects these demands can have upon characters living within a narrative world. As part of an audience, we have certain expectations for structure. We expect development and complication, explanation and resolution. Beginning, middle, end. Only the most tolerant of us aren't angry when a narrative fails to include any of these aspects, whether it be out of ineptitude or defiance. After watching movies or reading books we've been somehow disappointed with, we often express our wish for how it should have ended. In contrast to most narratives outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books, Resolution gives this power of revision to the audience, though in a limited way. The film presumes to know what sort of plot we want, and it chastises and punishes its characters whenever they fail to provide it. What we want (says the film) is an unhappy ending.


The first time I watched Resolution, I was somewhat put off by this assertion that the film makes. After all, hadn't I grown unusually fond of these characters over the length of the movie? Hadn't I wanted them to escape their predicament and resolve the issues in their lives and friendship? Why would I wish them the ill that the film claims I do? I thought that the film was working at cross purposes by including such well-wrought character drama and then assuring me that I wanted to see these likable fellows dead, one way or another. But further viewings and reflection has me feeling differently. 

I think Resolution is correct. As an audience member, I wanted events beyond the mundane to transpire in these characters' fictional lives. When creepy recordings turn up in and around the cabin, I want Michael to explore them despite his better sense, to probe further and risk putting himself in danger. I desire problems and drama within the central relationship of the film, and I yearn for them to be resolved. When the characters maintain that their personal problems (like so many problems in our real lives) can't be solved, I'm happy when the film forces them to reconsider, in spite of whatever further dangers or traumas they will have to experience. In a sense, I derived my entertainment from these characters' suffering, and so, by extension, how could I ever be satisfied with a happy ending, especially within the context of an ostensible horror film? I'll need the truly horrific to rear its ugly head eventually, whatever the cost. Resolution doesn't fail me on this count. Or, rather, I don't fail it.


Technical Merits: The film's naturalistic, nearly Dogme 95-esque approach to visual storytelling (single location, handheld camerawork, the absence of a musical score) is offset by creeping reminders of the essential artificiality of the images on screen. Scenes occasionally transition from one to the next by way of an audio and video effect that is akin to a hot projector burning up the print passing through it. One of these faux-antiquated effects (the presence of such being curious enough considering the film was captured digitally on the Red One camera) even interrupts a scene mid-conversation, causing our two leads to question the strange noise they just heard (but which, of course, they should not have.) These metafictional stylistic contradictions are deliberate, making apparent on screen that the archetypal audience's desire for a certain type of ancient narrative transcends time, format, medium, and style itself. Notice, for example, the fact that Michael's discoveries throughout the film reveal numerous narratives to us, and while each takes on a different form--photographs, projector slides, books, vinyl records, film reels, video tapes, audio tapes, computer-recorded video-- each also possesses the same grim ending. As the medium improves over time, imbuing its images and sounds with greater clarity, definition, and verisimilitude, we may forget that what we're watching is a constructed story. Resolution's approach ensures that we remember.


Relevance: A quote from the Village Voice on the front cover of Resolution's home video release boldly proclaims that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead's film "puts The Cabin in the Woods to shame." That's not an entirely honest assessment. Certainly, both films are metafictional reflections on horror cinema and both take place in a woods-ensconced cabin, but similarities end there. Cabin in the Woods is unmistakably a genre film, while Resolution is not so easily classified. Cabin in the Woods revels in the various permutations of the same basic story we see again and again in horror films; Resolution dreads the inescapable pull of a deeper, ingrained narrative structure that anticipates (perhaps requires) tragedy. Cabin in the Woods is excess; Resolution is restraint. A "one coin, two sides" situation. For the open-minded viewer, they make lovely companion pieces to one another.


But it's that unclassifiable nature of Resolution that makes it noteworthy for admirers of horror cinema. Its decided refusal to engage earnestly in any stock horror movie cliche is noble. (Moments of the film gleefully deflate recognizable scare tactics like the figure tapping on the window or the person lurking in the dark of a cave.) Yet, it's the film's dedication to employing a primal essence of horror that is what defines it. It presents us with objects of fear that have no face, and with suspense that derives from no obvious or explainable catalyst. The film is full of palpable unease, but its audience would be hard pressed to describe for you its monsters. Are these monsters indeed personifications of the audience, or are they more supernatural in origin, as the final moments might suggest? Or are they instead all too human, or cosmic, or spiritual? As the eccentric French hermit, Byron (Bill Oberst, Jr.), asks Michael in the film, how can an isolated tribesman in Ecuador tell the difference between an alien, an angel, and a ghost? He can't, of course, but he can perhaps sense a difference of intent, and the intent of those undefined forces in Resolution is undeniably no good.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part I): Left Bank (2008) dir. Pieter Van Hees

a.k.a. Linkeroever

Logline: After being diagnosed with an inexplicable bout of chronic fatigue syndrome and dropping out of a big track competition, Marie (Eline Kuppens) moves into the apartment of her new boyfriend, Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), in order to convalesce. While there, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the sudden disappearance of the apartments's previous occupant and the sinister pagan history of the surrounding area, Antwerp's Left Bank. As her condition worsens and the peculiar encounters pile up, Marie begins to realize that someone or something in the Left Bank has plans for her.

Analysis: If Left Bank has any obvious fault, it's that it might have hammered away too freely at its themes of wasted lives, second chances, and rebirth before its incredible final moments, when this previous talk takes on very literal significance and (almost) all is made clear. Perhaps there's one too many lines of dialogue in which Bobby expresses his desire to give Marie "the chance to do better" or Marie herself wishes she could "just start all over again." For the viewer, Bobby's observation that Marie doesn't even look happy when she's running (i.e. engaging in her life's passion) was apparent already from Eline Kuppens's sober and aimless performance. At only 27 years old, Marie is a young woman who has been beaten down too far by her own brief existence, saddled as she is with the baggage of an overbearing mother, a disappointed father figure, the absence of a social life, and a sense of self-loathing bred from perfectionism. In truth, she's a typical twentysomething who is having difficulty making the transition to full-blown adulthood, and so she experiences the malaise of having to Figure It All Out. There's nothing inherently fatal about Marie's condition, though it might certainly feel that way to her, stuck in the moment. She yearns for a return to the childhood innocence she has left behind, when all this stuff didn't matter.


Peculiarly, this dilemma in Marie's life is that which the film's pagan guild exploits for their earthly magic. Reading the overdramatic suffering and ennui on Marie's blandly tortured face, the guild members decide to lead her (forcefully, but perhaps not unwillingly) towards sacrifice in honor of what they call alternately The Diabolical Vagina and the great Dragon in the ground. Through their drawn-out occult ceremonies, they usher her towards both death and life renewed. This makes them rather odd villains. They're certainly menacing enough (and mean with a crossbow when threatened), but the pagan guild is essentially doing no more than giving Marie what she outwardly desires. Sure, the guild themselves possibly receive immortality and eternal youth in return, but would we begrudge them that for their good deed? In one sense, they're preying on Marie's youthful weakness and confusion for their own benefit; in another, they're teaching her what so many of cinema's gypsies have taught us in the past-- be careful what you wish for.


Technical Merits: Though the pagans' plot against Marie is ultimately revealed to be quite simple (at least in comparison with other human sacrifices we've seen in film), director Pieter Van Hees and his screenwriters don't shy away from including ambiguous visual symbolism--the sort to inspire much baffled IMDb discussion board commentary--whenever they have the chance. The choice to include so many of these unexplained moments (like Marie's discovery of ash in the crotch of her panties, her suckling of a grown man while on a jog through the forest, the rat that explodes from out of her hairy knee wound, and the presence of her paternal track coach at her apparent rebirth) could be frustratingly vague, but the cinematography from Nicolas Karakatsanis and the editing by Nico Leunen ably support such maneuvers by never lingering the shot or prolonging the scene in order to hold our hands through an interpretation of its ripe imagery. Nor does the cinematography or editing easily explain away these surreal visuals as products of Marie's dream life; rather, these aspects of the film ground the visuals in a skewed sense of reality. This approach gives such moments a subtle coherence or logic: despite how strange they may appear, they're presented as if they're organic to world we're witnessing on screen. To make the bizarre commonplace is an impressive feat.


Relevance: Left Bank should be of interest to horror fans for its successful melding of two European horror subgenres previously unassociated, Polanski's Polish/French/American urban paranoia thriller (as seen in The Tenant [1976], Rosemary's Baby [1968], and Repulsion [1965]) and the rural pagan superstition horror that was dominant for a time in the United Kingdom (in films like The Wicker Man [1973], Robin Redbreast [1970], Lair of the White Worm [1988], and The Blood on Satan's Claw [1971]). We can call the combination successful because the juxtaposition of what seems at first to be two disparate subgenres serves to point out the obvious facts that we've forgotten: the cities of Europe were once rural landscapes, and the people inhabiting these areas might not have possessed the same cuddly, (largely) non-violent belief systems of the modern world. The film asks us to ponder what dark, ancient history might still remain buried in the earth, beneath the excess of concrete and metal that we've built up around us. Beyond its narrative conflation of the subgenres, the film also does a swell job of reminding us visually of this dual history of its location by giving frequent screentime to placid shots of the quietly menacing forests, fields, and waters scattered alongside the Left Bank's busy urban environments, reminding us that the latter has not consumed the former but simply masks it.


Left Bank is also of interest in that it--along with a few other notable recent films--marks a revitalization of Belgian horror cinema, which has been nearly nonexistent in the last few decades, and previously was only marked by a few scattered films like Daughters of Darkness (1971), The Devil's Nightmare (1971), and Rabid Grannies (1988). Left Bank is the first of three (!) contemporary Belgian horror films to make this collection of my favorites of the past ten years, so (in my estimation at least) we're in the midst of a mini-renaissance of horror from the land of fries and waffles.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ESSAY: No, YOU'RE Next: The Transformation of a Home Invasion Thriller


Abstract: A consideration of the possible influence one little-known home invasion thriller had on another, much more well-regarded home invasion thriller. A nasty case of plagiarism? Well, we wouldn't be shocked if the makers of the latter had caught a late night television broadcast of the former at some point. Regardless, this isn't a case of outright thievery; it's a demonstration of how a thriller film becomes a horror film, and of the fine line separating cliched earnestness and intentional self-parody in cinematic storytelling.

This essay features discussion of:
You're Next (2013) dir. Adam Wingard
Below Utopia (1997) dir. Kurt Voss

Allow me to describe for you a horror film. Help me to remember its title.

It goes like this: A young couple is driving to a family get-together. The man (a college English teacher) is anxious because his relationship with his wealthy family (though particularly his father) is strained due to their perception of him as a failure. The woman--the man's significant other--is also anxious, considering this will be her first encounter with his family. The couple arrives at this isolated family estate in the countryside, and many tense encounters are had between siblings and between children and parents. During dinner, a trio of ferocious mercenaries invade the home and murder most everyone inside. The young couple survive by evading the killers, and, eventually, they're able to turn the tables on their aggressors by way of borrowed weapons. In particular, the woman demonstrates her physical and emotional resilience to the terror surrounding her in this second half. 


The killers successfully done away with, a twist is tossed our way like a live hand grenade: the male half of this couple staged the whole grisly affair. See, he hired the anonymous assassins to murder his entire, much-maligned family so that he would be the sole recipient of their vast estate. (It appears that being an English teacher simply wasn't paying the bills.) He then decided to put his girlfriend through this harrowing ordeal so that she could serve as an innocent witness to the authorities concerning the senseless carnage and, thus, discourage any suspicion that might turn in his direction. But, now that she has learned the truth of her boyfriend's nefarious scheming and mass familicide, she has no recourse but to murder him in retaliation, which she does.

What movie am I thinking of?

You might be thinking that I'm thinking of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's recent home invasion horror film You're Next (2013). Actually, I was describing the film Below Utopia (a.k.a. Body Count, 1997), starring Alyssa Milano, Justin Theroux, Tiny Lister, and the incomparable Ice T. But you wouldn't be wrong, either, because what I've described above is the same basic story (and accompanying minute details) seen in You're Next. The two films are identical in this broad sense, separated only by their respective decades of release and the fact that if you're reading this blog you've most likely seen the one and never even heard of the other.


I'm hesitant to label the similarities between Below Utopia and You're Next as the product of an act of deliberate plagiarism by the latter against the former. Kurt Voss's Below Utopia isn't exactly startling in its originality, and it's possible that writer Simon Barrett was simply working from the cliches of the twisty, surprisingly long-lived inheritance scheme thriller genre when he was drafting You're Next, resulting in a film the travels the same well-trodden path. But I have a tough time swallowing that line. The two films are much too much alike for the resemblance to be mere coincidence, and I would wager that Barrett was influenced at least unconsciously by the earlier film, if not directly. Either way, I have no doubt that Barrett had seen Below Utopia prior to writing his film. This isn't a criticism. I'm equally as certain that Barrett and Wingard had seen The Strangers (2008), Funny Games (1997; 2008), High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Inside (2007), and numerous other contemporary home invasion thrillers before writing You're Next, too. In its postmodern self-awareness, Barrett and Wingard's film is striving to upset the expectations of its specific subgenre, and thus it requires a resemblance to (and familiarity with) those prior films within that subgenre. It's to be expected.


The complicating factor in all this is that Below Utopia isn't a horror film, despite the fact that the majority of home invasion films are. It's a thriller, certainly, perhaps a crime or a drama film, but it's not horror. Almost all of its violence happens off screen, with the emphasis being not on forcing the audience to gawk at the visceral images of a family being demolished but on encouraging that audience to follow the loopy plot twists and stay ahead of the action. The film's antagonists aren't shadowy, menacing madmen, but Tiny Lister checking the radio for basketball scores and Ice T cracking wise between gunshots. It's shot and edited in a flat, suspense-bereft late-'90s DTV style (despite it having received a theatrical release), and while you might run the risk of being absentmindedly entertained by the events on screen, being afraid seems unlikely.


You're Next transforms the same basic story into something that could not be mistaken for anything but a horror film. The film intends to shock, terrify, and amusingly astonish by the lengths to which it goes in sowing its mayhem. Frenetic handheld camerawork, palpable tension punctuated by cheap jump scares, iconic villains, unflinching brutality leavened by audience-rousing reprisals, buckets upon buckets of fake blood: it's all the things midnight movies are made of. Considering its foundational commonalities with the earlier film, You're Next is best viewed as a revision of Below Utopia, seeking to amend the errors of the "original" film's presentation. In a commentary track on You're Next's home video release, Barrett expresses that his desire in writing the film was to correct what bad home invasion movies got wrong. That it does. Despite its novel twists and turns (which You're Next co-opts as its own), Below Utopia is as typical as they come, with audible DUN-DUN-DUNs soundtracking its revelations and strained grasps at psychological complexity. Nevertheless, Below Utopia still presents the horrific concept of a man callously ordering the deaths of his entire immediate and extended family. Does not such a horrific concept deserve the casing of a horror film that You're Next provides?


But You're Next has value beyond this transformation of genre, whatever the truth is concerning its source. In that same commentary track, Barrett and Wingard agree that what is necessary in contemporary horror cinema is not necessarily new material, but new perspectives on that material. You're Next is better classified as an upheaval than a new perspective. Despite their claim that the film contains no overt "postmodern winks," Barrett and Wingard approach You're Next as self parody. The film lulls us into a sense of familiarity by beginning like an earnest slasher film and playing up narrative cliches like the motiveless thrill-killers and cinematic cliches like the sights and sounds of an unnaturally creaky old house. But it's not all that long before the film disregards our expectations and embraces the absurd, with blenders to the head and the apparent immortality of Joe Swanberg's character (another aspect mirrored, though without comment, in Below Utopia's similarly immortal brother character of Justin, as portrayed by Nicholas Walker). You're Next encourages its characters to blindly but knowingly play into genre cliches by splitting up and wandering into dark rooms despite the presence of murderous psychopaths and then milks these moments for dark humor. Simultaneously, the film creates characters and moments that subvert those cliches, like Final Girl Erin (Sharni Vinson), whose childhood training as a survivalist makes her beyond circumstantially resilient, in contrast to so many other horror movie heroines. In short, the film strives successfully to be as unpredictable as it is knowingly hackneyed.


This is because You're Next is pointing out the conventional flaws of films within the subgenres of the slasher and the home invasion thriller while self-consciously reveling in those flaws. To an extent, it's devaluing the earnestness of those other films and acknowledging how crudely fun they can be. It's a film that puts on lurid display its exhaustion with the cliche of horror narratives motivated by nothing but their villains' inherent sadistic evil (à la The Strangers) or hoary psychological derangement (à la Inside) by leading us towards those cliches and then making them vanish, much to our discovered elation. Like Scream (1996), which Barrett and Wingard strangely assure us their film is nothing like, You're Next allows us to feel smart for noticing its manipulation of conventions and its evacuation of faux-realism from a horror movie scenario that rests in absurdity.


Case in point: Below Utopia falls into the trap of faux-realism-through-cliche when it attempts to ground the reasoning for the by-proxy massacre in the sudden and inexplicable mania of Justin Theroux's previously sane character. It's amusing to watch Theroux ham it up as a secret psycho, but this attempted justification of the family massacre plot is far from a satisfying development, as it's trying too hard to explain away actions that are artificial and born of genre narrative necessity anyway. This phony realism, propped up by groan-worthy storytelling banalities, is the state to which so many home invasion thrillers fretfully strive. Why? Unlike most other horror subgenres, the home invasion thriller is constrained by its location. What could be more real or sacrosanct to us than our homes? It's for this reason that most audiences find the notion of home invasion skin-crawling, but it's also for this reason that filmmakers working within the subgenre actively forgo including levity or self-awareness in their productions in the interest of playing on those very real fears. Thus, home invasion thrillers are by and large dour, self-serious affairs, mired in their flimsy sense of authenticity, regardless of the level of preposterous genre fantasy they depict on screen. Like Below Utopia. (Or, for instance, Inside, in which the goopiest, goriest, stupidest blood fantasies are enacted without the trace of a smirk.)


In rebellion against this trend, You're Next embraces the artifice of its plot throughout, and pointedly (and humorously) recognizes the barbarity of its central inheritance scheme, with its mass familicide being ordered for no reason more complex than the accelerated transference of wealth between uber-greedy family members. Barrett and Wingard have re-structured their borrowed plot around the act of the wealthy swallowing up all those around them in the pursuit of more wealth, despite all good sense, placing these actions within a hysterical reality dictated by the logic (or illogic) of the conceit. What the filmmakers achieve is a state of genre filmmaking unadulterated by the restraints of verisimilitude that so many works of fantasy are hobbled with. They've taken a series of films set in its ways and liberated it for a receptive audience, but this insight is partially lost if it's never made clear to us what, specifically, they were taking to begin with, but for a chance encounter with it in the discount DVD bin. If the influence is there (which I suspect it is), it's frustrating that Barrett and Wingard have been so coy about it in the publicity surrounding the film. After all, it's sort of the point.