Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Card Player (2004) dir. Dario Argento

a.k.a. Il cartaio

Logline: A maniac is on the loose in Rome, kidnapping women and forcing the local police to gamble for the victims' lives through high stakes games of online poker. Detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) must team up with a troubled English Interpol agent (Liam Cunningham) to suss out the killer's location and put an end to his deadly gambling.

For all the predictability of his stories and plots in these later decades, Argento still possesses the ability to surprise his most observant and critical fans. For me, this surprise rarely registers as unabashed enjoyment of the films, but rather as a morbid appreciation for the wild and often wrongheaded filmmaking choices that Argento makes when constructing his numerous variations on a standard issue thrilling theme. It's fascinating that a single director making the same sort of film again and again over a couple of decades could make each feel so different. Tonally and aesthetically, Trauma (1994), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), Sleepless (2001), The Card Player, and Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) bear no resemblance to one another, despite the fact that they all share the same well-worn giallo template. Argento's late career is a case that complicates any desire that a critic might have to look at his work through the lens of auteur theory: what was once horror's most distinctive stylistic nightmare vision has fractured like the glass of a broken mirror, producing a run of films that clash with and contradict one another on all possible levels. The influence of producers, distributors, audience expectations, and shrinking budgets have clearly had an effect on shaping Argento's later works, but that doesn't begin to explain the lack of reasonable stylistic and thematic continuity among them.

While a classically defined "auteur" will certainly develop her style and thematic concerns over her career as a director, a viewer should be able (as per the theory) to always recognize the director in her work, particularly if one were to view the director's films chronologically and witness her evolution as it happened. But at a certain point in Argento's career, his evolution as an "auteur" quits being linear: he devolves, rushes forward, backtracks, or floats off into atmosphere. You could pick any film from his later filmography, compare it to either the film preceding or succeeding it, and find each to resemble the work of no one in particular. More often than not, you'll find two films that appear so opposed to the elements and ideas of the other that they couldn't possibly be the work of the same filmmaker. For example, Sleepless, the film Argento made immediately before The Card Player, is the cinematic equivalent of a Luddite, with its stripped-down, old-fashioned procedural approach to the horror-thriller subgenre being placed at the forefront of its concerns. Let's not forget that one of the protagonists of that film, Max von Sydow's Inspector Moretti, actually laments the police's growing reliance on technology, and we see Moretti's distaste for technological advancement mirrored in the film itself both through its narrative (in which the modern cops' tech fails to produce results) and its approach to filmmaking (in which Argento mostly eschews the modern visual effects and cinematography that he had been trying out in previous films with sketchy results). 

In my essay on Sleepless here at the blogI attempted to argue that the film was, in some ways, a conflicted reflection of Argento's own relationship-- and resistance-- to modern horror filmmaking in the early noughties, which had begun to heavily embrace computer technology in place of practical composition. And yet his follow-up film, The Card Player, throws that reading into disarray by incorporating technology (specifically online video poker games) into the plot as a fundamental feature. Whereas Sleepless eschewed technology when crafting its scenes of suspense, The Card Player relies exclusively upon it, often to its own detriment. (These high stakes online poker games, rendered in circa mid-'90s computer graphics and augmented by shoddy webcam A/V, are about as far from visual suspense as can be.) Consequent of this alteration of technology's importance to the narrative, the visual architecture of the screen adjusts to fit it: Sleepless's gorgeous Italian buildings, which gave the film a classically cinematic air, are replaced in The Card Player with cold office cubicles and computer terminals, more befitting a TV cop drama. Any of Sleepless's perceived sentiments concerning the preservation of the traditions and aesthetics of past horror cinema are obliterated by The Card Player's desperate, flailing attempts to be relevant and timely, as if Sleepless itself was a failed nostalgia experiment and The Card Player is Argento's resignation to the changes of the modern era. 

So is an auteur still an auteur if he gives up, or stops trying? Were those early films the product of the auteur or those who surrounded him? Those are questions for investigation, surely, but the answers aren't hidden in the films themselves. And, unfortunately, divorcing The Card Player from all of these bothersome queries doesn't reveal it to be a good film of its own unique merit. In fact, it's the worst I've seen thus far, the product of some bizarro world wherein FeardotCom (2002) was a creative and financial success worthy of imitation. What's here is all plot, and that plot hinges (feebly) on the viewer buying into silly things like the police's flagrant irresponsibility (for which they are not held accountable) and the ability of a master hacker/poker player to both remain untraceable and remotely control the police's computer network with a "mega virus." The Card Player feels as if it were made with a TV-watching audience in mind, and thus delivers performances and exposition that are easy enough to digest and recall between commerical breaks. And though it's about as melodramatic and preposterous as any episode of any Law & Order spinoff, its broad storytelling feels more egregious at feature length. It becomes a laughable cartoon, in which the climax literally involves the heroine being tied down to train tracks by the villain as a train barrels towards her. A month into my sojourn into Argento's darker days, I'm beginning to wish that train would barrel towards my station next.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sleepless (2001) dir. Dario Argento

a.k.a. Non ho sonno

Logline: Moretti (Max von Sydow), a retired police inspector, becomes involved with a re-opened case concerning a long-thought-deceased killer whose crimes, which follow the lyrics of a macabre nursery rhyme, have begun to recur in the Italian city of Turin. The old fashioned inspector teams up with a young man, Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), who was witness as a child to the killer's English horn-equipped murder of his mother. Together, the intrepid duo will attempt to best the local police by uncovering the deranged madman's identity before he completes his twisted game.

If Sleepless goes down in the books as the best film of the twilight of Dario Argento's career, it won't be all that surprising: examine the competition. But for the film to garner that accolade would be a disappointment, as it would indicate that the best that he managed to create in these late decades is a competent but ultimately generic giallo, distinguishable from his earlier Animal Trilogy largely by its deficiency of stylistic flourish and use of contemporary film stock. Sleepless finds Argento working in the familiar and mundane mode of his earlier giallo The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971). From the presence of an elderly big-name actor in the investigation (Max von Sydow in Sleepless in the place of Cat's Karl Malden) down to killers who spend at least half of their murdering efforts taking out folks who possess incriminating evidence, the two films share certain superficial similarities.

But, more pointedly, the films are linked by their mutual adherence to the psychological simplicity of the American procedural mystery, in which the heroes are hunting a madman who kills because, well, that's simply what madman do. As Gary Needham notes in his essay linked above concerning the Animal Trilogy, Cat O' Nine Tails sticks out in Argento's giallo filmography due to its avoidance of the giallo's messy psychoanalytic framing, which often casts blame for the killer's derangement on family trauma. In contrast, Cat O' Nine Tails locates the killer's motivation in his genetic code, rendering his murderous nature an unavoidable biological fact. Though Sleepless embroils the killer's family members into the action of his crimes, they are not directly or indirectly responsible for any traumatic event that spurred the killer on. Rather, the killer is a simple sociopath, persuaded by a nursery rhyme that killing animals would be fun and then discovering on his own that killing people is even more fun. Because there are no past traumas for our heroes to uncover in either Sleepless or Cat, the killer could be (potentially) anyone, and therefore the films populate the screen with a deluge of red herrings and over-complicated plot twists to maintain audience interest. Although Sleepless's closing revelations are not as left-field or pseudo-scientific as Cat's, this misdirection nonetheless results in a mystery that is fun to follow along but in the end can't help but feel like a cheat.

But this stripped-to-its-basics procedural mystery-- almost entirely devoid of the misguided reliance on cheap computer effects that is on display in Trauma (1994) and Phantom of the Opera (1998)-- is difficult to view as anything but a return to form, of a sort, even if it's a return to a relatively mediocre form. Sleepless is cantankerously old-fashioned. Argento and his film place a lot of thematic weight on the shoulders of Max von Sydow's Moretti, a retired police inspector who laments the current state of police detection and whose anachronistic methods prove superior to the newfangled electronic methods of the new millennium. It's not a huge stretch to imagine that Argento identifies with Moretti, being that Argento himself is an old-fashioned horror film director working in the modern milieu. His prior attempts to grapple with the content and style of contemporary horror being spotty at best, Argento has seemingly crafted Sleepless to function as an implicit denial of modern horror's appeal. The gory murder set pieces are all composed with practical effects, the action is relocated to a stately Italian city with sumptuous architecture, and the complicated plot requires a few blips of the viewer's brain activity to follow. Its one obvious use of computer effects is a brief collection of shots in which the farm animal illustrations in a digital pop-up book literally pop up as the camera rotates around them, which is an almost subtle use of the technology in comparison with Phantom of the Opera's rat-sucking CGI vacuum mobile. In short, it's diametrically opposed to what horror cinema was fast becoming at the dawn of the new millennium: a brainless, CGI-blood-encrusted, low-light basement of torture.

And yet, despite its desire to be an intentional throwback, the film isn't totally immune to the influence of modern horror and its decidedly undesirable characteristics. The aestheticized murder of Argento's early work is transmuted into Sleepless's startling brutality against women. Fingers are chopped, heads are bashed, and mouths are violated (excessively) with stabbing English horns. Accusations of misogyny are nothing freshly lodged against Argento's filmography, but comparing Sleepless with a film chronologically near to it like Trauma, with its modicum of sympathy for its damaged female characters, is rather damning evidence of a shift in how the director approaches gendered violence. Again, the word of the day is "cynical": Sleepless's murder scenes feel contrived, as if they're gratuitous scraps of bloody meat thrown to the wailing hounds of modern horror fandom. This ugly, sexualized gore and splatter-- so at odds with the otherwise reserved and modest filmmaking elsewhere in the picture-- feels as if it's a sneering condemnation of the elements of an angry male power fantasy that have become requisite in the genre and their debasement of horror's elusive, surreal beauty.

Sleepless contends with itself, creating an internal conflict by allowing its nostalgia for the genre of old and contempt for the genre of today to battle it out. For viewers, this creates cognitive dissonance: we are engaged by the classical suspense plot, but repulsed by the horrible violence the garnishes it. The film forces us, whether intentionally or not, to question our own motives in enjoying these grisly proceedings, like a pulpier Funny Games (1997; 2007). Naturally, we also question those motives of the filmmaker: is his film exploitation or critique? Is Argento scoffing at the ubiquity of gendered violence in modern horror or quietly resigning himself to its infiltration of his own films? There's no easy answer within Sleepless, conflicted and contradictory as it is. Like Moretti, Argento has refused to retire, inserting himself into a gruesome series of modern murders that he's incapable of making much sense of. Despite their best intentions, the case bests them both, leaving Moretti with a heart attack and Argento without heart.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Phantom of the Opera (1998) dir. Dario Argento

a.k.a. Il fantasma dell'opera

Logline: A beautiful and talented opera singer, Christine (Asia Argento), ascends the ladder of stardom with violent help from her friend The Phantom (Julian Sands), a rat-raised orphan with telepathic powers who haunts the Opéra de Paris. Having fallen under the (um) charismatic Phantom's spell, Christine is physically and figuratively kidnapped, her only hope for salvation being her noble suitor, the pencil-bearded Raoul (Andre Di Stefano). But does Christine want to be saved, or does her affection for her Phantom lover extend beyond the erotic?

By being the most unique film in Argento's long and largely excellent but nonetheless rather unvaried filmography, The Phantom of the Opera appears to have inspired a brief bout of enthusiasm in its otherwise increasingly complacent director. There's a sizable gulf separating Phantom from Argento's early stylish masterpieces in terms of quality, but-- in contrast to his sleepy effort in Trauma (1993)-- Argento at least seems like he's trying here, though what exactly he's aiming for is up for either debate or a series of vigorous head scratches. Argento has never been known for the thematic depth of his films, but here he manages to stage a social critique of the hollow materialism of late 19th century Paris, a materialism that--in Argento's imagining-- was corrupt enough to produce candy-toting pedophiles alongside fame-grubbing dandies, with the suggestion that the two are essentially similar. But while Argento and his collaborators were certainly grinning snidely while designing their laughably opulent opera house and its petty aristocratic denizens, much of this critique originates in the film's source material, Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the basic plot of which this film follows by broad strokes. With that in mind, we're left to evaluate Agrento's particular critique primarily through his alterations to the text. And that's where things become muddled.

What are we to make of Argento's handsome, non-disfigured Phantom? As portrayed by Julian Sands (horror's dopey English pin-up of the '90s), the Phantom is a snarling bohemian, hanging out in the opera house's bowels not because society is revolted by his physical appearance but because he refuses to accept the hypocrisy of Parisian society. Though not a repulsive physical pariah, he is marked by his lower class status (he's an orphan raised by rats, after all) and in a society as vain and superficial as the film's, such an upbringing is enough to lower a person to sub-human status: Sands's Phantom doesn't need to be disfigured to be an outcast. Moreover, his common physical appearance means that this Phantom, unlike the ethereal Phantoms of the novel and previous adaptations, doesn't do much hiding. He spends the film lurking about in plain sight, a lustful bodily presence who is always biting, scratching, and sniffing his victims and the objects of his affection alike. This alters the Phantom's significance in the world he occupies: his anonymity, rather than being the result of the cultivated ghostly persona of a disfigured outcast, is granted  to the Phantom because of his lowly social status. As a member of the lower order, the Phantom is invisible to society, his self-exile under the opera house being merely a physical realization of his place on the social ladder. It is only after he has caused trouble for the more civilized classes that he's noticed and violently dealt with, much like an invading rat would be after it has nosed out of the sewers.

And yet none of this makes Argento's Phantom a sympathetic figure, much less one with a coherent ideology. Far from being an avenging specter aiming to right the wrongs wrought by the wealthy upon the poor, the Phantom spends most of the film slaughtering and mutilating those poor working stiffs sent down to tinker under the opera house, those blighted folk who (filthy and crude as they may be) you'd imagine he would find some common ground with. Sure, we might say that he attacks his fellow paupers because they're guilty of the crime of complicity by working for the upper class, but this would be ignoring the fact that his own violent efforts against that upper class (like the famous chandelier crash, here rendered magnificently as the gory demises of countless dummies) have little to do with rebelling against the unjust station forced upon him and much more to do with securing his beloved Christine a better job entertaining that stuffy crowd. The Phantom is a sleazy prick-- a kidnapper, a murderer, and a rapist-- and pretty soon the lines dividing him from his comically corrupt and perverted opposites dissipate. In one scene near the end of the film, Christine catches him opening his shirt and taking erotic pleasure as his rat friends climb upon him and start their nibbling, in a gross-out mirror image of a nude orgiastic bathhouse romp that the wealthy characters (including his romantic rival, Raoul) take part in earlier in the film. The Phantom wears his class-based indignation as a sort of disguise: underneath is the same hypocrisy.

But what is the film trying to say with this undermining of our troubled antihero's motivation? It's not too taxing to imagine that it's all a misanthropic screed, chuckling at the notion that those at the bottom are more righteous than those at the top. This reading is supported by how the film presents our ostensible heroine, Christine. In the novel and in other adaptations, she is often portrayed as a pure-hearted young woman capable of feeling astounding sympathy for others less fortunate. By contrast, Argento's Christine actively pursues her own advancement at the expense of others, and doesn't put up too much protest after the Phantom kills to help her achieve it. She expresses that she's torn between her equal attractions to the Phantom and Raoul, and finds little fault in sleeping with the Phantom immediately before betraying him to other lover. The film plays Christine not as duplicitous but as a woman incapable of denying a man that which he desires: Raoul and the Phantom both "love" her, and her affections exclusively rest with whichever one she's with in the moment. Though the film attempts to blame her shifting allegiance on the Phantom's telepathic control of her-- "his will is my will, and his thoughts are my actions," she claims-- one can't help but feel that this is feebly obscuring a misogynistic bent of the "frailty, thy name is woman" variety. Because, stripped of any telepathic influence, Christine's lack of autonomy is still chilling: when being "rescued" by Raoul after she willfully ran away with the Phantom, Christine begs of her aristocratic lover, "don't you ever let me disappear like this again."

It's apparent in its presentation of its "heroes" that the film finds that it possesses no human soul to root for. We're stuck watching rats, perverts, and empty vessels take bites out of each other's flesh, and the assumption seems to be that we'll enjoy this viewing experience, which probably doesn't say much for the film's opinion of us either. Phantom of the Opera is far from being the nadir of Argento's latter day work, but it's never much fun to watch. Its distressing social commentary, repugnant characters, and mean-spirited tone, when combined with a flat visual style and an over-reliance on shoddy VFX, create a rather bleak and uninviting world to enter into for even a short spell. The film and its effect on the viewer is best encapsulated by the scene in which one of its pedophilic aristocrats chases down a young girl and force feeds her some Swiss chocolates as she struggles against it: it's uncomfortable, much too much to swallow, and-- despite any intended sweetness-- leaves a sour taste in one's mouth.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Trauma (1993) dir. Dario Argento

Logline: A series of grizzly decapitations has the residents of Minneapolis cowering in their galoshes in fear of a nefarious killer who strikes only when it's raining. The killer's latest dual beheading leaves a teenaged "anorexic," Aura Petrescu (Asia Argento), an orphan. Aura finds safe harbor from institutionalization in the arms and home of a much older journalist, David (Christopher Rydell). Together, the pair attempt to unravel the pattern of the killer's crimes before the end credits roll.

Resting awkwardly among Argento's limper horrors, Trauma suffers most from a lack of ingenuity. Though released exactly two decades after the psycho-sexual Italian giallo thriller reached its apex, the film neglects to update the subgenre for the last decade of the 20th century in any meaningful way. Those few moments that do appear to aspire to represent the surface level cultural trends of the '90s-- like a perplexing closing credits reggae porch jam session with a willowy girl swaying to the music as her hair is blown about-- can't help but feel woefully out-of-touch, not to mention contextually jarring. Considering that Trauma is Argento's first feature-length American production, one would imagine he'd be influenced by that country's contemporary horror scene, but that's not the case: the film is trapped in the sleazy closet of early 1970s Eurohorror, oblivious to the decades of horror filmmaking that had transformed the genre since. The film feels positively old fashion, with the same old type of killer, the same old type of motivation, and the same old creaky psychology in a mystery that hits the same old plot beats. But one would be hard-pressed to call Trauma a deliberate, nostalgic, and reverential throwback to the Golden Yellow Days when one stops to consider the man behind the camera. As the single person most responsible for the giallo's popularity, and with a filmography that features increasingly complex and unique examples of the subgenre up until 1987, Argento settling for Trauma's narrative and stylistic mediocrity is self-plagiarism of the laziest variety. In fact, Argento and his screenwriter, horror author T.E.D. Klein, get no more creative than using Argento's own landmark giallo Deep Red (1975) as this film's basic template (with an splash of  Paolo Cavara's Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) thrown in for flavor). A seance featuring a medium who discerns the then present killer's identity and is quickly dispatched for possessing this knowledge; a journalist aiding the protagonist in the recovery of a visual memory that cracks the case; a matronly murderess (with past trauma involving her son) and her climactic decapitation. Sound familiar? The small "twists" that Trauma gives to these recognizable story elements (the sexes of the journalist and protagonist are switched around! the medium faked her own death!) hardly disguise the fact that we've seen all of this before, orchestrated with substantially more splattery grace.

All of this said, Trauma isn't a terrible film. It's quite entertaining, actually, though not often in ways that you'd imagine were hoped for. For those who enjoy the cheesier aspects of the these affairs, the film is laden with broad acting (Piper Laurie hams it up perfectly while Asia goes cross-eyed and lead Christopher Rydell bribes a child with an offer to be his best friend), amateur editing (a shot of Asia jumping dangerously off a high roof abruptly cuts to her running, fine and dandy, in the rain), hilarious pre-CGI '90s composite shots (Brad Dourif's decapitation and his gasping head-- from the chin up-- plummeting to the depths below against a green screen), a dreadful silent cartoon score from De Palma's regular composer Pino Donaggio, and curiously creaky practical VFX from the usually skilled Tom Savini (shoddy decapitated mechanical heads with still moving mouths do not scares make). My favorite moments are those containing fallacious bits of pop psychological wisdom concerning anorexia, which Aura is said to suffer from: all anorexics, you know, have unnatural attachments to their mothers and all of them have dreams about their fathers leaning over them in their sleep and planting big wet kisses on them. If you weren't aware of these scientific facts, you should watch more Oprah and Donahue, as one of the film's characters helpfully recommends. The film's cynical presentation of the damage and (ahem) trauma that controlling medical institutions bestow upon otherwise healthy people (see Aura and her mother) suggests that the film has critical aims, but the film's wandering plot tangents and Argento's sloppy, often ludicrous direction prevent any coherent critique of '90s America from emerging.

Make no mistake: this is Argento on the decline. When, in one scene, Aura is force-fed some psychotropic mind berries, Argento is given the perfect opportunity to invest some of his primary color surrealism into the film, but the best he can muster is a translucent ghost ballerina twirling on the ceiling. Granted, seeing him evolve is welcome-- in theory-- but when the result looks like Trauma we can't help but be vaguely disappointed. Because it was made for a meaty-enough estimated budget of seven million dollars, one can't simply lay the film's faults on a lack of funds. Argento seems tired here. Perhaps he was disillusioned with the fact that this sort of been-there-done-that thriller was the only sort of film he could get bankrolled, or perhaps he was beginning to become exhausted with filmmaking in general after two decades of fabulous imagination and productivity. His second collaboration with his daughter Asia, 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome, would find him more focused and less flippant with the giallo material, but even that film is similarly prone to the sloppy production values and style on display in Trauma. In stark contrast to his still-vibrant works of the mid-to-late '80s, Trauma finds the hyper-garish hyperactivity of Argento's fantasy horrors waning. The film's dialogue points to a certain cynicism the filmmakers hold for their entire bloody endeavor: "He only kills when it's raining," one character points out, to which another replies, "Well, stay out of the rain."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

May 2013's Footstones

Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of May, 2013.

Black Rock (2013) dir. Katie Aselton

Director Katie Aselton's new women-in-peril survival horror film, Black Rock, has received some derisive twittering ever since it played the Sundance and BFI film festivals early last year. Alongside more positive (and dare I say more perceptive) reviews, it has been called "a terrible, generic stalk and kill thriller," "rushed and sloppy," and "a so-so action movie." But among genre fans the brunt of the ire that's being thrown at the film seems to have been stirred by Aselton's public comments about her disdain for contemporary horror films, with their stock situations and, more importantly, their shift away from emotional conflict. Because those allegations about the bulk of contemporary horror are largely true, it seems bizarre to take issue with her statements. In that linked interview, Aselton discusses her film as a sort of response to Neil Marshall's widely loved women-in-peril survival film The Descent (2005), noting that Black Rock is what she wanted The Descent to be. Attacking that recently forged Golden Calf may have been her biggest mistake in winning the allegiance of genre fans: though an often shocking and engaging monster thriller, The Descent has also tricked some folks into believing it's a sophisticated, emotionally complex feminist horror film with strong female leads. But it's not. The Descent is a film with superficially strong female characters who, when not murdering or plotting to murder each other over extramarital affairs, wind up as monster chew toys. Its "strong female protagonists" are thrust into a harrowing situation and aren't allowed to see past their own destructive, petty cattiness. 

If Black Rock is a reaction to The Descent, it is so in its refusal to cast its women as male fantasy props: strong babes literally willing to kill each other over a man's affection. Two of Black Rock's trio of women (Aselton herself and co-star Lake Bell) have a similar touchy past relationship beef (Bell's character once slept with Aselton's character's ex-fiancee), but the film dramatizes the rekindling of their friendship through adversity rather than exploiting its deterioration for snappy thrills. The women, stranded on a chilly island and preyed upon by a duo of emotionally damaged and deranged veterans, learn to forgive past transgressions, accept their own flaws (and those of each other), and embrace their bond of friendship in order to persevere through their terrifying predicament. The film acknowledges (in many agonizing, suspenseful scenes) that its women are not superheroes able to individually defeat their stalkers. The final conflict between the women and the lone surviving villain, a 2-on-1 brawl that it is horrific in its slow, labored violence, aptly demonstrates the need for their unity in order to pull through this ordeal. It's not a perfect film (it makes overtures at political and gender critiques that it never follows up on) but it is a great one, and while its basic structure and situation is well-trod-upon ground in thriller cinema, its emotional thrust is unique: many other modern horror films would have had the mutually triumphant women slitting each other's throats by the end. The horror that Black Rock presents is the horror of healing, of forcing you to realize that your emotionally dramatic conflicts with others, those conflicts that take on such tremendous, insurmountable gravity in your own mind, mean nothing when juxtaposed-- violently-- against true fear, pain, and suffering.

Jennifer's Body (2009) dir. Karyn Kusama

Though I hadn't exactly been avoiding it because I share the fiery Diablo Cody hatred that so many souls seem to harbor post-Juno (2007), Jennifer's Body (like a majority of mainstream horror films from the past decade) was still pretty far down my list of urgent things to devour. I decided to give it a chance after listening to a thorough and intelligent discussion concerning it from the ever-thorough-and-intelligent ladies of The Faculty of Horror podcast. My reading of the film's very definite (and, to some, surprising) feminist leanings falls almost entirely in line with theirs, so you might as well listen to them rather than watch this paragraph grow ever larger as my fingers blather on. However, I will make clear a couple issues I had with Karyn Kusama and Cody's film, both in its themes and in its position as a horror film. Firstly, while very much a feminist narrative about the dangers of some women's self-propagation of the male exploitation of female bodies (e.g. the case of Jennifer (Megan Fox)) and the appeal of a sexually free but self-assured and independent alternative female identity (e.g. Needy (Amanda Seyfried)), the film falls back on a-- by this point-- cliched rape-revenge resolution by having that ideal alternative female personage exact revenge for violence committed against women by committing violence against men. Aren't we past this, culturally, as the ideal  cathartic release for this sort of tale? Sure, the murderous Satanic indie rock scumbags of the band Low Shoulder deserve some sort of cosmic comeuppance, but must it be accomplished through a reaffirmation of the cycle of violence between men and women? Jennifer's Body is a clever film, so it's a shame it wasn't as clever when dishing out this justice. (I'm now imagining some alternate scenario in which Needy helps ensure the band's Sophomore Album Slump, sending them spiraling into depression and substance abuse.) Secondly, Kusama and Cody have crafted a pretty lousy horror film. It's a decent comedy with thoughtful satire, but there's not a frightening or uneasy moment in here. Much of this is due to the Heathers-lite comedy undermining any tension, but it's also because those bits of horror that the filmmakers have decided to employ are as stock and generic as one can find in modern horror and are filmed with no visual panache (prepare for lots of silhouetted murders and Jennifer popping out from around corners). The best horror films are those that put the actual depiction of horror as a priority while still embedding ripe themes and subtext. By abandoning the subtlety of its narrative and thematic intentions, a horror film loses its ability to frighten: the horror elements become a mere vehicle for the greater message. Jennifer's Body is tattooed with its own noble but blatant intentions; its horror is a flimsy sheer garment providing it some narrative cover.

Dead Silence (2007) dir. James Wan

James Wan and Leigh Whannell have hit my horror sweet spot. Insidious (2010) provided the duo with a commercial success to distance them creatively from their earlier creation of the often maligned Saw franchise, but they'd developed an even bolder departure a few years earlier with their immediate follow-up to Saw (2004), Dead Silence. This film taps into a vein of retro horror that most modern filmmakers leave untouched: the extravagant, potentially corny, earnest shriek shows of the 1950s and earlier. Though updated for contemporary sensibilities in terms of its violence, editing, and cinematography, Dead Silence is virtually a hyperactive episode of The Twilight Zone mashed up against an EC horror comic. Its locations are moody and sound-stagy, giving the viewer the impression that the long abandoned sets of classic Hollywood horror were resurrected, having been twisted by time into even more expressionistic structures than they were before. The nursery rhyme mythology that the film creates for its villain, coupled with the story's frequent violations of mimetic narrative logic, hint that this is a film best suited for the fertile and accepting minds of a younger audience, eager to squeegee away such perceived flaws in favor of soaking up its excess of imaginative qualities. The film's R-rating implies either a miscalculation on Wan and Whannell's part or the inability of the MPAA to understand how desperately the thirteen-year-old crowd needs exposure to this sort of nightmare. They are, after all, our horrifying future.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980) dir. John Hough

A film I wish I'd peeped as a child, John Hough's Disney-produced The Watcher in the Woods was filmed shortly before he made The Incubus (1982) with John Cassavettes, a film about a demonic entity raping women to death. Though Hough had already made the fairly strange Witch Mountain films for Disney, the director of suggestive, sexually-charged films like Twins of Evil (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) is still a peculiar but welcome choice as a director of children's cinema. Appropriately, The Watcher in the Woods, adapted from a pretty odd-sounding 1976 young adult novel written by Florence Engel Randall, is more bizarre and frightening than anything I've yet seen from the house that Mickey built. One part Nancy Drew mystery and two parts alien-encounter-masquerading-as-a-haunted-forest trans-dimensional mini-epic, the film is-- even in its toned down theatrical version-- pretty wild. The studio's post-production tinkering with the film's ending has been well documented, but both of the alternate versions of the ending must be seen for the viewer to achieve a full understanding of the trippy, horrifying, head-scratching cosmic insanity the filmmakers were intending. Besides these joys, the film also presents young viewers with the positive role model of a brave, inquisitive, and independently-minded female protagonist in the character of amateur sleuth Jan Curtis (Lynn-Holly Johnson, in a performance that loosens Carroll Baker's usual stranglehold on the award for most wide-eyed overacting in whatever film she's starring in). If Disney had refrained from meddling with it in post, The Watcher in the Woods could have become a minor classic, terrifying and transporting the minds of its child audience to new planes of cinematic existence and possibility. As it exists, it's that sort of weird and confusing Disney movie half-remembered from many childhood VHS rentals.