Viewing Diary October 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

WNUF Halloween Special (2013), directed by Chris LaMartina et al

From beginning to end, this larkish pastiche simulates the texture of local TV news recorded to VHS. The “Halloween Special” of the title is an on-air séance that follows a studio preamble. A reporter leads a priest and a couple mediums deep into a haunted house. (Obviously, the scheme goes haywire.) Sprinkled throughout the program are commercial breaks, advertising a carpet warehouse, demolition derby, video store, strip club, etc. A few anti-drug PSAs, too, all of it meticulously chintzy. LaMartina and the other directors mix stock footage with material that’s newly shot. Most of it’s at least plausibly from the ’80s, though the excessive shoddiness can dip into full-on irony. The pacing, more than anything, approximates what it’s like to watch a real broadcast. Its delayed gratification is dead-on.

Trouble Every Day (2001), directed by Claire Denis

Hunger scorns language. So why bother with it in a film like this? The dialogue’s perfunctory. The action’s what matters. Denis’s filmmaking, with collaborators Tindersticks and Agnès Godard, is inscrutable. Characters travel between Parisian locales. Exposition as to why is sparse. Neither star Vincent Gallo nor his bestial counterpart Béatrice Dalle request a shred of audience sympathy. They just behave according their hungers. There’s a tourist hotel and a sealed house and a medical lab. Faint rustles and murmurs sound faintly human. Bodies pulse with hunger, and it’s mesmerizing.

The Howling (1981), directed by Joe Dante

Werewolves howl, growl, eat meat, and copulate. They transform, via Rob Bottin’s gooey effects, at their rural California retreat. Silver bullets tear them to shreds. This early Dante creature feature basks in the beasts’ canine power. It’s all about their moonlit carnality. The tongue-in-cheek screenplay ties them to early ’80s maladies as well, cults and serial killers and tabloid TV. They’re the psyche’s hirsute underbelly with a long lycanthropic heritage that’s alluded to throughout the film. They’ll keep inducing shrieks, its horror implies, as long as people keep making these movies.

The Reflecting Skin (1990), directed by Philip Ridley

Wunderkind Ridley made this in his mid-twenties, and it bears traces of callowness. It’s too painterly, too grotesque, too aggressive in its allegory. The procession of traumas that visits little Seth, from his father self-immolating to his brother deteriorating to the murders of all his little friends, belabors the film’s thesis about “the nightmare of childhood.” It’s impossible to watch without picking up on this malignancy endemic to the American heartland. The film’s subtler in its craft, as Dick Pope’s photography boasts soft shadows and dense blacks inside rickety old farmhouses.

Secret of the Blue Room (1933), directed by Kurt Neumann

The mansion here is stocked with the usual candelabra, grandfather clock, and suit of armor. Three suitors after the same heiress pledge to spend a night each in the “Blue Room,” locus of an alleged curse. No surprise when they start dying. Despite running only an hour, this is a generic bore. The lone thrill derives from from a climactic gunfight down a flight of stone steps. Otherwise, it’s just a lot character actors muttering exposition.

The Gate (1987), directed by Tibor Takács

Here’s a highlight from the post-Gremlins wave of mini-monster movies. Most of it takes place over a few days in a single suburban house with decor too wholesome to trust. The teen daughter, in her parents’ absence and to her brother’s chagrin, invites some friends over. Then the hell-born beasties attack. The effects are truly special, with an uncanny immediacy; the storytelling’s compact and open-hearted. Much like Invaders from Mars, it imagines all the worst things that could afflict a vulnerable little kid.

Lake Mungo (2008), directed by Joel Anderson

Kudos to Adam Nayman for calling attention to this Aussie ghost story. Although fictional, it takes the form of an elegiac documentary, mustering interviews and video evidence in a bid to tell the story of a teenage girl who drowned. That story’s shape and truth grow thornier with each revelation. Images of bedrooms, backyards, and family outings act as clues to a set of recursive mysteries. Yet by the end, Lake Mungo’s supplied only the softest of answers, because that’s how human mortality works. Death, in the film’s poignant phrasing, is “the meanest, dumbest machine there is, and it just keeps coming, and it doesn’t care.”

Island of Lost Souls (1932), directed by Erle C. Kenton

“How did he find out?” demands Dr. Moreau. “What did you say to him? What did you do to let him know?” What Lota did was embrace Parker tightly, pressing into his back with her panther’s claws. His face assumed a look of incredulous revulsion before he ran away. When Moreau accosts her, she’s sitting in her room turning a beseeching gaze from her hair and hands to their reflection in the mirror. The doctor drags her over to the light of the barred window, then examines her over a sustained silence typical of early talkies. His diagnosis: “The stubborn beast flesh creeping back.”

Is Lota trans? This feels like a horrible question to ask about a mad scientist’s creation, a literal inhuman monster. (Not to mention the dubious racial subtext Island shares with other ’30s horror movies like Freaks and Murders in the Rue Morgue.) But this whole scenario’s a dead-on analogy for passing and dysphoria. Moreau’s desires to “burn out all the animal in her” and “prove how completely she was a woman” read as trans self-talk poisoned by self-loathing. Lota knows what it’s like to yearn for a different body. She’s doomed to die unloved. Oh, if only she could’ve survived into a life beyond the island.

The Vampire (1957), directed by Paul Landres

John Beal has a weary face, kind of like Dirk Bogarde’s. It looks even wearier slathered in monster makeup. He stars as a doctor and single father addicted to an experimental drug. Though he tries to quit, he aches too keenly from withdrawal. The fact that it transforms him into a bloodsucker is almost incidental to the cravings. A Bunsen burner’s flame illuminates one laboratory murder; shadows tussling on a wall reveal another. Eventually the cops catch up with the monster and shoot him to death in a drainage ditch. It’s a suitably grim end to this nightmare of medical melodrama.

The Craft (1996), directed by Andrew Fleming

Holy shit, Fairuza Balk. She etches herself into the camera with each white-hot close-up. She swaggers, sneers, flares her nose, sticks out her tongue, applies peer pressure like a vise. She may play the villain, the girl who takes it too far, but she’s the witch you wish you were. Vulgar, catty, with spiked collars and a nose ring and eyebrows like penknives. Sure, she receives Production Code-style punishment, babbling and bound in a padded cell. But that can’t erase the previous hour and a half of indelibly bad behavior. She loses, yet she wins.

Horror Island (1941), directed by George Waggner

“A fourth-rate, low-budget mystery-and-adventure flapdoodle,” per Variety’s scathing review. “A ridiculous olla-podrida of hoke, romance and claptrap… There is no concern for the plausible nor the consistent.” Well, some movies improve with several decades’ hindsight. This Universal whodunit may be flimsy, but that’s also why it’s fun. It spends its first third rounding up a small, comic cast—sailor, professor, private eye, etc.—then ships them to a haunted castle where they’re picked off one by one. The comedy’s like lukewarm Preston Sturges. (“Hello, Yorick,” sighs one guest to the skull in his bed.) The expedition, promising thrills at $50 a head, is a lot like a horror movie. And I’m like the heiress who says, “I’ve seen everything,” but enjoys the trip anyway.

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), directed by Arthur Crabtree

Much like Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, released the same spring, this proto-slasher intertwines its duo’s crimes with the piecemeal sleuthing of press and police. Its CinemaScope framing’s comparatively inert, though, and its story’s far more cartoonish, with ice tongs and guillotine blade piercing victims’ throats. Michael Gough’s a tabloid journalist who stashes lurid mementos around the supercomputer in his cellar. He’s seduced a young sidekick into his evil lifestyle and away from a tightly sweatered girlfriend. Like a bloodthirsty Batman and Robin, they sublimate the film’s mass of panicked libido into murder. It’s hysterical in every sense of the word.

The Hunger (1983), directed by Tony Scott

I last saw this movie back in 2008, the summer after my freshman year of college. I didn’t like it. Revisiting it now, I see how much I missed: playful editing, retro fashion, intense bisexuality. I saw two women have sex onscreen, but I didn’t realize their affair was one more link in an ancient chain. Or how Miriam’s tragic desire structures the film, with one lover falling as another rises. David Bowie (superstar and sex symbol) recedes behind layers of latex, then gets locked away in an attic midway through the film. That’s some bait-and-switch audacity on par with Psycho. Between its ankh necklaces, its stray doves, and its excerpts from Lakmé, The Hunger’s opulently dopey, but that’s hardly damning. Maybe it helps that over the past decade I’ve grown slightly more like Miriam.

After Midnight (1989), directed by Ken and Jim Wheat

Yet another mediocre anthology. Each story loosely recounts an urban legend. The first and weakest involves a macabre birthday surprise; the next has four white girls fleeing at night through the big city; and the third is When a Stranger Calls set during the graveyard shift at an answering service. The coda rips off Dead of Night. A few fear-inducing slivers: dogs chewing through a chainlink fence, rage rising in the caller’s voice. A lot of portentous bullshit, too.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), directed by Roger Corman

A few thespians in ruffed collars wander through castle interiors sprayed with cobweb. Most are wooden—Tea and Sympathy’s John Kerr acts through a chronic squint—while Vincent Price is elastic enough to encircle the film’s musty world. He transforms the space with the curve of his brow, the twitch of his mustache, and a voice that sounds like pressure on a bruise. The rest of the cast sways along with his denials and delusions. Filters and mattes in cheap “Color by Pathé” lacquer the film with Gothic psychedelia.

Arachnophobia (1990), directed by Frank Marshall

Marshall’s decade as a producer for Spielberg and Zemeckis is palpable in his work here. Seriocomic tone, wryly mobile camera: it’s textbook Amblin filmmaking. The spiders are scary but not too scary. Mom and dad could take the kids to see this. Jeff Daniels as the lanky town doctor feels like the sort of performance Jimmy Stewart might’ve given. He ropes a hunky blond egghead (Julian Sands) and a buffoonish exterminator (John Goodman) into his investigation. Same dynamic as the trio in Jaws. A lawn party one-third of the way in showcases semiformal attire at the dawn of the ’90s. Judging by Arachnophobia, cream pullovers and teal blazers are in.

Motel Hell (1980), directed by Kevin Connor

When this hit theaters, Dukes of Hazzard was vying with Dallas to be the #1 show on American TV. Perfect timing for a country-fried chiller about a family recipe for smoked meat. Rory Calhoun plays the eldest brother, a silver fox in overalls with integrity etched into his face. He remains grotesquely wholesome even while working with his pigtailed sister to drug and butcher stray city folk. The comedy’s broad, with swinger jokes and flashed tits and Wolfman Jack as a televangelist. But it started to get under my skin, especially when Calhoun’s grinning farmer courts a houseguest half his age. Like so many old men, he has no trouble mistaking his own evil for virtue.

Cult of Chucky (2017), directed by Don Mancini

This and Curse echo the first couple Child’s Play movies: as with Andy, Chucky kills everyone in Nica’s life, then follows her into a new setting where the process resumes. Instead of a foster home, though, it’s a psychiatric hospital populated by caricatures of mental illness. These patients, each with a symbolic delusion, act as knife fodder. Chucky—who’s now multiplying through some fuzzy voodoo—decapitates one, delivers a power drill to another’s brain. It’s generic slasher material, enlivened by some split-screens and overhead shots. The franchise, which started swallowing its own tail back in the ’90s, continues nibbling on whatever tail’s left. Characters either reference events or repeat dialogue from all six earlier entries. Mancini, the killer doll’s Dr. Frankenstein, clearly loves making these movies, as does Brad Dourif, who passes the torch to his daughter Fiona, and Jennifer Tilly, who returns as a sultry murder matriarch. Though the series has seen more stylish gore and darker comedy, this installment’s worthwhile as a family reunion, splattering blood and exulting in gay love.

Salem’s Lot (1979), directed by Tobe Hooper

In its cultivation of small town space, in its playful deployment of horror conventions, this lies right between Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What can lie beyond a door? Each of Hooper’s films yields answers of its own. In Salem’s Lot it might be antiques or model kits or infidelity or disease. The abnormal and the hideously normal get tangled up together. James Mason, still oozing suave charm in his seventies, plays Renfield to the Nosferatu-style vampire. But the monster design seems less like hacky homage and more like a diabolical reconfiguration of horror history. The downward arc of this TV miniseries has a bleak romance to it, coupled with the matinee fun of pressing a crucifix into the face of the undead.

It (2017), directed by Andy Muschietti

Whether you frame it as a coming-of-age story or a tale of cosmic horror, this remains a sentimental mediocrity. Though its emphasis on friendship is endearing, the friends themselves are adolescent sketches pitted against a world of outlandish evil. Their travails may be sad, but they hardly feel true. Most of this installment (“Chapter One”) acts as scaffolding, mapping out the hateful town of Derry, coasting on the novel’s mythic structure. Pennywise darts and bites like a piranha, always slightly startling. Blood and hair gush from a sink drain like a J-horror-tinted riff on Carrie. The monster’s other antics, though, are mere antics, unworthy of that chilling two-letter pronoun.

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