Tag Archives: horror

Horror is everywhere (4)

Over the past couple years, I’ve written repeatedly about how “horror is everywhere”: how horror iconography slips across genre boundaries, turning up in surprising places; how savvy filmmakers employ traditional horror imagery—vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.—even in “straight” dramas, often to shocking effect. So now here are five more films, all plucked from the TSPDT “1,000 Greatest Films” list, and their scariest moments…

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I’m certainly not the first to point out that Frank Capra’s “beloved Christmas classic” is also one of the darkest films to emerge from 1940s Hollywood, tearing as it does into American ideals like family and the free market with severe emotional precision. But the darkness extends beyond the film’s sociopolitical implications: when Clarence lets George experience the world if he had never been born, it’s visually coded as an actual horror movie—an anti-ghost story, if you will. George investigates his and Mary’s would-be house, but nobody lives there; in this reality, it’s an unlit, decrepit building with graffiti and broken windows. And it’s haunted, sure enough, by George and his now-false memories of his wife and children. Capra uses cobwebs and shadows right out of Gothic horror to give George the ultimate “Be careful what you wish for.”

Easy Rider (1969)

Long before he became an avatar of cackling grotesquerie in The Shining and Batman, Jack Nicholson was on the other side of horror, as a victim of redneck violence in Dennis Hopper’s hippie picaresque. Although smoking pot and riding motorcycles may sound like fun, a cloud of southern “good ol’ boy” bigotry hangs over the film. When free spirits Billy (Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda), and George (Nicholson) stop off for lunch in a small Louisiana town, their mildly rebellious looks and behavior stir up rage and jealousy in the local men, leading to a late-night ambush on the hippies’ campsite and George’s death by beating. This bloody turn of events directly anticipates a whole wave of horror movies (DeliveranceThe Hills Have Eyes, Pumpkinhead) wherein rural folk assault unwanted outsiders. (See “Getting Even,” the third chapter of Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws for more on this “city vs. country” strain of horror.)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Really, what isn’t scary in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic? In its futuristic England, no amount of locked doors can keep out psychopathic thugs, whose ranks include the protagonist, Alex. The film follows two different home invasion subplots, one of which segues into a rape-revenge narrative, while the other ends abruptly when Alex cracks the homeowner’s skull with a penis statue. The only reasons, I’d say, that A Clockwork Orange isn’t categorized as pure horror are 1) because of its sci-fi setting and 2) because it’s from the POV of the monster. And what a monster! Malcolm McDowell’s performance stretches the definition of “human” as he gibbers, lies, and beats his way through adolescence. Just listen to his low, chuckling delivery of the closing line, “I was cured all right.” Absolutely spine-chilling.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Watch the last 10-15 minutes of Coppola’s war epic without sound or context. Then tell me it doesn’t look like the kinkiest, most homoerotic art-horror movie ever made. A soldier, wearing little more than sweat, fog, and shadow, breaks into a temple and—symbolically cross-cut with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo—stabs an older man to death. By now, they’re both possessed by “the jungle” (i.e. by the film’s still-colonialist conception of the Southeast Asian wilderness) and far from the pseudo-civilization of the American military. That soldier, Martin Sheen’s Willard, has refashioned himself as something more like the primordial Creature from the Black Lagoon than a war hero. And the coup de grâce he delivers is edited to feel more like an orgasm than an assassination. “The horror, the horror,” indeed.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino routinely makes visual nods to obscure horror movies—see the references to Dario Argento and Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell in the first Kill Bill, for example—but when Pulp Fiction‘s “Gold Watch” chapter (my favorite of the bunch) descends into Maynard’s basement, its horror is more than just an allusion. It becomes a short, sharp recapitulation of that same “city vs. country” horror found in Easy Rider (or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), as a pair of Angelenos are bound and gagged by a coven of pro-Confederate hick rapists. Butch and Marsellus get their grisly revenge, of course, but they can’t unsee what they’ve seen: that L.A.’s horrors go so much deeper than the criminal underworld they’re used to.

This lesson applies equally well to moviegoers, too: you may think you know what genre you’re in, but horror could be lurking just around the corner.

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Link Dump: #70

Today, with the help of Marlon Brando and a cute kitty, I must drop that saddest of blogging words: hiatus. For a number of reasons (work, personal lives, etc.), Pussy Goes Grrr will not be updated until June 17, just in time for the Queer Film Blogathon. (P.S.—still plenty of time to sign up!) Till then, you can always glance over our index of reviewed films, leave comments on old posts, or check out the links below…

We’ll leave you until later in the month with a pretty hilarious search term: “witch lesbian make magically disappear with pussy.”

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Body and Soul

Ah, The Exorcist (1973). That Most Iconic of Horror Movies. That onslaught of sacrilege, holy water, and pea soup vomit (or so pop culture would have you believe). It’s this week’s pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, and you know what? Beyond being a repository of gory iconography, it’s a seriously good-looking movie. William Friedkin and Owen Roizman—the latter of whom also lensed ’70s classics like The Stepford Wives and Network—shoot it mostly as a domestic drama, where drab colors and cozy furnishings belie the growing evil. As the exorcism nears, though, they employ some stark chiaroscuro.

That’s when we get the famous shot above, one of my favorites, with Father Merrin going up to the MacNeils’ house. Borrowing, I think, from The Night of the Hunter’s expressionism, it’s a tantalizing prelude to the film’s expulsive climax; it charts just how far this urban homestead has descended into gothic madness. Merrin’s silhouette suggests a man of mystery, a man burdened by unpleasant knowledge who remains (judging by that toolkit) an absolute professional. He’ll be shaken up soon, th0ugh, thanks to one very special girl.

Together, these constitute my favorite image in The Exorcist. (To avoid cheating, though, I’ll name the lower-right shot as “best.”) They showcase Linda Blair’s decidedly normal-girl visage as it transforms, through the addition of scars and contact lenses, into that of a demon incarnate. But it’s not just makeup and Mercedes McCambridge’s voice that enact this metamorphosis. Blair’s whole demeanor changes: without losing the audience’s eye contact, she goes from victim to agent of terror, and her attitude shifts from bed-ridden supplication to caustic resentment.

Her camera-directed gaze establishes a visual continuity between the before and after, and in both phases, it’s haunting. It implicates us in both her suffering and her demon-induced rage. I find that hospital-bound before picture the most disturbing, though. Pazuzu’s condescension is one thing, but Blair’s pallor and confusion are hard to stomach. She just looks like a sick little girl who’d much rather be drawing or playing than smothered under layers of medical equipment. And as she catches our eyes, she seems to be asking—calmly, patiently, with good humor—“Why me?”

All that vomit and blood would be meaningless without this sick little girl. Her pain is what makes The Exorcist is so scary.

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It’s May!

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Dreams I Have Had About Pregnancy

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One Hour Mark: Dead Ringers

Dark bedroom or alien landscape? 1:00:00 into David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), the two are more or less the same. The bedroom belongs to Beverly Mantle, half of the twin gynecologists played here by Jeremy Irons. In the absence of his actress girlfriend, Beverly is descending into a lethargic, overmedicated hell. As this shot begins, he fumbles along the bedside table, groping at the watch before locating his pill bottle, then turning away and raising it to his mouth.

Seconds later, the shot fades to black with its focus squarely on the watch. By now, Beverly is a mere background detail, his face nearly abstracted. You can make out impressions of an eye, ear, and nose, but they could just as easily be tricks of the meager light. His addiction is a sarcophagus—or, given Cronenberg’s obsession with biological transformation, a cocoon. Just as Beverly’s receding into his own drug-induced delusions, he’s also receding into the cold, blue night.

This leaves us with the gold watch curled up in the foreground, shadow looping beneath it. Under the subtle lighting, its curve and texture make it look less like an inanimate object, and more like some uneasy compromise between organic and metal: like a beetle’s shell, or Dalí’s melting watches, or even Videodrome’s “new flesh.” Although it’s just a watch, the shot’s diffused twilight and shallow focus imbue it with surprising potency. They change it from an upscale accoutrement into an agent of horror.

It’s a sly visual strategy. By reducing Irons to a vague blur, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shift the brunt of the image’s menace onto the watch. More likely than not, they were inspired by Citizen Kane and its representation of Susan’s suicide attempt. Both shots share the sinister bedside table, but in Dead Ringers that detailed bedroom is condensed into just two layers, with the frame dominated and divided by the watch.

It’s an ominous, understated composition. Since it’s so pervaded by darkness, the string of blue light that runs through the watch, cleaving the shot in half, is endowed with eerie power. The surface, intended to look sleek and modern, seems sterile and predatory by night. The room is entombing Beverly and abetting his addiction; his surroundings are aligned with the disease that’s eating at him. Nowhere—inside or outside his body—is safe.

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2011: It Was a Very Good Year

Back in May, I saw my first 2011 movie: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I was pleasantly floored. Seven months later, it’s become the consensus Movie Of The Year. But in the meantime, I’ve caught up with a few dozen other new releases, some of which smacked me even harder. It’s been a rich, ripe year for movies. Here’s a highlight reel of my favorite bits and pieces…

Scenes

  • The opening heist in Drive. I love the full movie, but it peaks early with this thrilling set-piece that doesn’t waste a shot or second. The sound design alone is as meticulous as any I’ve heard this year, balancing layers of aural information while keeping the viewer on edge. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a crime thriller.
  • The dueling Michael Caine impressions in The Trip. It’s just two performers (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) showing off, fighting to out-funny and out-ego one another. As such, it’s both an ideal comic showcase and the film’s midlife crisis narrative boiled down its essence.
  • The insult competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and a bitchy teenager in Bridesmaids. It’s an exercise in pure, improvised cruelty as Wiig and Mia Frampton, daughter of Peter, trade verbal daggers. (“You look like an old mop” might be my favorite.) Wiig isn’t afraid to get dirty or self-deprecating, and in this scene she’s at her funniest/lowest, losing her job with the checkmate line “You’re a little cunt.”
  • The performance of “The Show” in Moneyball. Kerris Dorsey and Brad Pitt sit in a music store. Dorsey, talented but a little shy, starts strumming a guitar and singing. It’s an understated scene of father/daughter bonding, one that studiously avoids cliché while setting the film on course to its emotional climax.
  • The climax of Attack the Block. Moses (John Boyega) finally gets his “hero” moment as he runs down a hall: sword in hand, firecracker in mouth, with gorilla-wolf motherfuckers snapping at his heels, and all in slow-motion. Add Basement Jaxx’s riveting soundtrack, and you’ve got an adrenaline-infused scene that plays like the best kind of side-scrolling video game.

Performances

  • Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, for blending vulnerability, eroticism, and despair in her reaction to the end of the world;
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being so silently perceptive he might’ve had X-ray vision, a bastion of maturity in a nest of childish spies;
  • Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin for turning her face into a portrait of motherhood-as-PTSD;
  • Brendan Gleeson in The Guard for cutting loose and flaunting his appetites as a 21st century Falstaff;
  • Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre for her ultra-Victorian restraint and her ability to match Michael Fassbender’s heights of passion;
  • Ben Kingsley in Hugo for concealing a father of cinema and inveterate showman beneath a mask of grumpiness;
  • Monica del Carmen in Leap Year for treating extreme sexuality as of a piece with the quotidian, lonely stretches of life;
  • Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris for bringing energy and comedy to his take on a literary icon;
  • and Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman for being feral, fascinating, and terrifying.

And now, my top five movies of the year…

#5: Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin

Every frame of Durkin’s debut feature made my skin crawl. A threat was palpable even in its most innocuous moments, and I’m not merely talking about the threat of physical violence. The danger in MMMM is much scarier than that in a typical horror film: Patrick’s cult threads its evil dogmas through the title character’s brain, leaving her with severe psychic hemorrhaging. She’s cleft into two times and lives, and it’s to Elizabeth Olsen’s credit that she plays both halves—the quivering bundle of fear and the would-be “teacher and leader”—within the same role, sometimes within the same gesture.

Olsen’s unease is supplemented by Jody Lee Lipes’ zoom-happy camera, applying the ambient paranoia of ’70s thrillers to the lakes and forests of the northeast. The whole film is colored by Martha’s anxiety; even a tree, branches shuddering in the wind as she flees the cult, is imbued with sinister intent. A story of atmospheric horror and systematized violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene itself has crawled into my mind and taken up residence. My one major misgiving lies in the treatment of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. They feel too schematically bourgeois for this otherwise loose, suggestive film. Nonetheless, I’m dying to see what Durkin tries next.

#4: Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Steeped in the tedium of frontier history, streaked with political subtext, Reichardt’s revisionist western muffles its narrative progress. Its story expands through gestures, accidents, and mistakes. The film’s survival-oriented, focusing on the compromises and sacrifices necessary for human life in the wilderness. For the seven settlers led by guide Stephen Meek, every decision is a life-or-death decision: can a captive Native American lead them to water? Does salvation lie just over a hillside? Either they act together and make the right choice, or they die.

These colossal stakes drench the story in tension. Even as Reichardt dwells on textures and period details—the toil of reloading a rifle; the clash between dusty pink dresses and the parched landscape—the threat of endless wandering hangs over the pioneers’ heads. The actors wear it well, exchanging dazed, exhausted looks. And from this tired band, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) emerges as the only real hero, an understated, proto-feminist badass. With its arid compositions, Meek’s Cutoff turns western myth into tragicomic reality.

#3: Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

This discursive duet poses a riddle: “Are they or aren’t they?” But Certified Copy’s delights go far beyond its core mystery. That question is an intellectual spark, lighting up a dozen other points of inquiry: the film dives into art history, relationships, academia, and more through the ruminations of author James Miller and the nameless French woman leading him around Tuscany. Despite being one long conversation, the film never lacks for visual dynamism; Kiarostami tends toward beautiful static shots, but his camera often orbits the couple in graceful, deliberate movements.

And as if to complement Certified Copy’s technical and natural allure, Juliette Binoche gives the performance of the year. Binoche is always an exceptional actress, silently adding wrinkles to her every role, but this is something new. She’s sweet but tough, giving the impression that every delicate word she speaks is forged from a lifetime of experience. Her sparring partner, opera singer William Shimell, is a decent enough actor, but Binoche draws my eyes even when she’s off-screen. Midway through the film, she has a sudden breakdown in a café, and it’s unlike anything else I saw this year. You can see the shape of the movie totally changing as a single tear runs down her face.

#2: Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh

Russell (Tom Cullen) is relaxed, receding, sometimes melancholy. Glen (Chris New) is iconoclastic and impulsive. They’re the two poles of this bittersweet, naturalistic gay romance, and two of the year’s most unforgettable characters. Weekend hits all the right notes; it has all the awkwardness and tentative desire of an embryonic relationship, all the embarrassment and incidental comedy of sex. It astonishes me with its range of moods, as it shifts from funny banter to heartbreaking revelations in seconds, without ever seeming forced or jerky.

It’s such a humanistic film, too, so sympathetic to its couple’s pains as gay men in a homophobic world and as lovers whose relationship is squashed by circumstance before it has a chance to blossom. It has no “Notting Hill moment,” as Glen says derisively. Instead, its climax is a quiet little conversation about coming out as they lie in bed. It’s just a handful of lines, but it still tears me apart. Cullen and New have plenty of sexual chemistry, but beyond that, they have a powerful rapport. They work as an onscreen couple. 2012s romantic comedies will have an incredibly hard time topping them.

#1: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee here and at 366 Weird Movies. My point remains the same: it’s a spellbinding experience, an invitation to another world, and a collection of weird folk tales all rolled into one feature film. As I sat watching it for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s movie theater, I was utterly hooked. All it took was that opening scene, where a bovine pack animal shuffles through a velvety forest. Apichatpong handles his vast themes (death, morality, the afterlife) with the humor and imagination they deserve, and it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie.

Touring through past and future, caves and glades, human and animal worlds, Uncle Boonmee is dense with narrative tangles and metaphysical conceits. But it doesn’t gloat about its ambitions. It wears them lightly in a spirit of friendliness and warmth. I’ve never seen a ghost story or an art film like it. Open-ended, curious, and unusual at every turn, Uncle Boonmee is exactly what I want out of a movie.

[I have yet to see A Dangerous MethodHouse of PleasuresLe Quattro VolteMargaretPoetryA SeparationShame, or Take Shelter.]

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