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Halloween Terrors

By Andreas

You know what’s really scary? Like terrifying, bone-chilling, never-sleep-again scary? Sure, I could start answering that question broadly with, say, death and loneliness and bodily harm. But I’d rather start small with a few images—the direct, visceral language of the horror movie. So here’s a taste of what scares me, via some of my favorite horror classics…

Cat People

As Poe described it in “The Raven”: “Darkness there, and nothing more.” Is it a panther, or just an inky blur shifting against the wall? The water in the swimming pool plays such tricks with the light. You could be in mortal danger, with a big cat preparing to tear into your neck, or you could just be seeing things. That’s the visual genius of Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot The Seventh Victim) at work, implementing the flair for ambiguity that defined RKO’s Val Lewton unit. It’s such a blurry, disorienting image, but it conjures up a world of pain and possibility. At times like this, you have to ask yourself: “Are you afraid of the dark?”

The Wicker Man

Shot from this angle, those islanders gathered around the vast wicker effigy look like a welcoming committee. They’re here to usher Sergeant Howie along to his destiny, an outcome preordained by his actions, his self-righteousness, and his obliviousness. And isn’t that the most disturbing fate of all? To know that you’re not merely being dragged off to die; as a matter of fact, your personal flaws guaranteed this ending. This is horror at its purest: to be hopelessly, helplessly drenched in anticipation of your imminent, ritualized death. And to top it all off, the air fills with pagan song. The Stepford Wives

This image encapsulates so many powerful fears: the loss of individuality, personhood, free will; the domination (and destruction) of women by a conspiratorial council of all-knowing men; the disappearance of anyone to trust. It’s all in Bobbie’s face as she rattles off idiotic phrases like “How could you do a thing like that!” This once-vivacious woman has been reduced to a babbling automaton, realized with grotesque plausibility by Paula Prentiss. It’s a tragedy and a nightmare.

Onibaba

One last fear-inducing image, this one from Japan, as a monster/woman braves the elements. A lightning flash illuminates her face, now usurped by a demonic mask. It’s the stark conclusion to a religious allegory that’s been transformed into a sweaty, carnal horror story. This is nature at its most basic: total, unrelenting chaos engulfing a vicious, unhappy world. In a perversely moral turnabout, this selfish woman gets what’s coming to her—and we, the viewers, are left with nothing but an empty, scared feeling by this masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave. Happy Halloween, everyone!

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20 Horror Faves

Way back when, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl requested that all the horror-loving folks out in blogland send her their 20 favorite horror movies. They responded en masse. I was part of that masse! Well, I figured, why not milk that list for some actual content? Thus, here it is: my list, in its chronological, 20-entries-long glory. It was a painful list to come up with, and I’m missing some of my other special favorites, but it’s decent, I think.

  • The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927): So macabre, so weird, so Freudian, so fucked-up. Also, probably Lon Chaney’s best surviving performance. (I mean, Burt Lancaster loved it!)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): The best version of Stevenson’s tale, no matter what the Victor Fleming partisans tell you. Also, Miriam Hopkins’ sexy leg [courtesy of Lolita’s Classics]:

  • Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932): Um, duh! More about this forthcoming later in the month.
  • Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934): “DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN!” Looniest, wackiest, most maniacal exploitation movie of all time.
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): Whale at his gleefully perverse best. I wish Dr. Pretorious was my boyfriend!
  • Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935): Peter Lorre is a creepy fucker, plus obsession and grand guignol! I adore this movie.
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942): One of the seminal Hollywood horror movies, at once erotic, repressed, and scary as hell.
  • The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943): And another Val Lewton masterpiece! Unbelievably morbid and moodily poetic.
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al., 1945): The segments are uneven, but Michael Redgrave vs. a ventriloquist dummy, together with the nightmare finale, is more than worth it. Ealing should’ve made more horror.
  • Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959): Franju tells his really icky mad scientist story with a delightful sense of humor. Valli makes a great (evil) lab assistant, and the design of the mask is so simple as to be nightmare-inducing.
  • Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962): This is easily in the top 5 on this list. Independently made with an unblinking vision of existential horror, it also has one-time actress Candace Hilligoss giving the performance of a lifetime. “WHY CAN’T ANYBODY HEAR ME?”
  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963): I fucking love Julie Harris here; she leads a pretty much perfect cast as they navigate the recesses of a very angry house.
  • Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): I talked about this recently, but to recap: it’s a brutal tale of two women and a man in the wilderness, with a big hole in the middle. So greasy and desperate, I love it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968): It’s a pretty canonical choice. Romero was a true original, resourcefully squeezing all the metaphorical value he could out of a solid cast, a boarded-up house, and some brain-craving zombies.
  • Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973): SO DEPRESSING. Watching this movie is like masturbating with a shard of broken glass. OK, I’m done drawing analogies now. But seriously, Bergman turns family drama into ultra-visceral horror.
  • The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976): The underrated third member of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s Trelkovsky’s miserably kafkaesque relationship with his neighbors, or him wearing a dress and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant!”
  • The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): When Poe wrote the words “desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,” I think he was anticipating the lingering dread and scary-as-shit special effects of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988): I wish Jeremy Irons were my drug-addicted gynecologist brother. But then I’d have to be Jeremy Irons. Also, mutant vaginas. What’s not to love?
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003): I wasn’t expecting it, but Boyle’s neo-zombie odyssey across postapocalyptic England has insinuated itself into my bloodstream like a particularly pernicious virus.
  • Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): Aren’t those kids cute? And isn’t that movie startlingly beautiful and well-written?

Are you shocked by my bad taste? Or shocked by my good taste? Comment below.

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Sexy Nihilism in Onibaba

[I wrote the following as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like samurai skeletons at the bottom of a pit.]

Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.

Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.

But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.

I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.

And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.

But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)

All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.

Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.

And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.

With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.

P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!

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Kieślowski and hunger

There’s so much to talk about and so little time, and so little energy and ability in the brain to generate enough thoughts. It’s all so absurd, all our communication processes. I’m putting out my opinions about anything and everything with keywords enabling any person with Internet access to read them, if through chance, he or she happens upon them. It’s all so interesting and strange. So I’d better not waste time between all my dilly-dallying and navel-gazing. Must plow ahead! Into the stream of consciousness!

I saw a most extraordinary film yesterday called The Double Life of Véronique, directed by the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski, a man whose name is brutally hard to spell, but he’s Polish, so what do you expect? This reminds me of a joke. Which reminds me of how Ashley and I discussed jokes together. But anyway: a Pole (so frequently the butt of such jokes) is taking an eye exam. The doctor, ophthalmologist, whatever, says, “Can you read this for me?”, pointing to the chart with the usual mess of letters, you know, E K A C Z H S Y etc. And the Pole says, “Read it? I know the guy!” So this is the joke I know about Polish names, and Krzysztof, from our perspective as Americans, certainly qualifies. (Of course, it’s really just their variant on Christopher, which as Wikipedia informs me, is from the Greek “Khristóphoros,” meaning Christ-bearer. See, if a Greek saw the name “Christopher,” maybe they‘d think it’s strangely spelled!)

In any case, the movie: from this great Polish director so concerned with coincidences, parallels, connections, etc. and the questions they bring up about our lives, we have this tale of two women, both played by the same actress, the beautiful Irène Jacob, who would later appear in Kieślowski’s Red (a movie that interestingly shares the motif of audio recordings). Weronika lives in Poland; Véronique lives in France. But (in addition to being physically identical) their lives line up and intersect in complicated ways; when Weronika dies from her heart problems while singing at a concert, Véronique feels a deep loss she’s unable to quite pin down.

Véronique explores the details of life

Double Life delves into those feelings we find ourselves unable to quite correlate to physical realities, like déjà vu, for example. When we know something’s happened, but we can’t say directly what, or to whom. The movie never gives away why these women live parallel lives, but it explores the beautiful (fearful?) symmetry of this alignment that leads one woman to her grave, while allowing the other to change her course and fall in love. And God, is it a technical and aesthetic delight, for the eyes and the ears: all these rich greens and occasional yellows and reds fill the air of the film, and Zbigniew Preisner’s score, for one thing, draws thematic lines between scenes (as the music of Weronika’s last performance pops up in Véronique’s life) and it’s so, oh, spiritual and elegant –  every aspect of the movie is driven toward this same conclusion, I think, that events happen in our lives that we can’t entirely understand but, at least, we can try to enjoy them. The Double Life of Véronique works as art on multiple levels, even if it’s a little perplexing while you watch it, as it amazes us formally and intellectually, and I highly recommend it. (And if that’s not enough, you get to see Jacob naked in two different lives. So much visual pleasure.)

What else to dive into in the brief remaining time I have at this library-? I’m about to start on Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a graphic novel whose genre appears to be “venereal fiction.” I will not lie: I love the word “venereal.” It comes from the Roman name for the goddess of love, Venus, but it’s most frequently heard in the (itself outdated) expression “venereal disease.” So venereal, I think, connotes something dirty, sexual, a little dark, and unpleasant. The icky fluids and discharges that we wouldn’t mind sterilizing away. And this, more or less, from the couple chapters I read while standing in Borders, is what Black Hole is about – after all, the title without context could refer equally well to an all-consuming cosmic presence or to human orifices – vaginal, anal, or otherwise. It reminds me of Onibaba, another movie I recommend, where the horror flows from the hungry hole, as omnivorous as Star Wars‘s Sarlacc or 1984‘s proverbial memory hole. Holes, clearly, are interesting things. As is Pac-Man, on whom I sometimes find myself fixated. So easy to draw, such a recognizable icon of, more or less, ’80s pop culture, and what does he do? Ashley and I were discussing this: he moves by eating. His mouth opens and closes, and that’s his form of ambulation. It also reminds me of this beloved pie chart.

The hilarity of statistical representations

I frequently marvel at human anatomy. At the human body in general. It’s not really as wondrous, I think, as some have made it out to be. It’s a bunch of systems, working in pretty good harmony. Things fuck up a lot, and when they do, it usually hurts. We eat, but if we don’t eat enough, or the right things, that also hurts. We get malnourished. Scurvy. Rickets. Beriberi. Various other dietary deficiencies. And once you start eating, you really never get to stop. And you know, every human being is a freak in one way or another, whether it’s one of a million physical abnormalities or one of the countless mental quirks you develop just by virtue of living a “normal” human life. And so, this process of consumption is just so remarkable: food goes in the mouth. Enzymes in the saliva break it down. Through peristalsis it travels down the throat. Into the stomach, where acids attack it from all angles. I am reminded of a fellow named Michel Lotito, who I first encountered in the Guinness Book of World Records. As I recall, he ate lots of glass, and an airplane engine (piece by piece). This reminds me of Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan noting that a living and dead body have the same amount of molecules. Well, glass and a sandwich probably do, too. Just some, uh, food for thought.

This computer is telling me I have to go. So I shall. More writing will be forthcoming in the near future. Down with Big Brother.

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