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Thicker Than Water

Once the auteur laureate of America’s outcasts, Tim Burton has lately become its leading purveyor of “Hot Topic movies”: glossy, soulless, and ready for merchandising. So I was nervous going into his latest film, the horror-comedy Dark Shadows (2012), expecting something strident and obvious. Instead I found a much better (and much more frustrating) movie than I’d imagined, one dotted by tantalizing highs and intoxicating performances but hampered by inconsistency. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s scary, but it bungles a lot of tonal shifts and never decides whether or not to take its own soap opera seriously. “Mixed bag” might be the phrase I’m looking for.

The beginning of the film sets a thick mood through Bruno Delbonnel’s smoky, monochrome visuals and the Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin.” But Johnny Depp’s overwrought narration, introducing us his centuries-long feud with witch Eva Green, immediately gave me pause. His words are pure melodrama, yet his voice is so arch and affected, as if he can’t conceive of an 18th century romance without an ironic slant. This informs his whole performance, as manifested in his raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Contrary to critics like Andrew Street, this isn’t “flamboyant over-acting” at all. Depp’s very dry and restrained here, a far cry from his manic Jack Sparrow. But his detachment thwarts the film’s would-be tragedy.

Another stumbling block is Victoria, the nanny played by Bella Heathcote. Initially the film’s (and Depp’s) focal point, she recedes farther and farther into the background as the story’s given over to the cursed Collins clan. She never gets much of a personality, functioning mostly as Depp’s anemic object of desire. This has grave consequences during the climax, whose impact hinges on our investment in their relationship. Depp must bite his true love’s neck to save her life, and it would be so carthartic if Victoria wasn’t so underdeveloped. But she is, so it ends up feeling like the dramatic equivalent of orgasm denial. Like I said, it’s a frustrating movie.

I could expound on other shortcomings: the dumb-ass final shot, looking for all the world like a Friday the 13th sequel tease; the hippie caricatures even broader than those in Wanderlust; and Chloë Moretz’s burn-out brat routine, which gets old fast. (Not to mention her last-second “I’m a werewolf!” revelation.) But I’d rather linger over the bits and pieces that I flat-out loved. Like a clockwork diorama of howling wolves, or a deadpan POV shot of a square waffle. Sometimes I was even happily reminded of vintage Burton. In flashback, Victoria’s parents institutionalize her while standing in a rigid American Gothic pose, à la the prologue to Batman Returns. And at the climax, Green swings her head and moans, “Excuse me!” as if channeling Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice.

In fact, Green supplies a lot of the movie’s high points. Her performance is ghoulish, voluptuous, and wickedly funny. During the Collins ball, for example, she struts into the mansion wearing a devil-red dress, complemented by nebulae of purple and pink light—a visual distillation of Burton’s gloomy, gothic 1972. When the time comes to fight, she does so savagely, bringing a house full of horrors down on the vampire she still loves. (On the few occasions Dark Shadows opts to be scary and only scary, it succeeds.) Green isn’t alone in her entrancing bitchiness, either. Burton veterans Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both carve out delightful supporting turns as, respectively, a purring matriarch and the boozy psychiatrist she employs.

I don’t know if I would call Dark Shadows a “return to form,” but I also don’t think it has to be one. It’s a pleasurable movie, littered unpredictably with beauty and terror, which is enough. Despite its bad jokes, waste-of-time subplots, and limp denouement, it’s proof positive that Tim Burton, our Edward Gorey of the big screen, still has some blood left in him. Maybe next time the wit and visual invention won’t be quite so scattered.

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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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One Hour Mark: Nosferatu

By Andreas

In this image from 1:00:00 into F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922)*, the captain of the riverboat Demeter is hard at work. His ship is in peril, and his entire crew is dead. Only one option remains: he must quickly lash himself to the wheel, and do whatever it takes to get his ship and its cargo to safety. It’s that old cliché of a captain going down with his ship. Unfortunately, as a title card informs us, the Demeter is the “Ship of Death”—and as such, both the ship and its poor, unknowing captain are doomed.

If only the captain could’ve seen the low-angle shot that precedes this one, wherein the gaunt, rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schreck) stalks across the deck. It’s an iconic horror image, and with good reason: the odd angle emphasizes the evil strangeness of Orlok’s posture and gait, as well as the totality of his hold on the ship. He doesn’t need to skulk around in the cargo hold anymore; now he can skulk out in the open. No crew members are around to impede him, and the captain’s too busy panicking and tying himself down.

Yes, it’s one of those classic we-know-more-than-they-do moments, when the disparity between our knowledge and the character’s is the source of terror. Normally, the captain’s actions would be brave and heroic. Normally, the ship would be threatened by something external, like pirates or bad weather—anything but vampires. Lashing himself down now, however, is like buckling your seatbelt in a burning car. The ship itself is diseased, and in a few moments Orlok will be the only passenger left.

As much as we implore him, the captain refuses to look up and realize his mistake until it’s too late. He’s just as oblivious as a sexually active babysitter in an ’80s slasher movie. By the time he shifts his attention away from the knot he’s tying, Orlok has circled around the deck and is lurking off-screen, about to descend. The scene ends with an ominous fade to black, signaling the consolidation of the vampire’s shipboard control. The whole build-up to the captain’s demise takes only five shots, with two angles and no camera movement. It’s both economical and terrifying.

So here’s a salute to the captain of this ill-fated ship, and to F.W. Murnau for immortalizing him in the annals of horror history. He may not have been the most observant sailor to captain a plague-ridden vessel, but at least he was committed! He knew his ship was in trouble, and he did what seemed right. Well, he gets an A for effort in my book. Sometimes, especially when you’re a minor character in a vampire movie, you just can’t win.

*At least, according to Kino’s 2002 DVD. Different editions of Nosferatu (and there are many!) have different running times.

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Link Dump: #33

What the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors lacks in kitties (this is the only one, shown for a second during the opening number; of course our immediate reaction to seeing a kitty not related to the plot of the movie is to pause to get a screenshot for the link dumps) it greatly makes up for in blood-thirsty, alien plants and sexy, doo-wop trios. With that said, please enjoy these musical (read: totally not musical at all) links!

Alas, we had a drought of truly weird or awful search terms. The only one that really stood out to me was “mom and dad eat the babysitter pussy” because honestly, that’s fucking gross. It’d be odd without “pussy” at the end, but that one word puts it over the edge. Honestly, WTF.

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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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