Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle

John Darnielle is best known for his role as the singer/songwriter behind the indie-folk band The Mountain Goats, although he has recently been drawing attention and acclaim with his writing. His debut novel Wolf in White Van was easily one of my favorite novels of the past few years. The follow-up, Universal Harvester, is equally strong and layered. Like its predecessor, it's a novel that functions almost as a puzzle. Rather than focus on a single character, as Wolf did, this story consists of many interlocking narratives that encircle the characters and their often inscrutable motives.

Universal Harvester begins with events that may seem familiar to horror aficionados. A young video store clerk named Jeremy lives in a rural town in Iowa in the late 90s, unsure of how to move forward with his life after losing his mother in a car accident. On an otherwise ordinary day at work, a customer returns a video tape with an unusual segment in which the film is replaced by an eerie scene apparently captured by a camcorder. It could easily be a prank by some bored kids, or an accident, but the gradual discovery of similar footage on several other tapes suggests otherwise. Does the scene of a hooded figure in a chair depict a crime involving kidnapping and torture? Placed alongside another clip of a woman fleeing down a dark rural road, it seems even more sinister. Other clips are more innocuous. We never get a thorough description of what the characters are watching when they view the tapes, which adds a layer of uncertainty and anxiety the events as they unfold. It's a plot device reminiscent of that of The Ring or The Blair Witch Project, both of which also drew upon the unsettlingly grainy analog aesthetic of shot-on-video horror of the 80s to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

While Jeremy is reluctant to investigate the origin of the scenes, others around him can't help but be drawn in into their mystery. He's goaded into a deeper investigation by Sarah Jane, a local substitute teacher who discovered one of the tapes. Meanwhile, his manager at the store recognizes a farmhouse in one clip and withdraws from work to spend time tracking it down in real life. The story frequently jumps between characters and viewpoints, even pausing at times to allow its narrator (whose identity is a mystery for the majority of the novel) to indulge in digressions about the possible nature of the clips, and how the story might have turned out had the characters made different decisions.

This nonlinearity makes the story intriguing even when it becomes a bit more mundane. Most of the fun in this novel comes from trying to figure it out, so I'll avoid saying too much more except that Darnielle's craft is fantastic. He's aware of horror tropes (he was an occasional visitor to the Retrofantasma double features I used to frequent at Durham's Carolina Theater) and he avoids allowing them to take control of the direction of his story. He means to mislead and push your attention in one direction while sneaking up behind on the other side.

Complex structure aside, at its heart this is a story about we make sense of loss. Tragedy often strikes by chance and leaves us reeling in the absence of an explanation. Humans are expert storytellers, quick to establish causation and invent confounding variables to aid in our understanding of events that are truly random. Is there any meaning to the video clips, or are we so desperate for a story that we'll invent an outlandish one just to fill the gaps?

In many horror stories, we begin with a glimpse of something unsettling only to have the curtain drawn back slowly over the course of the plot. By the end, the monster stands in full view, and our newfound knowledge of it is what gives rise to terror. Here, the true fear is never knowing what exactly has happened. Fear lies in the gaps between what we know, and in the stories we construct to connect the disparate fragments we have. At the end of Universal Harvester we have an explanation, mostly. There remain a few frustrating loose ends, which I suspect were left deliberately. There are no easy answers in this novel, and to tie up everything neatly would run counter to its themes.

Universal Harvester is easily one of the best books I've read so far this year. It will provide a welcome challenge to horror fans who enjoy having their expectations gleefully subverted.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Return

A dirt-caked hand thrusts upward through the ground, grasping for something half-remembered and vague.

A glimmering entity appears at night in an old Victorian home, moaning in tortured longing for an escape from its trap in time.

A pale form lurches from the shadows to sink its teeth into the neck of an unsuspecting victim, hoping that this sanguine frenzy will restore a sense of life to its unending agony.

Monsters come back from the dead all the time in horror stories. Maybe it's time for this one to return. We appear to be living in a world full of nightmares that threaten to come true. Writing about some fictional ones seems like an apt distraction.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


All the Colors of the Dark (1972)
(aka Tutti i Colori del Buio) 
Director: Sergio Martino

Jane has problems, to put it mildly. She's troubled by surreal dreams in which grotesque figures lie strapped to tables in the agony of unending and fruitless birth. They cavort in mimicry of childhood games. Some die violently at the hands of a killer with an icy blue stare. The images are ruining her ability to lead a normal life and to have a normal relationship with her husband. Every time the two try to have sex she's terrified by shocking visions of being stabbed to death with a knife. (Maybe not the most subtle metaphor.)

Birth. Sex. Death. These are the shackles that bind Jane, who's played by Edwige Fenech in her second collaboration with director (and brother-in-law) Sergio Martino. All the Colors of the Dark is the story of her attempt to liberate herself from the strictures of her stifling marriage and middle-class life. Of course, there are other more pressing issues for her to deal with, namely the mysterious man with the piercing blue eyes who seems to be following her (Ivan Rassimov).

Jane wants to solve her emotional problems by attending therapy, but can't convince her husband Richard (George Hilton). He thinks the sedatives he gives her are enough to dull her fears, and seems to like the idea of her lying in an incapacitated daze at home for most of the day. Bolstered by the encouragement of her sister Mary (Nieves Navarro), Jane resolves to see a therapist anyway, husband's wishes be damned. It seems to help her deal with the nightmares, all of which are symbolic representations of her traumatic childhood and recent miscarriage. Unfortunately, therapy can't help solve the problem of her stalker...

The male gaze.
Male control over Jane's body and destiny is the true enemy here, and for a while the stalker seems to be a supernatural manifestation of that. After all, who the hell could this guy be? She has no idea, and the film gives us nothing with which to figure it out. When he finally attacks her, she seems on the verge of a nervous collapse she's not convinced any amount of therapy can cure. The ever-helpful Mary offers a different suggestion that's a little more... unorthodox.

All the Colors of the Dark is often labeled as "The Italian Rosemary's Baby," almost certainly due to the second act of the film. Mary's suggestion is that Jane join an underground cult and take part in their violent sex-fueled rituals. "Drink this, and you will be free," their leader says, handing her a goblet filled with the blood of a freshly killed puppy. Free from what? He never states it explicitly, but freedom is what Jane longs for: freedom from the control of her husband, her therapist, the stalker. She's looking for autonomy, and what better way to exercise it than to engage in group sex with a bunch of drugged hippies?

A face you can trust.
If it sounds like this plot twist comes out of nowhere, well, it does. The intent may have been to capitalize on the success of Rosemary's Baby, and there are certainly similarities. The cult scenes are more lucid here though, and they're entered into willingly by Jane (at least initially) rather than forced upon her while she's unconscious. From her perspective, they're a way for Jane to liberate herself rather than fall further under the control of the men who would rule every aspect of her life. As you might expect, Martino shows no shame in allowing his camera to linger on Fenech's body at every chance, especially during her encounters with  the cult. Were this not exploitative genre fare at its heart, I'd say there's a bit of meta-commentary there, but that might be giving the film too much credit.

It'd be nice if the solution to Jane's problems were this simple, but her involvement in the cult doesn't deter her stalker, nor does it completely free her from the control of her husband. As she becomes increasingly familiar with the cult's rituals, she also begins to realize that she may have become indentured to a new master even more cruel than the last. Mary's motives for introducing Jane to the cult were anything but pure, and were a last act of desperation from someone who had sought control over herself but ended up surrendering her life to a system that ensured her exploitation and ultimate destruction.

Her marriage, the cult, the stalker - all overlap in the end. All are facets of a broader system that rules Jane's life. Perhaps afraid of committing to a truly bleak ending, the film becomes somewhat confused in the end, introducing a secondary motive for Mary's betrayal involving an inheritance and explaining away the supernatural aspects of the film with drugs. This is all delivered in the least elegant way possible, via massive talky infodumps. Counter to the underlying theme, the film offers a chance for her husband to redeem himself. He's proven to be well-intentioned all along, despite the drugs he fed Jane to keep her pacified. If taken at face value, these plot twists make the final words spoken by Jane seem oddly out of place: "I feel as if some strange force were controlling me. Oh darling, help me." Really, she's glimpsed the truth of the matter - even now, free from the cult, free from her manipulative sister, she's run right back into the arms of the force who was controlling her all along.

All the Colors of the Dark isn't a typical giallo, even though it's usually lumped in with the rest of the genre. While it shares some themes and visual cues with Rosemary's Baby, I think reducing it to a pastiche of that film doesn't do it justice. When Sergio Martino allows the film to fire on all cylinders there's a great synergy between the hallucinatory camerawork, the lurid plot twists, and Bruno Nicolai's bleak, yet occasionally upbeat score. Detractors of Italian horror sometimes complain about the lack of narrative logic in the genre, but I'd have preferred Martino drive this one off a cliff rather than ground everything with a big fat lump of exposition. As such, All the Colors of the Dark is definitely worth checking out for giallo fans, but falls a bit short of being a must-see.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: OCULUS (2013)

Oculus (2013)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

Hauntings are usually dangerous only because of what they reveal about those who are haunted. Ghosts are ethereal - they can't destroy someone who didn't have the potential for destruction already within them. Both of the main characters in Oculus are floating on oceans of repressed trauma just waiting to be unleashed. It's somewhat fitting then, that the symbol at the heart of the story is a mirrror, because the journey in this film doesn't so much take us into the supernatural as it does into the recesses of its main characters' psyches.

[Spoilers throughout.]

As a child, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) murdered his father in self-defense. He's been institutionalized ever since. Over the years he's developed tools to move beyond the physical and psychological abuse that his father inflicted on his family and restore order to his life. His release date, also his eighteenth birthday, gives him the chance to reconnect with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) for the first time since their traumatic separation.

Kaylie has not yet moved on with her life and instead has constructed an elaborate explanation for the events of their childhood. In her version of the story it was a haunted mirror that caused the possession of her father and drove him to destroy their famiily. Kaylie has tracked down the mirror once again, meticulously researched its history, and approached its supernatural properties with an almost scientific mindset. The effects that it has on its victims are varied: personal neglect, dehydration, starvation, catatonia, self-inflicted violence - all ultimately end in death. Kaylie is convinced that she can beat the mirror with Tim's help and convinces him that the best course of action is to lock themselves in the house with it and confront its evil once and for all.

Beneath the surface-level ghost story, Oculus is about the trauma domestic abuse imposes on its victims and how the cycle of abuse leaves a legacy spanning generations. The mirror is a mechanism for both Kaylie and Tim to confront the events that destroyed their family. Both have used different strategies to avoid revisiting the conflict, whether it's deliberately repressing memories or cloaking them in fantasy. But locked in the house with the mirror, there's no choice for them but to look within, to look back upon themselves and re-encounter what really happened the night Tim killed their father. The film accomplishes this through a series of flashbacks woven through modern-day storyline. The jumps between past and present slowly fill in the details of the past and become more frequent until the timelines seem to merge. It's a really clever editing device that spices up the second act of the film, which seems to be when lots of haunted house flicks begin to drag. Even if the film spins its wheels for a little while toward the end, it's gained sufficient momentum by that point to carry it through to its conclusion, where past and present seem to finally converge.

Tim, meet Tim.
With the extent that the film plumbs the psychological depths of its characters, it doesn't really even need a supernatural monster. You get the sense that it recognizes this, since we only catch a few rare glimpses of the specter in the mirror until the very end. Rather than a story of a foreign entity haunting strangers, this is a narrative about the trauma inflicted on the victims of domestic abuse and how it weaves itself through the rest of their lives. It's a shame that the supernatural does eventually take center stage, but it thankfully never completely crosses the line and becomes completely ridiculous (remember "Mr. Boogie" from Sinister?). When the ghosts eventually manifest, we've already entered purely psychological territory, so they function less as a supernatural threat and more as distorted memories of the protagonists' damage.

There's been a surge in "domestic" horror in the past few years, which producer Jason Blum has capitalized on like crazy. These films tend to follow a pretty strict formula that was defined in Paranormal Activity and subsequently refined with Insidious and Sinister, (and taken to a ridiculously right-wing extreme in Dark Skies). All of these films play on fears of the nuclear family going truly nuclear under the influence of illness, unemployment, and loss of national identity. Take fears borne of the current political climate, throw a supernatural monster on top, and you've apparently figured out the recipe for box office success. Oculus fits right in with the rest of these films, but despite its general adherence to the formula it's actually a fair bit smarter than its precursors. I'll chalk a large portion of the credit up to director Mike Flanagan, whose Absentia was a really strong character-driven horror film completed on a shoestring budget. If Oculus signals a turn toward the mature for this breed of horror, then it's one I'll gladly welcome. If not? Well, we can always hope for the best in the inevitable sequel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: CALIBER 9 (1972)

Caliber 9 (1972)
(aka Milano Calibro 9)
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC

Caliber 9 has been sitting on my to-watch list for years, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Once upon a time I downloaded a mix of poliziotteschi / Eurocrime themes, and the theme to Caliber 9 stood out as a massive highlight. (You might be able to track down the mix or at least the track list by searching for "Trondheim Violenta," by Luca Canali). As fate would have it, Caliber 9 was the second of the two films I was able to catch in the Anthology Film Archive's Italian Connection series. This film falls more squarely into the crime genre than Dallamano's What Have they Done to Your Daughters? As evidence, I give you exhibit A, our hero:

Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin, who's no stranger to crime films) has just finished his prison sentence, and no sooner has he exited the prison gates than he's accosted by his former accomplices. We've already seen the failed crime that landed him in jail in the film's opening montage: a heist in which $300,000 somehow went missing and the team responsible was killed for their error. (Blown up by dynamite actually, in a hint of some of the sadism that's to come.) Ugo is sort of a proto-Statham: quiet, downtrodden, yet bigger and meaner. When he claims to just want to return to his girlfriend Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) and leave the criminal element in the past, we want to believe him. But is he more hero or anti-hero?

The mastermind behind the failed heist, an enigmatic figure named The Americano, is convinced that Ugo stashed the $300k. The Americano has given his slimy assistant Rocco (Mario Adorf) full permission to hound Ugo until he coughs up its location. Rocco chews his way through every piece of scenery in sight, making Ugo's life hell - beating him up, trashing his hotel room, even threatening his stoic (and somewhat frightening) friend Chino (Philippe Leroy). He's a cartoonish lackey who provides a bit of humor to lighten up the brutal violence that fills the rest of the film.

Rocco (right), in an unusually ponderous moment, considers the choices that
 led him and his greasy colleague to this violent junction in life.
We're not entirely sure of Ugo's true motives after we see him leave jail, but he's not as dumb as he looks, and he deftly navigates his way through mind games with both Rocco and the inept police force. The film introduces an odd political element into the film through the police, and devotes entire scenes to internecine arguments about the theory and nature of the origin of crime. Whether it's because of some internal flaw in the being of the criminals (as an elder chief swears), or unrest caused by an oppressed lower class reaching critical mass (as a younger officer claims), Ugo and his former colleagues operate between the two extremes, or maybe along a different, more pragmatic axis. Money is there to be taken, and violence is just the most effective tool in the shed to get the job done. When things are personal, it's more to do with the tangled web of grudges and constantly shifting allegiances than with socioeconomic class. The theorizing may be director Fernando di Leo's authorial voice coming in a bit strongly, but it has the effect of letting the police spin their wheels while the criminal factions continually raise the stakes.

Ugo's face-punch face.
Caliber 9 is a really wonderfully stylish flick, and it's no surprise that this was heavily influential on Tarantino's early work. The film runs extremely tight at less than 90 minutes, and its colorful cast, continual double-crossing, and unrelenting brutality (particularly in the end) mean that it has all the ingredients for a thoroughly captivating crime story.

Thanks to the Anthology Film Archives for a great show, and for screening a 35 mm print that looked like it had been roughed up by a gang of thugs and might just fall apart at any second.