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.

Friday, July 4, 2014


What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974)
(aka La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, or The Police Want Help)
Director: Massimo Dallamano
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC

Months-long silences on this site are nothing new and I've long given up on offering explanations or apologies when life gets in the way of writing. Still, it might be worth mentioning that over the past couple of months I've graduated, moved, and ended up with a job in New York City. While I've only been up here for a short time, one of the things that caught my eye pretty quickly was a the Anthology Film Archives' Italian Connection film series. The Archives were host to last year's Giallo Fever series, and The Italian Connection is sort of a thematic sequel centered around poliziotteschi - Italian crime films of the 60's and 70's. There's some significant overlap in the thematic content of gialli and poliziotteschi, and there are also names bouncing around in the genre that will be familiar to horror fans.

Massimo Dallamano is most commonly mentioned in the context of the cinematography he did for Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and for his directorial work on the giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Solange is a film whose superb craft helped win me over despite its pretty massively unlikeable protagonist (a teacher who's having an affair with one of his students). Schoolgirls in peril are also the subject of What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

The film opens onto a crime scene: a teenage girl dead, hanging from the rafters in the attic of an old building. What initially appears to have been a suicide is called into question by the subsequent autopsy. The gruesome details continue to unfurl as the coroners reveal that the girl was sexually molested just hours before her death. Assigned to the case are Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) and Vittoria Story, the uncharacteristically female District Attorney (Giovanna Ralli). Despite a rocky start with the case in which the press publishes a full-page cover photo of the slain girl's nude body (to help determine her identity, of course), the two realize that there may be more to the crime than a simple homicide.

As in Dallamano's Solange, sex lies at the heart of this mystery. Once the victim's parents have been identified and interviewed, it becomes clear this family was under a bit of strain. Sylvia, the victim, had been caught taking birth control pills by her mother. When mom threatened to tell dad, Sylvia threatened suicide, and wore a razorblade in a pouch around her neck from then on as a reminder that she was willing to make good on the promise. Sound like a closed case? Maybe, except that the detective Sylvia's mom hired to investigate the girl's love life is the next one to turn up dead.

Investigation into this second death results in the investigative team meeting the film's most iconic character: a black-clad, cleaver-wielding hitman who attempts to kill anyone with information on the case before they can offer it up to police. The figure in black is an image ripped right from any giallo, and the scenes in which he stalks his victims are some of the film's best set pieces. Granted, a meat cleaver is slightly less subtle than the weapons favored by your typical gloved killer, but this is not a subtle film. Botched kills by the motorcyclist lead to car chases and shootouts that are better suited to the crime and action genre than suspense or horror. It's in the transition from mystery to police procedural that the film loses a bit of its intrigue. While the threads behind the initial killing run deep, they're exposed completely with plenty of runtime left in the film. From there it's a straightforward exercise to tie up the plot, typically with more gunfights and chase scenes.

Nevertheless, the film has a lot to say about the systematic exploitation of women, and it manages to do so while mostly avoiding the misogyny inherent to a lot of genre film of its era. Vittoria Story is atypical as a strong female main character who isn't exploited, subject to undue violence, or used as eventual bait. She's a refreshing antidote to a lot of the sweaty machismo that can otherwise run rampant in a film like this. Still, the story as a whole walks the line between glorifying its more lurid subject matter, and criticizing those in society who are responsible for the crimes.

As in Solange, sex in this film is something to be feared - not because of its innate consequences, but for the reaction of those who are trying to actively suppress it. Sylvia isn't killed because she's a sexually active teenager, but because the culture of silence surrounding sex allows for those who would exploit her to operate covertly. Ironically, it's the power structures that should be protecting girls like her that are ultimately responsible for her abuse and death.

Despite a few weak scenes that seem to be obligatory nods to crime flick cliches, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is a film that benefits immensely from Dallamano's skill behind the camera. Poliziotteschi films are host to soundtracks that rival those of the best gialli, and Stelvio Cipriani's score is no exception, whether it's pulsing underneath the suspenseful parts of the film or keeping the momentum up between action sequences. (The main theme also makes an appearance in Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet's more recent giallo mash-up Amer.)

The realm of the poliziotteschi is largely unexplored territory for me, but What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is motivation to explore it further, along with the rest of Dallamano's body of work.

Friday, February 14, 2014

OTHER: "This was never about death."

Other (2012)
Director: Daniel DelPurgatorio
Seen via:
Runtime: 15 min

Daniel DelPurgatorio's Other is a blistering body-horror short about a doctor (David Steiger) stricken with cancer and left without any traditional options for a cure. He takes the matter into his own hands by subjecting himself to an experimental treatment that he's devised - a series of painful and harrowing sessions in a small machine he's cobbled together in his basement. As he becomes increasingly wracked with sores and scabs, he begins to question the success of his treatment and whether the unexpected side-effects suggest an alternate solution...

Other boasts impressively nasty special effects, most prominently in the doctor's disintegrating health. His equipment is pretty terrifying as well, particularly when it's in action. Sinister fluids pump through tubes, wires hum, and awful chunks of organic matter fall into a holding chamber. Adding to the atmosphere is the dark and grimy set and the great sound work. It's all incredibly effective in capturing the sense of dislocation and desperation accompanying a life-threatening illness.

Other is everything I want in a short film - intense, bloody, and really well constructed. It also has a particularly killer ending. It's currently free to watch via the film's website (, and is definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Madness and Metafiction

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Director: John Carpenter
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 6.5 / 10

I'd heard a lot about In the Mouth of Madness prior to seeing it, mostly by fans using it as an example to show John Carpenter's post-80's work wasn't uniformly bad. The 90's are so often reviled by horror fans as a terrible decade for the genre, but after the horror boom of the 80's it seems like the genre had to step back and wrestle with its success. How to deal with the tons of watered-down films and franchises capitalizing off the hits of yesterday? How to handle the burgeoning CG technology beginning to dominate special effects? Lots of films from the era seem to be casualties of the choice between adapting to trends or endlessly retreading old ground. Is it any wonder that some films took the third route of turning to self-reflection? In the Mouth of Madness examines the success of horror as a genre without letting the self-awareness take center stage, as in films like Scream (whose constant explanation of its gags seemed to turn it into a film made primarily for non-horror audiences). It also manages to lovingly incorporate lots of classic horror tropes within a metafictional context that works... sometimes.

At the center of the film is the work of fictional author Sutter Cane - a Stephen King stand-in with a body of work whose subject matter appears to be a blend of King and Lovecraft. Cane's books have been wildly successful, and his latest work, In the Mouth of Madness, is flying off the shelves. But Cane has vanished, and in response his publishing house hires investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to look into the disappearance. Trent is not a horror fan, and his disdain for Cane's work is only magnified by the over-the-top marketing surrounding the new book's release.

The skeptical anti-fan placed front and center had me hoping that the film would engage with some of the common criticisms of horror. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to say. Trent initially decries Cane's work on the grounds that they're inciting violence by unstable readers. He's right in a way, even if there turns out to be a little more to the story. Once Trent starts reading the books to get insight into his disappearance, he admits that they've got a certain lowbrow appeal. If anything, they've given him nightmares, just like any good horror novel should. But all of Trent's criticisms become somewhat irrelevant when fiction starts to bleed into reality. Horror authors face frequent scorn because their work approaches violent or taboo topics in a manner inconsistent with the norms of polite society. By dissolving the barrier between the real and fictional worlds, the film lets the rules of horror run wild without calling them into question.

Still, there's quite a bit of fun to be had once the film enters the world of Cane's novels. The fictional New Hampshire town of Hobb's End is a kaleidoscope of Lovecraftian horror, and Trent's constant scoffing is pretty amusing in the face of the outrageous supernatural events going on around him. The film's denouement is a little tedious though, and dwells longer than I'd have preferred on Trent's descent into insanity. We've been privy to the real story for much longer than he has, so I feel like the film would have been more powerful if it had wrapped itself up more quickly.

In the Mouth of Madness is a pretty good film, it just doesn't feel like a pretty good John Carpenter film. The metafictional aspects feel a little played out at this point. I have no way of knowing how fresh the film seemed in the mid-90s, since at the time Ghost Writer and Wishbone were about as metafictional as I got. But the is-it-fiction-or-reality games aren't terribly suspenseful these days. More engaging to me was the greatest hits reel of horror tropes the film throws into Hobb's End. Overall, it's a fun film, if a little overblown, and definitely not deserving of the grief that often gets piled on Carpenter's later work.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO: The Giallo is Dead, Long Live the Giallo!

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Director: Peter Strickland
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8.5 / 10

Berberian Sound Studio is a film that takes the aesthetics of a dead genre and places them under a microscope, magnifying the style and meticulously studying their mechanics. Director Peter Strickland has pulled from corpse of the Italian giallo a film that's best classified as a meta-giallo. Like Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzano's brilliant Amer, it's a deconstruction of the genre that's intimately focused on the texture of its predecessors. In the course of its examination it manages to question the assumptions and origins of many gialli at the expense of a traditional plot.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a shy, quiet man renowned for the exceptional sound work he's done on films produced in his native England. Berberian Sound Studio begins with his arrival in Italy. He's been conscripted to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, directed by Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), a man who believes his work transcends its origin as low-brow, low-budget horror. Gilderoy's mild-mannered personality is at odds with the brusque collection of Italian men working on the film, but he takes pride in his work and is determined to deliver a soundtrack as good as any he's ever created... even if he "didn't know it was going to be this kind of film."

While we see almost nothing of The Equestrian Vortex on screen, we're able to get a pretty good sense of its subject matter through the constant sound and voice-acting going on in the studio. As was custom in Italy at the time, the film (including dialogue) is completely dubbed after filming, so Gilderoy works in tandem with a parade of actors and actresses as they record their lines. Despite the fact that we never see the film, we're able to piece together fragments of its somewhat scatterbrained plot - something about a coven of witches inhabiting a horse farm. The only on-screen casualties are countless vegetables destroyed to create the sounds of bones breaking, hair pulled from the scalp, and necks being snapped. Letting the viewer's imagination do the work was a great decision, as it spares us from what could have been a shabby tongue-in-cheek rendition of a trashy old horror film. The dialogue and sound effects will immediately sound familiar to any Italian horror fans - they're the same kind of overblown low-fi aural tidbits you'd hear in an old Fulci film.

Yet, despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely within a sound studio, all the elements of the giallo are present. Gilderoy is the outsider protagonist, thrown into an unfamiliar and unsettling world. Santini and the local sound specialist Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) are somewhat sinister in a way that's hard to pin down. Their unbridled machismo and maltreatment of the female cast members turns them into villains of a sort. Through their interactions with the leading ladies, particularly Silvia  (Fatma Mohamed) - the voice of the film's main character, Berberian Sound Studio introduces misogyny not dissimilar to that found in Italian horror in the same era. While the film doesn't kill the girls in lavish set-pieces, they're boxed away in recording booths, dismissed by the male technicians, and viewed as nothing but sex objects whose talent rests almost entirely on their ability to scream on command. We even get a pair of black leather gloves in the form of the projectionist Giovanni, who remains faceless throughout the film. While the photography is more modern than most gialli, the film carries some visual similarities and throwbacks to the genre. Characters are often saturated in primary colors, and the film plays with darkness and shadow as much as any horror film. When the power in the studio goes out unexpectedly, candles are lit as if for a seance while the crew snacks on the vegetables Gilderoy was planning on chopping up... Entirely mundane, but with undeniable overtones of witchcraft and cannibalism.

Gilderoy's reserved nature clashes with the film's violence, and he's forced to examine his complicity in the tasteless production. Like the modern giallo fan, he confronts the dilemma of being allured by the style of the film (particularly since he's lending his talents to its production) while being put off by the exploitative subject matter and casual misogyny. Gilderoy's paradox is that he's deeply in touch with the texture and sound of violence and sex, but remains withdrawn from any actual physical contact. As he struggles to retain some sense of his personality, he longs to return to the placid English countryside - the subject of the documentary film responsible for his reputation. He pores over letters from his mother describing a nest of baby birds. He's a sexless, impish figure thrown into a world of seething testosterone. Even when he becomes friends with Silvia, he's seemingly oblivious to her femininity, and asks only for her help in acquiring his missing travel reimbursement. The answer, of course, is to adopt the anger that comes so naturally to the native men. Gilderoy's transformation away from his repressed, queer nature is subtle, but he eventually succumbs.

As fascinating as this is, it doesn't make for a ton of on-screen action. Those expecting a plot similar to that of a classic giallo will probably be disappointed. There's no flashy violence, no lurid sex. The action is all internal, taking place within Gilderoy's mind. The frequent references gialli and Italian horror might not be enough to sustain newcomers to the genre, and I'd totally understand why. As a huge fan, I found all the sly references to be a lot of fun. Even so, there is a bit of plot drag in the middle act - aesthetics can only take a film so far.

But the aesthetics here are impeccable, particularly the sound work. (Which is essential for a film about sound work.) The soundtrack was composed and performed by indie group Broadcast, and as a fan of the band I was incredibly excited when I heard that they were involved with the film, particularly since it was the last project vocalist Trish Keenan worked on before her untimely death. The soundtrack is similar to the band's previous collaboration with experimental collage artists The Focus Group in that it consists of shorter compositions littered with sound effects and scraps of dialogue. The analogue synths of Broadcast are a perfect fit for the feel of the film, and the music plays an essential role in making the film feel haunted. There are callbacks to the soundtracks of the past in the frequent use of organ, harpsichord, and eerily distorted vocals.

Berberian Sound Studio may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely. Admittedly, it suffers from the same problem other aesthetic studies like Beyond the Black Rainbow in that it maintains a languid pace throughout and deemphasizes plot in favor of mood and tone. Regardless, it's an audiovisual feast, with enough meta-analysis of the giallo to remain engaging. I love that the giallo lives on in films like this, and that the buried psychosexual themes of older films have worked their way to the surface. It's almost as if the weirdness of the older gialli has taken center stage, and isn't that a good thing? Some of the best gialli seem to consider their plots as almost secondary to their artistic qualities. Berberian Sound Studio does the same, but very deliberately, and takes on the shape of something alluringly weird.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Revisiting RE-ANIMATOR

Re-Animator (1985)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 9.5/10

The last time I watched Re-Animator I was working as a high school teacher. Any critical opinion I had about it is all lost in a PTSD haze, emotions and memories stripped away to leave nothing but a "4/5" rating in the old list I kept as a film journal at the time. I'm guessing horror comedy is what I needed most then. For that, it fit the bill perfectly, a gore-soaked 90 minute vacation from reality and the relentless emotional demands of the job. Rewatching it last week at the Lovecraft-inspired Retrofantasma double feature, I found myself in a very different situation: 4/5 years through graduate school, largely disenchanted with the whole process and with much of my idealism lost in the face of the looming task of forcing the square peg of my education into one of the sparsely scattered round holes of the current job market. Maybe this is a better place in life to approach Gordon's film though, because I realized something about halfway through that I hadn't before: Herbert West is the type of graduate student that every graduate student wants to be.

When scientists of the film world work on screen it's in the form of montages where months of drudgery is compressed into just a few minutes. We see the catastrophic failures and the elation of success but never something like the boring slog of debugging code for weeks on end. You're not shown the time spent digging through papers to find the appropriate citations, or resoldering a circuit from scratch because it didn't work the first three times. Also, undergraduates don't exist except as sordid love interests - you never see a movie scientist grading piles of tests or TA-ing a lab. Okay, in real life it isn't all drudgery. There's a lot of fun in the process, but 90% of the time you are alone on a computer or in front of an apparatus whose inner workings you've come to know all too intimately.

But even after completing an undergraduate degree in their chosen field, people seem to carry the movie-scientist image with them. Prospective grad students send out application packets with visions of singular discoveries and world-changing ideas unfolding before them. In other words, they like to believe that they're going to approach things as Herbert West: with no time for the outdated information to which the establishment clings. West is a true pioneer, conducting experiments that push the boundaries of life and death. His work is so important that accidentally killing his advisor is just a minor speed bump. Before him lies a new establishment promising more freedom and an abundance of lab supplies to be co-opted for some extracurricular work. What better image than the basement lab to encapsulate the mindset of the mad scientist? Free from supervisors and review panels, this is pure research unbound by the limitations of academia or morals. It's the ultimate stage on which ideas that are too groundbreaking for the ivory tower can play themselves out. Re-animator rekindles that feeling of possibility - the enthusiasm that causes people to sign away five or six years of their life in pursuit of a goal that initially is pretty ill-defined.

Brighter glow = better science.
Wish fulfillment aside, Re-Animator is still a really good horror comedy, delivering a ton of violence that's as shocking as it is funny. The pacing is near perfect, and escalates the absurdity of the gore to the point where David Gale's decaptiated head molesting the dean's daughter seems almost inevitable - until you realize how awful it is. That's the mark of a good horror comedy in my mind: horror visceral enough to override the humor when it appears, surprising you so much that you're not sure whether to keep laughing or not. There are so many unexpectedly brutal moments in Re-Animator that occur amidst otherwise hilarious scenes. West and Cain chasing a reanimated cat around the basement with sporting implements is slapstick gold until Cain throws the animal against the wall (a scene that's echoed later when a reanimated corpse chucks Dr. Hill's head out of the morgue). There's just so much manic energy once the film takes off that you've no choice but to enjoy it.

All of this is made extra-special by Jeffrey Combs, who plays West with a seriousness that never really belies the insanity of his actions. Whether he's snapping pencils in class to distract the pompous Dr. Hill until he's willing to engage in a shouting match or shutting down questions with deadpan one-liners, there's something appealing in how myopic his genius is. Unchecked brilliance is dangerous, but also somehow appealing, even in the face of West's wry arrogance.

Poor Rufus, how could you have ever known the awful fate in store for you?
The work I do is theoretical, so unless circumstances become very dire very fast, it's unlikely that I'll decapitate my advisor with a shovel. I probably also don't have to worry about being snatched by prehensile intestines that have sprung from his reanimated corpse. The worst I can expect on a day to day basis is eye strain from looking at my computer monitor for too long or poor posture from slouching in my desk chair. I'm okay with that - it makes for a better chance at securing funding in the future. But still, maybe it wouldn't be a terrible idea to adopt a little more of the Herbert West mindset. Not for the recklessness, but for the zeal.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SIGHTSEERS: Relationships Can Be Murder

Sightseers (2012)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 7.5 / 10

Ben Wheatley has proven himself to be one of the more interesting filmmakers to emerge over the past few years, cranking out a series of films that blur the boundaries between crime, horror, and comedy. Down Terrace was an interesting portrayal of a degenerate family whose members were so toxic that it ended up undermining some of the dark humor of the film. Kill List was widely lauded upon its release, and was undeniably weird but somewhat uneven - a hallucinatory tale of a hitman taking an increasingly strange series of jobs that spiral into madness. If there's one thing Wheatley excels at, it's extracting horror from the mundane. Despite the fact that he shies away from anything supernatural, his films include enough violence and gore that he seems to have gained some notoriety in horror circles. I was hoping that in Sightseers he'd be able to strike more of a balance between the levity and the carnage.

The film begins by introducing us to Tina (Alice Lowe), a sheepish woman who lives with her controlling mother. Tina and her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) have planned a vacation across the English countryside in Chris's RV, with stops allotted for kitschy museums and historical sites alike. The trip seems to be going well until Chris accidentally runs over an obnoxious tourist. It's genuinely an accident, so the two see no reason to abort the trip, but Chris's murderous side begins to show itself again as he begins to dispatch all manner of yuppies, hippies, and upper-middle class tourist scum. Is this man really the person Tina thought she was dating, or will it turn out that they have even more in common than they initially thought?

Both Lowe and Oram are outstanding in their roles as Tina and Chris. Tina is dreadfully ordinary, and so passive that it's comical, while Chris wanders through most of the film as a ball of seething hate. Each is so disarmingly unremarkable at first that their eventual actions are all the more surprising. Adding to the shock factor is the gore. Having been familiar with Wheatley's previous films, it didn't catch me that off guard, but juxtaposed with the sarcasm and snappy editing, it's still startling. The problem is that Tina and Chris become increasingly unlikeable as the film proceeds, and the disintegration of their relationship makes the film an uncomfortable watch. There's still some excellent dark humor laced throughout, but it comes at the expense of watching some pretty abrasive behavior.

Wheatley can put together a really nice-looking film though, with credit also due to director of photography Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Wheatley's prior projects. There are moments when the film lapses into a dreamlike state, most notably during one overnight stay where Tina and Chris camp next to some incessantly drumming pagans in the midst of a bloody drug-induced ritual. The landscapes of the English countryside are downright beautiful, and evoke the same sense of ancient brutality that Chris seems to embody. The idea that there is some regression to a Darwinian way of life taking place here is alluded to multiple times within the film, particularly during Chris's dreams where he and Tina clash in medieval times. But is this the reason for all the senseless bloodshed? Chris claims he has a system for determining who he kills, but is it that or just the consequence of an inadequate sense of masculinity brewing in an unstable mind? The skewering of traditional gender roles seems to be more prominent the more I think about the film, and I almost want to rewatch it and really pay attention to this the second time through.

But Sightseers works on a surface-level reading as well, and Tina's slow realization of her doomed relationship with Chris will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a similar situation. When Tina does finally figure things out, it makes for a great ending that puts a twist on the bloody road films that have come before. Wheatley is clever, and is certainly a director I'll continue to watch. While Sightseers fell a little short of my hopes for it, it's another piece of evidence that Wheatley has a truly great film inside him somewhere, and I'm really eager to see where his career goes from here.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

FEAR[S] OF THE DARK: A Study in Light and Shadow

Fear[s] of the Dark (2007)
Directors: Various
Seen via: MPI Home Video DVD
Rating: 6 / 10

I've always thought that there's untapped potential in animated horror - what better way to transcend the limitations of special effects? Think of the monsters and landscapes that aren't able to be rendered simply due to a film's budget. Can you imagine something as elaborate and terrifying as the panel below making the transition to film?

(Click to zoom. That's from No Hero, by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp, by the way - which isn't a horror comic, but nevertheless has some of the most disturbing violence I've seen on the page.)

Some might point to Japanese animation as the place to look, but I'm not so sure. As unsettling as shows like Serial Experiment Lain or Boogiepop Phantom are, they're still bound to the conventions and style of anime in a way that's somewhat distracting to me. Freeing a film from those limitations would open up so many unexplored dimensions. Satoshi Kon seems to have come as close as possible to break free of these strictures (particularly with Perfect Blue), although to what degree his work can be classified as "horror" is up for debate.

I'll stop that rant before it really starts, but maybe it's clear how excited I was to check out Fear[s] of the Dark, a French anthology film featuring short films by six artists, some of whom have worked in comics, some in the art world, some as illustrators. Each film is done largely in black and white, in keeping with the theme, but other than that, the stories are pretty varied in nature.

The film begins with a wraparound segment by the French cartoonist Blutch, rendered in a sketchy style that looks as if it's done in charcoal. We follow a man walking a pack of dogs through the wildnerness, then a town. He looses the hounds upon different people he encounters, cackling manically. Honestly, I wish there were more to this segment than that, but that's about it. As a wraparound, it doesn't tie the stories together much, nor does it stand on its own as having much to say.

A perfect rendering of my first-world ennui.
The second film also ends up being a wraparound, although it's not immediately clear that this is the case. This segment by the artist/typographer Pierre Di Sciullo is highly abstract, and features a series of ever-morphing shapes accompanied by a voice-over. We hear the speaker talking about personal fears and insecurities - all mundane, but somewhat eerie amidst the monochrome transformations it's set against. It's almost like an inner monologue with the speaker's psyche laid bare, the kind of musings on humanity, society, and personal failure your mind cycles through in the hours just before dawn. This one is more effective at setting the mood of the film than the Blutch story, but in the end it's really just fragments.

What I didn't immediately realize was that this film inserts wraparound segments in the middle of other short films. It's incredibly disorienting at first, which is the point, I think.

The first non-fragmented short in the film is by Charles Burns, and this was the one I was most looking forward to. I'm a big fan of his work in comics, particularly Black Hole, whose film adaptation (with David Fincher reportedly at the helm) seems stuck in perpetual limbo. This short shares some themes with Black Hole - most prominently the conflation of sexual awakening and bodily mutation - although the story here is more clear-cut and less ambiguous.

We follow an uptight kid named Eric as he navigates college life. While he's typically studious and withdrawn, after an encounter with a girl he meets one day he begins to change... The film also plays around with the reversal of gender roles, which ties in nicely with the physical transformations that eventually occur. Overall, it's a good little short film.

The art is recognizably Burns', with his bold, high-contrast style intact, but it's been animated with computer-rendered graphics. This seems to diminish it somewhat by adding a third dimension. Burns' work seems better to me when it's static. Maybe it would have been better as a traditionally animated short, as opposed to the ultra-smooth 3D rendering. Still, this is mostly me being picky, as this is of the best segments of the film.

The second short is animated by Marie Caillou, from a story written by artist Romain Slocombe. Sumako is a young Japanese girl abducted by a mysterious man who keeps her captive and drugged in an unknown location. In her dreams, she's the new pupil at a school filled with bullies who try and scare her with tales of the samurai ghost Hajime. The ghost supposedly lives in the cemetery behind the school, and it's only a matter of time before Sumako goes to investigate the rumors herself.

There are hints of Slocombe's surgical fetishism in the film, but it's scaled back somewhat, and not nearly as disturbing or intriguing as his photographic work. I love the inclusion of Japanese folklore and numerous Yokai, which are wonderfully bizarre - particularly the Kasa-obake (umbrella monsters). I wish more had been done with this story. Just as it's getting interesting, it ends.

Lorenzo Mattotti's film is third, and feels like an old fairy tale or ghost story. It's told to us by a man remembering the time he spent in the countryside as a youth. After his uncle goes missing, rumors of a beast stalking the marshes begin to arise, and a hunt for the monster ensues. But is there really something on the loose? And how does the narrator's young friend really know so much about this supposed beast? This is another segment that looks as if it's been done in charcoal. The landscapes are stark and the figures simplistic, almost shadows in many places. It's a creepy and effective style that goes well with the story.

In the final segment, by Richard McGuire, we follow a vagrant as he breaks into an abandoned house to take shelter from a snowstorm. Night falls and he's left in the dark with nothing but a fire and a flashlight for illumination. As he flips through an old photo album, he begins to suspect that whoever lived here in the past was slightly unhinged... and may still be lurking in the dark.

The art is ultra-minimalist, with objects and characters often outlined with just a few bold strokes. It grew on me over time, particularly when the protagonist is wandering through the house alone. But there is quite a bit of downtime throughout the short, with not much to catch the eye while you wait for something to happen.

Overall, Fear[s] of the Dark was not quite what I was expecting, mostly because it seems to be a digressive exercise in style with a lesser emphasis on story. Nevertheless, Burns' and Mattoti's segments are both strong, while McGuire's is interesting, but not outstanding. Calliou's could have done so much more. The use of computer animation is somewhat distracting as well - I would have preferred more traditional animation. As an experiment, Fear[s] of the Dark is moderately successful, but I think there's so much more that could be done within the realm of animated horror.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Filling in the Gaps: THE WICKER MAN (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
Rating: 9 / 10
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham NC

The Wicker Man is one of those films whose story I somehow absorbed without ever having seen firsthand. Who knows how - maybe bits of it have trickled into the collective horror subconscious. Maybe other films have since drawn enough bits and pieces from it that it just seemed familiar. Or maybe it's that the film's end is telegraphed that strongly from the beginning. Something sinister seems inevitable as we fly from the god-fearing Christian world to a more primal land, folk music droning behind the blare of a plane's engine as the trappings of civilized society fade away below.

Sergeant Howie has been sent to the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. Edward Woodward portrays the Sergeant with a doomed naiveté that only grows and deepens throughout the film. He's determined to have the matter of Rowan's vanishing wrapped up within days, with reports filed and everything set right by the time he returns to the mainland. Little does he know that Summerisle has little time for the conventions of mannered society. He's entered a realm where the old gods rule, free love runs rampant, and death is only a small piece of a cycle that has been turning for for millennia.

Pitting Howie's staunch Christianity against the pagan rites of the island is amusing at first, as the islanders taunt him with lurid songs and open displays of sexuality that he's clearly never encountered before. Howie sweats and huffs his way through the film, praying desperately in his upstairs room in the town inn for the resolve to keep a chaste mind. He's flabbergasted by the unorthodox teachings going on down at the schoolhouse, where boys dance around a maypole singing songs laced with innuendo ("And on that bed there was a girl / And on that girl there was a man / And from that man there was a seed / And from that seed there was a boy...") and the teacher lectures to the girls about phallic symbology. This is clearly a town that has strayed far from Christendom, and Howie is intent to bring the hand of the law down on its backside - smack! Er, um, no, no - none of that...

Amidst the sea of phallic symbols emerges Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, creeping around in the darkness and quoting Walt Whitman between shots of slugs fucking. Lee is truly a highlight in what was his self-proclaimed proudest role, lecturing Howie with discursive histories of the island as if he's a child, prancing around in drag, grinning maniacally with his wild hair framing his head like rays from an ancient sun. Lord Summerisle is something of an enigma, clearly too intelligent to fall prey to the somewhat simplistic pagan faith of the island, yet orchestrating all its rituals and remaining intentionally vague about Rowan's disappearance. Is she truly dead? Transformed by some ancient ritual? Tucked away in a basement in preparation for some ghastly sacrifice?

Summerisle toys with Howie in the same way that the film toys with us, for the sergeant's ignorance regarding the pagan religion of the island mirrors our own. (Or, I should say, my own.) We're uncertain as to whether something supernatural is actually going on, or if we're witnessing harmless pagan ceremonies that seem sinister only due to their foreign nature. Imagery centered around cannibalism is thrown around for most of the film, despite being a giant ruse in the end. The final parade is a great exercise in deceit, with one of the best decapitation fake-outs I've seen on film.

Despite the totally outrageous sexuality on display for much of the film and the somewhat blatant attack on Howie's Christian beliefs, The Wicker Man seems to have a message that extends a little deeper than it might initially seem. To what extent is Summerisle manipulating the townsfolk with paganism, which we find out, was only adopted by the inhabitants a few generations ago? Is the phallocentric paganism of the isle really that different from a patriarchal Christian society?

The pieces all seem to fall into place in the end, when Howie realizes that he's been merely a pawn in Summerisle's games. Some of the early portions of the film alternate between silliness and sincerity, but I absolutely loved the final fifteen minutes, in which Howie blunders his way to his own doom. The truly awful events of the ending even manage to evoke a little bit of sympathy for what up until now has been a truly hard-to-like main character. The worst part about Howie's demise is that even in his last moments he doesn't realize that the religion he's fallen prey to isn't that different from his own. The sacrifice dictated by the sun-worship ritual is of the same nature as the one made by the Son he's praying to as he dies. He's given the opportunity to experience the awful core of his own faith firsthand, but never sways from his prayers, won't embrace his martyrdom, nor give up one final chance to try to convert the islanders.

Paul Giovanni's soundtrack is also outstanding. Performed with Magnet, a collection of prog musicians assembled for the film, the music draws on old folk songs mixed with original compositions. Most of the songs are have a wonderfully pastoral aura about them, and work well with the anachronistic feel of the isle. It's no wonder that this soundtrack is a major influence of the hauntology movement, as it allows the past to permeate the more modern aspects of the songs, just as the influence of the old gods has bled into the present on Summerisle. (Also, I suddenly got the reference in Pye Corner Audio's "Now Ends the Beginning" when the notes of "Lullaby" were plucked out during the final sequence.)

I had no idea that The Wicker Man had such a devout following, but the screening I attended sold out well before the show started. Despite the fact that I had a blast with the film, I couldn't help but wonder why the film resonates with so many people. Is it because of the overt attacks on the Christian protagonist? The sex? I have a hard time interpreting audience reactions at large screenings, particularly when every hint of datedness seems to provoke laughter from a nontrivial subset of the crowd. Are these viewers just like the island's inhabitants - so eager to see the dominant culture overturned that they cheer on a new one that's equally bloodthirsty? If so, then the film is that much more chilling.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Alcohol is the Answer

Grabbers (2012)
Director: Jon Wright
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 6.5 / 10

What better way to defeat a blood-sucking monster than to render your blood inedible? When mysterious pods of slime wash up on a rural Irish isle and start hatching vicious little octopods, the inhabitants seem screwed. Monsters are hatching faster than they can be squashed and there are far too many townsfolk to evacuate before nightfall. The residents have only one solution: get so drunk that their blood-alcohol content turns them into walking sacks of poison.

(With a premise like this, do I need to mention that Grabbers is a horror comedy?)

Grabbers follows local alcoholic police officer Ciarán O'Shea (Richard Coyle) throughout his daily "work" on the isle of Erin. Life on the island is dull enough that he's able to bumble through most days rat-ass drunk without incident. Leave it to the somewhat uptight visiting officer Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) to throw a wrench into the works. She's assigned to fill in for a vacationing sergeant and her overeager optimism seems like O'Shea's worst nightmare. But as townsfolk start disappearing and the two realize that something strange is occurring, they'll have to learn how to reconcile their differences if they hope to survive.

Despite a somewhat slow start, Kevin Lehane's script gains momentum quickly. There's nothing terribly original here, but it's a great example of a snappy horror-comedy that follows the creature-feature formula with a few turns along the way to make it feel fresh. The dynamics between O'Shea and Nolan sustain the film when the plot can't, and the introduction of the uppity young scientist Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey) and the incoherent old drunk Paddy (Lalor Roddy) are welcome additions to the colorful cast. Yes, they're all pretty thickly drawn archetypes, but the film makes good use of them and stays engaging.

The highlight is by far the final act, in which an impromptu gathering is thrown by the officers in an attempt to inoculate the town with booze while keeping them unaware that there are monsters creeping in from the shore. While the naive Lisa encounters drunkenness for the first time to serve as a control in their booze-as-a-weapon experiment, O'Shea has to battle sobriety to ensure that the massive rager down at the pub doesn't get too out of hand. The tables having been turned, mayhem is ready to ensure as the mother of all the tiny grabbers approaches...

Director Jon Wright has crafted a fun, lighthearted comedy that hits all the right notes. While somewhat one-dimensional, the relationship between Lisa and O'Shea deepens a little as each forces the other to confront the gaps in their lives. But in case you're worried, the film doesn't skimp on the carnage, which is rendered in a mix of CG and practical effects (both well done). Grabbers is a good time, and I was pleasantly surprised after deciding to check it out on a whim. There are quite a few honest laughs here - even without a drink of your own on hand (but why chance it?).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

RESOLUTION: The End is Near (But It's Not the One You're Expecting)

Resolution (2012)
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Morehead
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 6.5 / 10

Mike Danube receives a video showing his friend Chris out of his mind on drugs, wandering the countryside, firing guns, and rambling incoherently. Mike decides to save Chris by driving to his remote cabin and handcuffing him to the wall. He'll watch over Chris throughout the detox that follows, making sure he stays hydrated, well fed, and avoids any self harm. What could go wrong?

Knowing this is a horror film, you're probably thinking about where the film will take this premise in the end. Horror stories tend to be about endings, and we generally focus on the end when we think about them - whether it's the end of the characters' lives, the revelation of the monster that's been hiding in the shadows, or even just how the chaos will play out. Resolution is aware of this, and pits our expectations against those of the characters.

For all that happens during Resolution, it's primarily a story of two friends who have let their relationship lapse. Chris's ideal life is one where he kills himself with substance abuse. Despite his devotion to his family and his high-profile job, Mike feels some obligation to Chris. The two used to be good friends and life has seen them grow apart. The chemistry between the two (played by Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran) is good, and even surprisingly heartfelt. The film also frequently lapses into comedy, which diffuses what would otherwise be a crushing week of detox. The levity that Chris brings to the film is needed in the face of Mike's occasionally overbearing self-righteousness, although it might come just a little too frequently.

But I haven't even mentioned the weird goings-on that seem determined to sabotage Chris's recovery. Something strange is happening in the old cabin, maybe due to the fact that it was built on an Indian burial ground... Sort of groan-worthy at this point, I know, because that's one trope that needs to die. Resolution redeems itself to some degree by drawing on the myth of the shape-shifting skinwalker (or something analogous) to introduce some ambiguity to the story. It's never quite clear what happened on the site of the cabin, or whether Mike and Chris are being warned by all the old relics that keep appearing. Mike begins to piece together the tale of what happened in the past as he encounters the current inhabitants of the region, who vary from cult members to drug dealers to the last member of a failed anthropological research team. Some of the supernatural activity is genuinely creepy, primarily Mike's investigation into the missing researchers. Some falls a little flat. In the end though, these are really just distractions from the fact that the duo is seemingly being manipulated by something sinister.

If you're paying attention, you'll notice a bit of metafiction begin to creep into the plot relatively early. While Mike and Chris have been fighting over the ending to the story of their friendship, it appears that something else has a different end in mind. With all the various creeps and haunts circling this far-flung locale, it might seem like the film is going for another Cabin in the Woods-esque unified theory of horror, but the true ending isn't quite as explicitly outlined. (Even if the final shots seem to resonate along some of the same frequencies.) Resolution plays with the notion of what we expect in horror films, and ends up both nodding and pointing a finger in the direction of the viewer.

The grab-bag approach feels somewhat muddled here though, and isn't quite integrated into the interactions between the characters. Still, the story of two friends reuniting amidst a supernatural landscape is more than enough to carry the story. If you're looking for a traditional horror film, you'll be probably be disappointed, and if Resolution suffers from a couple too many ideas, isn't that better than not enough? I had fun with it overall, and despite its flaws, was happy that it kept me guessing.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Legend of CROPSEY is More Real Than You Might Imagine

Cropsey (2009)
Directors: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8 / 10

When I was a kid, our town home was located on the edge of a small forest. Neighborhood kids, including myself, would wander among its trees, wade in the small creek, and roam around unsupervised for most of every weekend. There was one thing that would cause us to clear out of the woods without fail though: the echo of a chainsaw ripping through the air from a distance. Most kids in the area knew that these sounds came from the Chainsaw Man - but details about him were blurry. He lived in the woods, wore a mask, and anyone he found too close to his territory would be chopped up into pieces. One day some friends and I wandered a little further than we were allowed to go, and found a dilapidated one-room cabin standing alone in a small clearing. Against our better judgment, we snuck in through a small access door meant for storing firewood. The inside of the cabin was bare except for trash and an empty sleeping bag. It was obvious who lived here, and we ran back home to tell our friends what we'd discovered.

The Chainsaw Man was clearly a myth, but at the time he was very real to us. It never occurred to us that kids being dismembered would have attracted some sort of police attention and most certainly removal of our permission to play in the woods. Urban legends are powerful, and can sometimes take root in truth before being distorted beyond reality. Cropsey begins with a similar legend that originated in Staten Island, one that filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio were exposed to as kids. Much like my Chainsaw Man, Cropsey has ties to the world of horror film (although The Burning is never explicitly mentioned in the movie), and was rumored to be a murderous drifter who lived in the grounds of the defunct Willowbrook mental hospital. He abducted children who were foolish enough to intrude on his lair, or stay out after dark, or not eat their vegetables. The details are blurry, but overlap in one key element. Cropsey killed kids.

Picking apart an old urban legend would be interesting enough, but what makes Cropsey unique is the series of child abductions that occurred in Staten Island concurrent with the rise of the stories. In investigating the roots of Cropsey, Zeman and Brancaccio are drawn inevitably toward the case of Jennifer Schweiger, who went missing near Willowbrook in 1987. Andre Rand was a former custodian at Willowbrook who was squatting on the campus at the time of the murder. With a disturbing criminal history and a demeanor that screamed psychopath, Rand was either the perfect suspect or the perfect scapegoat. If you were looking for a real life Cropsey, there seemed no better fit.

Rand was convicted of the murder of Jennifer Schweiger despite some unusual discrepancies involving the crime scene and questionable testimonies from witnesses. As Rand languished in prison, families of other missing-persons victims in the same area began to wonder whether Rand was also responsible for the disappearances of their children. In Cropsey, we see interviews with a large number of people involved with the investigation. Fact, rumor, and myth beome tangled as we hear from the families of the victims, supposed eyewitnesses, prosecutors, and neighborhood residents. Was Rand simply an insane homeless man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or did he run a Jim Jones style cult in the tunnels beneath Willowbrook that murdered innocents as part of Satanic rituals? Is there still Satanic activity in Willowbrook today? Does the real Cropsey still run loose?

Cropsey does a remarkable job of examining how something as farfetched as an urban legend serves as a lens through which society views real world events. The filmmakers mostly avoid sensationalism, although they can't resist a nighttime journey into Willowbrook to see what they can uncover. (To be fair, what they find serves to show that the Cropsey legend is still alive and well today.) I can't blame them for wanting to capture the blasted landscape of the Willowbrook campus. It's almost too incredible to pass up, with graffiti covering nearly every square inch of every wall, paint peeling in sheets, and relics from the hospital buried only inches beneath the loam.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its illustration of how legend and memory persist through time to haunt the present. Staten Island is often viewed as a dumping ground, and is home to a landfill so large that it's rumored to be visible from space. The island was home to one of history's largest tuburculosis wards that held patients who were ferried in from Manhattan to wait out their illness. Witherspoon itself was notorious for being a holding pen for the mentally ill, where patients lived in squalor with only minimal attention paid to their care. The modern-day residents of Staten Island seem to carry echoes of this mindset with them today. There's a sense you get in listening to their interviews that however awful the crimes commited here, there was an invetiability to them. If something like this was bound to happen, what better place than Willowbrook? With the dark undercurrents of history that flow beneath the land and the horrors that lie in the recent past, is it any wonder that a fictional monster was created to embody the horror? Fictional monsters, in a way, are far more palatable and more easily comprehended than those that actually live in our midst. Cropsey is a great portrayal of the Moebius strip that connects fiction and reality - how each, twisted, can alter the other.