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 In other words, they like to believe that they're going to approach things as Herbert West: with no time for the outdated information to which the establishment clings.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.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Year in Review: 2013

My writing has trickled off somewhat as the year came to a close, but 2013 nevertheless marked the most prolific year I've had here so far. Still, I can't claim to have seen or read even close to everything genre-related that comes out in a year, so I tend to shy away from making any "year's best" claims. What I can offer is the best moments from my own personal year of filmgoing, which will hopefully draw attention to a few films that might have flown beneath your radar.

Here are some personal highlights from the past year:

Indie films that blew me away

I'm convinced that the innovation and creativity offered by indie horror consistently outshines that of major studio productions. While it can take a little digging to uncover indie films that transcend budgetary limitations or aren't just retreading old ground, the search can be well worth it. Of the indie horror films I watched over the past year, the majority were well worth my time. The following stood out as not only great examples of what an indie film can do, but also as some of my favorite films of the year.

  • Found caught me off guard with its powerful and intelligent portrayal of a middle-school kid confronting the perils of growing up while dealing with the fact that his older brother is a psychopath. It's without a doubt one of the most disturbing and emotionally engaging films I've seen all year. I've watched it twice more since initially catching it at Durham's Nevermore Film Fest, and my appreciation for it has only grown.
  • Dead Weight was another film I caught at Nevermore, one that injects a surprising amount of humanity and depth to what I thought was a played-out sub-genre (zombies). Dead Weight delivers a gut punch in its final act that's made all the more effective by its commitment to its characters.
  • The Invoking (formerly Sader Ridge) is a haunting story about buried secrets resurfacing to destroy the life of a young woman. An understated tale of memory and loss, and one of my favorite slow-burn horror films of the year.
The weird world of Indonesian genre film

Cult oddity Lady Terminator takes all the energy and ultra-violence of an American 80's exploitation film and focuses it through the lens of Indonesian myth to produce a concentrated beam of both action and horror. I was happy to find that it wasn't just a fluke for H. Tjut Djalil, whose Dangerous Seductress is a warped image of vampirism set in what might be the most hallucinatory tourism commercial you'll ever see. Mystics in Bali is a slower burn, but one that takes on a decidedly surreal tone and immerses itself in the legend of the Leyak - one of the coolest monsters I've seen in a while. The Warrior and The Devil's Sword proved to me that Indonesian martial arts and fantasy films could be just as entertaining and surprising.

Art-house strangeness, old and new

There were a couple of odd films this year that caused a fair amount of stir in mainstream circles. Nicholas Windin Refn's Only God Forgives was a dreamlike tale of vengeance and bloody redemption with a gigantic Oedipal complex on the side. After Drive dismantled the moral integrity of the American crime-flick hero, viewers should have known better than to expect Ryan Gosling to take center stage here. Refn all but neuters him, making Vithaya Pansringa the real star of the show as a ruthlessly vengeful Thai cop. I was also blown away by Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which lured in viewers with promises of debauchery, then bombarded them with unsettling questions regarding the intersection of race, class, and gender. It's the only time I've ever witnessed a group of teenagers get offended enough to leave the theater early. Both films seemed to get a somewhat mixed reception, but I found the way they challenged audience expectations and undermined genre tropes to be refreshing.

As far as older art-house fair, one of the weirdest films I watched this year was Arcana, Guilio Questi's surreal tale of urban magic and societal upheaval. András Jeles' The Annunciation also deserves mention for using the tale of the Garden of Eden as a jumping-off point into a baffling representation of humanity's fall from grace, all with a strangely sincere child cast.

My quest to brush up on horror literature continues

I've been working steadily backwards through the horror canon in an attempt to read all the classics that I've skipped until now. Some favorites of the year were:
  • Michael McDowell's Blackwater series, a languid Southern gothic tale of intra-family politics thrown into upheaval by an outsider born of the depths of the Perdido river. 
  • Ramsey Campbell's Demons by Daylight, a series of remarkably subtle short stories that frequently dissolve into abstract terror. 
  • Thomas Tryon's The Other, which manages to overcome the somewhat hackneyed idea of the "evil twin" with a surprisingly cruel final act. 
Some other favorites, including newer works: Laird Barron's cosmic horror novel The Croning, Gene Wolfe's extremely subtle Peace, all of Gillian Flynn's work, Joe Hill's NOS4A2 (which had me reading pretty much non-stop), and Adam Cesare's fast-paced and gory Video Night.

Re-examining my horror roots

I got somewhat introspective in a couple of thematically linked series of posts this year. The first was a return to the format of my youth where I dug into several of the VHS tapes I've bought secondhand over the years. See all posts tagged: It Came From the Thriftstore. I also re-examined the formative terrors throughout my life, ranging from films to books to real-life experiences. See A Life of FearBoth features were lots of fun to write, and hopefully of general interest as well.

I can't say exactly what's next for the site, especially since I'm becoming mired in a dissertation and a job search. The next big feature I can promise is a recap of features and shorts I'll be catching at Nevermore in February. Posts will likely be somewhat random until then. I'm really lucky to have several genre-oriented revival series within reach, and look forward to revisiting some old classics and discovering new ones. Between those and a to-watch list that only grows with time, I'm excited to see what 2014 has in store. Thanks for reading and journeying through the dark side of the film world with me.