One might think TCM2 is an obvious proposition: director Tobe Hooper attempting to escape the dark days of artistic poverty known as the ‘80s by returning to his most demonic days, forging a communion with the film devil and resurrecting the zombified corpse of his most famous film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But TCM2’s is no sycophant wearing its father’s clothes; more like a renegade fugitive dressing up like a horror film to throw the authorities off its trail. It is its predecessor’s polar opposite, as overt a case of a cinematic progeny rebelling against its parent with youthful indiscretion as the medium has ever birthed. Anticipating the devil-may-care comic mania of The Evil Dead 2 with as much brio but much less skill, Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his most famous film at least deserves points for attempting – rather openly – to misdiagnose its predecessors’ successes and run around in its own bizarre head-trip version of the original. An overt comedy, the film’s combustible zaniness is spirited even if it isn’t really inspired, and it sometimes feels like a colossally misjudged entity that is worth seeing only for the courage with which it misjudges itself. The quasi avant-garde set design and the ludicrous, anarchic disinterest in conventional mood skeletons mark Texas Chainsaw 2 as a fugitive inferno of sustained weirdness.
Which is not the same thing as a good film, simply a potent one. Ripe and sour in equal measure, TCM 2’s basic line of attack is to inflate the corpse of its predecessor with noxious laughing gas until it explodes, toppling to the ground in chaotic convulsions of violence and beguilingly standoffish comedy. At the least, it has an identity – as baroque and strangely misguided as it can be – that is not synonymous with the dredged-in slasher glut so thick on the ground in the ‘80s. Possibly aware that the genre was waning (it was already on the way out by 1986, when TCM 2 was released), it at least diffuses the general tepidness of the genre and indulges in the incredibly toxic potencies of producers Golan and Globus, the most notorious producers of the ‘80s, responsible for a proper murderer’s row of cinematic monstrosities. Faced with the choice of going bad or going middle-of-the-road, let no one say the film wasn’t courageous. Proceed at your own peril. Continue reading
With the untimely passing of another horror icon, a quick look at a few of his films that aren’t *that one*.
Lost amidst the dregs of slasher cinema circa 1981 – easily the single most fertile year of the genre – Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse isn’t as vicious or fanged as Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, nor is it as truly deranged and willing to disfigure American narrative norms, which by and large fetishize what historians refer to as “casual fertility”. That earlier, 1974 proto-slasher was not simply grotesque in its narrative content, but relentlessly disfigured in its tactile form and truly unsettling in depiction of ‘70s America as an existentially adrift open wound. If that work – lacking an ounce of explanation and flaying any slice of fat with its serrated formal blades – remains truly unyielding in its immutable disdain for explication and causal question marks, its refusal to rationalize itself – Funhouse suffers for turning its uncanny – the unexplained, the under-rationalized – into the explained, and thus the pacified. It suffers, for a slasher film, from a surfeit of context.
While it’s explaining, though, The Funhouse also enrobes itself in a tainted, uprooted visual sensibility that at least rings true as a diluted form of TCM’s infamously gnarled nastiness. When we defend horror as intellectuals, we tend to position our arguments in the safe retreat of abstract ideas. Thus, history has reclaimed Wes Craven, who – after his exemplary The Hills Have Eyes – settled into the realm of concepts and struggled to develop images which were more than mere correlates for his stories, images which only depicted his ideas and never commented on them or pushed back against them. But, even at his most ineffective, Hooper always tried to retain his exploitation-schooled eye for the haunted emptiness and unmooring vacancy of the American out-of-the-way. Flaws aside, the circus milieu of The Funhouse is dementedly effective: a grotty and disassembled take on the putrefying, decomposed aura of the intersection of workaday capitalism, public spectatorship, and Guignol theater. Continue reading
An astonishingly hopeless anti-myth odorized with the stench of failure and bloodstained with the tattered remains of hope, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? twists the idiom of dance away from its usual home in restless fantasy, treating human gyrations as the small-scale reverberations of a slowly-tilting edifice ready to crumble to the ground. For Sydney Pollock’s film, dance movements are first particles of movement that exist not to fling us into a hopeful future but to topple us from below, subsuming us to the movement of our feet that seem no longer tied to our minds or our personal agencies. Our bodies are no longer uncertain adventurers carving out a bold future but frantic chasers of a dream deferred, hoping to catch up to the scraps of nothingness thrown our way. They Shoot Horses is a parable of America as a collection of lost souls wandering into dancehall marathons – brandishing hopes and dreams of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire, or the Charleston – and succumbing to the barren, unforgiving economic destitution that undergird and consume the romantic aspirations that nominally lacquer the surface of these activities. As Pollock sees it, bone-dragging, fall-out-of-bed-and-stumble-upwards days are the only ones America had in the ‘30s, and maybe ever again. Continue reading
Sydney Pollock’s Jeremiah Johnson is, paradoxically, a resolutely, almost defiantly, old-school production, but it discovers a modernistic rejection of modernity in this very backward-looking milieu. As a Western, its interpretation of nature and mankind within it finds imaginative camaraderie with American art dating back to the Romantic painters of the mid-1800s who looked to nature – America’s bounty, they felt – to rebel against the earliest American painters, who mostly copied European high-art style, which codified as individualistic portraits lionizing heroic figures. These mid-1800s American painters, the first art rebels of the American vernacular, sought to uncouple themselves from European identity and establish a uniquely American sensibility. They found safe harbor in ruminating on, and enlarging the imaginative mythology of, the landscape, prophetically proposing – and thus clarifying into being – that America’s identity would be corporealized in the society-shunning, and paradoxically society-creating, individualism of a transient, undomesticated life on the road and through the forest. Continue reading
A new Annabelle sequel I haven’t seen is out; faced with the grim opportunity of reviewing its immediate predecessor, here is a much better killer doll film.
In the ’80s, an era of next-big-thing horror, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls – a Weimar-styled Faustian film FW Murnau might have directed in the ‘20s, although certainly with more skill – coaxes something remarkably and unexpectedly classical out of its mélange of Gothic glee. Not to mention its general atmosphere of childlike (not childish, mind you) uncertainty about the state of adult affairs. Although the demented John Carpenter-speckled intro credits sequence, all severed doll heads and spotlights and portals into darkness both literal and metaphorical, speaks to Gordon’s awareness of the godfather of slasher cinema, the film’s spirit is much older. Or, perhaps, it merely connects the dots from Carpenter and, say, Spielberg’s Poltergeist, to the classics they were implicitly quoting.
Those influences, incidentally much precede cinema. Dolls is, like many of the original horror films, an extraordinarily Germanic fairy tale, stitched together not out of back-patting and compassion but moral retribution and gravely-imagined, essentially tragic certainties about anti-rationalist, ambiguous forces creeping around beneath the veneer of adult domestication and reason. Ambiguous forces, I might add, that are unambiguously ready to drive a knife not only into your body but your existentially-resolved certainty that the world, broadly, functions according to the rulesets your mind sets out for it. Although nominally the story of a collection of adults and one child trapped in a puppet maker’s house for the night, murdered one by one by his creations, Dolls is really about the fragility (and possibly the fraudulence) of the hubris adults collect when they believe their rationalist way of seeing the world is intrinsically unalterable. Continue reading
With their new album releasing later this month, a retrospective of possibly my favorite band of the 21st century. I didn’t include Like Clockwork because it can already be found in another list, but it is well worth seeking out.
Queens of the Stone Age
Rising out of the ashes of the deceased desert-rock band Kyuss, the first Queens of the Stone Age album still bears the outline of its predecessor, but it is a promiscuous, rogue offspring rather than one that adheres entirely to its parents’ wishes. Josh Homme’s band retains the pulverizing, disagreeable, sun-burnt core of Kyuss, but they wear their proto-metal influences more lightly, letting in a more diffuse palate of melancholy and wry, cunning cheekiness, as well as more air and buoyancy into the notes. On their debut, listen to them inaugurate their two-decade career reanimating the corpse of rock ‘n’ roll not by sacralizing it as it was, but by authorizing a morbid, cut-up collage of body parts strewn from the comatose bodies of different bands. They are rock’s Dr. Frankenstein, and the electric charge that gives their creation life is deceptively radical instrumentation and their unique aura of ill-natured humor.
It’s easy to pigeonhole the band as an essentially classicist, backward-thinking entity, but they outflank their primordial riff rock with modernistic touches such as Homme’s liquid, even gender-fluid Jekyll-and-Hyde voice – osmosing from masculine lizard-lounge croon to frail and effeminate on a dime – and the disquieting fragility of the staccato guitar heroics that prefer to jab into the melodies like a shiv rather than serve as their skeleton. Homme’s desert wanderers respect rock without being hemmed in by it or stymied by an antiquarian sensibility. They treat the genre not as a cadaver to faithfully embalm and preserve but as a toolkit to draw from, a toybox to play with.
Rating: A-/B+ Continue reading
The wide-ranging berth of writer-director Jia Zhangeke’s multipartite, all-across-China film, A Touch of Sin, cannot deny its impeccable eye for the specificity and complication of even the least of its individual tales. A Touch of Sin is obviously the story of a society; its nature is polyphonic, paralleling four individual tales and hinting at many others, asking us to look at a wider portrait of the world, even one in which many souls feel atomized and alienated. But, despite the length and size of this film, it never feels like a belabored or overly-grandiose obelisk, a sky-high statement that attempts to encompass all of China. Its rhythms are minute and intimate, its portrait of modern-day China finding its genesis not in any declamatory, macro-level statements but in the tight minutiae of four tales playing out on canvases of inward regret, internal dissolution, and people yearning for other selves. Continue reading
It would be astonishingly difficult to convince a viewer to watch director Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu if they weren’t already predisposed to adore Puiu’s strange, sardonic, drunken but deeply compassionate 150-minute account of exactly what its title suggests. The plain-spoken brutality of the film’s title is not an ironic or even a metaphysical signpost for the symbolic scholar. It is not simply an imaginative foothold for the audience to understand that the film is really using its narrative to plumb some epochal commentary on life in modern-day Romania, to expose a “death” that is abstract or societal in nature, as though the world’s compassion is withering away. The title is not merely an intimation or a whispered poeticism, a literary flick of the pen meant to draw us into the film’s thematic caverns. Continue reading
A whirlygust of synapses fire, intellectually, emotionally, and sensually in director Todd Haynes’ thematic invocation of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, which is a tone poem about Dylan as a concept, as an ache in the belly, as a mind for dissent, and as a troubadour that infects the minds of everyone willing to listen. It is not a picture about Dylan as a human being or a flesh-in-blood person, although it is defiant in its unabashed humanism, calling on a panoply of styles and personhoods to refract Dylan across numerous time spaces and identities to reveal not only his polyphonic self but the many valences of the nation he both represented and challenged. Dylan here is omnidirectional, paradoxically both a symbol for anything you want and a hungrier creature that swallows symbols whole and runs away in his (or her) own direction. Most biopics – a genre I’m Not There is only very tenuously related to – are a kind of pedestrian par excellance, as cinematically dead and intellectually bankrupt as any Michael Bay film, even though biopics wear their intellects less lightly and call on the spirit of the middlebrow rather than the lowbrow. They draw a decisive quotient of their beings from their belief that they can unravel and pin-down their subject-matter, that they are educators imparting true knowledge to the viewer. In contrast, I’m Not There cannot be pinned down, and it shows that its subject cannot either. Continue reading
Inhabiting a gradient from electrifyingly un-ironic romanticism to baleful malevolence to existential calamity, Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his debut Sexy Beast is subtle in its implication but implosive in touch, feel, sensation, and style. It hangs over you, with premonitions of doubt and stenches of inclement weather overhead, but it avoids many (most) of the easy tricks films use to evoke the shadows of modernity: expressionistic shadows, a thick gauze of lighting, canted angles. Many films today are embalmed in expectations and mental prisons for what horror might mean, and here is the fiercely alive Birth, an otherworldly film not because of the presence of diegetic aliens or space travel but because it confronts our world through an alternate perspective from the one most of us call home. Although its intellectual and sensory channels were undeniably forged from the ghostly modernistic vibes of Resnais and the self-inquiry of Antonioni, it nonetheless inhabits the frontiers of consciousness. Continue reading