With Ti West’s new film X both returning him to the horror genre for the first time in almost a decade and turning him to the backroads of America’s past, I thought I might return to the film that made his name all those year ago, a film that then felt like a genuine conjuration from cinema’s dark and demonic history.
One of the first films in the horror “mumblecore” genre of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Ti West’s The House of the Devil explores the nexus point between American independent cinema in the ‘00s – scruffy DIY filmmaking, investment in human minutiae, openness to momentary fluctuations of emotion, relatively indeterminate and non-tendentious scripting designed to invite receptivity to human complexity – with horror’s emphasis on the ultimate unclarifiability and uncanniness of human experience. There’s a poetry to the thinking: both mumblecoreand horror feel around in the strangeness of experience, the odd excesses, the unexpected aporias, the potentialized gaps, the wounds within the surface that, when picked at (or even just noticed in passing), open up spaces for reconsideration, exploration, and even possibility. The House of the Devil was released in an era where horror was increasingly nasty-minded and vicious, emphasizing a certain kind of Grand Guignol precision and vicious craft. While West’s film alternately emphasizes ethereal ambience, slow-building atmosphere, and morbid curiosity, it still feels authentically disturbing and psychically dismembering. Through quotidian dread and an almost astonishing reduction of narrative and character matter to a brute, experiential portrait of human uncertainty, it manages to open a portal onto the world and into the mind that we cannot easily close.
“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam”: even director Francis Ford Coppola’s (in)famous reflection on the making of Apocalypse Now reeks of American egotism. Nonetheless, the film really does feel like Coppola’s accidental-intentional replay of the Vietnam War, a psychedelic maelstrom of American excess searching for an answer to a problem it invented, a solution to mask the film’s own complicity in problems it refuses to acknowledge. A literal theater of war, Coppola’s film is cinematic maximalism at its most perverse, an enormous, egotistical portrait of egocentrism that doubles back to a stunning sort of critique via self-immolation. Fully criticizing and even more fully replicating the imperialistic gigantism of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now becomes that which it critiques, and it devours itself in the process.
Opposites though they might be in their attitudes toward minimalism and maximalism, Coppola’s Godfather films and The Conversation are remarkably perfect objects: precise, manicured, and controlled machines which are, of course, about the precise and all-controlling machinery of American capitalism. Apocalypse Now, comparatively, is a mess. The film hits so hard and with such ferocity that it collapses from exhaustion, so much so that it took all of three editors (Lisa Fruchtman, Walter Murch, and Gerald Greenberg) and three years to release a finalized version that was, even then, only tenuously legible as a self-contained, discreet object. The film’s edits are war wounds and battle scars, lesions that are also stitches connecting and breaking disparate material and threatening to re-open the film even as they try desperately to close it up into an analyzable text. It opens itself to the ghosts in its (and capitalism’s) machine-work, etherealizing itself and diffusing us into a non-space that is troublingly divorced from empirical context. It echoes the myopic access endemic to American imperialism, indexing its subjects’ hubris and its creators’ maddened attempts to replicate it. All these years later, Apocalypse Now still feels unfinished, hovering around a center it cannot find, slowly expanding and moving on screen like magma.
In 1982, the world received a horror holy grail: George A. Romero and Stephen King got to work together. The gruesome twosome, one perhaps the largest cultural force in horror over the last 45 years and the other the director who changed the path of horror filmmaking forever in 1968, were already namesake figures in 1982. Neither had anything to prove, and both are clearly having a ball here. The film they made, Creepshow, cheerfully casts off the weight of expectations in every way but one: it’s supremely well made. It wasn’t going to redefine horror, although one could make a case for its cinematography: it features some breathtaking high-contrast color that absolutely nails Italian giallo cinema’s particular mixture of fluorescent energy and subzero chilliness, which has no real precedent in Romero’s preference for grimy allegorical realism. But, outside that, Creepshow is largely content to amuse its creators and itself. All that really matters is that it lets us in on the fun.
Rekindling the classic horror omnibus anthology films, then most recently popular as a series of British films by Amicus Productions, Creepshow follows the Amicus style by compiling five shorts into one feature length film. While the Amicus productions literally adapted stories from mid-century pulp horror comic books, King and Romero conjure their own out of thin air, pulling a couple of King short stories and adding three new King screenplays to the mixture. Each story is fairly slight, even vague, functioning somewhere between a half-remembered dream and a fable that comically, ruefully enjoys punishing its protagonists for their obvious, caricatured flaws. More accurately, each story feels like a Saturday morning cartoon version of horror, almost like King and Romero woke up and jotted down the outline of a dream they had about writing a short story instead of actually thinking the story through. In general, I mean this in a positive way.
Given the new Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, the latest in a long line of misbegotten diminishments and perplexing variations on director Tobe Hooper’s seminal, genre-defining destruction of American mythologies, I’ve decided to look at one of Hooper’s stranger and more bedeviling films, one of the many that has contributed to his unfortunate reputation as a one-hit-wonder, even a cinematic accident whose career-long death slowly trickled out film after film. Like most of them, 1985’s well-budgeted Lifeforce reveals a director who was less in full command of his talents than one who was willing and receptive to asking how little in control any of us are.
For perhaps the only time in his life, Lifeforce found director Tobe Hooper playing with a leg-up. Having just directed Poltergeist for producer Steven Spielberg, he was for once and only once in Hollywood’s good graces. Even with Hooper’s name somewhat besmirched by critics who simply can’t recognize images, allowing themselves to believe that Poltergeist was, in fact, the result of Steven Spielberg’s directorial eye, producers were still willing to back him to the hilt for another film, before abandoning him yet again when Lifeforce flopped. A far cry from his grotty off-road Americana The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Lifeforce was, fully, a major cinematic production, an attempt to cash-in on the science fiction craze of the 1980s. And this ostensible Alien rip-off had Alien’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as a co-writer, to boot!
But Hooper just wasn’t going to play ball. Perhaps expectantly giving Hooper’s chaotic and ununified cinematic history, Lifeforce is almost remarkably fugitive to itself, going out of its way to not be a self-same object. Instead of tonal or generic coherence, Hooper’s film invests in its own self-destruction. It feels not only like four movies in one but a film that is defiantly proud of the fact that it shuttles us across often-competing thematic registers and follows strange, alluring tonal energies to its heart’s content. It’s hard to say whether Hooper was a principled self-saboteur who felt that every film needed to travel the path of most resistance, to intervene in its own existence, or whether Hooper was just unlucky and really wanted to make mainstream motion pictures. But, warts and all, Lifeforce feels like it could only have been directed by Hooper.
Compared to director David Cronenberg’s Videodrome from the same year (or any film he had previously made), The Dead Zone initially feels like a populist slab of straightforward, uncerebral, hip-fired entertainment, an attempt to make his name by getting on the Stephen King bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, then, Dead Zone feels ever so slightly alienated, as though itcan’t quite commit to its themes, can’t fully enter into its own world and explore it, as though it always exists at an imaginative remove from its content compared to Cronenberg’s earlier works, so obviously passion projects he was fully invested in. Something about the work seems to exist at a remove from its narrative, as though it is hovering slightly above or looking at it through a tear in the fabric of the universe it can see through but cannot quite invest itself in.
Yet, this is also a perversely well fit for the film’s themes, adapting King’s book about a Maine schoolteacher who awakes from a five-year coma with a form of second-sight, suddenly able to see beyond his present world into the future, and who has to find his way back to a present that has seemingly abandoned him and which he can no longer cope with. The Dead Zone is all about alienation, about falling below society’s threshold for engagement and perception, about fumbling, half-hearted attempts to rhyme with the rhythms of a society that you feel you are ever-so-slightly askew from. Much like the film’s protagonist Johnny, there is a clear sense that Cronenberg’s film feels, sees, and experiences in ways that are more receptive to strangeness than those around him will allow themselves to, and the mis-match between theme and director paradoxically becomes a match. The Dead Zone’s odd gambles and lurching half-steps come to suggest the difficulties of marrying personal sensibilities with the flow of everyday social life clearly resonate with Cronenberg’s own attempt to make a Hollywood product, to engage in the kind of personal self-sabotage necessary to produce a film that was almost certainly lorded over by producers. More philosophically, The Dead Zone seems to be reaching for ideas that it cannot express in clear terms, glimpsing fragments of a world that it does not have complete access to.