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
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
Grubby, gnawing exploitation vessels chased by commentary on social collapse, George A. Romero’s zombies were less metaphors than poetic embodiments or evocations of walking-shuffle social alienation. Flesh wasn’t the only thing rotting and decomposing in a Romero film.While I have written about his zombie films, his obvious claims to fame, before, I take the occasion of his death to appreciate a trio of his less appreciated ‘70s films. RIP.
Season of the Witch
Romero’s exploitation films wielded a surprisingly dusted-off, casual, analog-refuse quality, as if transforming them into social bric-a-brac found in the dumpster that, like all of society’s “trash”, tells us more about the society’s dreams, desires, and fears than what that society chooses to elevate on a pedestal. In this case, Season of the Witch is a brazenly radical concoction, a cauldron-brew composed of unfulfilled desire, agency-dreams, and two shakes of erotica. The subject is middle-American housewife Joan (Jan White), wife of Jack, as she creeps into the world of witch-dom with skepticism that mutates into feverish elan, cottoning to the sexual quivers and enhanced sense of self that is afforded by finding her own personal world of witchcraft away from the white-washed, relentlessly squared-off frames of quotidian domesticity. Continue reading
I can think of hundreds of better films, but Face/Off is some kind of zenith, like a pure slab of movie-making distilled. Beyond being a gleefully trashy amped-up B-movie delight, as gloriously dysfunctional as it is intoxicatingly sure-handed, John Woo’s best (and only good) American film is a blockbuster treatise on the nature of identity, the only American picture he handled that remains truly permissive to his personal predilection for films about the dualistic nature of identity and the loss and retention of self. Hard Target (dementedly designed climax aside), Broken Arrow, Mission Impossible II, and certainly Windtalkers and the abominably luke-warm Paycheck all feel like imposters, but Face/Off has the special sauce, that auteurist alacrity and deliciously eccentric sense of self that only Woo could bring to a production like this. Nervously coiled interpersonal drama interpolated with orgasmic explosions of pressured-violence, this radioactive tangle of a film is exultant movie-making from beginning to end.
I know I should stop beating the dead horse of The Untouchables (it just doesn’t kick enough to truly live), but, Raising Cain? Now we’re talking. Five years after The Untouchables, and De Palma is back where he belongs: up to no good. Vigorously so, at that. Taking a sabbatical from tent-pole films (to be resumed soon enough with Carlito’s Way and, of course, Mission Impossible), Cain is a full-throated, fully-equipped expressionistic cluster-bomb of De Palma’s stylistic slipperiness, throwing his outre configurations of canted, dubious-perspective angles at us like a self-propagating fire. Avoiding any pretense of a sympathetic protagonist or a moral opponent for main character Dr. Nix (John Lithgow), Raising Cain lives up to its riotous name and then some.
I’ve heard Cain referred to as a labyrinth, but a horror-show, mirror-filled fun-house might be a better comparison for this film where the main obstructions to your escape are the polymorphous versions of your own self splayed out before you. This barbarically spirited film is drowning in ideas about perspective and one’s sense of identity, demanding that De Palma’s cinema serve as vessel for a refractory explosion of multiple personalities and uncertain selves. Nix, suffering from multiple personality disorder, is hell-bent on working with one of his more murderous personas to kidnap children in service of his experiments on personality development in youths, experiments which double as nefarious channels for discovering just what exactly his father was doing to him all those years ago. Continue reading
The depressing timidity of Brian De Palma’s mercenary The Untouchables, a paycheck directorial role if ever there was one, is consummated in the centerpiece sequence, a verbatim riff on the famous staircase rumble and tumble from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (which was itself not as good as anything in Eisenstein’s prior film Strike). De Palma’s version is technically proficient – maybe even perfect – but purposeless and entirely rudimentary, excoriated of Eisenstein’s surrealistic flourishes and political-revolution tectonics. De Palma’s detractors tend to think of him as a Hitchcock plagiarist who debases that cinematic master of the macabre, but their argument falls apart when De Palma’s hedonistic formal pirouettes and wry, audience-blackmailing comic filigrees push Hitchcock way over the sanity edge. For scholars who ghettoize De Palma as a copy-cat and a reduction-artist, the real lynchpin of their argument should be The Untouchables, which repeats Eisenstein only to render him null and void. Continue reading
Freud and Superman and Fellini and sleaze-house dens all make walk-on appearances just in the introductory passages of Brian de Palma’s Hi, Mom!, a quasi-satire, or at least a loosening up of, the malevolent Hitchcockian Rear Window. A bizarre-world antecedent to Taxi Driver, this is a film with Robert De Niro obsessively subjecting New York to his viewfinder until he is himself victim to and participant in an artistic nightmare. Relentlessly aware of its own spectatorship and shot-through with neurotic ambivalences, the film always has film on the brain, and the muscles, and the loins. But De Palma refuses to rest on this tried-and-true meta-textual laurel, instead wandering off – skipping, even tumbling – in untold and untested directions. Call him a Hitch parasite all you want, but Hi, Mom! commandeers Hitch for its own sinful purposes. Continue reading
Hectoring becomes a professional endeavor, or professional filmmaking becomes a form of hectoring the audience in John Huston’s whacked-out Beat the Devil, entirely denounced when it was first released and somehow bent and mutated even further sixty four years later. Temptation begs that I reclaim the film by arguing that it was “misconstrued’ upon release, but I’m not entirely certain it exists to be construed. That might only breed domestication, curbing the film’s vigorous unruliness. With a regular goon squad of odd cartoon shapes masquerading as people waiting around in a squalid sea-port town, the whole film seems to exist to breathe in the salt water. The most exciting moment is entirely about an aging, wheezy Bogart and a pair of portly fellows schlepping after a runaway car, teasingly dramatic music massaging out the irony of their failure to exert more than a modicum of effort. It’s awkward, heinous, mismatched, and oddly brilliant in its idiom. Continue reading
Meant to review this in memoriam for Bill Paxton earlier this year, but with Powers Boothe passing as well, I had no choice but to get around to it. Both are great in this underrated horror film from arguably the worst period for the genre in film history.
I read that Frailty’s narrative represents “an abuse of cinematic power” and, putting aside the puritanical aftertaste of that statement, how is this a criticism exactly? The American horror film landscape circa 2001 was infested with irony from head to toe, a casualty of the Scream generation that has since then only lacquered itself in respectability with the advent of hipster irony. But Bill Paxton’s directorial debut Frailty is deadly serious. Making a film about a father telling his kids – with both the slithering charisma of a snake-oil salesman and the slippery morality of a totem to middle-Americana – that God has commanded them to murder demons disguised as honest citizens, Paxton and screenwriter Brent Hanley were practically paving themselves a path to easy, self-congratulatory criticism of middle America. But they never thumb their noses at their audience in Frailty, a gravely humble rumination on the sins of the father dressed up as a low-slung Southern campfire tale that evokes the haunting vacancies of life and the sometimes-clawing need to believe in moral purpose with zealous conviction (pardon the pun). At any cost. Continue reading
With The Mummy generally serving no one’s interests and possibly nailing down the coffin on Universal’s Dark Universe project, let us look back at one of the best – and most underrated, non-canonical – Universal Horror films, and the first to feature their two biggest stars.
Director Edgar Ulmer’s most famous film was the sour-day, soggy-bottom 1945 noir Detour, but that film is also an apt description of Ulmer’s entire career. His films can all be found at the inflection point where a detour along the established path – a spontaneous search for a new route to the same American narrative of success – sours into an endless circle of constant motion, a sense of incessant delay. His best films suggest, as Noah Isenberg has argued, that any and all detours to get us out of national, personal, and social crisis are nothing more than roads leading to nowhere. Continue reading