Say what you will about Alexandre Aja’s Horns, but it is a looker. Photographed by Frederick Elmes, who spent his strongest days lensing slices of dirty, surrealist Americana for David Lynch like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart, the film’s version of the Pacific Northwest – filtered through the piece’s relentless weirdness – often recalls a diluted Lynch at his best. Logs cut through the screen with a lush, romantic hue that ironically captures the forested expanse as a jungle ready to swallow the everyday suburbia of the film. Elsewhere, sequences surrounding a quintessential American icon – the diner – pervert the locale to a darkened, neon-hued collage of red and blue that Lynch himself would have appreciated. The look isn’t a surprise – Aja isn’t the most capable of filmmakers, but he has passion, and he knows his forebearers. With an opportunity to play in Lynch’s Twin Peaks territory, he clearly knew who to fan-boyishly turn to, and he arguably found the perfect cinematographer for his vision. Continue reading
Christopher Smith’s Black Death certainly aspires to be holier-than-thou with its morbid, deeply unsentimental darkness, and it almost gets there. Aspirations of Herzog and Bergman abound, and while Smith is much more plainly a genre-fried director than Herzog or Bergman ever aspired to be, he gets points for effort, and almost as many for success.
Following Sean Bean as the leader of a cadre of warriors-of-god on their way to an untouched village in the middle of a Capital-P Plague in 1348 England, Smith submerses himself in the mud and generally revels in the festering pestilence of a Europe that had and, for the characters in this film, never would see better days again. Sebastian Edschmid’s cinematography, heavy on the chiaroscuro, effectively splits the difference between husky naturalism and a throatily omnipresent sense of mythic dread, adopting lighting that conveys an odyssey more than anything else. Meanwhile, the production details lend a really hearty impact to Smith’s malnourished take on the destitution and outcast terror of the film’s hellishly frosty Europe. No doubt, some of the malnourishment is a product of filming the scenes in the order they occur in the film, likely causing the actors and crew to grow weary and dejected over time as the characters do in the film. The effect is a hurting, bruised film that relishes in meaty melancholy, and we feel the plague-ridden sickness of the characters in the air of the film itself. Continue reading
America did pop proud in the 1960s, but pop didn’t always imply a bulging budget or grandiose popular success. The lingering vestiges of that most ’50s of all genres, the atomic underground horror, still clung to the beginning of the decade like a wandering specter. Admittedly, the low-brow, even-lower-budget works suffered a little about how to re-invent themselves; Hammer Horror in the UK certainly hit a few home runs, but flooding the markets ran them red with bloody boredom sooner than not. In the US, where “underground fare” similarly served as a safe, parental euphemism for horror, things were likewise stuck in a liminal space between the pre-Bay of Pigs interest in fooling around with atomic supermen and nuclear fall-out monsters, and the genuine “exploitation” of exploitation cinema came to fruition in the very late 1960s. In between, in the early 1960s, what was underground horror to do?
It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading
Seriously having difficulty viewing and wrapping my head around one specific film for Midnight Screenings, but I think I have it down for next week. In the meantime, here are two 2005 Midnight-appropriate horrors (one of them never really popularly understood as such, but somehow its Godzilla-sized budget only makes it all the more spectacular that it still has the look and feel of a grainy horror movie). Sorry for the delay. All will be corrected next week.
A stomach-churning introduction to the big leagues for British director Neil Marshall (who has since gone on to underachieve somewhat depressingly), this concrete slab of raw, untamed horror finds skeletons in the human closet and exploits them for gut-churning viscera. Monsters abound, both external and internal, but the film’s claustrophobic environment, a cave rendered with nightmarish use of single-color tints that distort and obfuscate reality, takes center stage, as does gender. Continue reading
Just when I’d gotten over using “new” films for the weekly Midnight Screenings column, a film had to come along that would have been unethical to put anywhere but in the halls of the Midnight Screening. Next week we’ll return to older films, with an especially fitting two-fer of classic ’70s efforts important to the development of the Midnight Screening idea in real life and not simply on the internet. It promises fun, but in the meantime just check out that movie poster to the left. Seriously, even if you don’t read the review (which you absolutely should, if I have anything to say about it), just bask in the look of that poster. It speaks for itself.
It’s fitting that the year which brought us Jonathan Glazer’s wonderfully impenetrable vamp Under the Skin also sees a young whippersnapper with an almost fully formed filmic voice comes to challenge him for the title of “best pointedly empty, barren art-house quasi-vampire pic about gender with a fascinatingly obtuse visual aesthetic” of the year. Incidentally, that is a competition I did not know needed to exist, nor did I ever expect it to, but I am jumping with joy at the fact that it does.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not Glazer’s though, although they share many features. They are both style-as-substance Frankenstein’s monsters composed of the fleshiest bits of other films and styles, and both dabble in the seemingly contradictory realms of neo-realism and hyper-stylized, highly-sensory aesthetic-based filmmaking and meld their diverse cross-hatch of styles and interests together into a fully unified, totally unique voice of their own. But they are not the same, and in certain ways they are almost clearly counteracting one another.
It’s an easy thing to see the success of Coraline the film resting squarely on Neil Gaiman’s shoulders. Indeed, his sly storybook writing is the base of the film’s narrative, which sees young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) stuck in the day-to-day doldrums of a dreary, lifeless existence in suburbia. Every detail of narrative is very much Gaiman-esque (which, if not yet coined, most certainly will be soon enough). One day, Coraline finds a portal to another world, alike in some ways but different in many others, as though it was built by the same architect in an altered state. There she meets her “other” parents, alike in every physical detail except one: black buttons sewn in where eyes once were. Emotionally and mentally, however, the new parents are polar opposites. While her old ones are overworked and uninterested, her new mother and father spend every waking moment perfecting Coraline’s world. It’s a dream come true, but young Coraline is about to discover that behind every dream lies a nightmare waiting to burst out. Continue reading
For this week’s Midnight Screenings, being that Halloween is upon us and all, here are reviews of three modern would-be Halloween films destined for years of “Midnight” Screenings all throughout the land.
Ever heard of Creepshow? Well, Trick ‘r Treat certainly has, and it wants you to know it. It’s a quintessential omnibus anthology film, but at the least, its four stories are a little more diegetically connected this time out, all taking place on the same night (naturally, October 31st). This doesn’t so much sacrifice episodism as it bends it toward the film’s own more leisurely, fluid pace, with characters cavorting about and moving between segments just like the sublime, giddy chaos of Halloween itself.
Essentially, this gives us an anthology film without quite the explicit guiding hand of a narrator or wraparound narrative to explicitly render these stories “fiction”, making this film somewhat more grounded in traditional narrative filmmaking. And if this inter-connectedness doesn’t do much, the connections at least lend a sense of mundane physicality and place to the film’s spooky Halloweenisms. They dial up the assumed realism of the world (where-as most anthology horrors would have a guiding narrative to explicitly render the segments “fiction stories”) so that the general lunatic-terror of the film’s atmosphere invading that realism is that much more loopy. It’s the kind of place that mimics reality only to reveal another layer of uncanny, unstated gruesomeness, as if Halloween night is the true identity and the face of the year around it is just for show. Continue reading
Update in late 2019 with the release of Dark Fate: The glum and more self-consciously morose later sequels track, recode, and needlessly convolute this film’s elegant, inescapable trudge toward oblivion, shading and sharding Cameron’s original vision in various ways, but they all completely miss the original’s brilliance: its sense of soul-death. Nominally an action film but far divorced from the self-amused tone of the Schwarzenegger pictures that were in the can as soon as this one made a fortune, The Terminator is as implacable and monosyllabic as its namesake: a blood-and-guts slasher film in a metallic overcoat, and one with significantly less Pavlovian satisfaction at the death it deals. Brutal simplicity at its finest, The Terminator essays a dystopic future that ultimately, tragically, realizes its far-flung visions of eventual catastrophe already came to pass in the present while it wasn’t looking. How far this franchise has fallen …
Those who’ve only seen the sequels to this truly distressing Reagan-era portrait of social aimlessness and blight, a film that typifies menace itself, may be forgiven for thinking this first film is something it has no interest in being. The later films focused on action, action, and more action (the first sequel being one of the greatest slam-bang thrill rides ever made, and with a touching human-machine relationship to boot), emphasizing escalating narrative stakes rather than deepening emotional texture, and have since run out of steam. While this lean-and-mean low-budget 1984 film starring a mostly unknown who couldn’t speak much English is plenty thrilling, it’s tempered with an overpoweringly grim sensibility, a magisterial sense of mounting dread and desperation that establishes a mood of forlorn malaise more than fist-pumping aplomb. Horror is as appropriate as action. Fortunately, it happens to be one of the grimiest, most caustic horror films to take over the public consciousness in that decade, and one of the best.
Edited Dec 2014 after I watched a second time and noticed how jaw-dropping the sound design is; sometimes the beauty of images, and the fact that film is a primarily visual medium, distract from the wondrous world of noise.
Under the Skin opens with several minutes of film boiled down to its pure essentials: sound and image. Quite literally, the film begins on an impenetrable warble that morphs into a drone, with a mouse of a light at an eternal distance from us and moving ever-forward. It grows blinding as the noise distracts and unnerves us further, before the abstract light becomes an eye – the very means by which we process images, all the more telling considering the way what precedes this eye favors sound at the expense of image.
We then get an archly, inescapably clinical white canvas upon which a person we know nothing of (Scarlett Johansson) walks around another person, observing her with no sound, and taking off her clothes – the scene is not the least bit erotic, nor does it contain any other semblance of emotion whatsoever. It is instead a pure ballet of motion, obsessed with the human form in movement, as well as everyday noises – pants sliding off of legs – which are loudened to unnatural levels, registering a kind of intimacy that is intoxicating but also uncomfortably alienating. It is a wondrous display of pure cinema, and in its supremely naturalistic but deeply abstract detachment, it fails to give us any particularly mimetic information, any reasonable grounding in the world around us. In doing so, the opening paradoxically turns no emotion into perhaps the ultimate emotions: detached fascination curdles into inescapable abjection and truly abyssal dread. Continue reading