Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright simply “get” genre comedy. They may be the only ones to really nail it since Sam Raimi, and for the same reason. What Raimi understood is that making a comedy out of a noted “serious” genre was about more than making fun of it. It was about teasing out the fundamental intersections between emotions and exploring how filmmaking – that is the literal process of shot to shot structuring of a film – could divulge different and seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously. His preferred contradiction, of course, was between lingering dread and gut-busting Warner Bros comic anarchy. His masterpiece Evil Dead II was not simply about scaring us and then making us laugh, but about dissecting the language of film to explore the intersection of technique and emotion in prismatic, multitudinous ways. Put simply, it was about exploring the way that something, be it a shot or a performance tick or a line or the film itself, could be both funny and scary, rather than, say, take a funny scene and follow it with a scary one. Continue reading
What a great time to be a horror fan the past year has been. After a several decade lull in the medium that felt like an eternity, a collection of scrappy filmmakers with minds and styles to match have turned to the horror genre with remarkable consistency over the past few months, constructing deliberate haunts and melancholy ghouls that deserve the lingering spirit of the classics of the genre. Even better, they do so without openly copying the specifics of horrors that have been before; rather, they divulge their understanding of the past but skyrocket the genre into the future with tools and tricks only fringe, obscure talents could dream up. Under the Skin, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Alone at Night, and now It Follows, have all shocked the world in the past year or so, and they’ve done it without mimicking each other either. Whether it’s the prismatic abstraction of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the classical formalism of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the omnivorous sensual high-style of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Alone at Night, or , now, David Robert Mithcell’s high-flying, postmodern sepulcher to the slasher genre, all are great films. And they are four giants with their own individual voices.
One doesn’t have to do any research to guess that it is customary to slant The Hunger for being, essentially, a feature-length Goth rock music video. Or to imagine that it is not generally construed as a masterpiece of storytelling or characterization. Or to assume that the script falters indefinitely and never much goes anywhere. Or to reduce the film to “style over substance”. These are also all true statements for the most part, excepting the last one. For “style over substance” is and shall always be a misguided attempt to reduce film to a false dichotomy, the visual and the script-based, and to imply if not openly state that the visual is secondary to the script, and that it is less nuanced too. Even in instances where the argument is rightfully used to imply a film lacks substance, say for instance Transformers or any other corporate blockbuster of your choice, the argument folds in on itself, for such films generally do not in fact have any sense of style at all. They are films without style and without substance, and cinephiles ought to be more quick to object to claims that what Michael Bay accomplishes every couple of years genuinely qualifies as “style” in any meaningful sense.
Now I get to go off the deep-end! To some extent, if only some, reviewing Rob Zombie’s greatest film thus far, The Devil’s Rejects, is an excuse to discuss Rob Zombie’s work on the whole. Yes he’s schlocky and his films are often messy and chaotic and have no idea what the hell is going on, but boy if they don’t have the damnedest time of their lives doing it. For all his faults, Zombie knows what he wants and isn’t about to see that vision sullied by a production company. He’s impassioned, cock-sure, self-centered, angry, obsessive, and perverse – which happens to sound like a laundry list of features that have composed many (most) of the great directors of the past hundred years. And the most important bit, lest I forget: he absolutely loves movies, and he wants us to know it too.
It is within this frame-set that I approach The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s most fully realized, most gloriously depraved, most caustically subversive, most oddly, uneasily touching, and most visually witty pieces of filmmaking yet made, and it is wrapped up in some of the finest genre clothing I’ve seen in years, exuding a positively desperate love of cinema in every frame. It’s disgusting, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t want you to think otherwise. But disgusting does not a bad film make, especially when it’s about disgust in cinema and how we cartoon-coat violence when we want to make it seem respectable. For Zombie, much like a Tarantino gone off the deep end of his own anarchism, there is an awareness that films mostly end up entertaining with violence even when they pretend not to. Unlike Tarantino however, Zombie doesn’t so much want to make violence cool as explore the tension between violence being cool and violence being disgusting, for his films are disgusting and they don’t hide their disgust away with corporate sleekness, composed formalism, and clean filmmaking. Devil’s Rejects is sloppy, amorphous, and sickly looking, showcasing film grain and making no bones about how ugly it looks.
Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know the meaning of the word nuance, and Robocop provides at least the opening arguments for why the world is a better place for it. Brash and brutal in its own quintessentially ’80s way, Robocop also chomps at the bit to lose itself to the royal flush of political satire that stamps out the dark heart of ’80s consumerist ultra-violence and the evils of capitalism with gusto and flair. Under its sleek, brawny hood lies a personality-surfeit aimed squarely at other ’80s action films. But the film never lowers itself to the tiredness of irony, instead opting for a sort of loving critique of action cinema that plays with its inadequacies and idiocies by exaggerating them and acknowledging that an anti-action film would be a hypocrisy most foul. When Truffaut claimed that any war film that wanted to hate war was dishonest because a war film innately positioned war as a form of excitement, the same could be said to apply to action cinema. Thus, while Robocop gets entangled in its conglomerate mass of neo-fascism and broad-sword crypto-leftism, it’s always glad to exist, always happy to be a film we’re watching, and never per-se anti-action … even if its political message chastising media violence considered along with the fact of its own hyper-violence may not be the most easily reconcilable tension in the film world.
A menacing, spellbinding little monstrosity from Pre-Code era Hollywood, Island of Lost Souls is perhaps the only early-sound American horror film to challenge the supremacy of Universal pictures for its unprecedented monopoly on the genre through the ’30s (the ’40s were much less kind to a company that increasingly became a corporate sequel-shill, but Val Lewton was there to save the genre from total oblivion). Kicking off an under-respected tradition of great, forward-thinking, alert, provocative HG Wells adaptations through the ’30s (even Orson Welles got involved), Island of Lost Souls is about as fine a beginning to a legacy as you could hope for. Dealing with the monomaniacal and the perverse with equal artistry and frankness, Erle Kenton’s film appears urgently modern, free of restrictions, and alive with discovery.
A critic should be honest about their biases. Considering this, a preface: Beyond the Black Rainbow is conventionally described, at least insofar as a film this atypical can be conventionally described, as a modern recollection of the grainy, quizzical, hard science fiction storytelling so popular in 1970s US culture, doused with a thin membrane of stilted, personality-heavy American animation forever struggling to find out what it meant to aim for an audience of both children and adults. Considering this, it would have been almost impossible for me to dislike the film going on. As it turns out, I do not dislike it. Take from that what you will.
Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.
It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, the characters intentionally maneuvering themselves through their worlds in contrived, abstract ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, the performative nature of human activity, and the absurdity of film and its relationship to the human condition.
Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different texture. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the triviality it instills in filmic storytelling, The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works cheekily and cunningly ask us to read between the lines with finesse to explore the master manipulator ironizing the characters’ search for order, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work undermines order, Fulci’s denounces it entirely. Continue reading
Update upon another viewing in 2017:
Is El Topo pointless then? Or rather, is it depoliticized? Or is chaos and ambiguity political and purposeful in an age of order? Simultaneously earthy and beyond the grave, the characters of El Topo do not effuse logic or purpose or even desire, but they do implode with the chaos of uncertainty, of the crushing weight of their totemic status as archetypical figures bounded by unclarifiable laws of desire and need and want they are unable to do anything about. They wander through a mass of centrifugal emptiness, never for or to or from anything; such liberal teloses hold no sway in this anti-rationalist mindspace that reveals, conclusively because of how vague and inconclusive it is, how arbitrary various masculine desires are. Or rather, how a life governed by the compulsion to complete goals is so often defined through the runaway assumptions of capitalist conclusiveness where one finishing line is the starting pace for an even faster act of running in circles. Most Westerns create male spaces of desire, empty and virginal worlds ready to be deflowered by a male character’s conquering, ordering phallic motion through space linking the edits and giving reason to this world. A contrapuntal riposte, there’s nothing to fill up in El Topo, nothing to complete, no oasis of purpose to stretch thinly across the randomness of the world in hopes of masquerading. In this sense, if the film dodges conventional meaning or any normative point, it also explodes the oppressive certainty of a social order which bounds and demarcates meaning to that which can be conventionally construed through only that order’s logic.
Writing about Mulholland Dr. recently, I began with an explication on the film’s wonderful arbitrariness, its cluster of contrarian images and sounds which existed for no reason other than to bemuse and titillate, to enrage and befuddle, and to please David Lynch. I then spent most of the review coming to terms with the fact that my opening paragraph, all praise for Lynch’s film existing for the sake of itself, wasn’t really fair: the director’s 2001 anti-film does nothing simply for the sake of itself, for it had more to say about film as an object of corporate culture and voyeuristic gaze than any film of its decade. It is not an arbitrary film; it is replete with intentional, textured meaning, and it is a masterpiece of commentary on film as object of invention and sociology.
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