It Practically Gallops

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There is obviously a line between contempt for your characters and apathy for your characters and I think writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature horror film Hereditary has found the thinnest element of that line. It is a movie that is aware of the ugly aspect of what its central family is doing to each other and wants us to be aware too. It is a movie that validates the devastating feelings within these people that is making them react and hurt each other this way, knowing that they are entitled to feel the way they feel and refusing to judge them for it. Only judging them for the toxic manner in which they inflict those feelings on each other. And despite this, it is a movie that does not care what happens to them and knows that the results are of their own devices for the most part.

Hereditary’s happens to be quite a movie that it is easy to spoil by discussing its premise, so I hope it suffices simply to acknowledge that it all begins with a death in the Graham family: Ellen Leigh’s (a character we see in photos that, last I checked, were uncredited) obituary is the first thing that greets us in a chillingly neutral tone. She is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), Annie’s husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and child daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their responses to her death is complex, to say the least. Annie had a toxically antagonistic relationship with her mother amplified by mental illness issues between Annie’s father and brother while by all accounts Ellen took a special interest towards Charlie.

In any case, having to deal with a death in the family is a tough experience and very soon Hereditary proves that to only be the beginning of their troubles, with an incident that irreparably tears a conflict between a slowly deteriorating Annie and an increasingly vulnerable Peter. And between the two of those are the heightened poles of Hereditary’s miseries: Collette embodies an inability to compartmentalize between her hate, her grief, and her trauma, spitefully lashing out at everyone’s who is even slightly at fault for her losing herself. While Wolff goes through a downward spiral of muting out any of his emotions and letting himself get eaten more and more. Indeed, his big showcase is a moment where he stares at an unseen thing in the backseat of a car and stares out trying to comprehend what just occurred, refusing to frown or scream or anything except let a solitary tear run down his cheek. Meanwhile, Byrne makes a useless character feel even more like a clueless slump (which I wholly mean as a compliment) and Shapiro gives Charlie a melancholy loneliness at losing the family member she most interacted with that plays very well with the other weird ambiance she gives to her presence.

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And they have a lot of time to do it. Hereditary knows full well what happens when you have the worst feelings a person could possibly be experiencing embodied in four different people and left to simmer in four walls for weeks at a time (2 hours in runtime paced incredibly well by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston), mixed around by Charlie Dahan’s deep doomy vibrations of a score. Hereditary IS a horror movie of the supernatural sort (I do not think this is a spoiler though of course explaining how would be), but the real horrifying aspect comes for what this family is putting each other through simply for the fact that they don’t know how to process this or because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to.

The near-invisible delicacy with which Aster condemns the Graham family with only slivers of sympathy despite a loyalty to wide shots of funereal domesticity that give its central drama an empty dollhouse look to it (something Aster wants us to recognize by way of Annie‘s career as a diorama artist and indeed the very first shot after that obituary is a long close-up from an open dollhouse into a 2nd floor bedroom that happens to be Peter’s) and close-ups that accent exactly how ugly it looks for a human being to emotionally collapse. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski uses the wide shots as an opportunity to give the rooms and their inhabitants a subtle wooden brown implying how artificial anything that was holding this home together was while using the close-ups to give shadows (and aided by sweaty makeup) that make the characters look gaunt and their heads facing downwards. Collette is the best aide to this: it feels insulting to call what she’s doing mugging, because there’s so much deeper internalizing than that but she puts on a consistent exhausted frown, escalated in a dinner scene gone wrong where she can’t help ripping Peter apart verbally. She looks like if Shelly Duvall got fucking sick of Jack Nicholson’s shit and decided she didn’t an axe to murder him, just a glare.

It is so effective as chamber-esque thriller and as exercise in ruining the viewer’s day that when Hereditary takes a very-very-late turn to glibness, it is jarring in an unfortunate way (it is not the only time – there is one cutaway shot against a character’s haunting screams that feels a little beyond the pale in cruelty). It also happens to be a moment that utilizes “explain-the-plot” in the worst kind of way, at a point where we are very clear on what has went on unless we weren’t paying attention. That it is the final note in Hereditary does not particularly stain my memory of it, because when you do it right moodiness is going to linger long enough to really mess up any good feelings you could possible grasp.

NB: Good ol’ Dancin’ Daniel Bayer has suggested that you see this movie with an audience and I sure wish I could agree with that if some 305 dickhead didn’t shout “DE PINGA!” at the screen during one of the most silent-inducing moments after an hour of clicking his tongue. Still, I can’t imagine this isn’t a movie where a crowd would be synchronized emotionally so I’d say it see it… with people you know and trust.

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25 for 25 – We Accept the Challenge to Fight and Never Lose.

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This movie is going to be a conglomeration of things I had earlier explored and now bring full circle. I already came down on some of the best of Canadian cinema – as provided by the National Film Board itself. Even earlier, I took a look at some slasher culture. And even earlier than that came the look at movies that I deemed part of my fascinating trinity of inadequately produced ego trips, with our particular subject today flat-out mentioned as the last end of that. There was Miami Connection which was essentially Y.K. Kim’s attempt to leave a wise self-gravitas-granting message of peace and love sincere yet completely contradictory to its violent content. There was The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s warped and twisted life fantasy that allegedly provides him with a blanket of company he couldn’t find or reasonably match in his film that gave him lifetime adoration that may not be what he’s looking for. And now, we close that trinity off with Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (although it is credited within the film as The Edge of Hella title much less descriptive and absolutely not applicable at all to the film it is attached to). Now, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is much shallower than the previous films in its intentions. Produced and written by its star Jon Mikl Thor (the director John Fasano mainly had his career as a script doctor) – a Canadian bodybuilding Mr. USA and Mr. Canada champion who later took a dip into heavy metal music under the his last name as the mononymous Thor – The Legendary Rock Warrior! – all Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare really wants or tries to do is make Thor look really awesome and cool and badass.

It does not make him look cool or badass. It frankly makes him look silly.

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That is obviously bound to happen when your film starts with the bloodless death of a family by an unseen evil monster from the kitchen oven in their apparent farm home in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario. Following such an underwhelming overlit, broad daylight “massacre” of footage with the title card The Edge of Hell is very confident of them. And then once the credits are done, inexplicably, a band and their girlfriends somehow deciding this farm was a good place to record their new album and develop material for themselves despite the very obvious Horrible Over Monster Event That Happened Ten Years Prior to the Movie Proper (which just makes me think of how Trent Reznor made The Downward Spiral in the house where Helter Skelter happened and the sensationalism behind it kind of spills over to this) and Thor (the character is actually named Triton, but it’s so much easier for me to square with Thor as a character himself)’s trying to tell us Toronto is a culturally nourishing place to be making arts at. They’re not in Toronto. They’re on a farm that ain’t Toronto. Might be close to it geographically, but…

Anyway, the band also brings their girlfriends because this is essentially trying to be a slasher film and so we need gratuitous scenes of attempted shower sex while the actors waltz right into that shower in an insanely cartoonish amount of make-up making them look like extras from a Whitesnake video only randomly pulled together for the most softcore porn video you could ever imagine. Hell, most of the things this band does are pretty clean for 80s metal stars, they put in a good name for hair metal after Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization portrays all the sexual promiscuity and drugs in the culture, but heck away these guys just wanna make music and be with their own girls.

And my word… the music is catnip to a bad hair metal deviant like I. Hair metal is emblematic of nearly everything I think is silly and stupid about the 1980s and why I’m so lucky to have missed out on it. Big and loud and monotonous, but running like the train that could in high voices screeching voices and obviously Scorpions and Ratt inspired guitar riffs. And they’re earwormy in the worst ways, like hook worms, bruh. Every once in a while, “We Accept the Challenge” and “Energy” keep popping over and over in my head and I need the tunes from Miami Connection to save me.

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By the way, I’m not bothering elaborating on the characters or cast names beyond Thor because much as I ironically love Rock n Roll Nightmare, it’s a movie so bad I’d rather retain my dignity by only affording it cursory research because got damn, but from what I understand an unusual amount of it is made up of Assistant Directors. In any case, the only really distinguishable person is the drummer who starts off with the fakest most-Spinal-Tap-sounding Australian accent and somehow it gets dropped halfway through thus making him wholly anonymous amongst the other band members.

Anyway, this being a slasher film, they all get picked off in complete darkness with their deaths usually witnessed by a monsters that looks like color-coded versions of Beaker the muppet, except with an eye removed. There’s never any tension or horror because Fasano is simply not a good filmmaker with this roaming around and Thor clearly didn’t shell out too much for his glamor flick, but even if this were a well-shot and edited film… how on Earth can you see these creatures and not laugh? Are these the motherfuckers that were in the oven? What were they doing there?

Well, I’ll tell you what they are and this is unfortunately going to be SPOILER ALERT for a film that you’re probably better off EXPERIENCING THIS FIRST HAND so if you can hunt a copy of Rock n Roll Nightmare (which frankly tough for me but doable), GET ON IT.

But for those who stay….

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The events of this movie didn’t happen. It is a punch-drunk version of Six Characters In Search of an Author. Nobody who died (apparently not even the ten years ago family) ever really existed except as creations of Triton, an archangel, in order to lure and entrap the killer The Devil (or maybe the exhaustive laundry list of names Triton elaborates on when they finally come face to face) so that Triton can grab his 30 dollar Halloween decoration looking ass (which he seriously does look like the most expensive prop in the whole movie. Definitely less expensive than the metal makeup. And yet cheaper than my work shoes.) and bring him back to hell. And obviously this does not happen without a heavy metal battle, so while the music by the band never existed blasts as Thor suddenly Super Saiyans himself and wrassles with those Beaker muppets attaching themselves to his swollen pecs as he struggles.

It gets at its most pathetic Triton explains he was inspired by slasher movies as though he knew only the Devil could possibly be a fan of them. It’s an attempt to be self-reflexive that ends up having the movie trip and fall all over its face. And the moralistic (?) Christianity probably explains why the hair metal band is all into clean monogamous drug-free fun rather than actually acting like Poison or Warrant. Anyway, it’s ambitious of Thor, that’s for sure and the fact that he wanted himself to be at the center of this is hella braver than punching the Devil right in the face.

This is why I love the movie so much as trash and am willing to show it to as many people as possible. It’s insane, it’s bizarre, and it’s all in some shallow way that’s much less demanding than the psychoanalysis that seems imperative with movies like The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And now that I wrote it out, maybe it does make Thor look cool now that I think of it. I wish I could look that constipated wrassling muppets.

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 4 – Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. This weekend, Annabelle has come out in theaters and made a ruckus over what was actually to me one of the more forgettable factors about a movie I actually found myself really enjoying when I liked it. But I have a mystery to solve tonight and it’s not why the fuck do people actually think a horror spin-off movie so fast-tracked that it was developed in the same weekend the original film came out and released little over a year after – suggesting that it’s a rushed cash-grab with little time given for quality – might be good. But instead, it’s how a movie that belongs to a genre that has by now been a laughingstock even amongst horror fans has become one of the best horror movies of the decade.

Let’s get this the fuck out of the way, first off. I wasn’t scared by The Conjuring. I was creeped out, intrigued, and maybe was watching my back on the long walk from the theater to my apartment, but I was never at a point where I said “Holy shit, I feel threatened or violated by this for a movie.” Of course, the theater I was in had a lot of people screaming, so I don’t want to outright say The Conjuring is not a scary movie, but all truth tossed in, it plays it pretty safe for a haunted house movie and especially recreates every beat and cliche you have seen in every damn modern haunted house ghost story, you have seen since the 00s. And we all know those movies are pretty much in the wrong place, horribly boring the snot out of you for the most part with completely terrible premises, ‘based on a true story’, the whole nine yards on that shit.

Where The Conjuring stands out is that it is still a fantastic film. Like, it’s seriously a really interesting piece of work.

How it gets away with this carbon copy of the haunted house template and yet completely evades the sinking of that ship as a genre, in the end, I will be unable to answer confidently. What I can do is guess and that’s what I’m going to be doing this whole review, looking at the movie piece-by-piece, trying to figure out how this combination of tropes turned out so right.

The movie is pretty much a showboat piece for Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), a husband-and-wife team (Lorraine insists that she is a medium) who made a name for themselves in real-life as paranormal investigators, best known for their involvement in “The Amityville Horror”. So yeah, based on that, you know exactly how full of shit they probably are in real life. But dismissing that fact for the movie, which is kind of a rule for watching anything – that suspension of disbelief – the Warrens get called in on a case by Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, respectively) with their family of five children and dog. The Perrons have just moved into a last bastion of hope of a house, only to discover very quickly that, between sleepwalkings and imaginary friends, stuff is going wrong in the house. The Warrens start digging deeper and deeper and the two families together begin escalating the paranormal happenings to a more threatening level.

Now, that level of disbelief is essential to anyone. I like to think of myself as open to paranormal concepts, but when the chips are down, I don’t believe in half of the shit I see in horror films – I don’t believe in ghosts, monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, telekinesis or sharks. Ok, that last one was a joke, I totally believe in telekinesis. You see that Uri Gellar fella?

Anyway, the point is that when it comes to concepts like this, it is unfair but the movie has to sell it a lot more to me in order to get me onboard with you. If you can’t do that, I’m going to be biased towards a topic I don’t find plausible enough to entertain. It’s just who I am. But The Conjuring treats its subject with a great amount of respect and delivers it as a completely straight-laced picture. Especially considering how incredibly dedicated the Hayes brothers, the writers of the film, are to trying to convince us that it’s true. Well, at the risk of hurting their feelings, it convinces me in the world of the picture very well, even if not in the real world. But I guess I’m too much of a skeptic outside of the silver screen.

Anyway, we also got the picture of the film. A very surprising warm gray that I was unaware of was even capable of recreating in film (sometimes the technical aspects of a movie really astound me) blanketing an extremely lived-in home closed-in on by some of the most ominous looking woods you could never want to have surrounding your homey home. It has so many results for doing this: We get both a sense of domestication and ominous sinister motivations within the environment itself and we get this very familiar 1970s horror movie aesthetic that we really find neglected nowadays by every filmmaker who isn’t Ti West. It is quite the effect coming from director James Wan, who actually spent a career prior making mostly horror movies that disappointed me from Saw to Insidious Chapter Two.

Here, Wan shows he’s got it right, precisely going over each detail of the story to lend itself to the air of the film, rather than the air of the film lending itself to the story, which makes me think he wasn’t half as dedicated to the concept itself as the Hayes brothers were. What results is that, well, further revelations in the story of the Warrens and the Perrons don’t have really as much weight as information as they just do as scares – the reveal of the origins of the ghost just gives way to one more creepy shot we get to see involving a tree and what secrets it really hides; Ed’s confession about his and Lorraine’s last case just leads to giving more of a sense of urgency and danger to the situation as a whole than just being that “here’s a serious emotional moment where we reveal the true fragility of our characters” scene and so on. And that results in its ups-and-downs. On one hand, it blatantly neglects the importance of the story, which I can honestly live with but I can imagine others won’t. On the other hand, it makes the setting of this film more of a living breathing entity than it could have been if it just followed what the Hayes wrote line-by-line.

Yes, I’ll definitely take the latter over the former. Because this is a horror movie, first and foremost. And a haunted house film like Paranormal Activity and The Shining has a responsibility to bring out more of the inexplicable than just giving an answer to everything that’s happening. The reason movies like Paranormal Activity and The Shining rise above recent haunted house movies is their violent refusal to give a straight answer for everything, which would completely remove the unnerving feeling of “what is going on and why does it make me feel this way?”.

But The Conjuring, being based on a true story that ideally has a happy ending, can’t get away with that and thankfully doesn’t try. And while Wan gets to dodge that “we’ve rationalized and explained the ghost, Mulder! Now let’s exposition him the fuck away!” standard by, again, having the story seep into the overall mood than let it upstage the mood, the ending doesn’t get that chance. And the movie hurts for it for a little bit, before just deciding to switch gears from frights to being a battle against good and evil. After selling the weight of its situation well enough without even letting us remember the full details, we as an audience feel enough for the Perrons to be invested in this battle. The movie may have faltered, but it hasn’t lost us.

This is also thanks to a surprisingly talented roster of actors from children Joey King and Mackenzie Foy being innocent victims, to the do-gooder Wilson, to the concerned Livingston, to the troubled Taylor, to the haunted Farmiga, everybody carries their own weight and then some to become a real part of the experience of the film, despite not very nuanced characters and the only real dynamic role is Taylor’s, for reasons I can’t go into with spoiling the film. But even the expendable associates of the Warrens are just fit snugly into this picture frame of a 70s haunted house story.

Now, that is the best of my ability to try to figure out, with you dear readers, how the hell The Conjuring got away with being a good movie. It might not answer all the questions, but it’s certainly a miracle.

But there is one more thing I wanted to find room to fit into this review and I can’t, so now I’m just make it the end.

This movie sounds amazing. In one of my previous articles, I went over how a great deal of the effect of horror films is smartly used jump scares (which this film does apparently have – even though I was unaffected, a lot of the audience was and I was at least amused with a particularly iconic jump scare you will definitely know about if and when you see the movie) and sound. The sound editing here in this film is goddamned perfect, though, with the house sounding so hollow as to be one big dead lung, breathing in ice, punctuated by falling lights or mishaps that will have you not really buying the visual explanation of the source of that sound. It actually sounds a lot like my house when I’m alone and the lights are out and the sun is going down, so the entire house is in this blue dead glow that suggests there’s something frightening with me here. Maybe that’s just my own association with the noise and sound emanating from the world of The Conjuring but it is effective and it works for me.

And again, this review is just me trying to figure out how, just how oh how, against all odds The Conjuring works. It’s just going to bug me as much as it does that some people still believe The Amityville Horror.