Issa Ghost

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The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is the fact that, given the recent revelations of Casey Affleck’s behavior, I don’t have to look at his face for the majority of the movie given how novel (without being ridiculous) the concept is of him playing a ghost by wordlessly walking around in a bedsheet. It’s even nicer to discover that there’s the possibility that his double David Pink (who also was the art director for the film so figures he might have liked to spend time underneath that sheet during reshoots and pickups) potentially takes up more screentime as the titular ghost than Affleck does.

That is, in fact, not the nicest thing about A Ghost Story. It’s just a fun joke I wanted to open up on*. The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is how director David Lowery undertook it upon himself to make a very patiently meditative picture using as little words (and possibly sounds, the soundtrack is a very deliberate but sparse element mainly taken over by Daniel Hart’s warm intellectual blanket of tones that makes up the film’s score) to try to attempt Lowery’s personal version of The Tree of Life, a reflection on the status of our personal presence in the greater wheel of the universe and the interminability of how it keeps rolling despite our insignificance and how it’s still a pretty wonderful thing to be around.

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And the great thing about that being the nicest thing about A Ghost Story is that it’s highly reflective of the film as a whole. It’s a cohesive thing rather than just a whole lot of great stuff. Like, the depressed laconic performance of Rooney Mara’s central to the first quarter (maybe? I don’t think she remains in the film very long) as the widowed spouse of Affleck’s character is not just a great arc of the story in its own right but the very seed in which the plot builds out of the self-contained block of emotional grief – complete with the infamous long-take pie scene which would obviously be divisive but I found incredibly generous as a visual and temporal gag (the payoff made me nearly laugh except the friend I saw the movie with was unamused), a very telling character moment, a tonal reset for the picture to let us know how far our patience can go, and indisputable evidence that Mara has definitely never eaten a pie before in her life if she thinks it works like that.

Or how indisputably beautiful and sharp the darkness of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, providing both visual melancholy and a haunting atmosphere in such an essential manner to A Ghost Story getting away with its paced explorations of the Ghost’s lingering that I find it to be more irrevocably tied to the film being made than the cinematography of Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both also really lovely looking films. Those movies feel a little more divorced from the fact that they look good than A Ghost Story, where it matters in the details of the frame that we can witness what’s happening because there’s almost no other way we’re going to receive information.

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Hell, there’s even a more show-offy effects sequence involving a singular shot in which we watch the Ghost watching Mara exit the home in three different fashions with nary a cut in sight and the whole thing doesn’t feel like an effects showcase to me, but an efficient manner of having us and our guiding character feel the quickening perception of time slip right past us, only adding to the feeling of insignificance in a desperate manner. It’s all just more to wrap into the world’s self-reflective attitude.

Indeed, it’s funny that I feel the audacious attempts at cosmic commentary towards the Ghost’s sudden death and reflections of his life before and his widow’s life after are akin to Malick’s masterpiece, because it’s the closest I find in Lowery’s filmography to his independent personality coalescing into a film. It doesn’t function as a Malick homage this time, though the influence is there, it finally feels like a complete key into understanding what Lowery looks for in a film and his voice.

It is with great dismay that while it’s possibly the David Lowery movie I love most, I’m not convinced it’s not also Lowery’s worst (it’s not even my favorite Tree of Life copy with Twin Peaks‘ Part 8 being the best thing of 2017 period) and it’s kind of because by the second act – the one where its ambition is bigger than its stomach – it loses track of itself except in repeating its beats in a Macro scale. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when a movie whizzes right on by as quickly as A Ghost Story does and the visuals don’t stop having a tangible distinction between the settings (kind of, there’s never any doubt that we’re in the exact same spot the whole movie) and time periods, but it stops being revelatory at that point.

No, the real shitty point and potentially the reason I’m least responsive to the moments after it is during a central party scene in which reliable ol’ Will Oldham turns up and delivers the clumsiest clunky moment in the whole movie, giving an eye-rolling monologue on-the-nose about what the movie is trying to say and it’s upsetting because of how elegant Lowery’s storytelling has been up until that point. Like, my dawg, believe in your movie.

Let’s not dwell too long on such a blemish, because A Ghost Story remains one of the more fascinating movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching during such a somewhat underwhelming summer, with much to think about and the certainty that I’ll be rewatching it many times over and over. Potentially with skipping that monologue.

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*another great joke I like to make: how the ghost goes MAGA at one point in the film that you’ll know when you watch it. Can’t trust them white ghosts.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 20 – Welcome Home

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 select horror films in all of the spectrum, 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. And here I am late again. If nothing else, it is because the next installment is to come out later this afternoon and will be another video. Until then, I was recalling movies that I think would be a fun little watch as I continue work further on the double feature style film. And the one that particularly popped in my mind is something I find very terrifying to think about putting into words, but here I go…

So, a lot of movies really try too hard to be this way. There is a significant percentage of films in the world that will swear by Odin Allfather that they are so wacky and weird and immune of any form of rational analysis that they dare you to accurately and reasonably critique them and to be honest, only a handful of them are worthy of that swagger and attitude. Bong Joon-ho’s films, Love Exposure, Phantom of the Paradise, maybe the works of Don Coscarelli, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento…

So I decided to take a deep plunge and finally directly address one of those films. Possibly the most outlandish and unchained of all of these films.

House. Which, before I should dig deeper into this flick, I should note that I love unabashedly. It is a gloriously fun movie that I expect one to either leave it shrieking their heads off or laughing themselves silly. Which is kind of fine by the film either way, which you find the more you get into it. Not because it seems to willingly allow itself to mix in its horror and comedy elements, but House seems to be the type of anomaly where each and every bit of it serves as an avant-garde Rorschach blot to the audience and filmmaking playground for director Obayashi Nobuhiko. I’ve witnessed both reaction to the film many times as well as other reactions. There’s just no sensible approach to it, ideally.

So how the fuck did the science of moviemaking bring us to such an astonishing celluloid creature?

Well, through JawsJaws came out in 1975 as a huge international hit and Japan, which had just snugly placed itself in worldwide consideration as a cultural source of cinema, decided they wanted to get in on that blockbuster feel. So, they looked to the best place to grab fresh and upcoming directors for a film – television advertisements. No, seriously, stop laughing, I’m not trying to make this subtly comic. At the time in Japan, television ads were a good source for directos honing their craft and establishing a certain style to themselves. So, Obayashi was the name out of the tv ad wizard hat that Japanese film empire Toho picked to create a film that would be able to rival Jaws as a blockbuster for all the local hooligans and whippersnappers to race into theaters to see.

Ok, I know this is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that a movie like House could possibly be considered even slightly similar to Jaws, but I haven’t even started talking about the premise of the movie. Please hold on a little longer.

Anyway, Obayashi had a habit with his then pre-teen daughter Chigumi and decided “well, why not play that game with her where I ask her to shoot me ideas and I use them in a film script?” Which is what he did. The majority of House is direct from the mind of the 13-year-old girl who was playing an imagination game with her moviemaking dad. So what kind of child’s mind fable did we get out of it?

Well, we got a film that follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac, Melody, and Fantasy to visit her aunt’s home in the distance of Japan. The reason for this trip comes from Gorgeous’ own spite for the woman her father proposed to, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous finds this an outright insult to the memory of her late mother and refuses to spend her summer with Ryoko, so off she goes to meet and stay with her distant aunt (Yoko Minamida). And from there weird stuff starts happening to the girls that gets really threatening really quickly.

Although, to be honest, from the very first seconds of the films, the weird things have already begun. It’s only within the titular house where the characters actively become aware of the absurdity that wraps itself around this film.

A good portion of this surreal essence of the film comes directly from how the entirety of the film declares artificiality. It’s a movie that thrives off showing off the techniques of the camera and playing around with it, similar to how Bram Stoker’s Dracula works except without really letting the techniques dissolve into the storytelling. Indeed instead the techniques accent the elements of the story, the attitude, the tone, but it still stands out in itself like the strings to a puppet being visible – a Man with the Movie Camera with a plot, if I may say so. From the very saturated lens and colors on the picture, switching back and forth however the mood suits, to the beautifully painted backdrops, these are all things we are meant to notice and consider just a part of experiencing the movie.

Admittedly, this approach to material could go either way in the end and nobody could really hate anybody for finding the movie stupid or just plain wrong. It wouldn’t matter.

To me, though, it’s an outstanding triumph that the movie is able to get away with the randomness and the frank display of its content within itself as a film and still not only retain its horror sensibilities, but to also strengthen it. I know a lot of people like to talk about how immensely fun and joyous it is as the creation of a 13-year-old mind (and it is undoubtedly), but I’m also very moved by how stunningly dark it is.

The movie holds onto a number of themes within it that are not exactly connected by themselves and wouldn’t ideally be placed in such a whimsical context, but still carry emotional weight when the stock characters do not – hate, fear, bullying, missing a deceased loved one, the inability to move on with change, responsibility, and so on… In particular, I’m really stunned by how maturely the film at least deals with the devastation of war – since it’s Japan in 1977, the war in question will undoubtedly be World War II, but tragedy does not get old. Before we even meet the aunt, there is some anchor of emotion in the form of the girls telling the story of her lost love during the events of World War II and it’s quite the poignant moment in the middle of a film that doesn’t really bother poignancy too much.

In all honestly, though, the film’s entire sensibility is based solely on its audience’s attitude to it. If there is ever a movie to be considered subjective at any approach, it is simply going to be House. But it does plant its feet firmly on the ground of a horror film – featuring blood sprays and focusing on the massacre of trapped young girls in a dark house for evil intentions – as well as a comedy film – providing visual jokes and physical comedy at any turn.

The result is a fable, a fairy tale mixed with nightmare. Some people will giggle at it, some people will stay awake at night thinking of what the story says, some people will just consider themselves outgrown for the tale and just turn away. But it’s not something that the film can reject, nor does it prefer to.

It’s a complex film, but in the end, its complexities and all its drive comes from the mind of that one young little girl who decided to dream up a haunted house story and its approach by a director whose filmmaking style is based entirely on using the filmmaking practice as his own toy box that brings about one of the most unique experiences ever provided to the world (the US didn’t get a release for the film until 2009, believe it or not) and how well those two approaches from two related people mesh makes the Obayashis the best father-daughter team in cinema. Suck it, Hustons, Argentos, and O’Neals!

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.