Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

Whether the Tendency of the Letter Published is to Deprave and Corrupt Those Whose Minds are Open to Such Immoral Influence

The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.

The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.

First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.

I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.

Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.

But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.

So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.

*I was also convinced for a minute that Matthew Earley, who plays a co-worker of Enid’s, was actually a cameo by Ben Wheatley at first glance. Apologies to Earley.

Come, It is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…

 

the-wicker-man-175

I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.

You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.

But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.

I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.

the-wicker-man-239

Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.

The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.

the-wicker-man-127

The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.

Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.

It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.

the-wicker-man-492

About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.

About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.

So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.

Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

Another Green World

Probably my biggest regret of this past Sundance 2021 was not finding the time or ability to review even a single one of the multiple features I saw during that single week (though I am glad I was able to cover the short films selections), until far enough since the end of the festival that there was no relevance or point anymore. Maybe I can turn that around as they are wide released stateside, especially as it would give me a chance to refresh movies that were already fading by the time I could sit down and write again.

But one movie didn’t fade all that much. One movie, above all others, stayed embedded in my mind as I kept turning around it over and over until it finally got its expected release here (one of the movies that already had a distributor before it arrived to Sundance). And that was Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which heralded a return to form for Wheatley that rivals his early greatness (barring Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, which is my only gap among his features as it’s not yet released in the US).

In fact, it’s a movie that most feels in line with A Field in England, his 2013 rural period-based psychological hallucination that I frankly was not as impressed on first viewing with, but I do feel like I’d revisit with newfound appreciation in its untethered atmospheric madness. That movie begins with a sense of distance brought by its time setting and dreamy black-and-white and minimalist production design, In the Earth starts way differently. Its starting point is in fact extremely relatable to a viewer in early 2021, set in the middle of what is not identified as the COVID-19 pandemic but sounds eerily similar from how it’s discussed in dialogue (as one of several movies developed and produced during it) as scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) prepares to move further beyond a unnamed government outpost into its neighboring forest with a local park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). And if I’m being honest, that “a virus is happening” starting point may pull the viewer into the world but it’s also not particularly a committed element and the more In the Earth follows Martin and Alma through the woods… the less we have that virus as an urgent element. There’s more pressing matters to worry about.

The central matter is something I wouldn’t want to spoil, for a lot of In the Earth is trying to get us lulled into the rhythm of a quiet isolated trek through the woods – perfect for a film production made at a time where few people should be in close proximity to each other – and then have that violently swerved into something we couldn’t imagine. And Nick Gillespie’s soft photography of the oppressive greenery and shade does phenomenal work laying a tired shadow to Martin and Alma’s hike, seeking out Martin’s former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and getting more and more nervous as they run into abandoned tents and a random habitant of the forest Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who gives off a plenty irregular enough vibe to make us prepped for something bad to happen.

Well, this IS a horror movie so something bad happens. And Wheatley’s work as his own editor does so much to make the bad things interrupting the slow-running expedition truly feel discombobulated by the later shifts it takes, inviting us to expect some contagion-set Blair Witch material what with Alma’s explanation of an folklore by the name of Parnag Fegg and campfire lit sequences taking up the first third. But In the Earth is headed towards something more eagerly aggressive in its aesthetic that Gillespie (who at one point of heightened disorientation and terror utilizes diagetic bright strobe lighting that makes this impossible to tough for the photosensitive but for myself I found absolutely thrilling), Wheatley, and the soundtrack (eager to bring us aware of how impossible it is to truly have quiet in the woods, your isolation surrounded by rustling and chirps) all crank up with enough measurement to give the kaleidoscopic indulgences a true sense of climax by the final moments.

Arguably the only constant to In the Earth‘s shifts is Clint Mansell’s droning score which fits smoothly into the preceding worshipful nature footage and slides into the abstract madness that lives deeper and deeper in the runtime. The closest I’m willing to provide as a plot spoiler (and frankly something easy to predict with that plot summary) is how Squires and Shearsmith’s arrival on screen truly marks the moment things change gears. The two actors together are contradictory guides to the narrative context of what weirdness Wheatley and his crew throw at our face, both grounded in their own awe of the invisible cosmic horror atmosphere. Shearsmith, absolutely unrecognizable to me from the few previous works I’ve seen him in (his prior collaborations with Wheatley, Doctor Who), resembles what I’d expect a dark version of a Taika Waititi performance while Squires carries the concept of hard science-fiction and procedural to the uncertain tension surrounding them.

So basically Alma begins as our guide into the woods, but really this movie slips away from her control and ours. It belongs to Ben Wheatley finally finding himself back in the zone of surprise horror scenarios that he always did best flexing between Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. I’m sure the past few years of him getting more of a budget to play with have been satisfying to get out of his system, but they didn’t result in very interesting or good movies. Sometimes all a person needs is a few humans, a vast space, and a limitless collection of sounds and filters to truly show us something terrifying. Looks like Wheatley and his crew made the most out of little.

I Got Five on It

Writer-Director (among other things) Jordan Peele is perhaps the most sought-after creative in film and television from the past decade with nearly every piece of work he puts his name on being an instant-hit, a seat that is well-deserved in my opinion. So Peele is not particularly someone who needs folks running to his defense, yet nevertheless I feel so particularly protective of Us when it comes to its place in his rise from tv comic to producer who has no trouble fast-tracking any project he chooses to back. Despite being a smash hit like his debut feature, Get Out, it didn’t get any of the endless awards attention that its predecessor received and all of its successes financially and critically feel dwarfed by the giant splash Get Out got… out. Particularly, there’s a contingent of the audience that found the movie’s logic or themes either hard to parse or not entirely as well-baked as Get Out.

Which is of course where I step in and confess that I am glad I rarely care what movies are about. It is definitely the case that Us is about something – class is the major target for the picture and Peele is intelligent enough to make that impossible to even folk like me trying to avoid it – but the major reason that I consider Us so astronomically better than Get Out is just so much more simpler: it’s scarier. And I mean honest to God, make-the-horror-creep-up-into-your-conscious frightening. Get Out is definitely scary and smart and funny, but it has training wheels on and a devotion to being a message movie that Us has little use for. Instead, Peele looks to flex out all the stylistic attributes of horror movies he’s been practicing in a career of hilarious parodies throughout the sketch show that boosted him to household name status, Key and Peele.

The story all of that style is in service to belongs to Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry as a child, Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and speaking of awards this should have received… Nyong’o’s snub was among the biggest frustrations of the last Oscar season) as she takes a trip with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz. This bothers Adelaide intensely from a dark moment in her childhood experienced on the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk that we have revealed to us bit by bit. Just after she opens up on the experience to Gabe, the lights go out in the house and just outside the front door stands a foreboding nuclear family in crimson. When they make their way into the vacation home and corner the Wilsons near the fireplace, they are revealed to be doppelgangers of each member of the family and that’s only the tip of the scope behind what’s going on in Us which just expands on that instant mix of fears between an unknown entity so familiar to you and the violence of having your domestic space intruded upon to something just so much more draining.

From there on, it’s a mix between the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ shadows of a living nightmare as the family are terrorized by their own villainous mimics, all three supporting actors giving their own version of a guttural non-verbal performance while Nyong’o’s own Red communicates to us with a gnarled whisper as she moves in unnervingly unnatural ways. Alongside the way the makeup truly distresses Nyong’o, Duke, Joseph, and Alex’s faces to just sap the humanity out of their doppelgangers’ faces, matching well with their primordial body language and vocal utterances. Which makes it all the more impressive that the central family (and we shall later see the rest of the supporting characters encounter) deliver two distinct performance styles: one character that is of course frustrating and flawed in all the human ways and the other being latching on to one particular trait of that character with a tenacious viciousness that propels the Tethered being – for that is what the doppelgangers are referred to – to its violent acts in a natural way.

But Us doesn’t simply get to being one of the scariest movies in a long time simply be being a perfect acting showcase for every cast member’s range. It has jump scares, perfectly timed ones with Nicholas Monsour’s pacing giving it just the right amount of pregnancy to make us jolt the way a calibrated shock should make us (and indeed the fact that my initial viewing of Us had the best audience possible – tuned in the way a great horror movie audience should be and freaking out proper – makes me nostalgic for the days of full-house opening weekend theater viewings). It has disturbing images as I brought up just the way that alarming dark red of the Tethered’s uniform costumes by Kym Barrett looks in the darkness of the Wilson’s home especially when punctuated by the rare scenes of bloodletting. The mixture of those dark blacks and reds is a big part of what brings Us this heavy mood that all the best horror movies are expected to be thick with.

Us practically drowns in that mood, only bobbing for the surface with Peele’s characteristic ability to add some dry humor to the proceedings that also let us appeal to the Wilsons as characters (Gabe’s obsession with his boat being a notable connection to that class theme while also a Chekovian device). Because Peele is such a horror buff – the very first shot of the film includes video cassettes of Night of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., and A Nightmare on Elm Street visible; Thriller and Jaws appear on t-shirts; the location is consciously the same as The Lost Boys; a deformed character is almost certainly named after one in The Hills Have Eyes; and there are so many visual quotings of horror classics – he knows exactly the right ingredients to appeal to the home invasion thriller that this starts off as and then lets the disorienting existential horror of facing your cruel self expand like hot air to at least a scale that is just inescapable and leaves the characters trapped.

Probably the most notable element of the filmmaking that lets these chills slide down smoothly is Michael Abels’ score, indulging in all of the stock horror sounds like the screeching strings and thumping drums without feeling too much like a generic score. Particularly the manner in which it adopts a leitmotif out of the Luniz song “I’ve Got 5 on It” to turn its key down as low as possible so that the beat just translates to an occasional shudder and makes for the perfect punctuation to most of the scares to come once Us goes full-throttle throw its lightning pacing.

So it’s the tools rather than the message that truly engages me with Us, something that is the case for most pictures. It is impossible to pretend that the same broad strokes Peele and company take to give us a pure work of terror aren’t the same broad strokes that embolden its message on class and the violent divide it brings (again… it uses “I Got 5 on It” as a leitmotif and one of Nyong’o’s first scenes as Red involves her croaking a dark fairytale about a shadow receiving worse than table scraps in attachment to her body) and so you cannot take one without the other and I’d claim that Us is all the richer for having that depth beneath the surface (literally given the descent to a crypt-like tunnel that makes up the third act). It’s even understandable that Lupita Nyong’o’s ability to play both monster and hero and the unexpectedly twisted way in which Peele’s writing moves around those roles within the third act truly gets to play both sides of that presentation, including the fact that Nyong’o’s delivery of a late monologue that is in my opinion the weakest moment of the film salvages some of atmospheric cruelty of the whole picture. In any case, it’s not what I come to Us for or what I exit it praising most. I don’t care where the Tethered come from or why they are doing what they do. I only admire the way it all combines – Monsour’s cutting, Abels’ score, Gioulakis’ shadows and framing, and Nyong’o’s performance – to a heartpounding balletic climax at the end of a particularly draining horror movie experience, one that lost very little of its initial power when I saw it in theaters with a likewise frightened crowd when I re-watched it in the blackness of my living room alone.

“Hey Michael, Check This Out…”

Within the past week I’ve revisited Freddy vs. Jason, the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, and our subject here: the 2009 remake of My Bloody Valentine. And it’s evidently a small sample size of 2000s slasher cinema and reliant specifically on intellectual property with a pre-existing fanbase, but if there’s one major connection one can make of the three (as well as the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, and the Hatchet series*): the 2000s were not for want on slasher movies that had the proper attitude that that subgenre is meant to have. At the prime of the subgenre in the 1980s, they were all just filled with mean attitudes using the plot and characters simply as vehicles to deliver elaborate death setpieces that flex out their gore effects budget and artistry. They are happy to walk the exploitation walk all the way through.

Their achilles heel however is the fact that they came out in the 2000s and thereby are subject to the sort of polished clean digital look that removes the sort physical visual griminess that these previously often independent, frequently low-budget pictures were forced to have and in turn gave the subgenre a rawness to its craft that horror cinema was kind of moving to in the wake of respectability that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were bringing. Film stock and the primitivism of that low-budget resource that allowed these films to pop out a dime a dozen in the 1980s was the source of most of the best examples of the form feeling like wallowing in grub. And try as the cinematographers of these 2000s production could, you just can’t have the same honesty with digital filmmaking.

My Bloody Valentine takes advantage of that by going the other way: it indulges in that vanguard of 2009 cinema, the very same year as Coraline and Avatar. It indulges in 3D, thereby allowing us to refer to this remake as My Bloody Valentine 3D for the remainder of this review to distinguish it from the original Canadian picture.

Which to be fair, Todd Farmer and Zane Smith’s screenplay (with a credit given to Stephen Miller for story) does quite a lot to try to pull from John Beaird’s original screenplay from 1981 but in overly complicated ways that end up making the plotting of the film at once extremely dizzying. We still certainly have a mining town by the name of Harmony (this time shot around Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh or Armstrong County with not nearly the amount of edge-of-the-world coastline personality that Sydney Mines brought to the original film) and we do have an inciting accident that traps five miners with a single homicidal survivor by the name of Harry Warden (played by either Richard John Walters or Chris Carnel), sans the added sensationalist treatment of cannibalism (this time Warden killed the men simply to preserve more oxygen for himself). This time, however, the writers decide to cut out the middleman and make our ostensible young protagonist the worker whose negligence led to the methane explosion that caused the tragedy, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles, the first of the two stars of the show Supernatural that amusingly starred in a slasher remake in early 2009; Jared Padalecki would follow his lead into Friday the 13th the very next month). Hanniger happens to be the son of the mine’s owner, a little bit of nepotism that evidently got him into an unqualified position and also probably keeps the entire town from lynching him over their considerable resentment for the tragedy he caused.

Doesn’t stop Harry however, who went into a coma immediately after his rescue only to wake up a year later and massacre his whole hospital wing in search for revenge from Tom. He finds Tom in the middle of a Valentine’s Day party being thrown at the same mine he was originally trapped in, which probably didn’t help his vengeful mood any further as he kills every teenager he runs into at the party: it’s only through Warden’s single-minded hunt for Tom that Tom’s girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King), their friend Axel (Kerr Smith), and Axel’s girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue) are neglected by the bloodthirsty miner and it’s only by Sheriff Burke’s (Tom Atkins) sudden arrival and shooting of Warden that Tom makes it out by the skin of his teeth.

That funneling of the major plot points of the original My Bloody Valentine gets us barely 20 minutes into My Bloody Valentine 3D – partly because the mining accident is mostly registered by a montage of ridiculous newspaper headlines during the opening credits – and yet it still doesn’t hasn’t yet re-used of the love triangle from the original movie. For you see ten years later (a fact humorously communicated by a voiceover newscast saying “it’s been nearly ten years” EXACTLY when “Ten Years Later…” fades in on an aerial shot of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge), Tom came back after being gone since the attack to ostensibly sell the mine now that his father is dead and finds that Sarah is now married to Axel with a son (it is frankly laughable that Tom’s father is not at all a presence in the movie to substantiate his daddy issues, only appearing in the form of his ashes container. Sarah and Axel’s son is barely more of a presence with a frustratingly contrived moment of menace towards him that does not pay off). Meanwhile, Axel happens to be Harmony’s Sheriff and that leaves him in charge of investigating the horrifying murders that coincidentally started just when Tom arrived back into town: murders commit by somebody resembling Harry Warden in their miner’s getup and pickaxe weapon of choice.

Honestly, the structuring of this story makes it feel like the makers wanted to frame this as remake AND pseudo-sequel of the original (including the fact that one of the final shots in the 10 years ago prologue resembles the very last shot of the original movie, watching a wounded Miner retreat into the darkness of the mines). This is not the only area where Farmer and Smith’s script gets way to convoluted to find the long way around recycling the same story, but I don’t think you need to dive that much further into its weirdly shallow psychology of characters who are ostensibly grown ass adults with domestic lives and matured experiences still acting like teenagers to see just how frustratingly poorly put-together it all is. Frankly, My Bloody Valentine 3D is not a good movie by any metric: contrived writing only being the tip of the iceberg when faced with the extremely CW level acting talent (and it’s not like the original actors playing TJ, Sarah, and Axel were all that much better but at least they still lend a genuine humble presence to the small-town that these soap opera-esque leads just can’t meet), and Lussier as a director just does not have any sophistication or inspiration to offer to a sequence that does not take feature gore or 3D, especially obvious when it comes to the moments that rely particularly on tension… character-based tension worst of all.

But fortunately this IS a gore-filled movie and it IS one that’s in 3D. And I am sorry to suggest to anyone that this movie mirrors Lussier’s lack of offering to anybody who attempts to watch it in 2D, but that is certainly the case. Yet the 3D is absolutely the element that keeps me coming back to My Bloody Valentine 3D in the way that it happily indulges in any possible moment to have blood splash every which way through the screen or put us in the perspective of one of the murderous Miner’s victims so we’re consistently watching the pointy end of that threatening pickaxe jam right in front of us. Sometimes both at the same time as in an early moment where we watch the pickaxe-through-the-back-of-the-head-popping-out-an-eye kill from the original movie lovingly recreated as a little peek-a-boo moment that gets me giddy as a schoolboy when I see it. In fact, to My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s credit, a lot of kill styles get their own reenactment in this remake just for the sake of having Lussier, cinematographer Brian Pearson, and stereographer Max Penner play around with how to give it a smiling kitschy to its visceral imagery. It’s not like the revolutionary work of Avatar here but instead whole-heartedly treating 3D as the sort of gimmickry that it was back in the 1950s and that honestly seems the perfect sort of marriage to the purely junky motivations of the slasher genre to begin with. It also allows for even the most blatantly computer generated of the bloodiness to be forgivable in how the 3D gives the chintzy look more artistry on top of feeling more fun.

And that fun is something that My Bloody Valentine 3D gets to accomplish without falling into that oh too popular trap of being winking or self-aware. Sure, Lussier and company know they’re making trash and even lean quite into it with an extended rampage in a seedy motel that largely involves Rue spending most of her total screentime running around a parking lot wearing absolutely nothing but high heels (credit very much to Rue for being so bold; less credit to Farmer for writing himself a short bit part as the guy who she has sex with at the beginning of her commando run here) but they’re still taking it seriously and sincerely without the slightest hint of parody. The bones of the story obviously don’t earn that seriousness (and at around 10 minutes longer than the original, I even start to get exhausted at that po-faced mystery shit and the predictable direction it’s going before it ends), but I don’t go to this genre for narrative indulgences – just purely for exhibition of cheesy carnage and the 3D extravaganza and I like to imagine I’ve made clear how well this has delivered on both so that the 3D Blu-Ray has just ended up one of my guilty pleasure comfort foods. You’re not going to see what I see if you try to watch it in 2D. I am unashamed to say that My Bloody Valentine 3D does not need to function at any aspect to justify that placement – and it does not, it is admirable and dedicated but still a complete piece of shit movie – just as long as it gives me the satisfaction of watching a pickaxe point at me through somebody’s perforated skull more than once.

*I have not watched the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street since its release (which may be soon to change – I just finished a Friday the 13th binge, why not initiate a Nightmare binge?) and I will refrain from making a declaration on that one.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

The 2019 Popcorn Frights Short Films Line-Up

p-5

It’s that time again.

The 5th Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival is happening once again in their relatively new home in Ft. Lauderdale’s dope church-turned-single screen movie theater Savor Cinema and once again the good folks running it – Igor, Marc, and company – have asked me to review the short film line-up of this year’s run. Which is very considerate of them knowing that I think of the short film as the ultimate artform because I can finish it before bedtime.

Except that this year has an intimidating amount of 40 short films to be screened throughout the festival in several different programs and bedtime becomes a moot point, even after we ignore the fact that I have to sleep under the sheets after watching a good horror movie. Nothing I’m particularly hostile to this year and a couple that I’m really impressed by.

Whelp, a lot of movies ahead, let’s get cracking at them.

p

Wild Love

OTHER SIDE OF THE BOX (Caleb J. Phillips, USA)
Screens with Haunt on Thursday 8 August at 9:15 pm

An excellent exercise in patience, using its 15 minutes well to build its tension and its cuts to make a point of what might be happening right outside of the frame and the eyeview of our lead characters as they try to find out why they’ve been sent a certain sinister box. Pretty underlit to the point that somehow the very void that we find in the box looks brighter than the room around it and but the final moments are so perfectly creepy that I can’t bring myself to mind. A perfectly functional opening for the festival!

WILD LOVE (Paul Autric/Quentin Camus/Léa Georges/Maryka Laudet/Zoé Sottiaux/Corentin Yvergniaux, France)
Screens with Bloodline on Friday 9 August at 7:00 pm

Certainly the familiar story and its status as a work for L’École des Nouvelle Images points to this being an animation exercise reel than anything else, but it is a marvelous exercise of distinguishing the textures in a forest trip whether it’s the hair on a man’s exposed legs or the fur on an army of beavers (the one moment that felt off to me is a flamethrower that looked like it was in a different space from any character in the shot). A lot of playing with depth in a foggy and suspicious area and soft lighting in a cave where the only source is a slit on the top, just in general enough of a technical showcase to allow me to see how it might have the budget it has but still make the most of it and promise a lot of its directors (SIX of them, so you KNOW a lot of work was put in this) with further resources. And, admittedly, even the story was amusing in its familiarity, what with the bug-eyed expressions of the little rodents…

THE DESECRATED (John Gray, USA)
Screens with The Dare on Friday 9 August at 9:00 pm

I admittedly did not have much of a response to this, perhaps given that much of the waiting tension of its 7 minutes doesn’t have much payoff beyond a final note that’s too blink-and-you’ll-miss-it to function as the jump scare it seems to want to pay off for. It’s a bit concerning that the middle sequence with the… ghost (?) is more effective than the final scare. Still, I will give props to how color was used make a mortuary gloomy without underlighting it.

LOOM (Kevin Rothlisburger, USA)
Screens with Bliss on Friday 9 August at 11:15 pm

Very close to being my favorite short in the festival in its nicely self-contained EC Comics delivery of overt monster horror, outrageous blood splatter, and particularly in its gorgeously autumnal outdoor color work (even if it doesn’t differentiate that much between the opening dusk and the closing dawn). It’s particularly a satisfying slasher-type gambit to have all of its victims of violent death to be such despicable bullying good ol’ boy cartoons that we won’t miss. There’s one hiccup for me and it is not a small one: some big points of the climax have some very messy post-production work. Specifically, a shot that reveals one of the characters’ true nature features some attempted pinlight work that doesn’t convincingly align with their eyes (this is most frustrating because the face already looks nicely Halloweenish in a way that I think the short owns) and certain shots of an extended chase sequence end up looking like there’s a blurry blue Rorschach blot on the screen in a combination with the lighting, the coloring, and the generous usage of fog in the forest. And it’s very bothersome stuff but the rest of the short is able to carry itself all through the night that by the end of the bloodbath, I end up pretty satisfied with it as diverting campfire story.

GUESSING GAME (Zach Wincik, USA)
Screens with Alive on Saturday 10 August at 1:00 pm

I understand that the close-up is the easiest way to establish tension with the specificity of your actors’ expression filling up the frame (which Guessing Game does very well) but even for a short film, there is a limit to how long you can repeat one shot scale before it deflates and I’m not sure Guessing Game avoids it. Alongside that, there’s also how off-puttingly humorless the final beats of the short feel with a last shot being one that insists this short is trying to say something about society but can’t when all of the context of what happening is back-loaded. I might have forgiven a good amount of it if it had played meta with its end credits while removing the widen that sees us out.

p-1

A Doll for Edgar

A DOLL FOR EDGAR (Anthony Dones, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Reminiscent to me of the “Living Doll” episode from The Twilight Zone, it even has an antagonist that feels maybe more modern than Savalas and certainly more sinister with his late evil revealing monologue but definitely reminds me of the actor in his brawny baldness. We have here once again a nicely self-contained sort of EC Comics tale where we watch supernatural circumstances give a satisfying comeuppance to evil bullys (credit to Justin Sims for giving an odiously masculine attitude against Bryce Smith’s sensitivities), aided by some pretty great shadow work on the characters to give this broken home a domestic gloominess.

ALWAYS LISTENING (Randy Gonzalez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I get what it’s going for in trying to fully envelope the sort of paranoia one would expect in a society reliant on obsessively surveillant technology (not that I find that idea inherently interesting, but it delivers this theme in a pretty effective way). I just also happen to think the ending beat is a bridge too far for a short film that was already doing a pretty fine job as it was. It feels like the sort of moment inserted in because the makers thought the short couldn’t qualify as horror without violence and it suddenly tries to introduce a new logic to the story that feels totally divorced with what we just watched. But it does have a cool effect when it gets to that point (and also a very well-used sound effect for what happens off-screen).

CALL FOR A GOOD TIME (Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure: I am friends with one of the directors for this film, Jon Rhoads. And from what I understand Marrero & Rhoads had made this more as an off-hand doodle while working on a much bigger project, so it explains the crude construction of this whole thing (even though I think the granite brown color of the short – however cut off it is by the brighter floor of the bathroom – does make the bathroom feel grosser than it actually looks). I could certainly expect better and more inspired from the makers of Buzzcut (one of the highlights of a previous Popcorn Frights and in fact the short that introduced be to Rhoads) than something not that much different from Lights Out, but for a throwaway bit meant to function as an amuse bouche to the rest of the festival, it works.

FEVER (Brian Karl Rosenthal, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The perfect mixture between darkness and costume. It’s very hard not to spoil when and how it pays off after watching an extremely sweaty Lani Lum wait in shadowy silence and scope around the corners but even after that payoff happens, we get to spend a couple more minutes watching out for when the source of all this short’s scares return again (credit especially to Chuck Baxter’s slender presence). Being able to pull off that surprise twice in a row with enough space in between is pretty impressive if nothing else about this short will linger in my memory.

THE FINAL GIRL RETURNS (Alexandria Perez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure for this one as well: I am also good friends with the writer/director/producer, Alex. Which I suppose puts me in a good position to already understand exactly what she was aiming for with The Final Girl Returns, which portrays what happens AFTER a slasher movie ends. And I feel like the answer Alex has for that question is too big for a 15 minute short, but I think she does as best a job as I can see involving the frustrations and the psychological scars (impressively established with schism-like cuts into the faces the Driver remembers – his lack of name being one of several ways this aesthetically feels like a Nicholas Winding Refn short) beyond some moments that are a bit too on the nose like the lines about “changing the ending” and a radio newscaster literally asking “when will the cycle end?”. Still in any case, this has some brilliant horizon-set camerawork in the California desert with washed-out colors by Rob Bennett (on top of a really impressive combination of handheld and dolly zoom in a single shot) and the sinister Cliff Martinez-like soundscape to make it all feel an aberration of the slasher form. If I think the runtime is too restricted to make much comment so much as observation of the genre, its themes are still direct in its feminist reclaiming of the genre (not least of which being that we don’t actually see the violence commit towards the women). And needless to say, I’m really proud of Alex.

THE LIMITS (Ulbrecht Tomas, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The biggest surprise of all of the shorts for me. A dystopian future road to hell where its lead follows an inky black path of night that’s only illuminated by the torches, but it’s specifically the artificial but eye-catching night sky effects that made it a treat to watch, foreseeing the sort of cosmic element it tries to introduce in moments like the hooded robe cult and the giant truck driving madman straight out of a John Carpenter science fiction. Not to mention the great effect that interrupts every major kill, where after a geyser of blood effects, we smash cut to a hard close up of what looks like blood clotting with a crackling sound beneath it. It makes death look and sound painful on top of letting it function as spectacle. As it moves forward, it becomes less exciting to look at, especially the day scenes where the gun muzzle effects look much more chintzy and betray its budget, but overall it disabused me of any previous hesitation I had watching a 22 minute short by making a pretty straightforward dark quest picture.

SPIRIT #1 (Brett Potter, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Produced by Miami’s local film collective pride, Borscht Corporation, it should be expected that Spirit #1 is would be off-kilter and weird. That approach by Borscht is hit-or-miss with me and I’m disappointed to call it a miss here (the first half was losing me after a nice gambit of breaking the fourth wall with text and camera movement), but it does backload its best and wildest stuff including an impressive extreme tighten from the widest and narrowest possible hallway shot one could start from. But sometimes being weird just isn’t enough for me.

VALERIO’S DAY OUT (Michael Arcos, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I honestly started off very off-put by the fractured video diary manner of this short (I don’t think I ever ended up warming to the usage of title cards, frankly) but as it continued forward, Arcos’ work started coalescing into something really sinister and unnervingly inhuman. The monotonous reading of the titular jaguar’s thoughts went from gratingly annoying to serial killer-like cold while ascribing venomous emotions towards actions that would seem natural to such an animal. The repeated usage of news footage went from halting to tell us information we already know to hammering the apparent youth and “cuteness” of our young remorseless killer. The pointed address in the thoughts of the jaguar turned from weird to uncomfortable. If any of these shorts might have turned out to use form most effectively to create a chilling tone and mood, I think I may have to hand it to this one

p

The Limits

LA NORIA (Carlos Baena, Spain)
Screens with Itsy Bitsy on Saturday 10 August at 5:00 pm

A wonderful and silent dark fairy tale where even if I wasn’t remotely scared of what it brought, I’m still in wonder at the lighting effects Baena and his animators put into it. They’ve really shown a nice versatility between backlighting the monsters the main child has to face and providing a sense of whimsy in the colors once he finds the treasure at the end. I can’t say I’m all that moved emotionally by the final minute like it expects the viewer to be but that lighting really does a lot of the heavy-lifting for the haunting beauty of it all.

THE VIDEO STORE COMMERCIAL (Tim Rutherford/Cody Kennedy, Canada)
Screens with Daniel Isn’t Real on Saturday 10 August at 7:15 pm

I mean, it’s got its kitsch down. Looking like a hole in the wall video store from the 80s, having a lead character that is obnoxious exactly the way a movie fanatic would be, having that static CCTV look to its camera. There’s just not much to it beyond that kitschy nostalgia. At the very least, it has a nice gory face-melting moment and it has jokes. Not particularly jokes that made me laugh beyond a line of exposition delivered exactly in the sort of snobby way somebody who calls themselves a “movie expert” would, but jokes nevertheless and it gets out of the door fast enough to not really feel like a bother to watch.

STARLETS (Marten Carlson, USA)
Screens with Villains on Saturday 10 August at 9:30 pm

The sort of meta humor with the company title card was really charming enough to get me into what Starlets was going for early on and I really enjoyed the black-and-white cinematography melding together into studio system silver that I never felt bored looking at the film. But that interest was fizzling by the end of things – especially any time that Jill Bailey’s Norma Desmond impression wasn’t on-screen – and when it reached its endpoint, everything that happened felt expected.

CHOWBOYS: AN AMERICAN FOLKTALE (Astron-6, Canada)
Screens with Porno on Saturday 10 August at 11:15 pm

I imagine I would be much more into this if this wasn’t my first exposure to horror-comedy troupe Astron-6 proper (I had only previously seen The Void, which was directed by two of its members but not actually considered part of the group’s proper works). Almost all of Chowboys knowingly functions as a last hurrah for the group as it opens with a title card that literally announces “the end of the cowboy”, so I wonder if the rest of their work is as low-key as this one taking place in one location and with no change in blocking between its characters. In any case, it’s still highly amusing as a self-aware campfire story that finds a very slick way of establishing itself as an anthology short (two moments where I actually went “a-ha!”) and an amiable sense of humor for something about three doomed men in a chillingly blue snowstorm ready to die (and I especially love the sound mix of the howling winds in the end credits to hammer its punchline home). I don’t know that I’m rushing to see the rest of Astron-6’s material from this, but it’s definitely something on my radar now.

p-1

The Video Store Commercial

THE OBLITERATION OF THE CHICKENS (Izzy Lee, USA)
Screens with The Unthinkable on Sunday 11 August at 1:00 pm

Pretty damn spot-on impersonation of Werner Herzog tonally and vocally (by Bracken MacLeod) if not aesthetically, as Lee simply uses the narration as a pretense to work with stock footage and associative cutting. Definitely inspired by Herzog’s infamous declaration of his fears of the “stupidity” of chickens, it’s a throwaway short that has a lot of energy in its 3 minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the joke becomes stale. I laughed a lot at the directness of “the abyss is stupid”.

THE SUBJECT (Patrick Bouchard, Canada)
Screens with Artik on Sunday 11 August at 3:00 pm

I can hardly think of a Canadian animated short that didn’t entertain me at the very least and that’s saying nothing of the ones that show me techniques and content I’ve never imagined. This falls into the former – it’s essentially what a student of Jan Švankmajer would get with more naval-gazing as Bouchard portrays a man in stop-motion dissecting a creation in his image – but it’s still a very impressive piece of craft: stressing the cracks and age in a body that feels deliberately more earthy than fleshy before all of the golden and rusted machinery pops out of the cavities to provide a steadier rhythm to the slicing and smashing we’re watching. I don’t have much enthusiasm for artists making art about themselves and I could say I expected more (and not be lying), but this is still eye-popping stuff with a final shot that truly argues the difference between human skin and clay surface while using dissolves to flip those differences on their head.

FROST BITE (Andrew Hunt, USA)
Screens with Infección on Sunday 11 August at 5:15 pm

An unexpectedly charming Zombie western set in the blinding white snows of winter with a crunchy sound design to call attention to the elements surrounding our characters, one of them a laconic young woman (Louisa Darr who is almost as much a source of a lot of that charm as Hunt’s relaxed Western directing vibes) and the other being a zombie in a yellow jacket and hoodie (Rod Kasai, who proves to be exceptionally expressive for the part of a mindless zombie) who is either following her instinctively or being led by her. In any case, the relation between our two subjects has an unexpectedly warm payoff (and a final beat that suggests this may be a proof-of-concept for a later feature to me) and the zombie makeup mixes so well with the frozen snow on the actors’ faces that I found this to be an unexpected highlight among all the other shorts of the festival.

YOUR LAST DAY ON EARTH (Marc Martínez Jordán, Spain)
Screens with Satanic Panic on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

My favorite short film of the festival, period. Takes the sort of things that it makes me an easy mark for movies to explore well – grief and memory, though it’s not as subjective on the latter as I’d like. I expect that would be “fixed” by cutting down on the narration, but I put “fixed” in scare quotes because that assumes that’s what Jordán and his team wanted anyway and in any case the delivery by Enric Anquer is brilliantly sad and funny in its urgency at the same time so I’d rather not lose his voice. It’s particularly the way the short divvied up its responsibility between desperation and absurdity (thanks in addition Jordán’s editing delivering a late heist film interrupted by flashbacks) that makes it so effective and its final beats truly hit home even while using the most obvious of time travel clichés. And credit also to cinematographer Yuse Riera being able to give a consistent softness to the image and landscape where our hero remembers his wife’s casualty in a terrorist attack and returns, the kind of softness that comes from trying to pull an image from the back of your head and gives it a rosy look even while attached to a horrific death. Brilliant stuff.

FEARS (German Sacho, Spain)
Screens in front of Z on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

Not deficient. But it is overly familiar to a degree that I’m starting to have trouble distinguishing any Spanish horror short I see: they all involve the same beats of tension, the same type of little girl, the same shade of darkness, especially the same fear of decrepit old women (with a mean-spirited twist at the end of this one that was also pretty familiar). Anyway, the guy I saw it with joked about how Guillermo Del Toro would probably produce this guy’s feature debut like he always does with any Spanish-language filmmaker with a short like this and… yeah, he definitely would…

p-2

Caterpillarplasty

GO BACK (Matthew & Nathaniel Barber, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

It’s very simple but also very novel (with a nice cynical bloodsplatter note) and aesthetically well-suited to the Halloween time of year with a coloring scheme that feels drafted out of blues and oranges. I don’t feel like I left with very much substance in it beyond a waiting game for a character to receive his dues after foolishly ignoring the creepy warning signs before him, but sometimes you don’t need much more to be amused by a horror film.

MERCURY SCREAMS (Dan Wilder, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

At first glimpse, the presentation of the subject matter as archive footage seems like bet-hedging in order to cover for some of the more amateur production elements, but as it turns out it’s all pretense for the video effects that Wilder and his crew play with to stress the wrongness of what we’re watching (on top of a context of background information regarding the material’s “intended broadcast” and what happened to prevent it). A fun little invented video relic of demonic pregnancy that commits to making video relic status work.

CATERPILLARPLASTY (David Barlow-Krelina, Canada)
Screens with Depraved on Monday 12 August at 9:30 pm

Aggressively ugly character designs made even more effective by how the reflective plastic sheen on their bodies projects their inhumanity and then the finale just takes the grotesquerie and tries to present it as the most mindblowingly beautiful thing ever in all of its trippy phallic and yonic imagery. Plus the saxophone soundtrack throws my brain around for a whirl. God, Canadian animation is always so reliable.

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT (Jonas Trukanas, Lithuania)
Screens with Queen of Spades: The Looking Glass on Tuesday 13 August at 7:30 pm

A familiar story once again – one in which we have an example in this very short film slate of a young boy deals with his oppressor by creating a frightening protector –  but one no less well-delivered than the others. Particularly given that the weakness of the monster in the film means that Trukanas works with some dynamic lighting ideas, if nothing eye-opening, to make those shafts of light cutting through the uniform dark blue hues (and red at one point in the short) stand out.

p-3

How to Be Alone

MANNEQUINS (David Malcolm, UK)
Screens with The Sonata on Tuesday 13 August at 9:30 pm

Really fun and interesting already as an experiment (it reminded me of a school assignment I had in film school involving still imagery, except this one had a knack for camera movements making up for the literal rigidity of its actors), but then it had to try to be ABOUT SOMETHING. And the worst part is that I can’t really figure out what it was trying to be about, but the last few moments of the short and the repetition it utilizes are definitely pointed in a way that deflates all the Scooby-Doo fun of what preceded it. On top of which, it has pretty bad lighting. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but it started to hurt eventually.

HOW TO BE ALONE (Kate Trefry, USA)
Screens with Paradise Hills on Wednesday 14 August at 7:30 pm

It is among the best shot of all the shorts with obviously the most resources (what with two recognizable indie stars in Maika Monroe and Joe Keery, the latter extremely underused) but it’s also just really… overwritten in a young adult-ish way considering the anxiety it tries to portray. And more particularly it feels like it uses narration way too desperately as a crutch to tell us things that there are better and more effective ways to tell us. Monroe obviously delivers it well enough verbally, but I don’t need to be explained the snake or the baby or all of that and wish it had just trusted Maika to not have to say anything to let us know what’s wrong in Denmark. And then that final act that has zero surprises after a short that gave us zero doubt where it was going to go, quickly resolving the issue without much struggle.

Also I fucking HATE that they’re as young as they are (the actors are my age) with a place as spacious and luxurious as THAT (complete with a nickelodeon!).

DEEP TISSUE (Meredith Alloway, USA)
Screens with Knives and Skin on 14 August at 9:30 pm

Obviously amateur in its picture quality and its limited blocking possibilities (looks like it was shot in a motel with its two beds in the “house call” location and it cramps it up), but a wonderfully sexy sense of humor (thanks especially to the two performances in the film), a good amount of effective gushy goriness, and I think Meredith Alloway and Joshua Wilmott got a rapport pace going to establish the understandable nervousness of the situation while translating that into something much more sinister than it turns out.

FIVE-COURSE MEAL (James Cadden, Canada)
Screens with In Fabric on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

I definitely picked the best short to eat breakfast while watching. Based on a short story by Josh Saltzman, the punchline of Five-Course Meal is foreseeable after a certain plate slides down the unwelcoming gunmetal floor where Mark (Murray Farnell) and Jenny (Melissa Kwasek) are staying for a “month-long” experiment. But the sloppy slurpy sound design and the gradual filthying up of the sterile room so that it’s covered in gross greens and browns and yellows (as well as each catered dish coming by looking less appealing and more repulsive) do the best job possible of making the journey down an endurance test. And when we get to the point we expected, the prosthetics by Bold Raven FX turn the film into an outright grotesque cartoon, even using how ill-fitting the body of it fits on our actors to emphasis the exaggerated flabbiness of them all. No surprises, but very well put together.

TERROR ROAD (Brian Shephard, USA)
Screens with The Gravedigger on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

Feels kind of tandem as a piece with Go Back with the differences standing out. Here, we have no orange at all leaving the piece with a foggish blue. Here we actually see the monster, looking like a grizzled little creature from Lamberto Bava’s Demons. There’s less space between the beginning of the signs (how funny that both shorts have their titles delivered to us via signs) and the end of the road for our foolish travelers. If anybody else would have to opportunity to see both of these back-to-back, I’d say they function pretty much well as an exercise in seeing how the same story can be told wildly differently and both of them getting the job done well enough.

TOE (Chad Thurman/Neal O’Brien, USA)
Screens with Bit on Friday 16 August at 10:00 pm

An amusingly creepy usage of puppetry (designed by Demi Kay Schlehoffer) to lovingly bring attention to the cracks and dirt on our protagonist boy’s face and the rustic world in which he lives in, adding to the folktale vibe it has going for it. It’s the shadowy depressed black-and-white of the short that really sells the nightmarish tone of this animated work.

In any case, if any readers find their way in Ft. Lauderdale in the upcoming week, I’d hope y’all check out the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and have a great time! Don’t be afraid to scream.

p-4

The Final Girl Returns

It Practically Gallops

knynjls

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.

tumblr_pdzd9njcpg1s9pkdp_1280

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.

253438876-2