Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You'll be grown before that tree is tall.

I’ve avoided writing about the films of Terrence Malick thus far; frankly, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to convey what makes them special. They’re elusive in a way that is completely unique; where other directors on the same level of ambition might provide us with symbols, archetypes or formal cues to guide our interpretation of their films, Malick defies signification. In Malick’s movies, a tree represents a tree; they are visual, experiential, intentionally open to the viewer’s interpretation even as they resist classification. As with the two most recurring characters in his work – wind and water – they are at once physical and ephemeral.

Whether one likes or dislikes a Malick film, it’s undeniably challenging to put the experience of a Malick movie into words. One of the most powerful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had was a double bill of Badlands and Days of Heaven at the Brattle; while I’m normally very chatty after a movie, I had little to say on the walk back to my hotel room that night. His movies evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to put into words without being reductive, which makes the work of writers who find a meaningful way to engage with Malick (as Matt Zoller Seitz did with his recent video essays) quite valuable. Otherwise, discussions of Malick’s films too often split into two groups – detractors who accuse Malick of New Age-y pretentiousness and his fans of blind worship, and supporters who argue that anyone who doesn’t like Malick’s films is either being a contrarian or doesn’t “get” them; both responses betray a good deal of insecurity. I cannot claim to “get” every moment in The Tree of Life; I can only describe my own experience with the film, which is as beautiful, challenging, maddening and audacious a film as Malick has ever directed.

So. The Tree of Life.

I don’t think there has ever been a film that has better conveyed the process of memory. I’ve recently had several instances where old friends have, out of the blue, hit me with potent reminders of moments in my life, years ago, that I’d forgotten. While my friends may not have realized it, a simple reference to days I hadn’t stopped to think about in a long time have triggered potent emotional journeys that were probably imperceptible to anyone around me. That is, as far as I can tell, what The Tree of Life is about. On a perfectly normal day, Jack (Sean Penn as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a boy) is drawn into memories of his childhood, fantasies about the creation of the universe and imaginations or premonitions of its end, where he is reunited with everyone he’s ever known. While the the film’s thematic scope is literally universal, the scale of the story is shockingly intimate. The Tree of Life presents us with the beginning and end of everything and places its protagonist, and us, squarely at its center – our own small dramas are completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and at the same time simple things like our family and our neighborhood provide our language for experiencing the infinite.

Most of the film takes place in Jack’s memories of one summer of his childhood in small-town Texas. Malick’s characters have grown increasingly archetypal with each film – here, Jack’s father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) embody the conflict between what Malick terms “nature and grace,” and Jack is caught in a classic Oedipal struggle between these two opposing forces. We’re given a few details about Mr. O’Brien - he works as an engineer, is a talented musician and often expresses envy of those who are wealthier or more successful then him – and fewer of Jack’s mother. As others have pointed out, the parents are viewed through the young Jack’s eyes, and as such are defined in broad strokes – Mr. O’Brien as the hard, authoritarian figure, and Mrs. O’Brien as the empathetic, playful and nurturing parent. Pitt does an excellent job of balancing the father’s toughness with an underlying sense that he loves his sons and believes he’s equipping them for the challenges of adulthood. Chastain, in her first major film role, is tasked with finding a way to portray the embodiment of grace and, also, a 1960s Texas housewife; she pulls off the delicate balance that implies and is completely radiant. While Malick is often criticized for his lack of interest in traditional dramatic structure and character development, the scenes of family life in the film are completely believable and filled with small, truthful details that evoke our own experience.

The much talked-about sequence depicting the creation of the world isn’t strictly necessary from a narrative perspective, and yet it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it. The sequence serves a similar purpose as the “Dawn of Man” prologue in 2001, giving us a sense of the much larger context this story takes place in before settling into a particular moment in time for the majority of the film (Kubrick chose to leap to the present, Malick to the recent past). After beginning with the news of the death of one of Jack’s brothers, the film implicitly asks what is the meaning of our lives, then gives us this sequence as a possible answer. Though Malick is a Christian, his is a creation sequence that is true to our scientific understanding of our origins, while still acknowledging the questions that science cannot answer. Douglas Trumbull, the special effects legend behind 2001 as well as Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many others, came out of semi-retirement to work on The Tree of Life. The images do remind of the overwhelming quality of 2001’s final scenes; as we move from darkness through the formation of celestial bodies and life – first cells, then primitive organisms, always growing more and more complex – we’re reminded of our role in the greater chain of existence, no more or less significant than any other link. It’s awe-inspiring, and it also made me feel a bit lonely; if there is a God out there, he’s provided us with all the blueprints, but he’s holding out on the mission statement.

And so we have Jack and his family, and every person and family, residing at the heart of this great mystery, which gives every small moment a greater philosophical or spiritual weight. A moment where Jack commits a small trespass against an attractive older woman in his neighborhood becomes a fall from innocence worthy of Milton. When Jack participates in a naïve act of animal abuse with neighborhood kids, the moment speaks deeply to our capacity for cruelty. Whether we remember or not, we all have these moments in our childhood where some small event leads us into a larger world. Admittedly, some of these moments don’t have the clarity or emotional impact they could have – while Malick has always been elusive, The Tree of Life is the first of his films that contained moments that seemed simply vague. I don’t know why there’s a giant in the attic, I don’t know what the clown in a dunk tank is about and I can’t help but suspect these moments are more private than personal. Most importantly, I hoped for a stronger understanding of the relationship between Jack and his brothers – as it is, it took a second viewing for me to confirm which brother is the one who dies, and as his death triggers the existential questions behind the film, I wanted to connect with that loss. That said, it’s very possible that these details will become clearer upon revisiting the film, which I expect to do many times – as confounding as it may be in its individual moments, The Tree of Life has a cumulative brilliance that is nearly inarguable.

It’s been interesting to see how people seem to interpret the film’s conclusion based on what they bring to it. To many, the final scenes are about the relative insignificance of our personal experiences in a godless universe. To others, it’s a spiritual affirmation of an existence beyond this one. Or perhaps it is merely Jack imagining what may be – the shores not of eternity but of the persistence of memory. I tend towards the latter interpretation. That the film can support each interpretation speaks to its strength – like any great film, The Tree of Life has the ability to speak to you wherever you are in your own narrative. We have so few poets in American film at a time when most directors are preoccupied with prose; The Tree of Life reminds us what our cinema is capable of.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #1 - ALIEN

This month I've been using Halloween as an excuse to introduce my girlfriend to as many horror movies as possible. Jen has seen hardly any, and it's interesting because it's extremely unpredictable what will actually frighten her - we've watched The Shining, The Exorcist and The Thing without her becoming even mildly startled, but she was quite upset a few months back when I took her to the unrelenting scarefest Super 8. Last week we were watching Alien, which she'd never seen and which, I'm happy to report, worked like gangbusters on her. I mentioned to her that the alien would be my number one character on this list, and she asked me why. I thought for a while, and I feel I should be honest and give the same answer I gave her.

I could say it's because of the brilliant design of the creature by H.R. Giger, which serves as a grotesque mirror image of our repressed unease with our own sexuality. I could point to the alien's birth cycle, one of the most potent and unforgettable examples of bodily horror in film. Or I could praise Ridley Scott's handsome directorial style, the authentic performances he elicits from his cast, how he set out to make "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey" and, when you're watching the film, you realize that's exactly what it is and Scott succeeded beautifully. Or I could refer to Stephen King's observation that the alien is like one of Lovecraft's outer gods, a visceral representation of our most existential horror, the mystery of what is waiting for us at the farthest reaches of the universe, life and the afterlife. I could say any of those things, and there's some truth to all of them. But the bottom line is, of any monster, maniac or villain that I might meet someday in a dark alley, the alien would be the absolute worst.

Because while I find it fascinating to consider the underlying reasons behind what scares us, at its heart fear is a primal, non-intellectual experience. We can articulate our fears to give them form, to understand them and hopefully be stronger and braver as a result. But when we're confronted with something really terrifying, we can't save ourselves by deconstructing it and, in any case, we're too busy shitting our pants or crying. So there's a sense that the horror movie is a test run for our deepest fears - we push ourselves to confront our darkest thoughts, with the objective distance of make-believe, and to experience the worst before rewarding ourselves with that final fade to black and a return to safety. I'm not saying anything that hasn't said before, but if you had to answer the question of why we enjoy being frightened, that's the most basic and honest answer - we watch stories about characters going through horrible, unimaginable shit and thank the heavens that it isn't us.

So yeah, the alien is the scariest character because of the way the incubating facehugger spasms inside its egg before launching itself onto poor Kane's (John Hurt) face. It's for the way it tightens its tale around Kane's neck as Dallas and Ash try to remove it. It's for Kane's ungodly cries of pain as he gives involuntary birth to the chestburster, and for Lambert's (Veronica Cartwright) authentic repulsion as a jet of blood splashes her face. It's for the moment the once-small alien appears behind Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and we realize that it's made an amazing growth spurt. And that horrible moment when Dallas (Tom Skerritt) realizes he's not alone when searching the vents for the alien, and for Ripley, the lone survivor, sweaty and wide-eyed with terror, trying desperately to make her escape. And because just when she thinks she's safe, she not. And because of the way she chants "lucky, lucky, lucky" herself before confronting the alien one last time and blasting him into space, vanquishing this uncanny monster back into the dark recesses of space.

And it's for the way that the alien and Ripley keep coming back, how she has to defeat the creature over and over again, first as a kickass action hero, then as a Maria Falconetti-esque martyr, then as a campy superwoman with a mean hook shot. The alien, like so many of the characters I've written about this month, keeps coming back because we need to be reminded - to look, once again, at our worst nightmare so that we might laugh and keep them at bay. Some people don't need horror movies; they're better off for not needing to dwell on their fears. For the rest of us, small doses of fear are the vaccine that keep the sickness at bay. I had a VHS tape of Alien and Aliens that my dad had made when I was growing up. As a kid, I struggled not to close my eyes during the scariest moments, I had frequent nightmares involving the alien, and I watched that entire tape after first grade at least once a week; I eventually wore that tape out, and have bought Alien in various formats four times since then. The alien, and all the characters I've written about this month, will never stop creeping me out. And I hope they never do.

Scariest Characters in Cinema #2 - Michael Myers

John Carpenter's Halloween wasn't the first slasher movie, but it is the purest. The film that defined the slasher formula before it was a formula, Halloween perfected all the techniques and tropes - shots from the killer's POV, an isolated setting, young female victims, a climactic chase between the killer and the Final Girl, multiple false endings - that we now take for granted. As I said, other films had traveled this road before Halloween; the difference is that Carpenter, like Welles with Citizen Kane, brings these elements together with an assured, singular style and an absolute mastery of timing, lighting, spatial intelligence, music and every other trick in the book that a director can employ to maximize tension. Carpenter always seems embarrassed by Halloween, shrugging it of as a quickie exploitation film, and it's clear that other films he's made are much closer to his heart. But perhaps it is that lack of pretense that makes Halloween so wickedly effective - it's the work of a master architect plying his craft for a carnival spook house.

The film's killer, Michael Myers, shares with many of the characters on this list an impenetrability - we don't know why Michael, as a clown-suited 6-year-old, killed his teenage sister on Halloween night, or why he returns 15 years later to stalk and kill babysitters. We learn that his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), has decided after years of careful observation and analysis that Michael's clinical diagnosis is "pure evil." And the movie proves Loomis' point - Michael is as much of an unstoppable force as the shark from Jaws. His only apparent interest is to hunt his prey as they drink, smoke and screw, and Carpenter is amazing at finding opportunities to hid Michael and the "boo!" moments in the background or margins of the frame, until we become anxious of the negative space in every shot. And the ending is a terrific punchline, as it turns out that the kids Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been babysitting are proven right - the boogeyman is real.

I've always felt like Halloween II was a bit underrated - putting the silly decision of revealing that Laurie is Michael's sister (which Carpenter admits he wrote late one night, out of desperation, because it worked in The Empire Strikes Back) aside, it's the only sequel that comes close to the suspense of the original. After the failed experiment of Halloween III, which swapped Michael Myers for an evil Irish toymaker (and which is extremely entertaining despite its lack of any relation to Halloween), Carpenter bailed and the franchise's producers decided to replicate the formula as much as possible, and except for occasional highlights like the final scene of Halloween 4 or Jamie Lee Curtis' great performance in the late-1990s period piece Halloween H20, the results are mostly ho-hum. At best they're bland retreads of the original; at worst, they fail to understand that the incomprehensibility of Michael's actions is what makes him frightening, attempting to explain the character with pagan cults and mysterious cowboys. I do like Rob Zombie's entries, particularly the director's cut of Halloween II, which is quite visually haunting, has an unusual level of empathy for its characters and is actually a pretty insightful depiction of PTSD. In any case, at least they were different.

Jen has never seen Halloween; we're watching it tonight. I'll be interested in seeing if decades of movies that borrowed and stole from Halloween has taken away its power to frighten, or if the strength of the filmmaking trumps familiarity. For me, any way, it's become such a big piece of my cinematic experience; it just wouldn't be Halloween without Halloween.

Scariest Characters in Cinema #3 - Leatherface

I could have easily put any of the members of the cannibalistic family from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in this space. There's the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who sets our teeth on edge from his first scene - he's a very extreme version of the experiences we've all had where we're having a conversation with a stranger, realize something is not quite right with that person, and proceed to awkwardly extricate ourselves from the situation. There's the cook (Jim Siedow), the most seemingly normal of the family, whose admission that "I just can't take no pleasure in killing," along with the sheepish grin on his face during the climactic dinnertime scene, are deeply unsettling. And Grandpa - okay, Grandpa isn't as scary as the others, but the 100-year-old man's infantile joy as he sucks blood from a the hysterical Sally's (Marilyn Burns) finger has a powerful "Yeeechhh!" factor. Collectively, they make a potent collection of flesh-eating good ol' boys that should strike fear into the heart of any pinko homo lefty Yankee like myself.*

But of course, the scariest member of the family is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). From his first appearance - suddenly entering and dominating the frame, swiftly whacking poor Kirk (William Vail) and dragging him back to his makeshift butcher's shop and slamming the door shut behind him with a loud clang - Leatherface is completely terrifying. A huge, childlike brute, Leatherface kills not because he loves doing it but because his brothers make him to or because his victim has frightened him by entering his house. Leatherface, like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill, was partly inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, but the film does not recreate the extremely disturbing facts of Gein's murders and use of his victims' remains. We get glimses of this in the bony furnishings of Leatherface's house and his wearing of other people's faces, of course. But although Leatherface's murders are very brutal, director Tobe Hooper wisely spares us the goriest details - by employing suggestion, witholding the impact of his monster's weapons as Hitchcock did with Psycho), Hooper provokes our imaginations to fill in the gory details.

Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 shifts the tone from documentary-like starkness to campy humor - I rejected this combination at first, but it gradually grew on me. The movie is hilarious for its blunt acknowledgement of slasher movies' sexual politics (it may be the source of Heathers' infamous line "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw") and Dennis Hopper's scenery-chewing performance as a revenge-seeking, chainsaw-wielding Texas ranger. The next two sequels are mostly dull; the remake and its prequel are not as bad as their reputation suggest, and I'm particularly fond of the scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning where R. Lee Ermey's character calls a family meeting to inform everyone they're cannibals now. Still, the defining image of Leatherface will always be his "chainsaw dance" at the end of the first film - spinning in circles in a state of both brutal, inarticulae anger and ecstasy until the movie cuts to black, suspending Leatherface in his own holy moment forever.

*An analogy I suggested in a discussion about the Republican presidential candidates: Mitt Romney is the cook, Rick Santorum is the hitchhiker, Rick Perry is Leatherface and Ron Paul is Grandpa. Michelle Bachmann is Baby from The Devil's Rejects. This was before the Cain surge - Farmer Vincent, maybe?

Scariest Characters in Cinema #4 - Pinhead

When I was a kid, despite being obsessed with horror, there were certain movies I was afraid to watch. I would read any reviews and articles I could find on these films but was wary of actually renting them, believing them to be more than I could handle. One of these was Hellraiser; its intimidating title and VHS art compelled me to pick it up, then replace it minutes later, countless times over the years. When, in my teens, I finally got around to seeing Hellraiser, it was as grisly as I'd imagined, but it was also smart and strangely beautiful. While Barker's work can be extreme in its content, he's also one of the most richly imaginative writers of our time. And though Hellraiser sometimes reveals its low-budget seams, it's supported by an extraordinary, mythic backstory about a puzzle box that, when solved, opens a door to world where pain and pleasure are one.

The rulers and denizens of this otherworld are the Cenobites, human figures with pierced, mutilated bodies clad in leather. The word "cenobite" means "a member of a religious order," and these Cenobites do have the solemn purposefulness of a monastery in carrying out their dark deeds; like Jack Torrance in The Shining, they've unknowingly accepted the position of eternal caretakers of hell. In the first Hellraiser, they mostly serve as background to the story of the skinless, partially resurrected Frank (Oliver Smith) and his attempts, with the help of his brother's wife Julia (Claire Higgins), to feed on enough blood to rebuild his body. Frank and Julia are Hellraiser's true monsters; the Cenobites are only interested in preserving the rules of their world, and their business is only with those who have summoned them. And Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the most recognizable character of the original film and whole series, is so peripheral to the story that he's only credited in the first movie as "Lead Cenobite."

And yet Pinhead, despite his brief screen time, lingers as strong in the memory as the film's astonishing rebirth sequence and its brilliant score by Christopher Young. Much of this has to do with Pinhead's stunning appearance, the fearful symmetry of his piercings and the contrast between his black eyes and snow-white skin. And then there's Bradley's performance - Barker directed the actor to play the lead Cenobite like "a cross between an administrator and a surgeon who's responsible for running a hospital where there are no wards, only surgical tables." He brings to the role a calm authority and perverse elegance, that, coupled with Pinhead's imposing figure, make Pinhead a precise, businesslike administrator of pain and suffering.

If this makes Pinhead sound a bit like a professional dominatrix, this is not a mistake; Hellraiser, like much of Barker's work, is heavy with sadomasochistic themes. Certainly, the movie is filled with images of body modification, bondage and dominance and submission. The fact that Pinhead is, in a peculiar way, not only visually striking but perhaps even a bit sexy makes him much more frightening. When they are summoned by the Lament Configuration, the Cenobites aim only to deliver the sensory experiences their summoners believe they want - as Pinhead clarifies in the first sequel, "It's not the hand that summons us, it's the desire." One of the great things about Barker is that he's one of the few horror writers to openly embrace the sensual aspects of horror stories - our attraction to experiencing fear in small, "safe" doses. In a sense, anyone who has ever gone to a scary movie has participated in a little light S&M.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II is my favorite film in the series for its Grand Guignol atmosphere and for being the rare horror sequel that adds a back story for its monster that is actually interesting. Unfortunately, by Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth the filmmakers were making the mistake of showing too much of the Cenobites - the unpredictability of their appearances is part of their power, and once they starting added other Cenobites with compact discs and other things sticking out of their necks, they sacrificed that power. After this, the sequels become increasingly ridiculous - one revolves around a Hellraiser MMPORG - and Pinhead treated more like a generic movie monster. Bradley smartly passed on the latest DTV sequel; luckily, we'll always have the first two movies as a tribute to Barker's wild imagination.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #5 - The Thing

The mimetic organism in John Carpenter's The Thing is easily the most mysterious character on this list. We never really see The Thing, only the people and animals it absorbs and imitates; the closest we come to a glimpse of the real Thing is in the grotesque states we see it in when its imitations are incomplete or threatened. We also never know what it's thinking - we know The Thing's goal is to assimilate all the lifeforms at the space station and (it's implied) all life on Earth, but we never know its purpose for this. In nature, mimesis is usually a defensive measure, which doesn't make sense for The Thing. While 1951's classic The Thing (From Another World) had a large, hulking alien as a stand-in for our fear of infiltration (Communist or otherwise), the amorphous alien of Carpenter's remake represents a more universal fear of the other. Of all the iconic extraterrestrials in film, The Thing is the most truly alien.

The overwhelming atmosphere of isolation and anxiety that Carpenter carefully builds is aided immensely by Rob Bottin's jaw-dropping makeup effects. The Thing was released in the heyday of latex-powered horror movies, films like An American Werewolf in London and Videodrome that relied on pre-CGI state-of-the-art makeup effects to create convincingly graphic scenes of the human body being transformed and/or mutilated. Bottin had the idea that The Thing would retain a cellular memory of organisms it had previously imitated, which would leave their traces in each stage of transformation. It's a brilliant idea that results in the be-all end-all of creature features - as Vincent Canby described it in his 1982 review in The New York Times:

It's entertaining only if one's needs are met by such sights as those of a head walking around on spiderlike legs; autopsies on dogs and humans in which the innards explode to take on other, not easily identifiable forms; hand severings, immolations, wormlike tentacles that emerge from the mouth of a severed head, or two or more burned bodies fused together to look like spareribs covered with barbecue sauce.
Canby means this all as a negative, but if you're a horror fan who somehow hasn't seen The Thing, doesn't that make you wish you were watching it right now? The reviews were very vicious when The Thing was released*, and the film bombed at the box office - it was released two weeks after E.T., and Carpenter has famously observed that Spielberg's film featured an alien that made people cry, whereas his alien made the audience throw up. But while The Thing's content was quite envelope-pushing for its time (it's still very strong), the negative reviews that complained it was an empty gore-fest were way off the mark. The effects are very much at the service of the story, and the strong performances of the ensemble and Carpenter's mastery of framing and timing to maximize suspense (including the most effective moment of misdirection, during the blood test scene, that I've ever seen) are crucial to the film's paranoid atmosphere. The film's cynical, ambiguous final scene suggests that The Thing is best-read as a stand-in for anxiety itself, that dreadful, amorphous monster that might be hiding in the most familiar of places. The tagline for The Thing was highly accurate - man is, indeed, the warmest place to hide.

*The critical consensus has improved a great deal over the years. I was amused, when watching At the Movies, when Roger Ebert recommended skipping the remake and watching Carpenter's film instead; he gave it a thumbs-down at the time.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #6 - Freddy Krueger

I dressed as Freddy Krueger for my preschool class' Halloween party; it remains my favorite costume. My mom, from whom I inherited my love of horror, decided scar tissue makeup would be inappropriate for a four-year-old, but she found an appropriate hat and sweater and did wonders with a ski glove, drinking straws, tape and tinfoil. My teachers and some of the other parents were concerned about my interest in Freddy; ironically, my awareness of the character, besides having caught a few scenes of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, was based largely on Robert Englund's appearance on Nickelodeon to promote A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (the highest-grossing film in the series until Freddy vs. Jason). A lot of kids my age were into Freddy, who was already as iconic to us as Frankenstein or Dracula. It's kind of amazing that at a character who began a vicious, terrifying supernatural killer in the low-budget original had, in the course of a few increasingly tongue-in-cheek movies, become an icon for an entire generation of kids.

And make no mistake - in Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy is a truly terrifying character, with one of the great backstories of any movie monster. A child murderer acquitted on a technicality (damn those movie bureaucrats and their inability to sign warrants!), Freddy is executed by a vengeful mob of local parents, only to return several years later to get his revenge by scaring their now-teenage children to death through their dreams. The character plays into our real and imagined fears - Craven has always been excellent at distilling our collective anxieties into a basic form, and Freddy is his greatest creation. As played by Englund in the original, he's a grotesque phantom, almost always concealed by shadows that show us just enough of his scarred, fearful visage. Freddy is terrifying for the surreal and creative ways he stalks his victims through the dream world, brutally illustrating that, as Night of the Hunter put it, it's a hard world for little things.

Yes, the wisecracking Freddy we see in the sequels dilutes the character's power, save for the thorny subtext of Freddy's Revenge and the just plain awesome Dream Warriors. But in his original conception, whether he's carving up a teenage girl or sucking Johnny Depp into his bed, Freddy is perverse, angry and completely monstrous. He's brought to life brilliantly by Englund, who - even in the sillier sequels - invests the character with a terribly distinctive physical presence worth of the silent horror greats. And while the series would eventually take it too far, Freddy's dark wisecracks make sense at first, as they're not meant as schtick so much as an extension of Freddy's toying with his victims. I met Englund a few weeks ago at the Rock and Shock horror convention in Worcester; he recognized my Let the Right One In shirt, exclaimed "Isn't that movie fantastic?!" and we proceded to talk about the movie and book for a few minutes. At the Nightmare on Elm Street Q&A panel, he revealed a vast knowledge of classic and obscure films, filmmakers and actors worthy of Quentin Tarantino. It was wonderful to discover that the most iconic boogeyman of my lifetime is as passionate a cinephile as I or any of us, and I think that love of film and performance shines through every moment Freddy is onscreen.

Incidentally, my daughter's preschool class' Halloween party is on Monday. She'll be going dressed as Cinderella.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #7 - Jame Gumb

In his novels featuring Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris subtly makes his cannibalistic psychiatrist less repulsive, even likable at points, by contrasting him against another, more off-putting killer. In The Silence of the Lambs, this is first accomplished with Lecter's neighbor in the asylum, Multiple Miggs - while Lecter may enjoy toying with FBI trainee Clarice Starling, he objects to Miggs' semen-flinging lack of hospitality and punishes him for the offense. Starling is sent to Lecter to help find Buffalo Bill, a serial killer at large who skins his victims; we meet "Bill" as he captures Catherine Martin, a senator's daughter who Starling will spend the book and movie trying to save. We learn that Bill, like Francis Dolarhyde, believes he is in a process of transformation, in his case by creating a "woman suit" out of the skin of his victims. As he instructs Catherine, famously, to put the lotion in the basket, he's repellent for all the reasons that Lecter is attractive - the former is inarticulate, weak and misogynistic, whereas Lecter is erudite, fiercely brilliant and enamored of Starling's feminine power (also, he opts for Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as a soundtrack to murder). Like Dolarhyde and Mason Verger, Bill (real name: Jame Gumb) is in a false process of transformation, whereas Lecter, in a completely dark and twisted way, has become more human than human.

There were complaints and protests by gay and lesbian groups, when Jonathan Demme's film of The Silence of the Lambs was released, that the sack-tucking Jame Gumb represented the same hostile stereotypes about "murderous gays" as Sharon Stone's AC/DC possible killer in Basic Instinct and the self-loathing gay killer in Cruising. But it's important to note, as Lecter does, that Gumb is not truly a transsexual - as Lecter points out, true transgendered people tend to be very nonviolent. Gumb is a psychopath whose abusive upbringing (explicit in the book, implied in the film) has led him to start his woman suit project as a response to his self-loathing and violent animosity towards women. As played by Ted Levine, who is fearless in moments like the now-iconic "Goodbye Horses" scene, he's the perfect monster for Clarice, who throughout the film is struggling to transcend the male gaze, to vanquish. Thanks to Jodie Foster's brilliant performance and Demme's marvelously empathetic direction, Starling is one of the strongest and most compelling female characters in cinema. And considering the horrible abyss her hero's journey leads her to descend into, it makes a perverse sense that one of her most affirmative relationships with a man is with a cannibal who believes in her. And Lecter has far too much taste to name his dog "Precious."

Scariest Characters in Cinema #8 - Jack Torrance

I'm probably more familiar with The Shining than any other movie. I've seen it at least 100 times, read multiple books about Stanley Kubrick and the film, watched Vivian Kubrick's Making "The Shining" at least 5 times, read every possible review and interpretation of the film I can get my hands on and had countless discussions and debates about the film's possible meanings and whether it's better than Stephen King's book. I got excited earlier this year when someone posted a British TV ad from 1980 that had an alternate take of the "Here's Johnny" scene. I seriously thought about calling out of work and driving 6 hours to Rochester, NY to see what was advertised as a screening of the movie including the original, deleted ending (before they corrected their advertising - it was the 142-minute U.S. cut). If I ever ended up in the colony from the ending of Fahrenheit 451, but a colony to recite films instead of books, I would be The Shining.

So I thought a great deal about the many things that are frightening and effective about The Shining before deciding which character would represent the film here before realizing it would have to be Jack Torrance himself. After all, the Grady twins, the woman in room 237, the "WTF?" guy in a bear costume and every other ghost that resides in the Overlook is arguably conjured by Jack's tortured psyche and his tense relationship with his wife Wendy and their son Danny. To say that Jack Nicholson overacts in the role, or that Jack Torrance is crazy to begin with, is to miss the point, which is that the true horror of the movie is watching Jack's already-fragile mind slowly unravel. It's the greatest example in cinema of the movie's location mirroring the interior life of its protagonist.

The creepiest scene in the entire movie is simply Jack, with Danny on his lap, telling his son how much he loves him and looking like he could snap the boy's neck at any moment. In Kubrick's Overlook, evil is not an external supernatural force - it's something we all have the capacity for, and the Overlook's ghosts are a reflection of Jack's capacity for malevolence. Consider how easily he accepts the presence of ghosts in the Gold Room, or how, when he's talking to Grady's ghost, Nicholson's eyeline indicates he is actually talking into a mirror (volumes could be and have been written about the film's uses of mirrors and doubles). And when he snaps - raging at Wendy about the meaning of a contract, smashing through a locked bathroom door like the big bad wolf he's become and gradually devolving into a murderous animal - Jack's transformation is as startling as Regan McNeil's, and without any special effects. By the end, he's become one with the hotel and its murderous past - Jack and the Overlook's ghosts are one and the same. He's not a victim of the hotel; he's the caretaker, and he always has been.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #9 - Great White

When I was younger (four or five, to be precise), my life revolved around my weekly trip to Depot Video in Sandown, New Hampshire on 2-for-1 Wednesdays. I could spend half an hour - longer, if I'd had the option - scrutinizing the VHS boxes on the shelves, making the careful choice of what I would take home with me that week. Or not so careful - sometimes it was Ghostbusters or The Road Warrior, sometimes it was My Pet Monster or Pound Puppies: The Movie. In any case, the trips to this little mom-and-pop video store housed in a former railroad depot held the same level of excitement and importance as a freebie trip through the Criterion closet would today.

An important part of this ritual was reorganizing titles in the categories I felt they belonged - the manager was kind enough to indulge a smartass preschooler telling him how he should run his business. And every week, I would inevitably move Jaws from action/adventure to horror. After watching the movie at my uncle's house and being scared silly, this was an inarguable fact in my four-year-old brain: Jaws is a horror movie. And over the years, when people ask me to name my favorite movies and I include Jaws, they tend to ask, "Is Jaws a horror movie?" My feelings have not changed: Jaws. Is. A. Horror. Movie.

It's a horror movie for its brutal opening - the swimmer cries of "God, help me!" swiftly silenced as the shark pulls her underwater. It's a horror movie for the merciless way it kills off a nine-year-old, the shark's second victim, whose death scene is punctuated by a geyser of blood. It's a horror movie for the way it builds our dread of the shark, even in its absence from the film. It's a horror movie for the way that Ben Gardner's grimacing, one-eyed corpse pops in to say hello. And while the second half of the movie definitely has a jauntier, Melville-as-popcorn-movie feel, it remains horror in the blood spurting from Quint's mount in his last moments and the stunning shot of Chief Brody swimming across the waterlogged cabin of the drowning Orca just as the shark crashes in, the water-level shot placing us in the point of view of soon-to-be-chum. For this and many other reasons, Jaws is a horror movie.

But while people debate where Jaws belongs in the video store, few are in disagreement that Jaws is a great movie. It has all of the technical and storytelling brilliance that we would come to identify with Spielberg, along with a mercilessness that has, for better or worse, mostly disappeared from his work. And the Great White is an amazing monster - perfect in its absences and the moments when its presence is merely suggested, and perfect when it suddenly reveals itself to a petrified Chief Brody. With its senseless and insatiable hunger, the shark has scared the hell out of millions since 1975 - I love hearing stories of people who saw Jaws when it was released and stayed out of the water for the rest of the summer. It also has very vindictive descendants with a long memory, at least judging by its sequels, which are practically Dadaist in their very existence. But like all iconic masterpieces, Jaws has survived and outlasted the sequels and ripoffs; it's horror at its most archetypal, universal and perfect. In a strange way, Jaws makes me proud to be a New Englander.

Scariest Characters in Cinema #10 - Captain Howdy

A confession: while The Exorcist is an excellent film and I've always admired it, it's never been one of my favorite horror movies. There's no denying that the adaptation of William Peter Blatty's book is brilliantly crafted, but I've always found it to be cold, calculated and difficult to fully embrace. I've always felt that Stephen King's misguided assessment of Stanley Kubrick ("I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people") is actually true of William Friedkin, whose directorial style is bluntly manipulative and betrays little feeling for his characters. His direction is plot-driven in the worst way, barely stopping to allow the brilliant, empathetic performances by Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller to breathe and never really engaging with the questions of the nature of faith that it raises. Hearing the stories of how Friedkin tortured his actors - firing shotguns to startle them, verbally berating them and, at one point, slapping the real-life priest who played Father Karras' friend to get a convincingly shaky reaction shot - just make him sound like an asshole with confused priorities. None of this means The Exorcist isn't a great film, but I roll my eyes when I see it at the top of "all-time best horror movie" list instead of movies that are just as well-made but are much deeper and richer in feeling.

That said, The Exorcist is still a pretty damn impressive of what Pauline Kael called a "boo movie" - its scares are perfectly timed, and I admire how little Regan MacNeil's deterioration from a cute 11-year-old to a foul-mouthed, demon-possessed monster happens at a gradual, almost imperceptible rate. By the time she's peeing on the rug, the film's horror has crept up on us; we're as startled as her mother Chris and her party guests at the girl's personality shift. Regan's possession by an unknown demon she calls "Captain Howdy" leads to the still-startling scenes of the young girl letting out torrents of profanity and having the most blasphemous Judy Blume moment ever with a crucifix. Dick Smith's incredible makeup work, the head-spinning effects and the projectile pea soup all add to the film's effectiveness, but it's the demon's vulgar sexuality as portrayed by an adolescent girl that is responsible for its enormous, enduring popularity. This isn't a new observation, but it's true that Captain Howdy's possession of Regan is the worst-case scenario of every parent's fear of what happens when their special little girl grows up.

Blair must have been a young woman of incredible maturity, and not just for making it through what was by all accounts an ordeal of a film shoot. The believability of the story depends entirely on the performances, especially Blair's, and she is totally convincing as the possessed young girl (Eileen Dietz as Regan's stand-in in some of the more explicit shots and Mercedes McCambridge as the demon's voice deserve credit too). Blair didn't fare as well in John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is fascinating in the way that complete trainwrecks tend to be. Blatty's own The Exorcist III, despite studio interference, is very effective, with the emotional resonance the original lacks. It also has its own memorable monster - Brad Dourif as the resurrected Gemini Killer - and one of the best jump scares of all time. The troubled story of Paul Schrader's troubled prequel and Renny Harlin's pseudo-remake has been well-documented, and while Schrader's isn't totally without interest, neither one is very memorable. None have touched the original in terms of cultural impact - though I'm nitpicking one of the best-loved horror movies, there's no denying that it was the right scary story for its time, or that Captain Howdy still has the ability to shake us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dawn of the Curse of the Abominable Centipede

In case it hasn't been abundantly obvious, I love Halloween. Fall is my favorite season, and I love how, for one month, there are witches, ghosts and goblins on people's front lawns, horror marathons on TV and kids are excited to dress up as monsters and demand candy from their neighbors. Being a horror movie fan was my gateway into being a cinephile, and I love that for one month my interests, which sometimes strike people as a preoccupation with the morbid, are shared by everyone. So Dennis Cozzalio's surprised horror-themed movie quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, presented by Vincent Price's disfigured, revenge-seeking Dr. Phibes, is a very pleasant surprise. Thanks, Dennis, for another fun quiz and an excellent way to get into the holiday spirit!

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes, as a matter of fact.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?
The Funhouse - such a great premise, and the original is a lot of fun but not so iconic that a remake would feel like sacrelige.

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?
Jonathan Frid

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.
The Curse of Frankenstein

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.
John Carpenter

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?
Ingrid Pitt

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.
The "Id Monster" from Forbidden Planet.

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.
Dawn of the Dead

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?
Lon Chaney Jr.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?
In a theater, Fright Night. On DVD, Scream 4.

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.
Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.
Black Sunday

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.
Donald Pleasance and Sigourney Weaver. For all the reputable movies as she's appeared in, her performances as Lt. Ellen Ripley remain her best work.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.
Ghosts of Mars

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?
Joan Bennett

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?
Around 4 years old, sneaking into the living room late at night and glimpsing a few scenes from Halloween. I had my had my hands over my eyes for most of it, I had nightmares for a month and I couldn't wait to see the whole movie.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.
Earth vs. the Spider

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.
Mario Bava's Shock (AKA Beyond the Door II)

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?
I haven't seen it yet. I will soon, at Jason Alley's request.

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?
One of the purposes of the horror genre is to go to far - many of the very best horror movies explore transgressive ideas and situations. That said, I have a problem with the killing of real animals in Cannibal Holocaust and a few others.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?
Lara Parker

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?
I had a few teachers, over the years, who "tsk-tsked" my reading Stephen King and EC Comics, or sharing VHS copies of horror movies with classmates. At the Christian school I attended for a few years, I was told more than once that Jesus would disapprove of my fascination with horror. If I could go back in time, I'd let them know that, a few years later, Jesus would be a subject of a grisly splatter movie that is also the highest-grossing Christian-themed movie of all time. I doubt they'd believe me.

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.
Stacie Ponder

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.
From The Shining: The woman in Room 237, cackling maniacally as she reaches out for a petrified Jack Nicholson.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.
Watching The Shining for the first time with my mom and dad. It was one of the first movies that, before I had the correct terminology to describe what I was seeing, I started to notice what a director does.

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?
Scream. Before it was released, horror had been mostly stagnant for several years. Everything since Scream is either influenced by, borrowing or stealing from it (the long list of postmodern or self-referential horror), or a direct reaction to it (the deliberate move away from the postmodern in the form of torture porn, J-horror, etc.). This is made obvious in Scream 4, which is partly about how the series seems like an ancient relic now that the genre and its fans have completely absorbed and integrated its sense of ironic detachment (I can't tell if I admire or hate Scream 4 for being about its own irrelevance).

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?
The Haunting, Suspiria, The Evil Dead, Creepshow, They Live

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #11 - Pennywise

I'm a bit of a snob about TV movies, generally refusing to group them in with feature films - while Angels in America, for instance, was among the best movies of 2003, it's a miniseries, it's its own thing, and it doesn't make sense to me to put it on a ten best list with films that are essentially a different medium. However, I have to make an exception for this list, which just wouldn't be complete without Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 miniseries of Stephen King's It. The book is one of King's strongest, and Pennywise - the shape-shifting embodiment of the element of fear itself, which for some reason favors the persona of a clown as its default avatar - is King's most terrifying creation. Pennywise preys on the fears of children in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine before devouring them; set in the 1950s, the book is about a group of friends who manage to defeat Pennywise before having to return to the town 30 years later to face the clown again. Mixing moments of pulpy horror, a Lovecraftian mythology that encompasses universal good and evil, and a sensitive, Bradbury-influenced story of childhood's end, It is King's magnum opus (no small feat given he has never been into the whole brevity thing).

The miniseries is good but limited by the restrictions of network censorship, discarding the darker and more esoteric aspects of the book. Still, it's a strong effort with a good cast - the adult members of the "lucky seven" are mostly played by TV stars like John Ritter and Harry Anderson, and you can tell they're relishing being given the opportunity to play such well-crafted characters. And if there's one thing the miniseries gets absolutely right, it's the casting of Tim Curry as Pennywise. Curry has never balked at playing larger-than-life characters or creating a character beneath heavy makeup, whether the role is Dr. Frank-n-Further or Legend's Darkness. Beneath white grease paint and a flaming red wig, Curry makes hairpin turns from aw-shucks geniality to blood-curdling menace; he's one of the few actors who could be believable as a murderous supernatural clown. And director Tommy Lee Wallace, a protégé of John Carpenter, does a great job of making Pennywise's appearances unpredictable, often framing him in wide shots as the clown occupies the frame with the same uncanny quality as Michael Myers.

I watched It on its original two-night airing, when I was six; Pennywise was all I and the other kids in the neighborhood who had parents questionably permissive enough to allow them to watch It could talk about. While I can see the low-budget seams more clearly as an adult, Curry's performance still gives me the willies. I don't know whether coulrophobia was common before It - whether King was influenced by a collective fear of clowns or if his book was the impetus for the "evil clown" trend. In any case, It would make an excellent teaching tool to encourage one's children not to accept balloons from strange clowns.

Scariest Characters in Cinema #12 - Henry

I didn't really like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer the first time I saw it. I was put off by the banality of the characters and story - inspired by the confessions (many of which were proven false) of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, the film follows its Henry (Michael Rooker) as he kills several people, takes his dopey roommate Otis (Tom Towles) under his ring and has the saddest almost-relationship imaginable with Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). I felt Henry's crimes were shot flatly, without suspense, and the film had little to say about why Henry is the way he is. Seeing it again on 35mm last year at the terrific, greatly missed Shaun Luu Horror Fest in Syracuse, I realized the banality is the point - director John MacNaughton aims for verisimilitude, and Henry and Otis' murders are presented as pointless, sad and difficult to watch. MacNaughton seems to be withholding analysis because, ultimately, there's no explanation of Henry's actions that justifies their ugliness. He just is what he is.

The movie's most important moment is the most depressing bonding scene ever, as Henry and Becky talk about the different ways they've been physically and sexually abused. Henry confesses to having stabbed his mother, listing the ways she abused him as a child. But as he wraps up his story, he says that he shot her; Becky questions this, and he flatly corrects himself - "Oh yeah, that's right. I stabbed her." While Henry has certainly been affected by his traumatic childhood, we can't hope to explain him; he can't explain himself. Rooker's performance led to higher-profile roles and his long-running career as a reliable character actor, and deservedly so; he's totally committed to the role, never winking at the audience or playing for our sympathies. Whether Henry's buying a pack of smokes or reviewing a video recording of the night he and Otis murdered an entire family, he's consistently emotionless, cold, without remorse or self-reflection.

That the film was given an X rating by the MPAA, despite being less graphic than your average Friday the 13th sequel, says a lot about how the ratings board works. By taking violence and its consequences seriously, Henry was deemed less appropriate for teens than movies that present violence purely for entertainment. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is definitely a difficult movie to watch and appreciate, but it's also an important one and, if you're in the right frame of mind, it's a fascinating, disconcerting experience.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #13 - Billy

Black Christmas is, famously, one of the films that set the template for slasher movies. While great directors like John Carpenter built upon the techniques director Bob Clark uses here - scenes shot from the killer's POV, a Ten Little Indians-style story structure in an isolated setting, the use of a holiday as ironic backdrop - and other, less creative filmmakers simply imitated them, what's remarkable is how fresh Black Christmas still feels. The characters, young women living in a sorority house, are well-drawn and sympathetic; we feel they have lives outside of waiting to get killed in a horror movie (I'm partial to Margot Kidder as the boozy, raunchy Barb). The house itself is a marvelously gothic location, the lighting is cold and ominous, the (often handheld) camerawork and editing and atonal score work to keep us on edge. And Clark does an excellent job of creating a menacing atmosphere from the chilly underside of the holiday; Christmas carolers have never sounded so grim.

The prototypical slasher here is "Billy," a maniac who has been making obscene calls to the sorority sisters for some time and, as we see in the opening scene, is actually hiding in the attic. I'm not sure if this is the first movie to play on the old "the calls are coming from inside the house" story, but it predates When a Stranger Calls and it's certainly the best variation on that old campfire tales. We learn little about Billy during the movie; from his calls, we hear fragments of Billy adapting the voice of "Agnes" and other family members, wanting to know what happened with "the baby" - the clues we're given are more frightening because they remain unanswered (actually, there's a lot of Billy in Session 9's Mary Hobbes). And we barely see Billy, save for a few terrifying close-ups of his eye. He remains a complete mystery to us, even as the end credits roll; as Carpenter and other directors would later grasp, the scariest monsters are often the ones that remain beyond our comprehension.

Speaking of incomprehensible, Bob Clark's career went on to include A Christmas Story (where the only monster is Scott Farkus), Porky's I and II, the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton vehicle Rhinestone (the only film he made that is scarier than Black Christmas) and Baby Geniuses 1 and 2 (scratch that last parenthetical remark). At least Clark, who died in a car accident a few years back, will forever have two Christmas-themed classics to his name. I haven't seen the Black Christmas remake; reading about the plot on Wikipedia, apparently Billy is given an elaborate back story that is, in part, about his being abused by his mother due to his severe jaundice. Yeah, that's clearly what the original lacked.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #14 - Mary Hobbes/Simon

The Danvers State Hospital, the location of Brad Anderson's Session 9, was a real piece of work. A psychiatric hospital that opened in the late-19th century, Danvers State closed in the 1980s as mental health care moved away from institutionalization in favor of assisted living and community-based programs. There have long been rumors and horror stories about abusive treatment of patients, shock therapy and lobotomies used to control the hospital's populace, and since its closure it had the definite aura of a "bad place," as Stephen King would put it. Danvers is about 40 miles from my house, and it wasn't uncommon for teens to sneak onto the hospital's premises late at night looking for cheap scares.

Session 9
was filmed at the hospital, and filmmaker Brad Anderson uses the location to marvelously creepy effect. As the hospital's interiors are explored by a small asbestos removal company hired to clean up the building, the crumbling walls, labyrinthine corridors and overall decay mirror the hospital's dark past and the mental strain of the film's characters, who are dealing with financial pressure and trouble at home with their wives and spouses (this tension results in the best delivery of the line "Fuck you" in the history of cinema). The film has an almost unbearable sustained atmosphere of dread, particularly on the tapes that one member of the team, Mike (Steven Gevedon, also the movie's screenwriter) discovers and listens to over the course of the film. These tapes are records of nine sessions with a patient named Mary Hobbes, a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. As we meet hear from Mary's multiple personalities - the childlike Princess and the protective Billy - and their unwillingness to discuss another personality, the absent Simon, we're given suggestions that something Mary has done something terrible. This is mirrored in the main plot which, like Don't Look Now, is constantly giving us fragmented visual clues pointing towards something very bad that has happened in the narrative's present.

We eventually hear from Simon, who speaks in a low, masculine voice that is nothing like Mary's. This is something I can't really analyze, but disembodied, threatening male voices in a horror movie are one of the quickest and easiest ways to freak me the hell out. Even a pretty silly movie like Insidious can still prompt me to turn the lights on once Rose Byrne hears that creeepy male voice on her baby monitor (eeagh...). When we learn what Simon did, and what is really going on with our protagonists, Session 9 becomes disturbing in a very tragic way - when Simon tells us he lives in "the weak and the wounded," the line and everything it implies is very hard to shake. Session 9 is the scariest horror movie in the last ten years, and one of the few movies that I absolutely cannot watch by myself. As for Danvers State, it was torn down a few years back. There are now condominiums where it stood - tell me that doesn't beg for a sequel.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #15 - Anton Chigurh

Way back in 2007, I described Anton Chigurh as "a villian of elemental violence who cuts a bloody path towards his prey with a dogged, businesslike precision." I'm hopefully a bit less prone to overwriting than I used to be, but otherwise I still agree with my assessment of the character. Revisiting No Country for Old Men recently, I admired how the Coens are unable, in a "serious" thriller, to go for the throat with a villain who would be equally at home in a slasher movie. Everything about Chigurh (Javier Bardem) - his pallid skin, his death rattle of a voice, his quiet determination, that damn haircut - is seemingly engineered to get under our skin, and Bardem gives us the impression that Chigurh is happy for the opportunity to do so.

That's the scariest thing about Chigurh - his complete disdain for humanity and any kind of code or order outside of the maddening, self-reflexive one he has created for himself (one arbitrary enough to hinge on a literal coin toss). Yes, it's scary that he's capable of pitiless violence and cruelty, especially since he has a device that can smash your brain before you know what's happened. That's upsetting. But it's scarier knowing that he's not a psychopath or a supernatural monster but a hired hand doing terrible things in the service of his own ghastly but logical-unto-itself way of life. He's nothingness personified (say what you will about the tenets of socialism, at least it's an ethos). And worse still, for everything Chigurh is capable of, he's not the worst we have to fear. As the film's pitch-black ending suggests, he's only the messenger.

Scariest Characters in Cinema #16 - Candyman

One of Clive Barker's greatest talents is his insight into the significance of horror archetypes even as he employs them to terrifying effect. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the protagonist of Candyman (adapted from Barker's short story "The Forbidden") is a grad student who, in conducting interviews for her thesis on urban legends, hears repeated references to the Candyman, a vengeful African-American ghost with a hook for a hand who, like "Bloody Mary," appears when summoned by repeating his name five times into a bathroom mirror. The Candyman is a mixture of standard tropes of urban legends and our uneasy knowledge of our national history of racism and oppression. As Helen's research on Candyman leads her into the most dangerous housing projects of early-'90s Chicago, the film has a good deal to say about the role of oral tradition in our culture, how supernatural fears can be representative of real-life fears anxieties over poverty, crime and racial tension (Candyman was filmed during the Rodney King trial and released months after the L.A. riots).

And just as the film has successfully deconstructed urban legends and put its boogeyman in a larger social context, the Candyman (Tony Todd) appears to Helen and us to assert his existence with a vengeance. Director Bernard Rose's elegant, restrained direction does an excellent job, as Candyman stalks Helen, of blurring the line between reality and nightmares. Rose even hypnotized Madsen for her scenes with the Candyman (a technique previously used by Werner Herzog for Heart of Glass) to give her performance a hallucinatory quality. As we learn more about the Candyman's origin, the story becomes an intersection of the darkest aspects of our culture's notions of race, gender and sexuality - the Candyman is a very real manifestation of our collective guilt. But Candyman isn't just a treatise - it's a great, gory, terrifying ghost story, with a boogeyman (played with gravitas by the gravel-voiced Todd) who both elicits our sympathy and scares the bejesus out of us. The sequels don't work at all, but the original, which kept me up all night after a slumber-party screening in the fifth grade, is still deeply unsettling.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #17 - Norman Bates

Psycho is one of those movies I avoid writing about in this blog because, really, there's nothing I can say about it that you don't already know ("This just in: The Godfather is great!"). And yet this list wouldn't be complete without Norman Bates, so I'll just talk about my favorite thing about Psycho - namely, the accumulation of details pointing to its macabre punchline. There's Norman's bedroom, with its collection of toy horses, classical records and children's wallpaper, seemingly unchanged since his childhood. Or Norman's meal for Marian - sandwiches and milk - that he feels would be most comfortably enjoyed in the parlor. The way he trips over the word "invalid" when talking about his mother. The candy corn he munches compulsively during his interrogation by Detective Arbogast. And my favorite, the three (at least) meanings of the line "My hobby is stuffing things." All of these little details that seem at first endearing, once you've seen the film, reveal themselves on repeat viewings to be unmistakable signs of Norman's deeply repressed, nature and their manifestation in his relationship with his mother.

I don't mean to sound like Simon Oakland, but while Psycho is hardly a film of psychological realism (nor is it meant to be), it does pay fantastic attention to the details that make Norman, and what happens to him, completely believable and compelling within the context of the movie, as well as being darkly hilarious. Anthony Perkins is amazing as Norman, completely mesmerizing in the wordless sequence where he cleans up the mess Mother has made in the shower, culminating in that wonderful moment, before Marian's car fully submerges in the swamp, when we share Norman's tension that it will not sink, then realize how perversely Hitchcock has twisted our sympathies. As I said, you know this already, but Psycho is one of those rare movies that actually gets better with age and familiarity.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #18 - Francis Dolarhyde

A common trait of the performances on this list is a stillness, a confident quietness that underlines the villain's sinister authority. This is definitely true of Tom Noonan's performance as Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter, Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (the first and still the best of Harris' books featuring Hannibal Lecter). From his introduction to a captive soon-to-be-victim ("Well, here I am."), Noonan dominates the frame, both thanks to his large, imposing figure and the calm, methodical nature he uses to suggest the character's icy remove from humanity. Even when Dolarhyde is absent from the screen during FBI profiler Will Graham's (William Peterson) search for the man known as the "Tooth Fairy" by his pursuers because of the bite marks he has left on his victims (two families thus far), we feel his presence due to the elusive quality he brings to the character.

While films and TV shows often try to understand the mind of a killer - TV's "Dexter," for instance, has provided us with the title character's inner monologue for six seasons - and Harris provides a good deal of Dolarhyde's background in the book, Mann chooses to pare our understanding of the character down to the essentials. We know Dolarhyde has a corrected cleft palate, and can infer how this may have contributed to his emotional detachment from others. And we know, thanks to his stylish apartment, that for a serial killer he has outstanding taste in interior decoration (this says less about him being a serial killer than it does about him being a character in a Michael Mann movie). Other than that, he's an unknowable force to us, a mysterious Other that may well be the embodiment of the William Blake painting "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in The Sun," which Dolarhyde idolizes and emulates - the devil as a creature of perfect strength and purpose. When Dolarhyde flirts with an actual relationship with Reba (Joan Allen), a blind co-worker, Noonan does an amazing job with such a verbally inexpressive character, suggesting Dolarhyde's desire to connect but also the constant rage he can't suppress. He's reminiscent of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, isolated in his monstrousness.

He's the perfect counterpoint for Graham, who has warily left retirement to find Dolarhyde, disturbed by his uncanny ability to think like a monster. And also by Lecter (Brian Cox), who was caught by Graham and who, in Mann's film, is not the charismatic, darkly funny Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins; here, he's a reptile in a vivarium, and his contempt for all humankind (not just the rude and distasteful) is palpable. The good and bad guys share a brilliant understanding of their work process and a greater difficulty relating to others. This is a common theme in Mann's work, and it is evident in the methodical distance of Mann's filmmaking style (I used to regard this as a problem, now I see it as honest self-reflection on the director's part). While the 2002 film Red Dragon boasts an excellent cast, it's a hamhanded, clumsily staged film that never comes close to Manhunter's visual brilliance and thematic depth (director Brett Ratner was dismissive of Mann in interviews when the movie was released, though a couple of shots are lifted directly from the earlier film). And Noonan has played many other memorably creepy characters over the years, including (appropriately) Frankenstein's monster in the following year's The Monster Squad, the mysterious Mr. Ullman in The House of the Devil and, hilariously, Caden Cotard's lifelong stalker and imitator Sammy Barnathan in Synecdoche, New York. And thanks to Noonan and Mann, "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" has never been the same.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #19 - The Pale Man

Of all the amazing monsters and strange creatures born from the imagination of Guillermo del Toro, the Pale Man is the most frightening. Although Pan's Labyrinth is more of a dark fantasy than a horror film, we meet del Toro's scariest creation during 12-year-old Ofelia's quest to complete three tasks the titular faun has assigned her to prove she is the reincarnation of the princess of the underworld. She is sent to retrieve a dagger from the lair of the Pale Man, a tall, gaunt figure with drooping white skin, sharp teeth, and clawlike fingers. Most disturbing are his eyeless, featureless face and the eyes that are set, instead, in the palms of his hands. When Ofelia disregards one of the faun's instructions and plucks a grape from the Pale Man's banquet spread, he gets pretty pissed about it. He wakes up, bites the heads off two fairies who were helping Ofelia and stalks her down the long hallway to her exit; Ofelia barely escapes.

The Pale Man's appearance only takes up about five minutes of running time, but he's unforgettable. On one level, he's a great metaphor for the decadence of fascist Spain during WWII, the movie's setting. On the other hand, he works because HE BITES THE HEADS OFF OF FAIRIES, he has a horrible, unnatural howl and, when he raises his hands to his face to see, the image has a perfectly uncanny quality. He's like a Fuseli painting brought to life, the horribly perfect end result of some strange alternate thread of evolution. And he's not going to share his grapes; he's saving them for later.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #20 - Eli

Once I referred to the movie Let the Right One In as a sweet movie, and the person I was talking to said, "I wouldn't say it was sweet." Well, I said sweet and I meant it - Let the Right One In captures in aching detail the feeling of being a weird, lonely kid who, for the first time, thinks he's found someone who understands him. Based on the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist and set in a small town in 1980s Sweden, the film is about 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), who secretly acts out violent revenge fantasies against the schoolyard bullies who are cruel to him in the way that only kids can be. Oskar begins a tentative friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a mysterious girl who lives in his apartment building, only comes out at night and isn't bothered by standing barefoot in the snow. Eli at first tells Oskar they cannot be friends, but eventually they start to form a peculiar sort of bond. She encourages Oskar to stand up for himself, and he helps her to have more fun being a kid. Which she's not, of course - she's a vampire who feeds on the locals, she's hundreds of years old and, as she informs Oskar, she's not even really a girl. None of this matters in the long run to Oskar, of course. Love is blind, particularly first love.

Eli is a sympathetic character, but she's also very monstrous and frightening. While we mostly see her as a beautiful young girl, director Tomas Alfredson perfectly times brief glimpses of the monster inside Eli. Her voice and face distort themselves subtly, only for moments, and we're reminded that Eli is primarily driven by her insatiable hunger. In Eli's human helper, a sad-eyed man in his fifties named Hakan (Per Ragnar), we are given ominous hints of what will happen to Oskar if he sticks with Eli. It's difficult to determine how much Eli is depending on Oskar to survive and how much she truly cares for him, but their relationship is a perfect metaphor for young love as a result - they boy's getting used, and he loves her for it. The title, taken from a Morrissey song, refers to the rule that vampires need to be invited into your home, and it's also an important word of caution to anyone falling in love. Besides, Eli is there for Oskar when it matters (those of you who have seen the movie know exactly what scene I'm thinking of). Matt Reeves' remake Let Me In is worthy transplant of the original to the American idiom, with strong performances and a stunning sequence set to Blue Oyster Cult. But Alfredson's original is one of the best films of the past decade, a movie that becomes deeper, more moving and more chilling every time I see it.

Also, it's like a thousand times better than Twilight.