The stupidest cliche in horror is “humans are the real monsters.” Because, while humans can be venal, selfish, and cruel, the point of comparison here is actual fucking monsters, and as terrible as humans as a whole can be, they’re not brain-sucking ghouls. But we seem to like this idea, judging by how often it comes up, probably because we’re so narcissistic and self-loathing we can’t really imagine anything worse than ourselves. However, if we stretch our genre boundaries a little, and completely remove supernatural hoo-har from the picture, the idea does take on some added power.
We meet Lou Bloom as he’s stealing a chain-link fence to sell as scrap-metal, beating up a security guard and taking his watch in the process. After failing to get a good deal, and being turned down for a job on the reasonable grounds that even a man who buys stolen goods isn’t going to hire a thief, Lou stumbles upon a car crash, accompanied by multiple police cars, and a freelance “news camera crew” run by Joe Loder, and a new career path presents itself to Lou. Selling some more stolen goods nets Lou a small camcorder and a police scanner, and his utterly callous indifference to human suffering gets him some excellent close-up shots of a carjacking victim, footage he sells to “vampire shift” tv news producer Nina Romina. With a little cash, Lou is able to “hire” an intern, Rick, and steadily improve his equipment by going for footage with greater and greater shock value, even going so far as to break into crime scenes and “restage” accidents for more dramatic impact. And when Lou experiences a setback, such as Joe Loder’s crew beating him to a plane crash, some creative tampering with Lou’s van gets him some prime footage of Joe’s own death. Things begin to spiral when Lou comes upon an active crime scene, an apparent home invasion in a wealthy neighborhood. He breaks into the home, and cuts out the footage of the perpetrators before selling it. He uses the footage to track them down and arrange for the police to arrest them in a public place, leading to a shoot out and the deaths of several people, including Rick, who had been asking for more money after realizing what Lou was up to. And, in the end, Lou gets his happy ending, becoming a successful and respected entrepreneur.
Lou is a singularly monstrous figure. There’s no comforting distancing in the film, we as the audience are up close and personal with a sociopath the entire time. There are no attempts made to soften Lou or make him sympathetic. He is essentially a parasite, living and profiting off human pain and misery, and smiling at you as he beats you for a cheap watch. But, as monstrous as Lou is, he exists within a system that is designed to create people like him. Everyone Lou encounters, save possibly Rick, is somehow living off others, from the metal shop owner who knowingly buys stolen goods, to Joe who inspires him, to Nina whose livelihood depends on exploiting the public’s appetite for pain and violence, no one is morally clean. Lou is just better at it than everyone else, probably because, as he admits, he just simply doesn’t like or care about other people at all. It’s hard to fairly evaluate the truthfulness of that statement, because everything that comes out of Lou’s mouth is a rapid string of pattering bullshit (the casualness with which Lou tosses off Malcolm Gladwell-esque aphorisms is his most unsettling verbal tic), but it’s probably the closest time he comes to saying what he’s actually thinking. It’s also the moment when he very clearly decides that it’s time for Rick to die in the line of duty.
Lou is monstrous because he’s recognizable, and he’s the product of a very human system. So, yes, humans can be the real monsters, but only when we bear in mind that, after all, it’s only us out here.
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I’ve talked about the weird overlap between horror and comedy before, and how the two genres often work together. But usually when they work best, it’s when one or the other is at the forefront; either a comedic film with horror elements, or a horror film with comedic elements. What’s relatively rarer, and somewhat surprisingly so, is the full black comedy in horror, much less a tragic comedy in horror. It’s probably a harder trick to pull off because it’s especially unsettling when it does happen.
The Voices focuses on Jerry, a pleasant but somewhat shy factory worker in a rather dilapidated post-industrial town. It’s clear early on that Jerry is somewhat…off, in comparison to his co-workers, and part of his employment seems to be supervised by a court appointed psycho-therapist. During planning for a company picnic, Jerry develops a crush on a coworker, Fiona (and remains completely oblivious to the crush coworker Lisa has on him in turn). At home, Jerry lives in a modest apartment over a bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. Who talk to him. Bosco is warm and supportive, while Mr. Whiskers is cynical, and both attempt to guide Jerry through his crush on Fiona, who, frankly, is rather creeped out by him. Tragically, while giving Fiona a ride home from work one night, Jerry hits a deer. When Fiona sees Jerry kill the deer (to put it out of it’s misery, as he “heard” it ask him), she runs into the night, and is badly injured by Jerry on accident. And so he puts Fiona out of her misery as well. At home, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers argue over what Jerry should do next, with Bosco advocating going to the police, and Mr. Whiskers urging Jerry to become a serial killer, and Fiona’s severed head chiming in as well. A relationship with Lisa offers Jerry some hope, but that too ends tragically, setting off a chain reaction which eventually leads to the discovery of what Jerry has done. In the end, cornered by the police and trapped in a burning building, Jerry decides to lay down and allow himself to die, as it’s the only way he feels he can be trusted not to hurt anyone else.
Jerry is an intensely sympathetic figure, so when his mistakes turn violent, you feel the horror of it. He’s a bright, friendly man, who sees the world in a fundamentally good way, and there’s a grim, inescapable tragedy to everything that happens that follows from that. Jerry wants to do good, and is trying to do good, but is in a place where he doesn’t understand enough of the context of what is happening to see the wrongness of his actions. In a brilliant and subtle use of visuals, when we see the world through Jerry’s eyes, it’s bright and shining and colorful. When Jerry isn’t around, everything is dull and grey. Even his apartment, which to Jerry is clean and charmingly kitschy, is full of stacks of rotting garbage when we see it via another character. And so, when Jerry kills, we can see the logic of what he thinks he’s doing, even as we understand what’s really happening. It’s tricky to pull off this kind of unreliable viewpoint character in film, but director Marjane Satrapi manages it, both with the visuals and the casting. Everyone in the film is charming, but having an affable “everyman” actor like Ryan Reynolds in the lead helps as well.
It’s also important to note that the film entirely avoids the temptation to make Bosco and Mr. Whiskers anything other than pets that Jerry is externalizing his good and bad urges onto. The film does not shy away from the fact that Jerry is very sick and actively avoiding taking the medicine that he knows he needs to take. Those visual cues are important here, because the abrupt visual shift when Jerry does take his meds again are what drive home that the brightness and optimism we’ve associated with Jerry are actually symptoms of his disease. By the time Jerry is able to accept the full consequences of what he’s done, things are so far gone he doesn’t see any options other than death. Given what we eventually learn over the course of the film about Jerry’s childhood, his mother’s own illness and his father’s abuse, there is a bit of an overplaying of the “tragic inevitability” angle here, which is a little upsetting when dealing with a character who is, essentially, ill. But even so, the film finds a way to end on a upbeat note, bringing Jerry’s optimism full circle in at least a small way.
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Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, 1989 ed., Pamela West
Well crafted, but very much in the “vast unspeakable conspiracy” realm of Ripper stories.
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One of the more intriguing aspects of horror is the cathartic effect. On many levels, it’s just the pleasant feeling of stress and relief that comes with a good scare. But, given how frequently horror gets into metaphor as story, more interesting modes of catharsis sometimes come along.
The Babadook focuses on Amelia, a single-mother raising a troubled boy, Samuel. Samuel acts out and is clingy and his dependence on Amelia repulses her, probably not least because she became a mother and a widow at the same time, her husband dying in a car crash on their way to the hospital. It’s clear that she has had little to no support in raising Samuel (her sister is clearly resentful of Amelia’s needs) and the constant reminders from those who knew him that Sam is “just like his father” doesn’t help much either. One night, a strange pop-up book that Amelia has no memory of appears in Sam’s room, and the boy insists on hearing the story of Mister Babadook, a strange figure that comes into your life and can never leave, whose presence and actions will make you “wish you were dead.” Amelia’s attempts to destroy the book only results in its continued reappearance, and her fear that someone is stalking her and her son soon changes into a very real concern that they are being menaced by something unnatural. The situation comes to a head when Amelia, desperate for some sleep and relief, exhausted and drugged, becomes possessed by the Babadook and attempts to kill Samuel. Samuel eventually manages to exorcise her, and in a final confrontation with the force Amelia, while not defeating it, comes to a place of understanding with the creature.
Amelia exists in a world of greys and blacks, her depression and exhaustion reflected in her physical surroundings, her home almost hallucinatory in its bleakness. The entire visual design of the film is amazing, with the contrast between interior and exterior worlds reflecting the minds of Amelia and Sam and their complicated relationship. The Bababadook fits perfectly in this world, never fully seen but glimpsed in flashes, and somehow even more unreal the more his physical presence becomes inarguable. Again, this is a film where the scares are slight, but the palpable dread is inescapable because of the care with which it has been made.
The Babadook itself is a brilliantly realized horror creation, as well. While supernatural creatures only having power if you believe in them is a groan-worthy cliche at this point, the Babadook upends that, becoming more powerful the more you doubt his existence. Within the symbolic logic of the film, this works, because the Babadook is in some way all of Amelia’s darker thoughts made manifest, her grief and depression and anger at Samuel made manifest. Though, interestingly, there’s no real indication that it is Amelia who has created or summoned the Babadook, but Samuel. It’s Samuel who first has the book, and the Babadook bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam’s favorite magician on a video he watches over and over, somehow cobbled together from his father’s hat and coat, and even at multiple points appearing as Sam’s father. Because while Amelia is dealing with her own feelings, Sam is equally angry at his mother, blaming her for his father’s death and keeping his father’s things from him.
It’s particularly fitting that, given the metaphoric nature of the Babadook itself, that there is no real way to defeat him. We’re told this, of course, right at the start, that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Amelia can only achieve a kind of defeat over him, driving him back and diminishing him, but not eliminating him from their lives. Just as neither she nor Sam can ever truly escape their grief, by confronting the Babadook they can confront it. And by confronting it, they can reduce it so that, while it will always be there, it’s now simply part of their lives. Something they live with and take responsibility for and watch as, slowly, it diminishes more and more.
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As fun as a straight-forward monster movie can be, with clear delineations between good and evil, sometimes something more meaty is called for. I’m not talking about the almost cynical nihilism that you see more often than I’d like in horror films; I’m thinking more of the quiet, introspective dread that you see from time to time, especially in the more supernatural films. Horror that disquiets at least in part because it is taking base human needs and emotions and exposing the potential monstrousness that’s there.
It Follows opens with an anonymous girl fleeing her home, attracting the concern of her neighbors, before racing away to the beach in her car, making one last phone call to her parents, and then being found the next day brutally murdered. It then cuts to Jay, a young woman preparing for a date with Hugh, her new boyfriend, while her sister, a friend, and the “nice boy next door” Paul all hang out in her living room. On their date, Hugh seems somewhat melancholy, and cuts the date short when he thinks he sees a woman entering the movie theater behind them, but Jay agrees to see him again anyway. On their next date, after having sex in his car near an abandoned factory, Hugh choloroforms Jay, straps her to a wheelchair, and explains to her that he has passed on a curse to her. An entity will start following her, moving at a slow walking pace, and will kill her if it catches her unless she passes the curse along to them. Only people with the curse will be able to see this Follower, and it will start to move back up the line of previous targets if it kills the current one. When a strange, naked woman starts walking towards the two of them, Hugh takes Jay home. The nature of her delivery, and the fact that Hugh lied about his name and where he lives leads everyone to presume Hugh raped her, but in a few days, Jay starts seeing strange figures following her that no one else seems to be aware of. Her friends, somewhat skeptical, agree to keep her safe, but no matter how far they flee or how many people Jay attempts to pass the curse on to, it keeps coming back to her. Eventually she and her friends attempt to trap and kill it at a pool, and while it’s possible they succeeded, the film ends without a definitive answer.
A lot has been written about the symbolism and metaphor in It Follows, much of it focusing on what some see as an essentially conservative, anti-sex message in line with the sort of “if you have sex you’ll die” morality of 80s slasher films. I don’t really accept that, especially as I can’t help but see that as a gross misinterpretation of what was actually going on in those 80s slasher films, but also because it doesn’t really fit at all with what’s going on in this film. Jay, as we learn, isn’t a virgin, so it’s not as if she’s being punished for having sex, full-stop. Yes, the curse is acquired through sex, but it’s also lifted, at least temporarily, through sex. Sex is a primal human drive, but it’s also a very adult drive, and is often seen as the unofficial rite of passage into adulthood. And adulthood means responsibilities, but it also means mortality. The Follower isn’t so much coming to get you because you were a bad little girl or boy and have to be punished, it’s coming for you because everyone, eventually, dies. And this is just the nature of your death.
Or, you know, not. It Follows is deliberately elusive, and layers in metaphor and subtext to the point where a number of possible meanings present themselves and can be convincingly argued. The repeated connections to water, reflections, point-of-view shots, white-clothing, watching others; there’s quite a few ways a careful viewer can dig into the film, and unlike most times a film-maker does this, the freedom granted to the viewer to interpret feels like a specific choice the film-makers made, to give viewers room while still telling their story.
Given this elusiveness, the bare nature of the Follower works well. One of the things that aggravates me with supernatural horror films, is when a creature is given specific weaknesses and rules it must follow, which are then disregarded in favor of a cheap jump scare or one of those cynically nihilistic endings I mentioned earlier. The audience barely knows anything about the creature because the characters barely know anything about it, and what they do know is pieced together and hearsay. And because of that, since we don’t really know what this thing is or how it works, the question of origin or motivation are moot. Even one of the central mysteries, why it changes its appearance, to what end, and why it chooses who it chooses, are only the subject of conjecture by the characters. It’s nice to see a horror film embrace the alien and unknowable, and the dread those bring, rather than make something blandly quotidian by over-explanation.
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