Archive for the “movies” Category
Bernard Rose’s Candyman seems, at first glance, an odd choice of film for a “folk horror” review. There’s nothing expressly pagan, nor even neopagan, about the film, and divorcing the film version from the housing estate setting of Clive Barker’s original short story removes even the thin veneer of Britishness that many films of the type exhibit. But to be brutally honest, there’s nothing really “pagan” about most proper folk horror, either. The paganism that exists in those films and stories is a modern interpretation of a pagan past cobbled together from folk tales and legends. And what Candyman is, at its core, is a film about the power of folk tales and legends, as expressed by the modern, “rational” world version of the fairy tale, the urban legend. In that sense, Candyman, like the best works of the genre, is dancing on the same stage but to its own music.
Helen Lyle is a graduate student doing research on urban legends when her professor husband gives his students a lecture on the same subject, tarnishing her research pool. By a happy coincidence, she learns from a custodian at the college that “Candyman”, a hook-handed “Bloody Mary” figure who kills those who say his name five times in a mirror and frequent subject of the stories she has been collecting, killed a woman at the Cabrini Green housing projects. Helen and her research partner go to investigate, where Helen discovers a strange shrine to the Candyman in an abandoned apartment and they speak with the neighbor of the murdered woman. After an obnoxious colleague snidely mocks Helen because he had already written extensively on the Candyman myth, including uncovering its origin, years earlier, Helen returns to Cabrini Green to find a new angle on the story, stumbling into exposing the murderer, a drug dealer who had adopted the trappings of the Candyman in order to scare the Green residents into silence. Soon, though, a figure claiming to be the real Candyman begins stalking Helen, claiming that her actions have caused people to stop believing in him, and that he must kill in order to win back his believers. Helen finds herself framed for several murders and a kidnapping and is incarcerated in a mental hospital, before agreeing to become the Candyman’s victim in exchange for returning the kidnapped baby. In the end both Candyman and Helen are killed in a fire set by the residents of the Green, and the power of belief and myth turn Helen into a new murderous legend.
There’s a lot of the usual Clive Barker tics at work here, particularly faux-transgressive splatter-punk musings about pain and pleasure being linked and erotic fascination with bodily injury, but those are actually the least interesting aspects of the story. What I find most compelling is the material that is handled almost as an aside, despite forming the core of the story, which is how the film deals with the legacy of American racism. Candyman was created by an act of racist violence, and Helen’s world and the housing project are symbolically linked-both buildings are built from the same plan, but a freeway was constructed to keep the project separated from the respectable/white part of town, so Helen’s building was converted into condominiums-and it is only when a white woman is assaulted on the grounds that the police bother to arrest a man that they know is a murderer. But apart from these acknowledgements of racism, there’s also something fundamentally exploitative about what Helen is doing. She’s a white woman exploiting the stories and tragedies of the black community to get ahead in her field. And what eventually destroys Helen is that selfish desire to put herself ahead, to not be “content with stories” but to become part of one. Her tragic mistake is in thinking that she’s the hero, but her actual transformation is in going from victim to villain. She seeks to exploit the past, and only ends up furthering the legacy of destruction.
While the most obvious and usual aspect of what goes into a “folk horror” film is some sort of pagan aspect, as I’ve mentioned before that largely limits the scope of the genre to Western Europe. And while there is a neopagan tradition in American horror that relates quite nicely to folk horror, it still leaves out a lot of material. For me, one the more compelling thematic elements of the genre is not so much the Celtic trappings and doodads, but the themes of the old ways coming into conflict with the modern, rational world and the old ways triumphing, or at least severely calling into question the strength of the modern world. Though it’s not necessarily an obvious candidate for inclusion into the list of films falling within the genre, I think Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter brings up many of the same issues while incorporating elements of pre-Christian American native religions without getting into the problematic and potentially offensive “Indian burial ground” trope.
The Last Winter opens with a PR film touting a partnership between American oil companies and native tribes to reopen an experimental well in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The head of the base camp, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), has just returned from a meeting with the company chiefs to discover that the onsite environmental monitor, James Hoffman (James LeGros), has been on the site for several weeks already. Not only is Hoffman not happy with the amount of permafrost melt he is observing, but Hoffman is sleeping with Abby Sellers. Despite a strong implication that Abby is only sleeping with Hoffman as a form of corporate espionage, the political and sexual conflict between the men fuels an ongoing antagonism that heightens the physical and mental deterioration of the crew members who have come into contact with the experimental well. Hoffman is convinced that the combination of drilling and melting permafrost has released “sour gas”, a prehistoric poison, while the native crew members scare the white folk with stories of the Wendigo. That oil is, in a sense, merely the remains of creatures that used to rule the world, is a ghost metaphor that frequently occurs to the crew. After several bizarre deaths and accidents, Hoffman and Pollack set out to a nearby ice road camp searching for help, only to discover that the strange events and deaths are not limited to their camp, and that night both are attacked and apparently killed by prehistoric spirits. The next day, Abby wakes in an abandoned hospital in a nearby town, sees a news report of global devastation occurring, and walks out to meet her fate.
Fessenden’s film mostly works as a particularly effective apocalyptic eco-horror parable, and good performances and fantastic cinematography drive that home, much better than the more than slightly heavy-handed debates on conservation versus American exceptionalism that Pollack and Hoffman engage in. And while it doesn’t fit the broad strokes of the folk horror genre, the film does heavily suggest that the events we see are the natural consequence of not only ignoring the “old ways” but of actually exploiting them in a disrespectful way. While the film makes no bones, eventually, as to the supernatural nature of the events that unfold, it does play cagey over what the exact nature of the “spirits” that bring about the end of the world are; whether they are wendigo or the ghosts of prehistoric beasts. I also especially like that the film acknowledges the notion of sacred spaces for Native American religion but avoids the racist “burial ground” trope that conflates those sacred spaces with evil. In that sense, the film almost works as something of a post-colonial riff on the themes behind folk horror; that it is the failure of the “civilized” white man’s world to acknowledge indigenous people’s understanding of their land that destroys the land.
Given that the genre tends to favor “spooky” over “gory” and subtle over extreme, it’s probably not surprising that most folk horror films eschew more spectacular or explicit horror effects. Even when magic is unambiguously an element of the film’s world, it still tends to fall within a (semi-)realistic framework. Big, spectacular monsters are fairly rare. Which sort of brings us to Colm McCarthy’s Outcast, a sort of neopagan take on the werewolf film.
The film opens with Mary and her teenaged son Fergal arriving on a remote council estate in Scotland, clearly on the run from something and more than willing to settle for what is clearly the most dilapidated flat in an already badly run down estate. Meanwhile, Cathal (a glowering James Nesbitt) is being tattooed by a group of Travellers with sigils, and is being dispatched, under the supervision of the leader’s son Liam, to track down and kill Mary and Fergal. While an increasingly drunk on magic Cathal tracks them, Mary wards the apartment, Fergal falls in love with Petronella, the girl next door (a daughter of immigrants), and some sort of humanoid beast is prowling the estate, killing residents but specifically ones who cross Mary or Fergal in some way. The magical war between Mary and Cathal grows, and Fergal’s developing relationship with Petronella eventually proves to be enough of a distraction that Mary is caught off guard when Cathal breaks away from Liam and performs forbidden magic in order to finally find them. Eventually enough back-story is pieced together to reveal that Fergal is the beast, the result of Cathal and Mary having a forbidden affair, that he is some sort of magical hybrid and only by killing him can Cathal keep the powers he’s been given. The end is cataclysmic, appropriately, leaving Petronella alone and pregnant, and the cycle doomed to repeat.
Outcast actually gets quite a bit right, in the broad strokes. It’s world-building is actually quite good, and the theme suggested by the title plays off against multiple characters in rewarding ways: Mary is outcast from her clan, Fergal is outcast from society, Petronella’s family are immigrants in a foreign culture, her brother has an obvious developmental disability, and Cathal is forbidden from the power he so desperately craves. Even the residents of the estate, being the poorest of the poor in an area already clearly struggling economically, fit the theme. And taking people who are displaced, and putting them in a story about the symbolism and power of magic and blood-curses, about the “old ways” still having power while the new, modern world is clearly failing, works very well from a story-telling perspective. Where it doesn’t quite work is in the actual monster movie aspect. It’s never quite clear what Fergal is meant to be. He acts somewhat like a werewolf, but looks like a troll. I half suspect, given the obviously Celtic origin of Mary’s people, that he is meant to be some kind of fairy creature, but that sort of supposition is left to the audience; the film isn’t particularly interested in explaining it. The film is interested in showing it, and it’s never a very convincing or effective moment when it does.
While “folk horror” as a genre seems to be having a somewhat modest contemporary resurgence, one of the problems that comes up with that is that many films tend to wear their influences and homages on their sleeves. The Wicker Man is the big classical text for the genre, and its shadow is long. Some films, like Wake Wood take the core of that concept and make their own, new thing. And other films, such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List pretty much just update the concept.
Kill List focuses on Jay, an out of work suburbanite facing some money woes for his family, including wife Shel and young son. Jay seems to be striving to maintain a facade of upwardly mobile middle-class success, and his long period of unemployment is putting a strain on their finances, until his partner Gal brings his strange girlfriend over to tell Jay of a job opportunity. It becomes very clear that Jay and Gal are actually hitmen, and Jay’s unemployment is due to some undisclosed traumatic event at their last job. It is equally clear that both Gal’s girlfriend and their client are manipulating the pair and that they were chosen for some reason other than skill or expediency. The pair are given a list of men to kill, and become suspicious when their first target, a priest, thanks them before dying. Their second target is a child pornographer, and while this knowledge sends Jay into a rage in which he tracks down and kills the man’s associates, Gal discovers that the man was keeping files on the other on the list, as well as the pair, and that he is an associate of their client. Forced to finish the list by a threat to kill Jay’s family, the hitmen find their final target in the midst of a ritual human sacrifice along with a large cult. In the conflict with the cult members Gal dies, and after a final kill, Jay finds himself crowned by the cult, apparently initiated.
There’s a lot that Kill List actually gets right. Aesthetically, it’s a gorgeous film, and the “horror as art film” approach it takes to the subject is handled well, probably the best I’ve ever seen of films that have tried that. Where it doesn’t quite work for me is in how closely it tends to follow the same basic plot structure as The Wicker Man simply inverting Howie and Jay’s positions on the side of the law. Both films feature a protagonist hunting for another person, while being led around by the nose by a neopagan cult for sinister purposes of their own. But Wicker Man achieves its tragedy fairly, by having Howie fall into the trap of his own volition, while Jay is coerced, tricked and forced at every step. Further, we actually get a sense of the purpose behind using Howie in the way that he’s used, while Jay, even at the end, is a pawn completely unaware of what the hell he has gotten himself into. It’s not a half-bad place to build a mystery from, but as a horror film, it just feels so vague and anticlimatic, that the true cataclysm that befalls Jay is almost an afterthought in service to some neat imagery and idea.
While I’ve been using the term “folk horror” fairly broadly over these films, there is another term that’s of slightly older use that is related to the genre. “Neo-pagan” used to get tossed around a bit, especially early on when the genre was just starting to be obviously its own thing. It’s not a term I particularly like, as to me it sounds like the sort of language critics use to talk about genre fiction and films when they otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead talking about genre fiction and film. It’s also a term that has been adopted by actual practicing pagans, so its usefulness as a genre description feels muted. However, it can be occasionally useful for those works that don’t quite fit into the “folk horror” model but feel like they should, as is the case with Eduardo Sanchez’s Lovely Molly.
Lovely Molly shows a lot of the same inventiveness with technique that Sanchez displayed in The Blair Witch Project (which could also be argued as a neo-pagan film), only definitely matured. The film cross-cuts between video-footage of Molly’s slow descent into insanity and obsession with the chronicle of Molly, her husband Tim, and sister Hannah dealing with Molly’s growing instability, which creates an interesting mix of objective and subjective views of what is happening. Tim and Molly, fresh into their marriage, have just moved into Molly and Hannah’s childhood home following the death of Molly’s father. It is clear that Molly’s father abused his daughters, but the exact details are danced around in that “we don’t talk about this” way that families can have. Molly is convinced that her father is haunting the house, and her obsession with the young daughter of a neighbor and a strange altar hidden in the shed covered with horse imagery certainly suggests that some sort of outside force is at work, but it is also equally clear that Molly has also had a major relapse with her drug addiction and the extent that she is imagining this is frequently questioned. Molly continues to become more and more unstable, and the revelation of Tim’s infidelity leads her to a final, cataclysmic bout of violence.
And then a centaur shows up.
This is a film that you want to like but it becomes very hard to get past the flaws. Gretchen Lodge does a fantastic job as Molly, making her sympathetic when she needs to be and scary when she needs to be, and very carefully walking that fine line the films creates between what is real, supernatural, and only in Molly’s mind. The film’s use of hand-held video and conventional framing makes for an interesting mix of subjective and objective views, and blends them together with the supernatural and Molly’s insanity to call even the viewer’s perception of what is “real” in the film’s context into question. Unfortunately the film’s pacing isn’t very strong, and it meanders aimlessly for long stretches. Outside of Molly, there’s few sympathetic characters in the cast, and most of them are largely cyphers with no strong presence or personality. The pagan elements are never really explored, and while not having a film hold your hand is nice, the presence of a horse-cult is not a plot thread that melds as well with the story of Molly’s instability as it was perhaps intended to. When those aspects of the film finally come fully to the fore, it’s such a random and odd moment that it derails the film a bit, which is especially frustrating as that’s not actually the end. But how can you top a centaur just showing the fuck up? You can’t.